A BRIEF RESUME OF THE
BIRMINGHAM BUTTON TRADE
Contributed by Roger Keight
Birmingham was long known as 'Toymaker of the World', 'toys' being things of fashion such as buckles, buttons, snuff boxes, etc., and by 1759 about 20,000 people were involved in the manufacture of 'toys', with 8,000 of them working in the buckle trade. Then in the 1700's buckles began to go out of fashion to be replaced by metal-buttons. For many years a man named John Taylor made a fortune from gilding metal buttons at his factory, first in Crooked Lane off Dale End, and then in Union Street, leaving a private residence in Bordesley, extensive landed estates in Yardley, Sheldon and Coleshill, and a fortune of about £200,000 in his Will when he died in 1775. It is interesting to note that this same John Taylor teamed up with a Sampson Lloyd II to form Birmingham's first Bank, Taylor's & Lloyds, now trading as Lloyds T.S.B.
In 1749 another well-known man was taken into partnership in a flourishing Birmingham button making business. This man expanded the business to include all sorts of plated goods, silver, and jewellery, and eventually set-up the Soho Manufactory on Hockley Brook in Handsworth. When he died in 1809 he left £150,000 in his Will. His name was Matthew Boulton
Between 1770 and 1800, twenty-one patents were granted for improvements in the fastening of clothes, nineteen of them originating in Birmingham. During this time it was calculated that each operation was so simple that one button would pass through fifty pairs of hands, and each pair of hands would shift up to 1,000 buttons a day. Even children of 6 or 8 could do many of the jobs and could earn from 10d. to 8/- a week.
Initially buttons were covered with a thin layer of gold leaf, or were plated in a similar way with silver but towards the end of the century a method had been found to dip the buttons which covered the buttons with a minimum layer of precious metal and so was cheaper. However gilt metal buttons were dependant on whims of fashion just as buckles had been before them, and the fashions changed again at the beginning of the Victorian period. Some metal button producers continued to manufacture their products for uniforms and fancy wear, but others changed to the production of brass, jet, ivory, tortoiseshell, pearl, bone, horn, and glass buttons, many of which were then covered with cloth, silk, linen, and also buttons made from 'Corezo Nuts' from Central America. These 'Nuts' were a beautiful white colour, rather like ivory, and they could be easily turned on a lathe and then be dyed in numerous shades.
The button trade employed many people, particularly in the factories where a division of labour was necessary to cover the various processes. However, there was one type of button which could not be produced in this way and that was the pearl button. Parliament had banned the import of pearl buttons at around the end of the 18th century and Birmingham had become an ideal place for pearl button manufacture. The material, which was generally obtained from mother-of-pearl, Abalone, and good Mollusc shells, was very fragile and so it had to be carefully worked by hand. For this reason the more robust 'Yellow-lip' Oyster shell from the west coast of Australia was greatly preferred whenever it was available. Because of the fragile disposition of the material the pearl button industry was only to be found in small workshops and these were manned by highly skilled workshop craftsmen and were run by small masters.
Yet other materials started to be used for buttons. It was not unusual to find yards at the back of button manufacturers full of hoof and horn imported from overseas, the whole lot heaving with maggots and smelling vile, and steam would exude from the doorways carrying the same foul smell. Button manufacturers operating at this time included William Dowler & Sons Ltd (1774) of 11-15 Brearley Street, Firmin & Sons (1677) of Newtown Row, and W.Elliott & Son in Regent Street.
By 1865 machines were beginning to be introduced into the button trade and so only about 6,000 people worked in the various branches of the button trade compared with about 17,000 in 1830, and many of these people were women. Even with machines it still took about 14 girls and women working with incredible rapidity to put together a single button. These buttons were then attached to a piece of card, fourteen buttons on each, and one girl was capable of sewing 3,600 buttons onto cards in one day. Each card was sold at 1d or 11/2d each. Pearl buttons however, because of their frailty, continued to be made entirely by highly skilled craftsmen who made up one third of the 6,000 employed in the whole button trade, and who could earn between £2 and £4 a week compared with the 7/- to 9/- a week that the women were earning.
Then, because of increased competition from abroad a group of leading button manufacturers got together in 1908 to form Buttons Ltd, in exactly the same way and for the same reasons that gun manufacturers had formed the B.S.A.. Buttons Ltd. operated from two factories, one in Portland Street, Aston, and a smaller one in Warstone Lane in the Jewellery Quarter of Birmingham.
A FEW OF THE BUTTON MANUFACTURERS IN BIRMINGHAM:-
FIRMIN & SONS, Newtown Row, Birmingham 6. (est.1677)
WILLIAM DOWLER & SONS Ltd., 11-15 Brearley Street, Birmingham 19. (est.1774)
BUTTONS LTD., Portland Street, Aston (est.1908), and Warstone Lane, Birmingham 18.
GEORGE HOOK & SONS, Villa Straat, Lozells, Aston.
T.A.CARLYLE, Warstone Lane, Birmingham 18
MATTHEW BOULTON, Soho Manufactory, Handsworth, Aston.
JOHN TAYLOR, Crooked Lane (off Dale End)
W.ELLIOTT & SON
This short resume is taken from a number of sources including:-
'A History of Birmingham' by Chris Upton
'Birmingham, The Great Working City' by Carl Chinn
'Birmingham Yesterday' by Victor J.Price
'The Making Of Victorian Birmingham' by Victor J.Price
and was prepared for family use by Roger Keight in February 2000.
Roger Keight [email protected]
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