Manufacturers mentioned by John Pemberton Turner in 1866.
Samuel & Thomas Aston/John Aston & Co.
John Aston (1802-1882) was a contemporary, and rival, of Benjamin Sanders. His grandfather William ( born before 1730, tarding at Princip Street), father Samuel ( 1754-1820) and uncle Thomas had also been in the Birmingham button trade. John, with brothers Thomas (1789-1855) and William (1787-1842) took over the family firm of ‘Samuel and Thomas Aston’ at St Paul’s Square, after their father’s death until 1823.John then continued with Thomas only until 1833, then on his own account. he manufactures Florentine and silk buttons under the name ‘Jon Aston’ as well as gilt and plated buttons as ‘ John Aston & Co.’
In 1825 John patented a fabric button, similar to that of Sanders in 1813. Sanders challenged this is court in 1832.
Details from a 1834 patent application.
He patented a button making press in 1841 that was displayed at the 1850 Great Exhibition. It was the fabric buttons of people like Sanders and Aston that resulted in the demise of the Dorset button industry. In 1841 In 1841 he patented and manufactured the invention of Humphrey Jeffries of a three-fold linen button, which became hugely successful. By 1841 the firm employed 356 people. A directory of 1878 describes the company as “manufacturers of plain & fancy silk buttons, fancy linen buttons, florentine buttons, the original patent linen buttons & the patent triplicate linen buttons”, located at the Eagle Button Works, Summer Hill.He retired as a partner of John Aston & Co in December 1879, and the business was carried forward by his sons Thomas Lawrence Aston (1829-1892) and George Lyttleton Aston (1839-1902), together with William White.
In 1770 ‘Palmer & Perkins’ were listed as button and coach spring makers. This may have been a Mark Perkins (or a relation of his) who took over the mortgage of a ‘glit toy maker’ called John Richards i upon John’s death in 1837. I can find no other reference except for Mr Tuner’s refrence to Mr Perkins as a button manufacturer in his 1866 report.
Manufacturers mentioned by John Pemberton Turner in 1866.
Benjamin Sanders & Sons:
Benjamin Sanders (1763-1852) lived a colourful life, travelling and trading around the world. With his sons Benjamin junior (1796-1840) and Thomas Tudor Sanders (1805-1881) he made an enduring mark on button manufacturing. Whilst the firm was not always located in Birmingham, it was there for a period, and also in nearby Bromsgrove (13 miles SW of Birmingham).
Benjamin was born in Worchester (31 miles SW of Birmingham) in 1763. In the 1780s he was a tailor in London. He took his family to America in 1792, surviving storms and pirates. They spent 3 year in New York, surviving Yellow Fever, then set off for Copenhagen, surviving another storm and a French man-of-war. After building up a profitable business, Britain declared war on Denmark and bombed Copenhagan including Sander’s own house! Not surprisingly, he needed to return to England in 1807 and start again.
Whilst living in Lambeth, South London in 1813, with the technical assistance of his name-sake son, he patented the production of cloth covered buttons by machinery. The machine had to stamp out the parts, attach a shank to the back then cover the whole with fabric.
From a list of 1813 patents granted.
He then moved to Birmingham to take advantage of his patent in the centre of the button making trade. He move to nearby Bromsgrove in 1821, another button making town, first in High Street then at Sidemoor Mill. In 1825 his son patented the “flexible shank button”. This type of button had a cloth patch protruding through the metal back plate. This allowed the button to be stitched snug and flat onto the garment.
A diagram of the parts of the patented button from the ” Repertory of Patent Inventions …” 1934.
Later they patented a 3-part metal version with a steel back plate and a loop shank instead of the cloth patch. This is referred to as the “Sanders type” button. They also invented the modern ‘snap-fastener’.
The parts are fastened together by turning the edge of the front shell over the back piece.
By 1830 there were 300 employees, mostly women earning one shilling and one pence per day. The company was taken over by the Nicholls family (? when) but still trades under the name of Sanders as a badge making firm. However, button production ceased around 2014.
According to the UK Detector Finds Database, manufacturers began to mark the backs of buttons with their names and addresses in the second half of the 18th century. There have been just too many manufacturers based in Birmingham for me to list, However, there are some good websites for button collectors and detectorists:
Below are listed some of the button manufacturers that were listed in a 1866 report into the Birmingham button trade by John Pemberton Turner. (Note that this is available to view online on the Hammond-Turner website.) More will follow!
Hammond Turner & Sons:
Known for its sporting buttons made in the 1840-50 as well as military and civil uniform buttons, livery, sporting and fashion buttons.
Samuel Hammond (1740-1825) was listed in 1781 as a button maker. By 1792 he was in partnership with John Turner (1764-1839) and John Dickinson (-1822). (Un-substaniated claims are that the company was established in 1717).
It was renamed Hammonds Turner & Sons after Hammond and Dickinson died. It was called Hammond Turner & Sons and run by Turner and his sons William (c.1800-1851) and Samuel (1802-1841). Unfortunately they all died by 1851. A new partner, Bates, joined the firm with a branch set up in Manchester under the name Hammond Turner & Bates and produced buttons. This name continued into the 1880s.
Although they seemed to make less (or none?) buttons after the 1850s, Hammond Turner & Sons Ltd continued into the early 20th century, making other metal items.
Edward Armfield (1759-1821) was born in Birmingham. His grandfather had been a ‘toy maker’ and father a lock maker. He was the proprietor of the plated and gilt button factory, “Armfield & Son” at 9-10 Newall Street and Bath Row, Birmingham, established in 1763 and listed as a button maker by 1783. His sons Edward (1970-1888) and William (1793-1835) became partners in the button factory at now called “Armfield & Co”. They were known for their livery buttons. A bomb destroyed the factory in 1940. One of the above website lists them as still in operation, but I haven’t confirmed this.
The company was founded circa 1800 by Charles Frederick Bullivant (1779-1843), and appear to originally have been called Edwards, Bullivant & Co.
In the London Gazette, 1811.
With Thomas Tipson as partner, the firm became Bullivant & Tipson in 1818 operating in Great Charles Street. They were known for their livery buttons. The partnership was dissolved in 1838. There are also livery buttons backmarked G. & H. Bullivant. They would be George and Henry Bullivant, button makers, Great Charles Street, listed in 1849 and 1868, two of Charles sons. I guess they took over the firm. Under this name they continued into the 20th century.
Matthew Boulton painted in 1792. The Soho manufactory can be seen in the background.
Contemporary with John Taylor, and his biggest rival, was Matthew Boulton Jnr, who probably built the second sizable factory in Birmingham.
His father, Matthew senior, was a buckle and button maker in a small factory. Matthew junior joined the family business in Snow Hill upon leaving school, and soon assumed responsibility for running it. Marrying into money, and taking over the family business after the death of his father in 1759, he was able to build a large factory in Soho. It was built from 1762-65 at the cost of 10,000 pounds. As well as buttons, other goods such as silver plate, silver ware, table ware and decorative goods were produced here.
Soho Manufactory as seen from rear, 1830. Tourists took guided tours of the factory.
In 1775 the Scottish engineer James Watt came to Birmingham. In partnership with Boulton he developed a steam engine business. The Soho factory was therefore able to change from water to steam power. However, it was not just in technical terms that he was successful. Boulton was very skilled in cultivating powerful and wealthy clients, and in promoting the business through advertising. He encouraged quality of product and was always innovating.
From 1762-1782 he had been in partnership with John Fothergill (1730-1781) as Boulton & Fothergill. However, during this time, in 1776, the main button trade was carried out in partnership with Charles Wyatt, then for a few months on this own, then in partnership with john Fothergill and John Scale from 1777.
Unfortunately, the partnership with Fothergill was not profitable and ended on bad terms. John Fothergill died the following year, deeply in debt. After this Matthew divided the firm into two parts. Matthew Boulton & Scale to continued the button making. (The other part of the business was for the silver and silver plate production.) They produced buttons in “general, gilt, plated, silvered, semilor, pinchbeck, plantina, inlaid with steel, polished steel and jettina and steel tags, polished steel watch chains, patent cork screws etc.” The term ‘inlaid with steel’ refers to cut steel. Boulton claimed to have developed the cut-steel buttons, which was a huge success for the firm. Jasper ware medallions made by Josiah Wedgewood were sold to manufacturers such as Boulton, Green & Vale and Vernon & Hasselwood.
Wedgewood medallion with Boulton cut steels, c.1760
Around 1796 this partnership ended, and button production continued under the name ‘Matthew Boulton & Button Co.’ until 1809. Matthew had retired in 1800, passing his business on to his son, Matthew Robinson Boulton. He died in 1809.
Although Matthew Robinson Boulton and James Watt junior directed the Soho manufactory after their fathers’ deaths, I have not been able to find out if they still made buttons, however it appears not. Most of their business was with their foundry, their mint, steam engines and minting machines. Matthew Robinson Boulton died in 1842 a very wealthy man. The stock and machinery were auctioned off in 1850, then the building demolished.
John Taylor probably developed the first factory in Birmingham for the manufacture of ‘toys’, such as snuff boxes, buttons ,buckles and jewellery. He was known for japanning (decorative lacquering) and also for enameling. He certainly pioneered the use of division of labour as an efficient process of producing goods, eventually employing 500 people. Before the use of this process, button making was so time and labour intensive as to not be very profitable. He made a fortune from producing gilded buttons which were all the fashion, first in Crooked Lane, then in Union Street. When he branched into making steel buttons, his largest rival Matthew Boulton was not impressed, as that was his specialty! He also had a copper/brass mill to produce metal for the button factory.
Along with Mr Sampson Lloyd II, in 1765 he formed the first Birmingham bank, Taylor & Lloyd’s, now know as Lloyd’s T.S.B. On his death his son, John Taylor II (1738-1814), took over the business.
John II Taylor (1738-1814) by Thomas Gainsborough, 1778.
Unfortunately, it is not possible to definitely attribute surviving objects to his manufacture. However, there are enameled buttons in the Wolverhampton Museum that may have been his as they were probably produced from 1745-1765 in Birmingham, when he was the largest manufacturer in the city.
Full set of the above.
In the MET museum are 4 of a larger set of hunting buttons produced around 1760-1770. They are decorated by transfer printed enamel, a process which Taylor was using from 1765 or earlier.
1730s onwards: John Taylor successful in mass production of gilded metal buttons. He was a pioneer in the use of the process of division of labour and an expert in jappaning. He also made steel buttons. The weekly produce of buttons alone at his works was at one time estimated at not less than £800 a week.
1739: Mr. Baddeley, an early manufacturer, retires. He was the inventor of the oval chuck, and several other appliances which greatly assisted in the improvement of the manufacture.
1749: Matthew Boulton Jnr joins his father’s metal button making business. Boulton perfected the production of cut-steel buttons.
1767: Sketchley’s Directory lists the variety of button manufacturing: ” This branch is very extensive and is distinguished under the following Heads viz. Gilt, Plated, Silvered, Lacquered (possibly jappaned), and Pinchback [pinchbeck], the beautiful New Manufacture Platina, Inlaid (with cut steel studs), Glass, Horn, Ivory, and Pearl: Metal Buttonssuch as Bath, Hard and Soft White, &c. there is likewise made Link Buttons in most of the above Metals, as well as of Paste, Stones, &c. in short the vast Variety of sorts in both Branches is really amazing, and we may with Truth aver that this is the cheapest Market in the World for these Articles.” Note: Pinchbeck, ‘Platina’ and ‘Bath’ were fine brasses which mimicked the look of gold.
1778: Mr. Clay, the inventor of papier mache, took out a patent for manufacturing buttons in this material. He also made slate buttons.
Late 1700s: a cheaper method to gild buttons by dipping the buttons with a thin layer of precious metal was developed. Parliament bans import of pearl-shell buttons, allowing Birmingham the opportunity to develop a specialist industry that would dominate world production. Fashion for buttons: Gentlemen wore gilt buttons on coats, vests and leggings; women and children preferred metal buttons to those of woven materials.
1801: horn buttons selling as low as 5-1/2d per gross.
1812: “Maltese buttons” (glass beads mounted in metal) made in large quantities.
1825: Flexible (cloth) shanks patented by B. Sanders Jnr.
c.1837: Gilt buttons go out of fashion, however some manufacturers continue to make these for uniforms or fancy wear, whilst others convert to materials such as brass, jet, ivory, Florentine and silk (covered), tortoiseshell, pearl, bone, and horn buttons. Fancy silk buttons with a centred pattern patented by William Elliott. This was very successful and popular for a while. Note that porcelain and glass buttons were not produced in Birmingham at this stage. The fashion is for fewer and less ornate buttons than previously.
1841: R. Prosser, a Birmingham man, patents a method for making porcelain buttons. The 3-fold linen button invented by Humphrey Jeffries and patented by John Ashton. This would completely overtake the Dorset button for use in underclothing.
c.1857: Vegetable ivory, or Corozo nut, introduced to the button trade.
1865: Mechanisation of button manufacturing had been established. Around 300 people engaged in making small glass buttons for shoes.
1866: According to John Pemberton Turner, who published an article about Birmingham’s button trade, there were employed approximately:
About two thirds of these were women and children, some as young as 6 years, as they were cheaper to employ. The writer would have preferred the women to be kept at home attending “to useful housewifely duties, and seeing that her home is orderly, neat, and clean for her husband’s reception and comfort”.
WW1: Much of the button trade is given over to war time requirements. For example, at J.R. Gaunt & Son Ltd., the company employed over 600 people and worked round the clock, supplying cap badges and buttons for every branch of the Empire Armed Forces.
History of button manufacturing in Birmingham: Part 2
In the first part I mentioned that Birmingham was called “the city of a thousand trades”. It was also dubbed, by politician Edmund Bourke, as “the toyshop of Europe”. The term ‘toy’ meant a small, decorative, personal metallic object, such as buttons, buckles, boxes, caddy spoons, jewellery and other trinkets. However, they also produced buttons of fabric, wood, bone, horn (the button trade started in Birmingham in the Middle Ages using horn and bone from the local meat trade), glass and pearl shell. In fact after a ban on importing pearl buttons at the end of the 18th century, Birmingham became famous for production of mother-of-pearl buttons, the shells being imported from Australia, Malaysia, the South Pacific and the Americas.
According to the website ‘oldcopper.org’ … ” in 1780 there were 104 listed button manufacturers, at a time when men were paid 7 shillings a week and children one shilling a week when they reached the ripe old age of ten years.” In the late 18th century, most button production was done by families in their own yards, each performing a given step in the process of making a button.
Birmingham’s history of metalworking, combined with access to materials, skills, workers and the new train network, meant that it came to dominate button production by the end of the 18th century. The city was able to compete with local manufacturing in places like France and Holland as they were price competitive due to the mechanical processes they had developed. Portugal and Spain ended up prohibiting Birmingham metal ware from being imported to protect their manufacturers.
In 1830 there were approximately 17,000 people involved in the button industry. As production became mechanised within larger factories this number dropped to around 6,000 by 1865. Stamping, pressing, piercing and polishing were now performed using newly developed machinery. An exception to this was the production of pearl-shell buttons which, due to the fragile nature of the shell, were still made by more highly skilled and highly paid craftsmen in small workshops.
From The book of Trades, or Library of Useful Arts Part III, 3rd ed. 1806. Thanks to www.revolutionaryplayers.org.uk The worker raises a weight with a die attached to stamp a design upon the buttons.
Whilst I await new Australian finds, I’ll spend a little time reviewing the history of button manufacturing in Birmingham, historically one of the main button making cities of the world.
Birmingham’s growth from a 7th century village to a 12th century market town to a large city was largely based on metalworking industries. Textiles, leather working and iron working were local industries from medieval times. By the early 16th century, the metal working industry was increasing in importance, with tools, knives, nails and other goods being made by an increasing number of smiths and artificers and traded to cities around Britain, and then the world. The trade became specialised, including hiltmakers, bucklemakers, scalemakers, pewterers, wiredrawers, locksmith, swordmakers, solder and lead workers. An act prohibiting foreign button importation in 1662 encouraged the local production of buttons.
In the 18th century, Birmingham was a centre of development in science and technology which lead to innovation in manufacturing and would lead to the first Industrial Revolution (c.1760-1820). (This was because the city enjoyed more political and economical freedom than some parts of the country and economical factors that favoured entepreneurs.) One important innovation in 1775 was the industrial steam engine by James Watt and Matthew Boulton, which would power manufacturing machinery. At this stage Birmingham was the third most populous city in England.
As the city was not a port, like other main industrial cities of the time, it specialised in small, high value metal items (known as ‘toys’) such as buttons, buckles, guns, snuff boxes, watches and jewellery, rather than bulk commodities such as cotton. As well as technical innovations, there developed the innovation of extreme division of labour, for example where the fifty to seventy processes to make a button were performed by a similar number of workers. This proved to be very productive and gave an advantage over other manufacturers. The manufactures were quick to respond to changes in fashion and to produce new products.
During the 19th century industry changed from mainly small workshops to large factories. During the first and second World Wars, Birmingham’s industrial output was very important to Britain. Post WW2, political policies tried to limit both the city’s population growth and industries (to attempt to grow other locations), with a resultant decline in diversity. “The City of Thousand Trades” became the city of British Leyland. In the 1970s its industrial economy collapsed with the loss of 200,000 jobs, mainly from the manufacturing sector. An article (see 3rd reference below) stated that in 2012 the last Birmingham button manufacturer, James Grove and Sons, closed down; however Firmin & Sons Ltd, formed in 1655, still exists, although now ” we are now a designer and supplier of every form of uniform, livery or badge, and the accessories and accoutrements to go with them.”
The card on the top is early; c.late 1940s-early 1950s. The lower cards date late 1950s-early 1960s.
From business magazines in Trove:
1958 Beutron (Australia) Ltd was exporting to Canada.
1963 Their South African factory was opening. They also had factories in New Zealand and Hong Kong. F.W. Williams Holdings Ltd bought a 50 percent interest in Beutron Australia and made a cash offer for General Plastics. (see below)
The Bulletin, 30th May 1964.
1965 F.W.Williams returned no dividend from Beutron.
1966 F.W. Williams made losses from Beutron and other holdings.
1968 Pioneer Concrete has taken over F.W.Williams and so now owns 50 percent of Beutron (Aust) Ltd. Marshall Ney and his son David are still directors.
1969 Pioneer Concrete sells its interest in Beutron “for a substantial cash profit’.