Rupert Hardy, chairman of the North Dorset CPRE, has been exploring the long history of the Dorset button
It all goes back to Abraham Case, a soldier who fought in the Wars of Religion that ravaged Europe from the 16th to 18th centuries. He saw soldiers replace buttons on their uniforms by twisting a piece of cloth over a form and fastening it with a thread, but he may have been influenced in part by Brussels lace. He was also impressed by the skills in the buttoner’s art, seen in the work of Northern French and Belgian button makers.
He realised that Dorset had all the raw materials readily at hand: fabric, discs cut from the horns of Dorset Horn sheep and thread. Although originally from the Cotswolds, Abraham married a local girl. He set up his business in 1622 in Shaftesbury, going on to open depots in Bere Regis and other mid-Dorset villages.
The catalyst for growing demand was the change in mens’ fashions at this time, from the old doublet and hose to a more modern waistcoat and breeches – which required buttons, of course.
By the middle of the 18th century, nearly 700 women and children worked for the Case company alone, while up to 4,000 buttoners were employed in the industry around Shaftesbury and 3,000 around Blandford. The workforce were mostly outworkers; women and retired farm workers were able to make buttons from home.
In North Dorset button making was the biggest industry, albeit a cottage one, and second only to farming in employment. Tracy Chevalier’s book, Burning Bright, features a character, Maisie, who makes money from buttony.
High Tops and Knobs
The first buttons were called High Tops, and were mostly used on women’s dresses. The horn disc was covered by material and made into a conical button using a needle and thread. Flatter versions were called Dorset Knobs, and were possibly the inspiration for the local baked biscuit of that name.
In 1731 a Yorkshireman, John Clayton, was brought in to reorganise the business after a bad fire at the Bere Regis depot. He used his contacts with Birmingham wire manufacturers to switch to metal rings, which were cheaper than horn. Some of these buttons were made using wire twisted on a spindle, called Singletons. Other variations, using a ring and thread, were called Blandford Cartwheels. The town’s earlier Huguenot lace industry was by then in decline, but the button makers had found a new use for the fine lace thread.
The highest quality buttons were mounted on pink card, and exported, while seconds came on blue. The best buttoners could make a gross a day, earning three shillings and sixpence, much more than the day rate for an agricultural labourer.
The quality of Dorset buttons was noticed in London, where High Tops soon adorned the waistcoats of courtiers.
There is speculation that Charles I went to his execution wearing a waistcoat made with Dorset buttons. Much later, Queen Victoria had a dress trimmed with Dorset Knobs. Cartwheels are probably the most popular buttons made today.
Sadly, the Industrial Revolution destroyed many cottage industries, including Dorset’s button-making.
Benjamin Saunders began making machined buttons from his London workshop and took out a patent in 1813 for his fabric buttons. The death knell finally came with John Aston’s patented button-making machine which was demonstrated to great effect at the Great Exhibition of 1851.
There was no way the Dorset buttoners could compete.
There was acute distress across mid-Dorset, and from Shaftesbury alone 350 families were sent to the colonies at government expense.
The situation had been made worse by the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1840 and the arrival of cheap food from the colonies, bringing in its wake a long-lasting depression in rural Dorset in the late 19th century.
Farmers were forced to mechanise to compete and laid off thousands of agricultural labourers. Thomas Hardy’s tragic novels of rural hardship were based in this period, and the effects can be seen in the parish censuses of the time. At Winterborne Tomson, where I live, there were 53 inhabitants in 1841 but by 1891 this had halved. Those who left either emigrated or went to work in the factories of the North.
New buttons for MPs
Florence, the Dowager Lady Lees, tried to resurrect the button industry, learning from women who had been button makers long before. In 1908 she set up a small business making Parliamentary buttons for Dorset MPs in the constituency colours, but it died with the onset of World War 1.
Today Dorset buttons are a heritage craft, but there has been some renewed interest – in particular Anna McDowell of Henry’s Buttons, near Shaftesbury, aims to help keep the history and skill of the Dorset button industry alive, organising workshops and talks.
There is a permanent display of Dorset buttons at the Gold Hill Museum in Shaftesbury, and I recommend Thelma Johns’ book Dorset Buttons: Hand Stitched in Dorset for over 300 Years.