Just a Button . . .


The Bedford Button – Courtesy of Joe Tilt

‘Just a button’ is how Joe Tilt described one of his recent finds when writing on a detecting forum. In a way he was apologising to the members for ‘only’ finding a button. There was no need. His find was much more interesting than a hammered coin or Roman brooch where information is sparse or non-existent. The humble button spoke volumes and told us a lot about our recent social history.

Today we have Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOS) but in the middle 1800’s we had reformatory schools, a way to provide care for children involved in criminal or anti-social behaviour. In later times these young people were referred to as ‘juvenile delinquents’. It was a humble die-stamped two-piece copper-alloy button from an item of reformatory clothing Joe had unearthed.

Bedford Reformatory School, a penal institution for young offenders, was opened in 1857, with room for 30 boys. Its purpose was to provide an alternative to prison. The inscription BEDFORD REFORMATORY is surrounded around a beehive (called a skep) surrounded by flying bees and has a simple looped wire shank, not back-marked. Similar depictions of bees flying around the skep –   symbolising industry, diligence and effort and the concept that work is rewarding, can be found on many late 18th century tokens.


In this hobby you meet like-minded people  . . . but I must single out one person who always finds something to interest me . . . he is not only very knowledgeable but also very unassuming. I have just read his article in The Searcher about the button I found . . .  he made it so interesting . . . he also sent a complimentary copy of the magazine and that says it all. Of course, who could it be but John Winter!

Detectorist Joe Tilt


Indeed, detectorist Dave Derby found a similar button in Northamptonshire, which I have mentioned before, but it is worth a reprise. He calls it his ‘Bad Boys’ Button’. I find it ironic that the back plate should bear the legend EXTRA RICH QUALITY. 

Tiffield was founded in 1855 … or 1856, depending upon which research items you pin your faith, and is a good example of a Reform School that received boys from all over the country, and for various misdemeanours. The length of sentence was harsh – such as three years for stealing boots, the same for a chicken, and five years for stealing eight eggs.


Mrs. John writes “When I was a member of the detectorista I used to collect four-holed buttons, when most detectorists regard them as hedge fodder? For one thing, they can often be an nteresting clue to our social history … like the Wilts Asylum button I found in a Buckinghamshire field … how it got there is another story!”

The Wiltshire County Lunatic Asylum, later Roundway Hospital, was opened on 19th September 1851 for pauper lunatics, paid for by their parish. It cost £20,663 and could take 250 patients, although it was too small from the start and there were new buildings and extensions in nearly every decade, apart for the 1940s. The hospital eventually covered a very large site but in line with national policy a decision was taken to close it in 1989.

Lynda ( Mrs John ) cleaning the buttons. Notice the simple tools she uses and the absence of any solvents, lemon juice, tumbler, oils, electrolysis machine or other intrusive methods. A face mask is essential for a lot of dust is generated.

8 thoughts on “Just a Button . . .

  1. Very interesting article, buttons are important as you can build a time line also a good indicator of what’s been happening on the land.l recently email a Saville row shop which has been a gentleman’s tailors for 150years , there name was on the button, they informed me that the button was fron a WW1 officers waist coat.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I remember sending Lynda a button from the goldfields area here in Australia.
    The only reference to the Tailor i could find was in The Government Gazette.
    He was fined for under paying a 14 year old and was told to reduce his weekly hours to 56.


  3. detectorista ..Hmmm.. I love that term John..

    On this side of the pond, we tend to look for military buttons… I had no idea that there were reformatory buttons..

    Very interesting read indeed

    Thank you



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