Museum of London unveils remarkable collection of buttons recovered from Thames

By Culture24 Staff | 23 July 2009
a photograph of a smiling man surrounded by artefact trays

Tony Pilson with his thirty-year haul of historic buttons and cufflinks recovered from the Thames foreshore. © Jamie Wiseman

The Thames Foreshore is the largest, and arguably the richest archaeological resource in the UK. Ask anyone at the Museum of London about its importance in increasing our understanding of the past and the answer will be unequivocal.

This week the Museum unveiled the latest in a long line of important acquisitions recovered from the banks of the Thames by ‘mudlarker’ Tony Pilson.

Mudlarking means searching along river banks for historical objects: originally adults and children would sell the artefacts they found for scrap, but modern mudlarkers recognise their importance in telling us about the past.

Tony has dedicated over thirty years to finding, accumulating and storing buttons, all of which came from the banks of the Thames. His latest donation features over two and a half thousand of them, dating from the late 14th to the late 19th century.

The collection includes buttons made of silver, pewter and semi-precious stones, some displaying liveries, and each offering a fascinating insight into the past.

a photograph of an artefact tray full of metal buttons

© Museum of London

“There are hundreds of them,” said Hazel Forsyth, Post Medieval Curator at the Museum of London, “decoratively cast or embossed; pewter, silver, some with semi-precious stones, coloured glass or enamels - the list is endless and all found from our own river. It really is a remarkable and hugely important find for the Museum.”

Tony’s previous donations to the museum included a collection of toys which allowed Hazel to challenge accepted notions about medieval children's lives.

“Tony’s collection of toys, some of which dated from as early as the 13th century, allowed me to write a book about medieval childhood, which led to some changes in perceptions about childhood in the medieval period,” explained Hazel.

“Before we studied Tony’s collection, which included metal figurines, miniature cannons and tiny copies of household items such as copper pans, we had very little evidence that revealed the lives of children in the medieval period. Experts didn’t believe there was anything resembling a childhood in the medieval and middle ages, but Tony’s artefacts changed all of that.”

a close up of a button inlaid with a blue stone

A blue glass button. © Museum of London

“These acquisitions are terribly important to the museum. Over 90% of our medieval metals collection comes from Mudlarkers and we have developed a special relationship with the Society of Thames Mudlarks over the years, logging finds and in many cases accepting artefacts into the collections.”

For Tony, who has been searching the foreshore since 1976, the Museum is the logical place for his finds. “It makes me so proud when I come and see the things I have found on display here in the museum,” he says. “It’s much better than keeping them locked away in my house.

“It has given me great joy to finally be able to give this collection to the Museum of London, in the hope that it encourages other Mudlarkers and metal detectors to generously donate their finds to institutions such as this.”

a close up of an artefact tray with metal buttons in it

(above) © Jamie Wiseman

Tony’s finds have also benefited the British Museum, which holds a silver wine taster he discovered, dating from 1634. Another rare find, a 15th century hand cannon, is currently on its way to the Royal Armouries collection in Leeds.

The Museum of London is now beginning the process of recording and researching the largest collection of medieval and early modern buttons in the UK. They hope to produce an online resource with small exhibition.

“The button trade in London has received little academic attention,” added Hazel, “therefore we will set up various research projects to gain insight into the social and cultural life of Londoners.”

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Would like to see this collection - is that possible that it will be on display and maybe for a tour?
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