29th May 2009. Buttoned-Up!

‘One has no great hopes from Birmingham, I always say there is something direful in the sound’-Mrs Elton in Jane Austen’s, Emma. (1)

In a later age however the products of the Midlands’ City were honoured Today in 2009 when The Bank of England announced that Matthew Boulton and James Watt would appear on a new £50 note. They would also appear on stamps.

£50 Front - one specimen

£50 Front.


£50 Back.





Boulton had no formal scientific training, but had acquired to be a success, sufficient knowledge, allied to a quick apprehension, practical application and ‘a nice mechanical feeling’, as it was said. Basically he worked hard and had natural nous and talent.

Buttons, brass manufacturing along with a wide range of metal goods were the staple of 18th and 19thc Birmingham and the Black Country: ‘Brummagen Ware’.

Boulton once the partner of James Watt, made small, relatively valuable articles, called ‘toys’, such as buckles along with fashionable, highly polished steel buttons.(2)

Mechanisation of button-making, brought high availability, when many manufacturers were moving from brooches, buckles and clasps after shoestrings became popular for tying.

This increased efficiency drove the hand-made button-makers of Shaftesbury, Dorset to dire straits, with distress and starvation, causing 350 families to emigrate to the Colonies.

Birmingham thrived despite being far from sea-ports in having access to the coal and iron-ore of Staffordshire and Warwickshire, and by being served by an extensive canal system. By 1779 via the Wolverhampton Canal it could now ‘export’ to Bristol and Hull.

Of the twenty-one patents granted for improved buttons between 1770-1800, nineteen came form Birmingham. The trade also benefited from the fashion for large buttons on long tailcoats, breeches buttoned at the knee, and gaiters buttoned throughout their length, a fashion to continue into the 1830.s.

It was a trade extended with buttons of cloth, then silk patented by William Elliott and the linen of John Aston, though metal and pearl were the staple.(3) 

No wonder Mr. Toots in Dickens’ Dombey and Son was described as a ‘blaze of jewellery and buttons!’ 

However technology ever in flux saw the zip-fastener by the 20thc eventually making inroads into fastenings, superseding button-hooks on women’s high boots-though not generally adopted for women’s fashions until the 1930.s-and buttons on men’s trousers.

Conversation Piece of Boulto, Watt and also Murdoch all involved in early steam inventions.

Boulton, Watt and also Murdoch, all involved in early steam inventions. William Bloye (1956).

There is a ‘Conversation Piece’ in Birmingham of  bronzes of Boulton (d.1809), Watt (d.1819) and William Murdoch (d.1839) of the Soho Foundry, Birmingham.

(1) This prejudice against trade lingered into the 20thc when the fictional Dormers disliked the idea of their daughter marrying into buttons and disinherited her. (D. L. Sayers: Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club.

(2) Lloyd and Taylors Bank was started in Birmingham in 1765 by John Taylor a button manufacturer and Sampson Lloyd II an ironmaster.

(3) Patented 1825, 1837 and 1841.

Ref: wikipedia.org/james_watt [and] matthew_boulton.

Ref: bankofengland.co.uk/current £50-note/Image.

Ref: speel.me.uk/Image of Sculpture.

Ref: Buttons from the James Luckcock, (jeweller and button-maker) Collection.



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About colindunkerley

My name is Colin Dunkerley who having spent two years in the Royal Army Pay Corps ploughed many a barren industrial furrow until drawn to the 'chalk-face' as a teacher, now retired. I have spent the last 15 years researching all aspects of life in Britain since Roman times.

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