Mudlarking: Buttons with Backstories

By Jason Sandy

metal buttons from thames river

How many times have you lost a button off a favorite coat or shirt? It’s so frustrating, isn’t it?! As you can imagine, people inevitably snared and lost buttons as they worked or got in and out of boats along the River Thames. Over the past 40 years, mudlarks have found thousands of buttons on the exposed riverbed which range from medieval to modern times.

Buttons serve a practical purpose, and it’s hard to imagine life without them. Not only are buttons functional, they were often highly decorated, beautiful works of art and craftsmanship. Researching buttons can tell us a lot about styles and fashions throughout the ages. Buttons are also wonderful personal items because they tell us a lot about the people who wore them. They represent all members of society—from policemen, firemen, postmen, train conductors, customs officers, and bankers to uniformed servicemen and women such as sailors, pilots, soldiers, and household guards who protected the kings and queens of England. Although these people are long gone, their brass buttons have been perfectly preserved by the Thames mud and remind us of the great men and women who bravely served their country and their city.

button found on london foreshoreButtons were also worn as status symbols and to demonstrate one’s wealth. Some were made of gold or silver and set with semi-precious gemstones. Others were produced with elaborate and extravagant motifs. One of my favorite buttons I found in the Thames (above) is ornately decorated with heart-shaped cyclamen leaves and flowers from the 19th century.




In 2020, mudlark Florrie Evans discovered an exquisite pewter button (above left) depicting King Edward VI, son of King Henry VIII and Jane Seymour. Upon Henry’s death in 1547, Edward became king when he was only nine years old. Unfortunately, he died six years later in 1553. When Florrie found the button, she recognized Edward because there had been a similar 16th-century portrait of him (above center) hanging in the fine art gallery where she worked. The portrait was painted by Flemish artist and court painter, William Scrots. According to the Museum of London, the button was probably produced in the 18th or early 19th centuries and worn on a school uniform of Christ’s Hospital, which was founded by Edward VI in 1552, the year before he died. Even today, school children at Christ’s Hospital wear Tudor-styled uniforms adorned with buttons depicting Edward VI.

Following the wedding of King Charles II and the Portuguese princess, Catherine of Braganza, in 1662, crowds gathered along the River Thames to welcome them as they entered the city by boat in a sensational, floating pageant called the “Aqua Triumphalis.” To commemorate this joyous celebration of love, buttons and cufflinks decorated with a symbol of two hearts surmounted by a crown (above right) were worn by Londoners.  Although bed-hopping Charles had at least 17 illegitimate children with numerous mistresses, the crown and hearts remained a symbol of love and marriage for many years.

sunburst button from thames river

As I was crawling on my hands and knees along the exposed riverbed on a sunny Sunday morning, I was pleasantly surprised when I spotted an 18th century button decorated with a face in the shape of the sun (above). It was produced for the Sun Insurance Company, which was established by Charles Povey in 1706. Povey was a businessman who survived the Great Fire of London in 1666. He witnessed firsthand the devastation and destruction caused by the fire. Before the Great Fire, people and businesses did not have insurance. As a result, they lost everything! Povey started the first insurance company to protect people’s livelihoods and to help them get back on their feet again after a disaster. It’s amazing that the company was started as a direct result of the Great Fire of London and is the oldest insurance company in the world. The company is now called RSA Insurance Group. Many historic houses and buildings in the UK still have the sun logo on them because they were previously insured by the Sun Insurance Company.

The 18th century was the golden age of button making in Britain because of the high demand. Georgian men and women were dressed to impress from head to toe. The most ostentatious Georgians were the Macaronis, Dandies, Fops, and Popinjays who were excessively vain and completely obsessed with their appearance, clothes, and hairstyles. I absolutely adore the Georgians because of their extravagant and eccentric fashion and decadent, flamboyant lifestyles. They worn decorative buttons on their coats, waistcoats, and breeches. The buttons they lost in the Thames are evidence of the popular fashions of that time period.

antique buttons from england

Over the years, I have found numerous buttons from the 18th century which are decorated with elaborate geometric and floral motifs (above). “Dandy” buttons were intentionally oversized to create an unmissable fashion statement. Some of the large Georgian buttons were purposely designed to dazzle in the sunlight and attract the ladies’ attention.

button with letters found in thames

While I was mudlarking along the historic docks in East London, I discovered a pewter button decorated with a large heart formed by a double band of pellets and subdivided into four sections containing the letters V E I C (above). After a bit of research, I discovered that it is a uniform button from the infamous East India Company. I found it at a location where they had docked their ships centuries ago to unload the precious cargo from the Far East.

Although a heart is depicted on the button, the company has a dark history. In 1600, Queen Elizabeth I granted the East India Company a royal charter. By establishing a trade monopoly with China and the Indian subcontinent, the company grew into a massive organization. At its height, the company handled half of the world’s trade, importing cotton, silk, indigo dye, salt, saltpetre, tea, pepper, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, and opium. To increase their profits, the company ruthlessly exploited and plundered the natural resources of the Indian subcontinent under the threat of its private army of nearly 260,000 soldiers, which was twice the size of the British Army at that time.

Following the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the East India Company was dissolved, and power was transferred to the British government, which established the British Raj. In 1876, Queen Victoria was proclaimed the Empress of India. Finally in 1947, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh gained their independence from centuries of British rule, which began with land grabs and military force from the powerful East India Company. This 18th century uniform button revealed a controversial chapter in British history.

english livery button with wyvern dragon

A few years ago, I found a 19th-century gilded livery button depicting a wyvern, which is a mythical creature that is half dragon and half serpent (below). Typically decorated with a twisted rope under a symbol, livery buttons were worn by household servants who provided a domestic service to wealthy English nobles and aristocrats. Gilded buttons were often worn by boatmen, coachmen, and upper servants to indicate their connection to a specific household. Based on the wyvern symbol, I believe this button was probably worn by a servant to the Leighton or Rich family in the 19th century. There were several Leightons who served in the Houses of Parliament, which are located beside the Thames. I wonder if the button was lost by a boatman who was rowing his master up the river?

london sailor buttons with anchors

I always enjoy discovering sailors’ buttons (above) on the Thames foreshore. Each button represents a different sailor and their incredible stories of conquest, adventure, warfare, heroic victories, and devastating defeat. For centuries, sailors, mariners, and naval officers lived along the river in London. Some of the greatest ships in the British Navy were built along the Thames. In the 16th century, King Henry VIII established vast ship building dockyards along the Thames in Deptford and Woolwich (southeast London). Henry’s famous flagship called “Henri Grace a Dieu” was built in Woolwich. The English warships made in Deptford helped defeat the Spanish Armada in 1588. The famous British admiral, Horatio Nelson, used several warships (built in Deptford Dockyard) in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. If only these buttons could speak and reveal the personal stories and experiences of the sailors!

RAF button found in london river

When I picked up this Royal Air Force fighter (RAF) pilot’s button from World War II (bottom left), I could almost hear the air raid sirens blaring, sharp blasts from the anti-aircraft guns, the low hum of approaching German bombers, and the deep thuds of exploding bombs in the distance, coming precariously closer. During the Battle of Britain (1940–41), the Royal Air Force defended Britain against large-scale attacks by the German Luftwaffe. The British RAF was grossly outnumbered, but their bravery and sheer determination defeated the Luftwaffe and prevented them from establishing a foothold in Britain. Over 540 RAF pilots and aircrew were killed, and over 43,000 civilians were killed during the bombing raids.

Some of these brass RAF buttons have a compass concealed inside them. In case the fighter pilot crashed behind enemy lines, they could use the secret compass to help them escape. This RAF button is a poignant reminder of the brave and courageous pilots who sacrificed their lives to protect our freedom and independence.

Air Raid Button London

A few years ago, mudlark Nick Stevens discovered a uniform button (above) with the initials ARP which stand for Air Raid Precautions. This button was worn by a member of this organization responsible for the protection of Londoners from the danger of air raids in World War II. The ARP consisted of wardens, messengers, ambulance drivers, and rescue parties who liaised with local police and fire brigades. Starting in 1939, they also enforced the “black out” of all windows in homes and businesses. During the London Blitz, the ARP managed the air raid sirens, directed civilians to bomb shelters, and reported bombing incidents. Renamed the Civil Defence Service in 1941, approximately 1.5 million men and women serviced in the organization during the war. Unfortunately, almost 7,000 workers were killed during the Nazi bombing raids in Britain.

fly or suspender buttons found in thames river

The most common buttons mudlarks find in the River Thames are “fly” or “suspender” buttons from the 19th and early 20th centuries (above). They are easy to recognize because they are circular and have four holes in the center. Conveniently, the name and address of the clothes maker or business appear around the perimeter of the button. A few years ago mudlark Malcolm Russell discovered a Victorian fly button with the inscription: BLACKETT, WEST SMITHFIELD ST (below). According to Malcolm’s research, the Blackett family originated in North East England and moved to London during the Industrial Revolution. In a directory from 1793, T. Blackett was listed as a tailor and salesman based at 21 West Smithfield. In the 19th century, the business was located at 31 West Smithfield and was managed by James Blackett who produced the characteristic blue and white striped aprons for the butchers working in the neighboring Smithfield Market. From the Middle Ages, Smithfield Market was the main meat market located in Central London. It is still the largest wholesale meat market in the United Kingdom and one of the largest of its kind in Europe.

blacket button london

Veteran mudlark Tony Pilson has amassed an astonishing collection of over 2,500 buttons after mudlarking for more than 30 years. Some of his earliest buttons are from the 14th century. In 2009, Tony generously donated his entire button collection to the Museum of London where they are currently being researched. The collection includes buttons of all shapes and sizes made of silver, pewter, and semi-precious gemstones. Each button represents a different person who lived or traveled through London over the centuries. Buttons are wonderful little time capsules which give us a glimpse into the lives of the people who wore them and the fashions of bygone ages.

Mudlarking on the Thames Foreshore requires a permit. Learn about rules for mudlarking in London ›

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This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine September/October 2021 issue.

1 comment

Hi I just recently found something that appears to be very very old . It looks like a button made a stone or rock and it has detailed engravings .

Maritza Vega June 03, 2023

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