Museum of London Unveils Huge Collection of Buttons

The Museum of London today unveiled one of the largest collections of medieval and early modern buttons found in the UK.

Table of buttonsOver two and a half thousand buttons of all shapes and sizes ranging in date from the late 14th to the late 19th century have been generously given to the museum by Tony Pilson. Pilson has dedicated 30 years to finding, accumulating and storing the buttons, all of which come from the banks of the Thames. A close-up of one of the buttons Pilson’s collection includes examples of buttons made of silver, pewter and semi-precious stones. He brought the objects to the Museum of London in a large suitcase and an assortment of other bags. He explained to the CBA that he often finds them well-preserved in the foreshore mud. They often come out fairly clean he said.

Pilson was a founder member of the Society of Mudlarks, an organisation which still operates today, searching the foreshore under license from the Port of London Authority. He said, I hope that [my donation] encourages other Mudlarks and metal detectorists to generously donate their finds to institutions such as this. The main aim is to preserve, protect and learn about London’s vital and colourful history.

Given that Pilson’s collection is a microcosm of 500 years of London’s social history it’s remarkable that these objects aren’t more popular among collectors. I collected all the things that people weren’t interested in he said. However, some of the artefacts are very special indeed, such as livery buttons bearing family or corporation crests and buttons with makers’ names, initials and sometimes even addresses.

Hazel Forsyth, Senior Curator of the Post-Medieval Collections said, We’ve started to record each piece and longer term, we hope to produce an online resource with a small exhibition. The proposed online resource, the first of its kind in the world, would allow scholars and the general public to explore this vast collection of buttons, essentially creating a searchable online typology.

Forsyth said that the buttons were most likely to have ended up in the Thames as people who were getting on and off wherrys, or walking beside the river, would snag their clothing and the items would fall into the river, only to be unearthed by Mudlarks like Pilson hundreds of years later.

The Museum of London has a special series of events running through the Festival of British Archaeology entitled Thames Treasures: London’s river revealed. Events are being run every day from 28 July to 2nd August.