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Birmingham Button Manufacturing: Part 9
To complete the series on the Birmingham button story, I’ll describe a few of the better known firms that were associated with this great city.
Firmin & Sons est.1677 Newtown Row, Birmingham:
Firmin & Sons has been manufacturing since 1655, and is the oldest existing European manufacturing company. Starting as button makers, they are ” a designer and supplier of every form of uniform, livery or badge, and the accessories and accoutrements to go with them.” They have supplied every British monarch since Charles II.
Thomas Firmin(g) was a maker of belts from 1655 in London. Note the previously accepted date was 1677 so you will see that quoted. His firm was making buttons from early-mid 19th century, and also operated in Birmingham from 1882 and still has a 38,000-square-foot engineering factory there. Other button companies well known to collectors have become part of the Firmin group, including JR Gaunt & Son, William Dowler & Son, and Smith & Wright.
They were known for their livery buttons and also made plain guilt buttons and American Civil War buttons.
J R Gaunt & Son Ltd:
Known for their military, livery, hunt and shipping company buttons and badges.
From 2007-2010 a collection of buttons from this firm were auctioned off. The description providied by the auctioneers follows:
“The firm of J.R. Gaunt & Son was established in 1884 when john Richard Gaunt and his eldest son, Charles Frederick, left their employment with the long established London military buttonmakers Firmin & Sons to set up on their own. The firm, originally based at the intersection of Clifford Street and Furnace Lane in the Birmingham district of Lozells, prospered and began to supply badges and buttons to uniformed organisations all over the World. By 1895 the business had moved to the city’s Warstone Parade; four years later it was incorporated as a limited company and by 1905 had opened a London office in Conduit Street. After the First World War they purchased a number of other insignia manufacturers, including in 1924 Jennens & Co Ltd, the prestigious family firm of royal button and military ornament makers founded in London in the early years of the 19th century and whose buttons were made at the Jennens-owned Deritend Button Works. With the acquisition of the Jennens business Gaunts moved their London base to Warwick Street.”
The Gaunt family were involved in manufacturing from 1733 and button making from before 1767. James was the manager of Firmin’s button works before deciding to set up his own firm. Charles (1864-1939 ) took over in 1888, aged only 24 years. He filed over 100 patents. Under his leadership the firm concentrated on supplying the Empire (perhaps this is why I have seen New Zealand and Tasmanian buttons made by Gaunt.) They employed over 600 people during WW1, supplying buttons and cap badges for the Empire Armed Forces. They would come to have offices in Montreal, New York, Christchurch, Bombay as well as London.
Over the years they amalgamated with Jennens & Co (1924), Bent & Parker, W. Twigg & Co Ltd, Bent & Parker and Edward Thurkle, sword makers (1897).
In 1973 they took over Pitt & Co, then the firm left family control, being taken over by the Birmingham Mint (which had started with the purchase of plant from Boulton’s original Soho Mint, so closing a loop from button maker to button maker.) No products were made under the Gaunt name by 1993.
This company formed in 1907 by an amalgamation of several large button manufacturers, Thomas Carlyle Ltd., Harrison & Smith Ltd. and Plant, Green and Manton Ltd. to become more competitive. By 1913 they has three sites in Birmingham making buttons, buckles and stampings and employed half the Birmingham button workers. They also made buttons in London. The trademarks of the company included three domes and crossed swords, familiar to button collectors on buttons backs and cards.
It was under control of an engineering holdings firm from the 1970s. Button manufacturing may have ceased by then.
Smith, Kemp & Wright:
In 1838 John Skirrow Wright (1882-1880) found work at the Birmingham button makers, Smith & Kemp. He would become a partner in 1850, and eventually the sole proprietor. In 1861 when John Kemp left the partnership, the firm had become Smith & Wright, then Smith & Wright Ltd in 1888. (The other partner was George Smith.)
In 1990 it became part of the Firmin Group.