Stories of tambour beading in the Chilterns, Part 2: Workshops and businesspeople

Stories of tambour beading in the Chilterns, Part 2: Workshops and businesspeople

by Susan Holmes

This article is about the tambour beading businesses and workshops in the Holmer Green area north of High Wycombe in the last century and the people who ran them. It follows on from my previous piece about the Carter and Hickman family connections with tambour beading. Much of the information comes from an interview with Mrs May Carter, tambour beading agent and manager, described in Part 1. Part 3 goes on to discuss the histories of other local tambour workers. 

Transition from lace making to tambour beading 

Until the 1870s, many of the village women in the area – Holmer Green, the Missendens, Kingshill – made handmade lace for local agents often based in Wycombe, who sold on to London firms, many through the middleman Thomas Gilbert. When the lacemaking business collapsed in the 1870s, the agents and their workers diversified into related crafts of dress embellishments such as beading and beaded net.  

Mrs Susan Clements Henry, a colourful beaded embroidery entrepreneur of Holmer Green and Wycombe around 1900, had a network of 150 local women working in their own homes. It was reported in Truth (a chatty woman’s magazine) on 10 May 1900: 

‘We have discovered a delightfully cheap place for beaded work and summer hats. Some ladies at High Wycombe work the business, a long-established one, and their prices are marvellously low.  

…One can encourage workers at these prices without exercising much self-denial … These ladies also design every kind of bead embroidery to order.’ 

Tambour beading emerged locally around the time of WW1, in 1912 (according to Mrs Carter) or 1916 according to Bernard Stapley (see below). The most important beading and embroidery workshops were in Little Kingshill, Holmer Green and Great Missenden, and the key businesspeople were Thomas Gilbert, Thomas Winter, Bernard Stapley and Cecil Phipps. 

There were several workshops in the Holmer Green area. Initially Bernard Stapley set up the Little Kingshill Embroidery Rooms probably around 1916, then a workshop in High Street, Great Missenden. There were several workshops in WW1 army huts in Holmer Green: in Thomas Winter’s hut behind the ‘Bat and Ball’, in another army hut on the site of the present British Legion, and Mrs King had a workshop in another hut. At some stage in the 1920s Stapley’s Holmer Green business was sold to Cecil Phipps who later moved to a workshop in Inkerman Drive, Hazlemere. At this remove it is difficult to distinguish which hut was which. As many as 40 to 50 women worked in each hut – a few were young girls who stayed for dinner and became good friends, the rest went home for dinner.  

Bernard Stapley’s beading workshop in High Street Great Missenden, 1924. Mrs Carter is possibly on the right. Courtesy Susan Casbeard

Extract from a recording of Mrs Carter (MC): 

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. 

The metropolitan railway stations at Great Missenden, Amersham and Wycombe provided the means of transport for taking work to and from London; a bus collected workers from other nearby villages and took them to the huts. Later, some workers would also travel daily to London, to Mr Stapley’s Poland Street workshops.  

Tambour beading girls in bus taking them to Mr Winter’s workshop. © Stuart King Collection


Map data © 2022 Google


The tambour beading work was distributed between the tambour beaders working from home, the workshops and London manufacturers by agents or middlemen. These agents – sometimes local people (such as Minnie King), who were often related to several beaders – would go to London about once a week to take back completed work and bring back supplies and designs to hand around the village. Later, when transport improved, sometimes the agents would come to the villages from London. 

Recruitment of local workers 

The workers were recruited by adverts in local papers, as well as no doubt through personal networks. The term indoors was used for people working in the workshops, outdoors for those working at home. Here are some examples from the Bucks Herald: 

Saturday 08 March 1924 

TAMBOUR Workers wanted for West End; good wages. For any particulars, apply. STENNING, Great Missenden.  

Saturday 11 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. 

Friday 27 January 1928  

TAMBOUR HEADERS, experience outdoor, constant work. HOY, Little Kingshill. Missenden. 

 Friday 28 November 1941     

Outdoor tambour beaders required. Best prices given. Only those used to best class work need apply. – DOREE LEVENTHAL, 55, Poland Street, London, W1. 

Friday 10 January 1947  


Friday 03 January 1947 

HOMEWORKERS Experienced TAMBOUR BEADERS Also LEARNERS required immediately. All collection and postage expenses paid. Write to: MR. P. J. SHANNON TUDOR STENCIL COMPANY 2.x, NARBONNE AVENUE, LONDON. S.W.4. 

Later, in the 1950s and 1960s, the beaders obtained work via advertisements in the Bucks Free Press 

Buckingham Advertiser and Free Press – Saturday 20 March 1954 

EXPERIENCED TAMBOUR BEADERS required. Constant work. Postage paid both ways Write Box P.P. 46074, Samson Clarks, 57-61, Mortimer Street, London, W.1. 

Another way of recruiting workers was through local informal networks.  It is interesting to find a connection with public houses – Albert Hickman (Mrs Carter’s father) ran the Cross Keys, Missenden; Mr Stenning had been the landlord of the Tap Inn, Missenden in 1906; other people have spoken of tambour work being transferred at the village pub on a Saturday evening. 

Principal middlemen and manufacturers 

Thomas Gilbert (1825–1904), lace dealer and bead middleman, High Wycombe 

Thomas Gilbert was a prominent lace dealer then beading and tambour middleman of High Wycombe. His story is recorded here as part of Woodlanders’ research.  

He ran his lace-dealing business from Buckingham House, High Wycombe (commonly known as Bobbin Castle), at one stage having a network of around 3,000 local lacemakers whose work he sold on to London agents. He supplied lacemakers with the patterns and materials, and bought the lace off them, often through a network of local grocery shops. When the handmade lace business collapsed in the 1870s, he went bankrupt, but then moved into beadwork and later the tambour beading business. He was a well-respected mayor and local benefactor, and after his death in 1904 his daughter Anne continued the fancy trimmings business (probably beadwork). Mrs Carter’s recording says that she started working for Mr Gilbert of Wycombe doing millinery work – sewing beads onto net designs. 

Bernard Stapley (1883–1957), West End gown manufacturer 

According to Mrs Carter, Bernard Stapley was the person who first introduced tambour beading to the Holmer Green area in 1912, by bringing over a French woman, Mlle Collow from Luneville, (in Lorraine, Eastern France, the main centre for high fashion tambour beading). His own account in 1916 says that he started his business in March 1916. Mlle Collow trained Mrs Carter in tambour beading; Mrs Carter then trained hundreds of local girls. 

Bernard Stapley as a young man. Courtesy of Jenefer Whitty

Our research in the British Newspaper Archive (BNA) gives details of Bernard Stapley’s operations in the tambour beading business, especially from reports of his appeals against conscription in WW1. 

He was a West End gown and embroidery manufacturer, with offices in Margaret Street and Poland Street, Soho, London, and a small country house in Hare End Lane, Little Kingshill, near Great Missenden. He was born in July 1883. His father was a grocer and draper and he started as a draper’s assistant, marrying Lilian Grace Smith in Sussex in April 1910. At the time of the 1911 census he was living in Pinner working as a manufacturer of embroidery trimmings for dresses.  

Bernard was initially a partner in the English and French Embroidery Co. of Mortimer Street, Marylebone, which advertised in the Buckinghamshire Examiner, Friday 01 October 1915 for: 

BEADERS AND SPANGLE HANDS wanted home work.—Apply by letter, English and French Embroidery Co., 63 Mortimer-street, London, W. 

This partnership was dissolved on 16 March 1916 and he immediately set up business on his own, with premises in London and the Little Kingshill Embroidery Rooms. He advertised at once: 

Bucks Herald, Saturday 08 April 1916 

AN OPPORTUNITY IS OFFERED RESPECTABLE GIRLS trade by which they may become self-supporting and secure employment in the future. Pocket money is given while learning and wages when competent. Apply personally, or by letter LITTLE KINGSHILL EMBROIDERY SCHOOL. 

In September 1916 he appeared at a conscription tribunal, where he applied for exemption from wartime duties. His lawyer stated that he had:  

Buckinghamshire Examiner – Friday 22 September 1916 

‘a highly strung nature. A CI case (garrison duty at home) and his wife was in ill-health, and as he was a man who had his own business and was showing initiative, his case should receive consideration.  

Appellant was establishing an industry which would displace a German industry, had an embroidery manufacturer’s business at Kingshill, with staff at Kingshill and in London … increasing turnover, last month £600.  

… In those countries it was a peasant industry, run largely upon the lines that the old Bucks lace-making industry was run, and as the lace industry was dying out he thought that there was a good opportunity to organise the peasant embroidery making industry in the district, and he had put his capital into the business. Appellant did his own designing and selling, as well as managed the work. 

Embroidery industry was established at Kingshill for years before he came along March 1916 … it was a dwindling industry, and the girls were not earning a great deal making work for the wholesale houses. He had organised the matter; adopted the German peasant system of manufacture and was gradually establishing an industry … have 26 workers here, and others in London, and machinery and plant.’ 

In Oct 1917 his appeal was refused. 

Bucks Herald – Saturday 13 October 1917 

‘[He] appealed for exemption, stating that he employed 37 girls and had taught them a trade which had been previously carried on entirely in Germany … —The Chairman said there were people in Holmer Green who were already engaged in embroidery work in their own homes, and it was the view of some members of the Tribunal that girls would be much better employed in agriculture at the present time rather than in such a non-essential trade as embroidery making.’ 

He was called up in 1918 but, soon after WW1 ended, he advertised for staff at Great Missenden again. 

Bucks Herald, Saturday 25 January 1919 

Mr. BERNARD STAPLEY, Embroidery Manufacturer, 27, Poland Street, London, W., Having been released from H.M. Forces, is now re-opening his TRAINING WORKSHOPS High Street, Great Missenden, And will be pleased to consider APPLICATIONS FOR EMPLOYMENT from his former Workers. Also Mr. Stapley is willing to take APPRENTICES, and will give small wage while training. EXPERIENCED EMBROIDERESSES, Dressmakers, and Needlewomen are also required. 

His addresses continued to be recorded at Poland Street, then Carnaby Street, London, and Missenden and Holmer Green throughout the 1920s. He appears to have sold the Holmer Green workshop to C E Phipps in the 1920s and moved his main business back to London. One tambour beader describes how after Stapley sold his workshop she went to work for him as a beader in Poland Street W1, travelling from Holmer Green every day.  

His business was badly affected by the Wall Street Crash of 1929, which marked the change to simpler fashions. At the outbreak of WW2, in October 1939, his company went into voluntary liquidation and moved to war work. He died in 1957. 

Cecil Phipps (1900–1956), embroidery manufacturer, Hazlemere 

Cecil Phipps was born in 1900, son of John Edward Phipps, trimmings manufacturer of Sutton, Surrey, who in 1898 created embroidered fashion items and was selling them to department stores. In the 1920s Cecil Phipps bought Bernard Stapley’s workshop in Holmer Green (according to Mrs Carter) and by 1934 had established at a workshop at Inkerman Hill, Hazlemere where he advertised for tambour workers:  

Buckinghamshire Examiner, Friday 14 September 1934  

BEADING. Outdoor and Indoor Tambour Workers wanted immediately. Outworkers can be supplied by post if more convenient. Experienced workers only need apply. Send small sample.—C. E. Phipps & Co., Inkerman Works, Hazlemere, Bucks. 

Phipps’ tambour and embroidery workers at Hazlemere, pre-WW2 © Stuart King collection

In 1924 Cecil married in London to Doris Perfect of Penn. She came from a local Penn Street family of beaders (her aunt by marriage, Ellen Hazell, was a bead and braid maker agent in 1891, lace manufacturer in 1901 and tambour beading agent in Holmer Green), and Doris probably met Cecil through work. They lived in both London and Bucks – in 1929 in Stanley Hill, Amersham, then by 1939 at Inkerman Hill, Hazlemere, and also in Westminster.  

Later they lived at Temple Bower, Amersham Hill Drive, High Wycombe. Cecil was listed as an embroidery manufacturer and Doris as embroidery manageress in the 1939 Register. 

Fourteen young women posing in a field. They probably worked for Phipps, c.1940 © High Wycombe Museum 

Fourteen young women posing in a field. They probably worked for Phipps, c.1940 © High Wycombe Museum

Cecil Phipps died in 1956. The company’s chief designer, Stanley Lock, took over the firm and named it S. Lock & Co. which, according to Wikipedia, went on to ‘create special order embroidery items for fashion houses, including Christian Dior, Norman Hartnell, Hardy Amies, and Catherine Walker’. Then S. Lock & Co. merged with another company, M. Hand & Co. to become Hand and Lock, a leading firm of bespoke hand embroiderers, which still offers tambour beading services and courses today (  

In autumn 2021 I visited their exhibition ‘Embroidered Arts

Thomas Winter (1856–1939), schoolmaster and workshop operator, Holmer Green 

Thomas Winter was a farmer and schoolmaster of Wycombe Heath Farm, Holmer Green, and later at Little Gables, Holmer Green. He married Lizzie Dean, a farmer’s daughter of Penn. Thomas was the local schoolmaster, and he ran various community groups such as a string band. His hut in Holmer Green was the location for one of the tambour beading workshops.  Stuart King tells us about it in his article ‘Beading and other women’s work in Holmer Green’: 

Between the wars a well-known resident, Thomas Winter, erected a wooden hut opposite Holmer Green common to be used for the social use of the village. He also ran a tambour beading school for young girls there, emphasising the demand during the inter-war period. (Holmer Green Magazine, Winter 2020.) 

Thomas Winter and his tambour beading girls, 1920s © Stuart King collection 

Thomas Winter and his tambour beading girls, 1920s © Stuart King collection

The hut was used for social occasions too: 

Buckinghamshire Examiner – Friday 12 August 1927  

… their waiting carriage, which conveyed them to what is now aptly called “Winter’s Marriage Reception Hut,” where the wedding breakfast was served and the reception held.  

Buckinghamshire Examiner – Friday 30 November 1928  

… 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 happy couple were speedily driven to the aforesaid hut, which had been, as on other occasions of like manner, converted into a marriage reception hall.  

Mr Winter’s hut in the background © Stuart King collection 

Mr Winter’s hut in the background © Stuart King collection


By the mid 20th century, the tambour beading businesses in the Holmer Green area had come to an end. Mr Stapley closed his business at the start of WW2, and Phipps concentrated on less expensive techniques such as rouleau embroidery which used thin strips of fabric sewn into tubes, rather than expensive beads. Phipps died in 1956 and his successor moved the business to London. Into the 1960s and 70s, some outworkers continued beading for London designers and stage costumes – these were generally bespoke outfits for royalty, stage & TV stars often with a quick turn-around – most other fashion-house beading was done abroad where rates were cheaper. 

In part 3 I look at the lives and recollections of some of the tambour beaders of the Holmer Green area during its heyday there. 

Chilterns ANOB
Chilterns ANOB

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