Stories of Tambour Beading in the Chilterns, Part 1

Stories of Tambour Beading in the Chilterns, Part 1

Towards the start of lockdown in spring 2020 I heard about the Woodlanders’ project researching the lives of rural workers in the central Chilterns and was immediately fascinated – my ancestors were lacemakers in Princes Risborough and I wanted to know about their lives.

This blog has been followed by part 2, and part 3, so please do continue reading!

First I researched the life and times of Thomas Gilbert, a prominent lace dealer of High Wycombe who in the 1860s had over 3000 local people working for him, including possibly my ancestors. When the local lace industry collapsed around 1880, as a result of the introduction of child education and labour acts, mechanisation and change of tastes, Thomas Gilbert became bankrupt and then became a beading middleman. Many of the local women then moved into beaded net work and beaded embroidery. Stuart King of Holmer Green, historical consultant for the Woodlanders project, has written extensively on local rural industries  and told us about the tambour beaders of Holmer Green, who did specialised beading in the first half of the twentieth century.

During my research, I found that there is a recording in Wycombe Museum of Mrs May Carter who was interviewed in the 1950s by John Mayes the curator, who made many oral history recordings of local craftspeople. Mrs Carter was an important figure in the local growth of tambour beading – she recruited, trained and managed hundreds of local women as tambour beaders.

Tambour beading is a specialised form of high fashion embroidery done by sewing crystal beads and sequins in intricate patterns onto luxury material using a small, pointed hook; the material was stretched over a rigid frame, originally shaped like a tambour drum. This was used for expensive designer gowns, stage costumes and royal outfits and in the early days for flapper dresses.

Very little is known about its history as an occupation – apart from London, this was the only area in the country where it was done. I’ve searched through the newspaper, family history and census records for the villages where the work is known to have taken place and interviewed local women who remember their relatives doing this work.
Another Woodlanders’ volunteer, Robert Neighbour, has also researched this topic and he spoke to many local sources in the 1990s for an Open University course.
Tambour beading was carried on around the villages of Holmer Green, Great & Little Missenden, Hazlemere and Great & Little Kingshill, all north of High Wycombe, by local women in workshops or in their own homes.

     Villages around Holmer Green where tambour beading took place © Stuart King collection 

Some village people (both men and women) worked as agents, getting the work from London and passing it round the villages to their family members and neighbours to complete. Little detail was recorded on paper, so we have to piece together clues from people’s memories.

Sequinned & beaded brooches made using tambour beading technique, created by Ivy Waller, (profiled in part 3) in © Stuart King collection – photograph Susan Holmes 

Stuart King has made a YouTube video, including information about tambour beading in Holmer Green, which can be viewed here. 

As there is so much to describe, this blog is in three parts -In part 1 I tell the story of Mrs Carter and her family; in part 2 I will give an account of the workshops and business people involved in the local area; and in part 3 I will profile some of the more recent workers.

How tambour beading was done

The name originated from ‘tambour‘ or little drum because originally the fabric to be embroidered was stretched over a circular frame. It is a hand process and early beadworkers used a threaded needle, sewing on each glass bead or sequin individually.

Sometime later, the technique changed. The fabric was stretched tight across two poles of an adjustable wooden tambour frame. The beader sat at her work with the tambour frame horizontal above her lap and the reverse side of the fabric, with the design lightly stencilled upon it facing upwards. The beader therefore worked on the back of the fabric, attaching the bead and sequins to the front side, which faced her lap. The beads or sequins, already threaded onto strings of fine threads, were individually flicked up from underneath the material and caught by a fine hooked needle held in a small wooden handle. This required both hands – one underneath the frame throwing up the beads and sequins, and one above the frame holding the tambour hook to pull a loop of the thread holding the bead through and attaching it with a chain stitch. A skilled worker could attach up to 100 beads a minute.

Extract from Mrs Carter’s recording: (JM is John Mayes, MC is Mrs Carter)

MC:   Now we had to have the material designed, it must be on a frame for tambour, and then you hook your sequin or your bead up between each, up the cotton, up between each sequin. 
 JM: I see. Were they all coloured beads?   
 MC: Anything, yes, pearls. We had all kinds of beads. In fact, gold thread, silk, we done some really handsome embroidery that way.   

Embroidery in general, and tambour beading in particular, has always been a luxury, neatly summarised by this quote in the Birmingham Daily Post on Tuesday 13 June 1967: ‘Being the liqueur-flavoured jam on the bread of fashion in times of affluence and excess, it is always the first luxury to be thrown out in times of puritanical reaction and economic strife’.

Tambour frame made by Sid Waller © Stuart King collection 

Beads from Ivy Bristow, Photo © Rebecca Gurney

Beaded net and tambour hooks © Stuart King collection 

Mrs May Carter, 1887–1976, tambour beading manager and agent, Holmer Green

Mrs May Carter was an important figure in the history of local tambour beading – as a workshop manager, trainer and agent. Her recollections are one of our principal sources for how the business developed, the processes and about the ‘huts’ (workshops) at Kingshill and Holmer Green where the women worked, and about clients from London and Wycombe and their rates of pay.  She said that she was the first person in the area to be trained in tambour beading, and she and her sister Winifred ran the beading workshops for several years. Her brother Jack Hickman also appeared on the recording; he worked as a tambour beading designer and explained the process.

Her early life 

Mrs Carter was born in 1887 as Olive May Hickman at Richardson Street, Wycombe, the eldest of six children of Albert Hickman and his wife Eliza née Hobbs. Many of Eliza’s female relatives were lacemakers, then beaders, from Prestwood. May learned beading skills by threading beads on wire for her mother. This wasn’t tambour beading yet, but beaded embroidery, often used on large Edwardian picture hats.

Extract from the recording:
JM: How old were you when you first started working with beads at all?  
MC: Three, I tell you.  
 JM: Three years old. You put these on the wire for your mother first of all. That was kind of the forerunner for tambour?   
When older she did millinery beading work for Thomas Gilbert, the local beading middleman (see part 2).  
Extract From the recording: 
MC:   You had a paper design, and your net was laid on, tacked on that, and you just sewed them round the design, and you take the net off and it had already worked. 

In the 1901 census May was a dressmaker’s apprentice aged 13 and her mother was a beadworker; her father Albert was the foreman of a sawmill. By 1906 her family had moved to the Cross Keys Inn, Great Missenden, where her father was publican. In the 1911 census she was working as a maid for a local Holmer Green farmer and in April 1911 she married Charles Edwin Carter (1882–1917), a chair maker from Hazlemere, whose family were well-known lacemakers of Holmer Green. Charles Carter’s great-grandmother Mary James ran a shop in Holmer Green, was a lace dealer in 1851 and later became a beaded net worker. His grandmother Ann James married John Carter, chair turner; in 1861 she was a straw plaitmaker and in 1881 a beaded net worker in Holmer Green.

Charles Carter’s father, Abraham, was a chair leg turner, who married Virginia Janes (1859–1942), a lacemaker & beaded networker of Hazlemere.  Virginia’s mother Sarah Joynson was from the Joynson lace dealers of Wycombe.  At the end of this article is a simplified family tree showing these family connections between the beading and lace business.

Mrs Carter’s work as tambour beader 

According to her own account, in 1912 May was working for a London milliner, Bernard Stapley (profiled in part 2), who brought over a French girl, Mlle Collow from Luneville, in Lorraine, Eastern France (the worldwide centre for tambour beading) to train her and others in tambour beading techniques. Mrs Carter then taught hundreds of girls the same skills. Bernard Stapley grew the business; he set up workshops at Little Kingshill then Great Missenden, and later at the Hut at Holmer Green, where up to 50 women at a time worked.

Extract from Mrs Carter’s recording
MC: In 1912, I worked for a milliner in London and he had a French girl come over to teach somebody, so I learn from her and, well, taught hundreds of women to do it. Because it’s a jolly good home work job. Although I had 40/50 girls working for me, when I started, taught them all, you know.   

May Carter was widowed in 1917 and returned to live with her family at the Cross Keys Inn, Great Missenden.

The 1921 census shows both May and her sister Winifred working for Stapleys.

  • Albert Hickman, 52 – beer retailer
  • Eliza Hickman, 54 – home duties
  • Olive May Carter, 34 – embroidress at Bernard Stapley & co, High St, Gt Missenden
  • Thomas Hickman, 25  –  Painter’s labourer
  • Winifred Marjorie Hickman, 17 – embroidress at Bernard Stapley & co, High St Gt Missenden
  • Jack Hickman 13 – school

Mrs Carter started managing the tambour beading workshops for Bernard Stapley in Great Missenden High St and Holmer Green, along with her sister Winifred. The girls were initially paid 5s a week, rising to £1 a week, which was very good pay for the times. She describes the conditions:

Extract from recording
MC: Yes we started at 8, in the morning, till 7.  Then we had a big place, up Missenden where a man came and used to take his bus round and pick us up at different places and take us up to Holmer Green. We had a hut up there, belonging to a Mr Winter, in the wartime he looked after the grounds or something, and he liked this idea of a hut and he put one up at Holmer Green and we used it for work rooms. 
JM: How many of you would there be working at that time?   
MC: Oh about 30/40 up there and then my sister could look after the Missenden girls.   

Tambour beaders in the bus in 1920 © Stuart King collection 

Mrs Carter appeared in local newspaper adverts:

  • Bucks Herald – Saturday 04 October 1924
    WANTED. EXPERIENCED AND APPRENTICES for Tambour Embroideries at Great Missenden and Holmer Green.—Apply. Mrs. CARTER. High Street. Great Missenden, or “The Hut,” Holmer Green.
  • Buckinghamshire Examiner – Friday 30 November 1928
    WEDDING ….. The bride being a member of the employees of Messrs. Stapley, Ltd., a high-class school of superior embroidery work, conducted by Mrs. Carter in Mr. Winter’s hut…

The design and business process 

During the oral history interview, a Mr Hickman appeared, described as a designer. We subsequently discovered that he was her brother, Jack Hickman. He worked in the London embroidery workrooms where the tambour beading was designed, and he described the process. He said that the company head would go over to Paris, the centre of ladies’ fashion, and buy French model outfits with embroidery, which they copied.

Extract from Mrs Carter’s recording: Jack Hickman speaking
‘… Original designs were drawn onto a grease proof paper and we would decide what colour beads we wanted, what kind of beads we wanted; sequins, bubals, whether they are lined with silver or gold or dyed crystal. Then we do a rough drawing of that, a copy of that, to send with the designed material, and the girls would follow that, you see. We would mark on the copy of the original design what beads would go in a certain place. It was drawn onto this greaseproof paper, and then we had a machine that perforated it.  
Then we used a powder, either black or white, depending on the material, and that was put through the perforations and onto the material…. And then of course, the material was hung up on this frame, stretched taut on the frame and the embroiderers worked from there. Right hand usually on top with the hook, and left hand picking up the beads from underneath on the thread, you see, on the chain stitch.’   

Mrs Carter said that the Queen’s wedding dress in 1947 was beaded in the same way, and that one of the women who worked on it was coming to describe her work to the local villagers, at St John’s Church, Missenden.

Beading was still being done in piecework in the Holmer Green area in the 1950s. A middleman came from London, the work was handed around the villages by one or two women, they agreed a price in advance for each dress with the agent and completed the work in their homes.

Later life 

May Carter married Henry Nash (1882-1940), insurance agent of Stonehouse, Plymouth, Devon in April 1933, and they were living there in 1939. After he died in October 1940, she returned to live with her sister Amy in High Wycombe and continued with the tambour beading work. She died in 1976. Her nephew remembers:
‘Whenever I visited as a youngster, I would be fascinated by all the coloured sequins, silks and materials that she used in her sewing room. I remember her as being short in stature and stout and always very jolly.’

Her family 

May’s family were also involved in the tambour beading business. Her younger brother Jack Hickman (1908–1982) appears on Mrs Carter’s recording as an embroidery designer.  In 1939 he was departmental manager in a newspaper dispatch department (an exempt wartime occupation), living in Baker Street, Wycombe. He later became involved in tambour beading; in April 1945 he married Ivy Vokes, described in 1939 as an embroidery designer from Leyton, Essex and worked alongside his sister in the 1950s. May’s sister Winifred (1904-1990) also worked with her during the 1920s as the manageress of the Great Missenden beading workshop – she married Frederick Moreton, a timber hauler and was a wool and art retailer in Wycombe in 1939. Her sister Amy (1893-1983) married Douglas Harrall, a French polisher of Wycombe, and her brother Thomas Hickman was a chair upholsterer of Wycombe.


Mrs Carter’s memories of tambour beading give us important insights into this almost forgotten craft that sustained women and families in Chilterns villages in the first half of the twentieth century.
In Part 2 I describe the workshops and business people involved, and part 3 has profiles of some local tambour beading women.


This simplified tree shows the beading and lacemaking connections of the Carter and Hickman families

This blog has been followed by part 2, and part 3, so please do continue reading!

Produced for the Woodlanders’ Lives and Landscapes project, part of the Chilterns Conservation Board’s Chalk, Cherries and Chairs Landscape Partnership Scheme

We are grateful to the following for their permission to reproduce the recording:

  • Wycombe Museum
  • Michael Hickman
  • With thanks to Stuart King, local historian and craftsman, for his help, advice and many of the photographs-

Every effort has been made to trace the copyright holders and we apologise for any unintentional omissions. We would be pleased to insert the appropriate acknowledgement in a subsequent edition of this material. Please contact the Chilterns Conservation Board for more info.