Stories of tambour beading in the Chilterns, Part 3: the local workers

Stories of tambour beading in the Chilterns, Part 3: the local workers

by Susan Holmes

Researched and presented by Susan Holmes, Woodlanders’ Lives and Landscapes 

This is the third in a series of articles about tambour beading in the Holmer Green area in the last century. Part 1 describes the Carter and Hickman family connections with the tambour beading business. Part 2  talks about the people who ran the businesses and the workshops where the tambour beaders worked. This part gives accounts of some of the other women who worked locally in the trade. 

Tambour work was a family business, and many of the women were closely connectedin particular the Hazell, Carter and James families who started as lacemakers. Cecil Phipps of Hazlemere, who owned the embroidery factory in Inkerman Drive, was married to Doris Perfect of Penn Street, a member of these local tambour beading families she ran the business with her husband, often employing her relatives and neighbours.

Beading on Christopher Dean’s matador outfit for the Paso Doble dance, which was part of the gold medal winning performance at the 1984 Winter Olympics, was apparently shared out among several tambour beaders in the village. Here is YouTube video to watch. The family tree in Part 1 shows some of the connections between the families. As well as Mrs Carter, other local tambour beaders have left their stories. 

Tambour beading girls courtesy of Stuart King Collection 

Minnie King, née Hazell (1865–1932), tambour beading agent, Holmer Green

Minnie King at the Stag & Hounds © Stuart King Collection 

Minnie King was born Minnie Hazell in 1865 in Penn Street, from a noted family of beaders, the Hazells. In 1881 aged 16 she was a beaded net worker living at the old Stag & Hounds, by 1901 she was a lace manufacturer and employer. She later became a beadwork agent. 

Stuart King, Woodlanders’ research consultant and local historian of Holmer Green, who is her great-great-grandson, wrote in Holmer Green Today, (Winter 2020 edition): 

“At about this time [end of 19th century] ‘beadwork’ was introduced into the village. This was London based, and like lacemaking and straw plait work it involved a middleman/woman to organize the distribution of orders and relevant materials, collecting and delivering completed work, and payment thereof. My great, great grandmother Minnie King (nee Hazel) was the first local agent, journeying to her ‘rag-trade’ bosses in London every Friday. 


Minnie King died in 1932 and her agency was taken over by local resident Ivy Waller (nee Thorne). Beaded fabric was used for ball gowns and other high-end frocks, but WW2 changed everything. Post-war, the craft never recovered but the likes of Ivy continued beading as a hobby, even teaching the technique to others.”

Her obituary in the Buckinghamshire Examiner on Friday 16 September 1932 stated: 

“Mrs. King was the widow of the late Mr. Charles King, for many years at Town Farm, Little Missenden. There are thirteen surviving children. She was an ardent worker for any deserving cause, especially the British Legion.”

Ivy Waller née Thorn, 1904–1972, tambour beading agent, Holmer Green

Ivy Waller was born Ivy Thorn in 1904. In 1929 she married Sid Waller (later parish clerk of Holmer Green), and was a well-known local personality, running Girl Guides groups and other community organisations. 

Sid and Ivy Waller wedding – her veil has tambour beading on it courtesy of Stuart King Collection 

In an interview entitled ‘Tambour beading: Holmer Green’s claim to fame’ in the Buckinghamshire Examiner on Friday 17 April 1970, Mrs Waller said that she took up the craft in the 1920s, in the Charleston era, when she was a girl. She was an agent for a London firm and at one time had 40 women working for her; she then worked from home when she married. She told of learning and practising the craft at Holmer Green, in an old army hut, in the 1920s and 30s, producing beautiful dresses for film stars. After she retired, Mrs Waller demonstrated her skills at local meetings and exhibitions.  

“Now 50 years later she still gets as much enjoyment out of the craft as she did then […] 

Mrs Waller’s only regret is that no young people are taking up the craft. She is doing something about this by lecturing and demonstration to youth clubs. She demonstrated the craft at the recent Ideal Home Exhibition in London and was amazed by the response. She said the sailors in the next stand even became interested.

Pictures in the Buckinghamshire Examiner – Friday 21 July 1972 from Stuart King collection Newspaper image © The British Library Board. All rights reserved. With thanks to The British Newspaper Archive ( 

Holmer Green tambour beaded shawl made by Ivy Waller, photo courtesy of Stuart King collection and Amersham Museum 

Ellen Hazell née James (1856–1933) and May Cordelia Axton née Hazell (1887–1955), tambour beaders, Holmer Green 

The Hazells and James were two important beading families.  Ellen Hazell, née James (1856–1933), originally of Penn Street, was a bead and braid maker agent in 1891, a lace manufacturer in 1901, then a tambour beading agent in Holmer Green. At least two of her daughters, Essie and May, were lacemakers.  

Ellen’s daughter May Cordelia Hazell, born in 1887, married John Thomas Axton (a postman) and they lived at Holmer Green. Cherie Belcher, her granddaughter remembered in her oral history recorded in 2021 that her grandfather used to ride his bike to Wycombe station to take the completed work and get materials for the next batch, so that it could be passed around the village. The beads were very heavy. He converted their garage into a workshop where the beads could be stored and people leave their work. She remembers May and her three daughters sitting round a table working late into the night, in silence. The oil lamps were hard on their eyes. 

May Axton and her family, Prestwood, courtesy of Cherie Belcher 

Doris Keen, 1905–1987, tambour beader, Prestwood 

Doris Gibbons, born 1905 Prestwood, married Leonard Keen; in 1939 he made ‘airscrew shapes for wood propellors’ (probably at the De Havilland works).  

As part of the Woodlanders research, we interviewed her daughter Susan Casbeard in 2021:  

“Well my mother Doris Keen and her mother plus her grandmother were all tambour workers in Holmer Green and Prestwood. Doris began her employment as a tambour worker at the Arthur [Later corrected to Bernard] Stapley Tambour and Beadwork company in Great Missenden. As young women left to marry and start their families, Mrs King from Little Missenden acted as an agent for fashion companies that had opened up in the East End of London. She offered work from home for these ladies, and Mrs King collected the tambour, mainly from Holmer Green, then passed it on to the fashion houses. After moving to Prestwood in 1951, Mum, Doris, worked directly for the London fashion house, and I remember some of Mum’s work being collected for Alma Cogan. Swathes of material were brought into our home, thank goodness we had a front room with plenty of space, and the schedules became tighter, with the ever-growing television programmes, something had to give. So, coming from a musical family, the front room was necessary for the violin, the piano, singing and organ practices, hence Mum finished her tambour work in about 1958–1959. 

So coming back to the poles, the materials, the first block of material had to be wrapped across the pole nearest to the worker, and the last, stretched across the opposite pole. I can’t remember the distance, may have been 2ft, 3 ft, possibly, to work on the piece of material. The reverse material was now facing the worker with the pattern on, it was all marked for beads, sequins, diamonds I think the diamanté had to go on at the end of the work, it wasn’t actually tamboured on, nevertheless the strings of beads hung from the frame to the underneath of the frame, on a loop of about possibly two or three feet long, the hook went down from the top with the right hand while the left hand sent a single bead taken from the strand underneath with the cotton which picked up the bead underneath the material… With the cotton pulled through making neat stitches on the top of the material which is the reverse side of the material. 

… And the sequins in actual fact were fine and flat and fed one by one with your left hand, not two, you never ever had a mistake of two as it ruined the work. The work had to be correct from the front and the back of the material hence absolute neatness both sides. With the first piece of tambour work complete, the sheets of tissue were laid over the work and they were rolled very carefully round the opposite poles in readiness for the next section of material which is stretched across of course on the next piece followed by possibly a small clamp to tension the material.”

Lou Dean 1911–2004, tambour beader, Holmer Green 

Lou Dean was married to Bill Dean, son of factory boss William Dean, Holmer Green tennis racquet manufacturer. 

Tambour beader Mrs Lou Dean in the mid-1980s. This shows how the tambour beading is worked with one hand holding the hook on top; the other hand is underneath throwing up the beads or sequins © Stuart King collection 

Other women recorded in 1990s by local historian Janet Dineen, also in the Stuart King collection:

Ivy Stevens 1912–2010, Hazlemere 

Ivy’s mother, Alice Stevens née Busby (1885–1959) was a Great Kingshill girl who walked over to Holmer Green to collect frogging from Mrs Hazell (frogging was used for military uniforms and cloak fastenings). Then she did hand beading for Mrs King who took it to London, travelling to the station by pony and trap. 

Later Ivy worked for Mrs King in a workshop. She then moved to Phipps, and the work came by post. She worked by herself, listening to the radio, and it fitted in with her children. She carried on until her eyesight became a problem – as so much was black. She and her sister Alice trained other workers. 

Minnie Wiltshire 1904–1996, Prestwood 

Minnie Wiltshire née Cosgrove was born in Prestwood. In 1921 she was working at Stapley’s beading workshop in Great Missenden. Her brother George Cosgrove was a company director and embroidery designer for Phipps in 1939. She managed a workshop for Phipps in the 1930s in High Wycombe opposite the station, in the high buildings above the auction house. 

Minnie’s recollections were recorded by Janet Dineen: 

“Young girls who left school at 13 and wanted to learn this work were taught by those who knew how to do it. The wages were 2/6d per week, working from 8:30 to 5 [pm], and on Saturday mornings till 12. They had to walk many miles as there were no buses then […]  

When the girls started they were given a large saucer with a long beading needle about 4 inches long and had to scoop the beads and sequins up with this needle on long strings for the older girls to use for the embroidery; this was about a two-month course […]  

When you start the work you have to practice on an old piece of material, how to pick up the cotton with a chain stitch, using a tambour hook, which takes several weeks to learn … those who have done it for many years can put on 250 beads in 5 minutes. Mothers taught daughters this work and a great deal was done at home by outworkers. 

Nowadays the trade is dying out and young girls do not have the patience to learn, so the old workers keep it going as long as they can as home workers, until they have to give up for eye troubles, shaking hands or just poor health.”

Another beader, Edith Hale, recorded by Janet Dineen, recalled  

“The work was of high quality because the designs were so good. Some of the dresses worked on were for Ascot, or coming out balls, and others were for the West End shows e.g. “Bow Bells”.

1939 tambour beaders in Holmer Green 

In 1939, at the start of the Second World War, a register was taken of people’s addresses, ages and occupations; it was designed to capture the details of every member of the civilian population on a specific date. It recorded 20 people in Holmer Green involved in tambour or embroidery. There were many other women with their occupation recorded as ‘unpaid domestic duties’ but we know from other accounts that they may also have done some tambour beading work. 


Our Woodlanders research has brought to light a half-forgotten women’s occupation at the start of the last century – showing how the women helped to sustain their families by their skill and enterprise. 

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