Olney Buckinghamshire - Home of Amazing Grace
Olney Market Town
Olney Market Town
The market town of Olney (pronounced 'onee') has a population of 7,000 and stands proudly on the Great River Ouse and on the borders of three counties in the United Kingdom, Bedfordshire, Northamptonshire and Buckinghamshire exactly fifty-five miles north of London. It is only 20 minutes drive from the new town of Milton Keynes and the older traditional towns of Northampton and Bedford. Olney is first mentioned in history in 932 AD and indeed it's Gothic parish church, Saint Peter and Saint Paul dates back to the 14th century as it now stands, and 1018 in a more modest smaller version.
Olney is well known for three things, although unknown to many, one of its more senior residents was very famous in the 60's as the lead singer of a successful pop band. Firstly, it was renowned for it's lace making prowess and was an important lace making centre in south east England. Secondly, its world famous pancake race and thirdly the hymn Amazing Grace was written by one its parishioners in the mid eighteenth century.
Olney is here
Lace Making Buildings in Olney
Lace Making in Olney
Lace making was brought to England in 1560 by the Flemish Protestants. As these immigrants settled into rural areas of England they built a trade which became the historical centres for lace making skills. One of these centres was the market town of Olney in Buckinghamshire. These lace makers settled in the honeycombs of alleyways and courts such as Bull Court and Silver End, which still exist today but back then they were the poorest areas of the town.
During the 1560’s and 70’s many lace maker immigrants from France also settled in Olney. As the lace making industry grew the lace makers gradually taught the locals how to make lace and this in turn caused the local tradesmen such as the butchers and the bakers to supply materials to the lace makers. The most expensive aspect of lace making was the imported cotton and the linen thread but the rest of the materials, straw, wood, pins and bone could be found locally. The suppliers of the materials would buy back the lace when finished and sell it at a handsome profit in the markets of London.
The lace makers were poor and other Olney stalwarts such as John Newton who wrote Amazing Grace and the poet William Cowper wrote about them. There were approximately one thousand two hundred lace makers living and working in Olney.
Sarah Duxbury ran a school for lacemaking in the Old Penny House where she not only taught lace making but also reading and writing.
By the early 19th century machine lace making started to overtake handmade lace and the industry in Olney started to dwindle and by the end of the 19th century lace making was a cottage industry in Olney. In the early 1900’s a man named Harry Armstrong a lace dealer put lace fabrics together at the Lace Factory, which now is a block of apartments.
Olney Pancake Race
The Race in 2007
The Famous Pancake Race
The world famous Olney pancake race is open to women over the age of 18 years who have resided in Olney for more than three months. There is a limit of three wins by an individual and then they are forced to retire. The race course is 418 metres long and is run from the market square to the church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul.
It is steeped in tradition and legend has it that the race came about in 1445 when a housewife was making pancakes in her house near the market square when she heard the parish church bells ringing out signalling the start of the Shrove Tuesday Mass. Fearing she would be late she just high tailed it to the church some four hundred yards away. It was only when she got there that she realised she still held her pancake pan with a pancake still evident and she had not changed out of her pinafore.
In 2013 there was controversy surrounding the pancake race. It was won by Devon Byrne for the second year running in a world record time (as there is only one other official pancake race in the world of that distance, it truly counts as a world record) of 56 seconds. This beat the previous record of 57.5 seconds set by Tasha Gallegos in the town of Liberal Kansas in 2009. Yes, Olney and Liberal have been battling for the record since 1950. So far Liberal lead the way with 36 wins to Olney's 28 wins. That year's win by Devon beat the Liberal winner by almost 2 seconds and as the local Liberal newspaper quoted 'Olney Pancakes Liberal'.
Devon Byrne races for the Milton Keynes Athletic Club in the Heptathlon event and organisers are saying that as she was in her mothers womb when her mother won the race in 1993 she has in theory won it three times and should now retire. In fact her mother won the race three times (1988, 1989 and 1993) and was forced to retire. Everyone now awaits with abated breath to see if Devon will be given the opportunity to emulate her mother. The prize? Well the prize for the winner is a kiss from the curate of the Saint Peter and Saint Paul church. Before, during and after the race some 900 pancakes are cooked in the town square, 600 of them by one woman, a Mrs Evans. As well as the main event, three schools, two from Olney, the infants and the middle school and one from Newport Pagnell, Ousedale school, raced the same course.
Amazing Grace by Whitney Houston
John Newton - Amazing Grace
Born in Wapping in 1725, John Newton was the son of a shipmaster in the Mediterranean service. At the age of eleven his father took John to sea and he completed six voyages before his father sent him to Jamaica to work on a sugar plantation. John ran away and joined a merchant ship sailing to the Mediterranean Sea. In 1743 he was captured and pressganged into the Royal Navy as a midshipman on HMS Harwich. He tried to desert and was severely punished in front of his crewmates. He was flogged a total of eight dozen lashes on his bare back. He recovered and was transferred to a slave ship HMS Pegasus and dropped off in Africa where he became a slave. He was eventually rescued in 1748 and returned to England. While sailing back he had a spiritual awakening and converted to Christianity. He married in 1750 his childhood sweetheart in Rochester. He became a lay preacher and eventually in 1764 he was ordained as a priest and became the curator of St Peter and Pauls church in Olney, Buckinghamshire. He resided in Olney for sixteen years and during this time he wrote many hymns including the world famous Amazing Grace.
Build Me Up Buttercup
Born on November 28th 1940 Clem Curtis was the leading vocalist for the Foundations, the soul group that shot to fame in the 60’s in the United Kingdom. In 1966 he joined the group called The Ramong Sound who later in 1967 changed their name to The Foundations. Between 1967 and late 1968 The Foundations along with Clem Curtis as their lead singer had four worldwide hits; Build Me A Buttercup, Baby Now That I've Found You, Any Old Time and Back on my Feet Again. Their biggest success Build Me Up Buttercup reached number three in the charts in the UK and in America and Baby Now That I've Found You reached number one in the UK and number 3 in the States. Clem Curtis left The Foundations in 1969 and pursued a career in the States before returning to the UK to live in Olney. He now has a solo singing career on cruise ships and various clubs in the UK.
Today, Olney is a small market town of 7,000 residents that has a lot going for it. Whilst keeping the traditional styled houses on it's main street and market square, Olney has managed to provide amenities and shopping without destroying it's tradition. The town boasts a variety of restaurants to suit most peoples taste, from good English roast dinners, traditional pub dinners to Italian, Indian and Chinese fare. There are more than six privately owned cafes in Olney and it is only very recently they have allowed a cafe chain to have a cafe there. There are hairdressers, estate agents, off-licences, mini-markets, a supermarket, deli's, a gym, beauty therapy, gift shops, clothes shops, a DIY shop and even a museum in Olney. The museum is the William Cowper ( museum and was actually his personal property which was donated to the town. William Cowper (1731-1800) was a poet who lived in Olney where he became one of the most popular poets of his time.
Olney has a tradition of jazz music and Cafe Brio in the town square has live jazz music every Monday evening throughout the year. The Carlton Club which is the old working men's club, holds a monthly jazz and blues night on it's premises. The Carlton club is the towns social club where members can drink, eat, watch sports events in 3D on big screens or play traditional pub games like darts and cribbage.
Olney has well organised sports facilities and boasts:
a rugby team
a football team
a tennis team
a bowls team (summer and winter)
a cricket team
table tennis team
a bridge club