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Maureen Rose, Button Maker

October 15, 2018
by the gentle author

‘Every button tells a story’

On the ground floor of the house where Charles Dickens grew up at 22 Cleveland St in Fitzrovia is a wonderful button shop that might easily be found within the pages of a Dickens novel. Boxes of buttons line the walls from floor to ceiling, some more than a hundred years old, and at the centre sits Maureen Rose, presiding regally over her charges like the queen of the buttons.

“A very nice gentleman – well turned out – stood in my doorway and asked, ‘Charles Dickens doesn’t live here anymore, does he?’” Maureen admitted to me with a sly grin. “I said, ‘No, he doesn’t.’ And he said, ‘Would you have his forwarding address?’ So I said, ‘No, but should I get it, I’ll put a note in the window.’”

Taylor’s Buttons & Belts is the only independent button shop in the West End, where proprietor Maureen sits making buttons every day. It is a cabinet of wonders where buttons and haberdashery of a century ago may still be found. “These came with the shop,” explained Maureen proudly, displaying a handful of Edwardian oyster and sky blue crochetted silk buttons.

“Every button tells a story,” she informed me, casting her eyes affectionately around her exquisite trove. “I have no idea how many there are!” she declared, rolling her eyes dramatically and anticipating my next question. “I like those Italian buttons with cherries on them, they are my favourites,” she added as I stood speechless in wonder.

“Let me show you how it works,” she continued, swiftly cutting circles of satin, placing them in her button-making press with nimble fingers, adding tiny metal discs and then pressing the handle to compress the pieces, before lifting a perfect satin covered button with an expert flourish.

It was a great delight to sit at Maureen’s side as she worked, producing an apparently endless flow of beautiful cloth-covered buttons. Customers came and went, passers-by stopped in their tracks to peer in amazement through the open door, and Maureen told me her story.

“My late husband, Leon Rose, first involved me in this business. He bought it from the original Mr Taylor when it was in Brewer St. The business is over a hundred years old with only two owners in that time. It was founded by the original Mr Taylor and then there was Mr Taylor’s son, who retired in his late eighties when he sold it to my husband.

My husband was already in the button business, he started his career in a button factory learning how to make buttons. His uncle had a factory in Birmingham – it was an old family business – and he got in touch with Leon to say, ‘There’s a gentleman in town who is retiring and you should think about taking over his business.’

Leon inherited an elderly employee who did not like the fact that the business had been sold. She had been sitting making buttons for quite some time and she said she would like to retire. So at first my mother went in to help, when he needed someone for a couple of hours a day, and then – of course – there was me!

I was a war baby and my mother had a millinery business in Fulham. She was from Cannon St in Whitechapel and she opened her business at nineteen years old. She got married when she was twenty-one and she ran her business all through the war. As a child, I used to sit in the corner and watch her make hats. She used to say very regularly to me, ‘Watch me Maureen, otherwise one day you’ll be sorry.’ But I did not take up millinery. I did not have an interest in it and I regret that now. She was very talented and she could have taught me. She had done an apprenticeship and she knew how to make hats from scratch. She made all her own buckram shapes.

I helped her for while, I did a lot of buying for her from West End suppliers in Great Marlborough St where there were a lot of millinery wholesalers. It was huge then but today I do not think there is anything left. There was big fashion industry in the West End and it has all gone. It was beautiful. We used to deal with lovely couture houses like Hardy Amies and Norman Hartnell. I used to go to see their collections, it was glamorous.

I only make buttons to order, you send me the fabric – velvet, leather or whatever – and I will make you whatever you want. We used to do only small orders for tailors for suits, two fronts and eight cuff buttons. Nowadays I do them by the hundred. I do not think Leon ever believed that was possible.

Anybody can walk into my shop and order buttons.  I also make buttons for theatre, television, film and fashion houses. I do a lot of bridal work. I am the only independent button shop in the West End. I get gentleman who buy expensive suits that come with cheap buttons and they arrive here to buy proper horn buttons to replace them.

My friends ask me why I have not retired, but I enjoy it. What would I do at home? I have seen what happens to my friends who have retired. They lose the plot. I meet nice people and it is interesting. I will keep going as long as I can and I would like my son Mark to take it over. He is in IT but this is much more interesting. People only come to me to buy buttons for something nice, although I rarely get to see the whole garment.

I had a customer who was getting married and she loved Pooh bear. She wanted buttons with Pooh on them. She embroidered them herself with a beaded nose for the bear and sent the material to me. I made the buttons, which were going down the back of the dress. I said, ‘Please send me a picture of your wedding dress when it is finished.’ She sent me a picture of the front. So I never saw Pooh bear.

A lady stood in the doorway recently and asked me, ‘Do you sell the buttons?’ I replied, ‘No, it’s a museum.’ She walked away, I think she believed me.”

‘Presiding regally over her charges like the queen of the buttons’

Cutting a disc of satin

Placing it in the mould

Putting the mould into the press

Edwardian crochetted silk buttons

“I like those Italian buttons with cherries on them, they are my favourites”

Dickens’ card while resident, when Cleveland St was known as Norfolk St (reproduced courtesy of Dan Calinescu)

You may also like to read about

At Charles Dickens’ Childhood Home

17 Responses leave one →
  1. Jill Wilson permalink
    October 15, 2018

    Wow! Fantastic stuff… and guess what I was doing most of yesterday – making buttons! But without Maureen’s handy press so I have got sore thumbs today. I will definitely visit her when I have the chance…

  2. James Wyburd permalink
    October 15, 2018

    Spitalsfield Life at its best. How do you find find such wonderful people?

  3. Carolyn Badcock permalink
    October 15, 2018

    What a delightful story about yet another talented Londoner.

    Well done again, gentle author.

  4. October 15, 2018

    Maureen is doing a wonderful job with her beautiful buttons. How inspiring to live in Dicken’s house! This is really a forgotten art. Valerie

  5. John Barrett permalink
    October 15, 2018

    Maureen Rose and remembering Leon so many skills by you, how many in stock ?perhaps a million all full of history. Dickens card is shown he was a short hand writer. now we know how he so prolific. Thanks GA you pulled a nice rabbit from a top hat Poet John in Shirehampton Bristol

  6. October 15, 2018

    Lovely to see an old trade still flourishing. I will definitely visit.

  7. October 15, 2018

    GA, you always find JUST what we need. Love the story of Maureen, and seeing her unique
    environment. That trade sign of the button would lure me in, from a block away. And the towering
    button boxes — Better than candy. I had the most irresistible desire to spend an overnight in the button shop, going through the various boxes (I promise to put everything back in the right spot!)
    with an old phonograph playing, and a cocktail shaker at hand.
    Ah, such dreams.

  8. Leila, Cumber permalink
    October 15, 2018

    Such a fascinating story and history. Maureen – keep going. You are an unique treasurer.

    Leila

  9. Edward permalink
    October 15, 2018

    At ‘only independent button shop in the West End’, I initially bristled, ‘What about The Button Queen in Marylebone Lane?’ Turns out it relocated to Pembrokeshire in December 2017, after 65 years in London. All button fanciers, flock to Maureen’s from now on then.

  10. Barbara Hague permalink
    October 15, 2018

    My grandmother was born and bred in Spitalfields (surname Harper).
    When I knew her, her surname was Walker and they lived in Mile End; Lear Street behind Mile End Station.
    She told me she used to work from home sewing buttons on cards. On the census she was a hat and bonnet maker. Her parents had been potato merchants in Spitalfields Market – quite a change of occupation.

  11. Akkers permalink
    October 15, 2018

    Another great story – I was taken back to my childhood going through my Nan and Mums button boxes. I am definitely making a beeline to Maureen’s the next time I am in the area.

  12. pauline taylor permalink
    October 15, 2018

    I so much enjoyed reading this and was really amused by the story of men who buy cheap suits and have hand made buttons put on them, Well the buttons always make an outfit don’t they so they are on to a good thing!
    Lovely memories for me too of my mother’s button box, I loved sorting them all out when trapped indoors by wet cold weather, and I still have many of them to this day, I am definitely a button hoarder; I can’t bear to part with attractive buttons so I just hoard them.

  13. Helen Breen permalink
    October 15, 2018

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, another great story, thank you!

    I thought that the only existing house in London where Dickens lived was site of the Dickens Museum on Doughty Street. Interesting.

    Also, I enjoyed reading about Maureen and her button business. A few years ago I needed a set of buttons for a jacket I had. I was amazed at how difficult it was to find any store that actually SOLD buttons. Years ago we had several Windsor Button Shops around Boston – but no more. But so few folks sew these days I guess.

    All the best to Maureen…

  14. David Shaffer permalink
    October 15, 2018

    Made me think of Jack Rosenbaum, who made buttons on Fashion Street….

  15. Vivienne Cuff permalink
    October 15, 2018

    I love this. When I visit, I am keen to see if she has any old glass buttons.

  16. Greg Tingey permalink
    October 16, 2018

    Ah, I shall have to go there, rather than Button Queen now?

  17. Audrey permalink
    October 30, 2018

    Maureen you are a legend! I love buttons can I do some work experience please??

    Best wishes

    Audrey

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