The Heart of the Chilterns: Volunteers #6, Susan Holmes, Woodlanders Lives Researcher

The Heart of the Chilterns: Volunteers #6, Susan Holmes, Woodlanders Lives Researcher

Susan has been a volunteer researcher for Chalk, Cherries and Chairs’ Woodlanders Lives project since retirement, discovering more about the past working lives of people in the Chilterns.


What have you been doing as a volunteer?

She’s been researching a Victorian lace dealer from High Wycombe, and taken part in a larger project on the tambour beading business of the Holmer Green area (a form of luxury embroidery for glamorous fashion, mainly done by women from World War 1 to the 1960s.

Something of a ‘super volunteer’, Susan’s also volunteered for the Beacons of the Past hillfort archaeology project, which we’ll cover further down this page!

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What’s been your role so far as a volunteer?

I started working with the oral history recording of a local tambour beading agent, Mrs Carter, recorded 50 years ago, in which she and her brother told their stories of how the business operated.

Stuart King, the Woodlanders’ Lives historical consultant, has a large collection of relevant photographs and information.

I pieced together their stories from online research in the British Newspaper Archive, and Ancestry websites and I’ve written several articles to be published soon on the blog.

I’ve also been trained to do oral history recording, and have recorded two interviews about the tambour beaders of the area.

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Tamboured wedding dress

What was your previous experience?

I’ve traced my own ancestors from the 1400s, some of whom worked as woodlanders in the Chilterns. I’ve also researched the history of my own house, originally an 1830s public house on the Grand Union Canal, so I’m familiar with this type of research. I’ve also taken up lace knitting during lockdown, so I can try some practical skills.

What prompted you to get involved?

Some of my ancestors were Chiltern Woodlanders – lacemakers, woodsmen so I was fascinated to learn more about their lives and how they fed their families, and handle the types of equipment and tools that they used in their occupations.

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What have you enjoyed and learnt from volunteering?

I’ve enjoyed finding about women’s craft and skills – I’ve always liked heritage textile crafts such as lace making, older types of embroidery and knitting so this is an ideal opportunity to practice them.

I feel part of a skilled community doing original research – little was known about the tambour beaders business in the area, yet it has proved to have a strong story to tell. There were good challenges, there is a lot of information available about these topics but you have to hunt around for it.

A memorable moment: I tried tambour beading myself, it’s done with a tambour hook that like a very sharp needle with a hook at the end that you push through fabric to attach the beads; within days I’d impaled myself with the hook and had to have it cut out at Stoke Mandeville by a plastic surgeon! So I will research it rather than practice it. But it gave me a feel for what it would have been like doing this for long hours- it was often done in the evening by the light of oil lamps when children had gone to bed.

A major exhibition about Woodlanders Lives at Wycombe Museum is coming up soon and  I’ll be involved with that. I’ve also taken up lace knitting which I find is marvellous for relaxation, and will continue trying old patterns after the project ends.

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What tips would you give to someone thinking of volunteering but not sure yet?

Try it for a while, some activities appeal more than others. If you’ve always wondered how your local ancestors lived, this is a good way of finding out.

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‘Hidden Hands: Women and work in the Chilterns’ is a 6-month long exhibition opening at Wycombe Museum in March, which curates and presents the original research by our volunteers into the lives of traditional skilled craftswomen across the woodlands of the Central Chilterns.

Beacons of the Past archaeology volunteering

Chilterns Beacons of the Past Citizen Science LiDAR Portal presents imagery from the 1400 square km of high resolution LiDAR data flown over the Chilterns and volunteers help to map archaeological features hidden in it.

My involvement has been mainly online – as a contributor then as a reviewer, where I review records that other people have recorded for a particular feature, research it and assign a possible significance and date if possible. We have worked as a group to produce a list of the most significant features found, to be sent to the various county heritage departments.

I’ve also contributed to the forum and mapathons – frequent online meet-ups during the active part of the project to discuss features that volunteers have found, and occasional visits in person to interesting locations, where we can compare on the ground the traces that we see on the LiDAR.

Last year we had an exciting community dig in Burnham Beeches which over 75 people took part in.

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A community dig at Burnham Beeches

Lockdown Lidar

This was an ideal project during lockdown, I’ve spent many hours poring over the LiDAR trying to work out the significance of different features, and gaining an appreciation for the archaeology and historical development of the Chiltern landscape. I used to work as an IT consultant and had experience of similar online and GIS-based systems.

I’m keenly interested in local landscape archaeology, having lived for 40 years in the Chilterns where many of my ancestors lived. I’m especially interested in the LiDAR aspect – using new technology to see through the trees and undergrowth to identify remains of old sites, and felt that I could make a good and enjoyable contribution.

What have you enjoyed and gained from Beacons of the Past volunteering?

I felt part of an online community doing original research – no-one has looked at this area with LiDAR in such detail before, together we’ve made a list of 200 significant sites that may not have been recorded previously.

I’ve also been on an archaeological dig at Burnham Beeches. I especially enjoyed the online and physical meetups to share ideas, which were vital contact during lockdown. I enjoy visiting many of the features that we’ve found on the LiDAR, so it’s given extra interest to countryside walks.

I’ve enjoyed it so much that I am looking out for opportunities on similar projects – I’ve started recording historical graffiti at my local 800-year-old parish church St Peter’s Berkhamsted, where I’ve found examples of medieval music, faces, shields, names and initials, mason’s marks as well as crosses and ritual protection marks. I’m giving a heritage open days tour about it in the autumn.

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Read Susan's articles

Read Susan’s blogs about Stories of Tambour Beading in the Chilterns part 1, and Stories of Tambour Beading part 2, plus read about Susan’s research trip to the Embroidered Arts Exhibition in London.

If you love local history, you can read all the blogs from the Woodlander’s Lives researchers on the Chalk, Cherries and Chairs News page, including stories about lace makers, straw dealers and chair makers (bodgers).

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