Waterloo 1815

Reading Time: 3 minutes

David Mahony, Director of PCPT Architects and member of the JQDT Board,
looks back at an intriguing role the Jewellery Quarter had in the Battle of Waterloo.

Two years ago Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter remembered Wellington’s Battle
of Vittoria (1813) from the Peninsula War because of the eponymous street.
Then last year Chamberlain.  Now for 1815 we look at a curious role that the
town, or more precisely the Quarter, played in the Battle of Waterloo.

In 1815 the quarter as the place of industry we might be familiar with,
really only existed in a part to the south of St Paul’s Church and up the
hill to St Philip’s where there were 114 silversmith, 92 button makers, 67
steel toy and ornament makers and a dozen buckle makers hanging on.  In the
part further north that we now think of as the Jewellery Quarter, there were
fields and houses ‘as rural, as bright, and as fresh as any part of the
glorious landscape upon which one looks from the heights of Malvern’.

A contemporary homily notes that ‘it is buttons that make Birmingham rather
than Birmingham makes buttons’.  Matthew Boulton in 1795 says ‘… I am an
old button maker’ and with the fashion and practicalities for thick long
coats, not least favoured by the Le petit Caporal himself, buttons were a
necessity for any army.  As the British Army was still, mainly, a collection
of household troops retained, fitted out and proudly hosted by the local
nobility, the instance recorded by Shena Mason (Jewellery Making in
Birmingham) of Lord Aylesford asking Boulton to arbitrate in his complaint
about the quality of the gilding on his regiment’s buttons tells us much
about the times and – with Boulton’s insistence that ‘excellence rather than
cheapness should be our principle ….’, about ourselves

So the scene is set for battle or farce or fantasy.  Susanna Clarke’s novel
on the period Jonathon Strange and Mr Morrell describes it (although not
unfortunately much is included in last Sunday night’s episode – blink and
you will miss it!) but it is Wellington’s own version of the tale which we
rely on, taken from those who heard him recount it as a party piece at the
Marchioness of Downside’s, some years later.

……  out of the thick of battle comes a small man riding a cob.  Every
now and then the Duke sees the man in the smoke, and at last, having no body
to send to a regiment (he has lost so many aides-de-camp), he hollered for
this little fellow and to charge him to carry a message.  The Duke takes the
man’s card and the historian Elizabeth Longford reports the Duke as saying:
‘An order for Blinks and Blinks?  I am afraid not, but would you do me the
service of riding to that gentleman there and telling him to refuse his
right flank’.  Cob-man is a travelling salesman for a Birmingham button
manufacturer who, Clarke speculates, had been ‘wandering about getting
orders for buttons on the battlefield of Waterloo – I had to have him in the

The tale goes on to recount how ‘cob-man’ did this and other service and
later the Duke, on a visit to Birmingham, looked up the firm but ‘cob-man’
was travelling in Ireland.  However, they did meet and the Duke secured the
Brummy a fine job at the Royal Mint.  Please let it be true!

The last word on buttons at Waterloo – and it very nearly was – is reserved
for Lieutenant Donald MacKenzie:
‘A bullet struck one of the buttons of my jacket, which it indented, thus
however turning the direction of the ball which ran along the breast,
cutting the skin and escaping through my clothes on the right side; the
button which saved my life is still preserved.’

Excellence rather than cheapness should be our principle..

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