Taking Tradition into the Future

Our speaker in November was Tony Kelly, Senior Sales manager of Firmin and Sons, a company that was established in London in 1655 during the short lived republic of Oliver Cromwell. Thomas Firmin set up his business as a girdler (a maker of belts) in Three Kings Court off Lombard Street in the City of London, near to where the Bank of England would later be built. The company is thus therefore older than either the Bank of England or the Royal Exchange and, since the closure of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in May 2017, is now the oldest manufactory in the country.

The company was able to re-establish itself after the Great Fire of 1666 when, fortunately, much of the original equipment - e.g. anvils - survived. There is also written evidence of the company dating from this period. The 17th century saw an expansion of trade into buttons and small metalware. These were the years of the Coffee House culture, before the banks were established. Samuel Pepys' task, as Secretary of the Navy, was to regulate supplies to the Navy, including officers' uniforms. The British Empire was newly established and young officers often gained experience and promotion in the colonies. They were expected to introduce themselves to the Constable of the Tower of London who kept a record of Naval ships' movements. Cromwell's Model Army became the standing army and only the King's Guard, the Yeomen of the Guard, wore a uniform. The Coldstream Guards were a Parliamentary Regiment who had helped to restore Charles II to the throne; after which they marched through Birmingham, which had been a Parliamentary town. To this day this regiment is 'nullis secondus'.

During the restoration, mensware became very lavish and buttons were luxury items; always handmade from gold, silver-gilt or ivory. Thomas Firmin now provided buttons to young officers, whilst the ordinary soldier wore a uniform without buttons. Previously when buttons had been handmade the tailors had to make the button-holes to match the buttons. Firmin's regularised this, making buttons to standard sizes. Few of us knew that buttons are measured in 'lines' with 40 lines to an inch. Tony told us that the Queen's coachman has buttons of 60 lines.

Firmin's expanded again, producing sword belts, shoe buckles, hooks and eyes. The Empire was also expanding; with Indian, African and American colonies. As the army grew each commanding officer was given a small fund to provide uniforms for his own regiment and each wanted their own design, causing competition in regimental insignia. Red became the standard uniform colour - simply because it was cheap to produce. In contrast, blue livery was expensive. The King's livery was Red, Blue and Gold. Woollen cloth, a symbol of Britain's wealth, was used extensively as a hard-wearing material for uniforms (and is still used to fill the famous woolsack in the House of Lords). The weave and patten of the woollen cloth used for uniforms hasn't changed since the battle of Waterloo.

Firmin's also provided buttons for the Navy, including for commanding officers. Tony said that the company had provided buttons to both sides who were fighting at the battle of Waterloo and it is said that if the sniper who killed Lord Nelson had hit one of Firmin's buttons then history might have taken a different course!

During the 19th century many non military organisations, such as the Fire Brigade that was set up in Lichfield, would want their own liveries and soon the new railway companies would also need smart uniforms for their staff. The Chapel Royal choirboys each have six buttons on their tunics. The emerging Merchant Marine companies, e.g. the White Swan Line, would also create new opportunities. Firmin's first Royal Warrant was given by George II and has been renewed by successive monarchs, including our present Queen, every five years since; an exceptional record of which the company is very proud.

In 1882 the company opened their first factory in Birmingham. From the 19th to the 20th century industry peaked in the centre of Birmingham where 200 million buttons were produced every year from 1913 to 1920. In those days, button shanks were put in by hand, providing outwork for 10,000 women home-workers. They were soon to lose their jobs when the process was automated. After 100 years, the machine which does this is still working in Firmin's factory.

Other items have been added to the company's manufactory; for example deep-struck medals for the Faraday and Beethoven awards. The Household Cavalry regiments required the use of gold plate or silver gilt on their plumed helmets. The oak leaves on the guardsman's helmet, which Tony showed us, reflect Charles II and the battle of Worcester whilst the laurel leaves are later battle honours. In the civilian world, new opportunities arose when blazers - derived from the naval 'reefer' jacket - with club buttons became popular. Professional gentlemen also started to wear cuff-links and Firmin's new 'torpedo' fitting enabled the wearer to fit them single-handed.

At the G8 conference in Birmingham in September 1998 several local manufacturers including Brierley Glass and Wedgwood were invited to provide gifts for the delegates. Firmin's provided a replica set of buttons for President Clinton made to the same designs that were used by each side in the American Civil War. This set of buttons is now displayed in the Library of Congress.

In the 21st century Firmin's continues to expand, but the company now often finds it difficult to recruit new craftsmen - perhaps this is the fault of school careers officers? The work is perhaps not the most lucrative but it does provide a satisfying job. The export trade is healthy with 45% of the firm's output going abroad so, given the apparent world-wide desire for insignia, the future should be assured.

Lorna Bushell
November 2018