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Maureen Rose, Button Maker

May 17, 2024
by the gentle author

Some tickets are available for The Gentle Author’s Tour this Saturday 18th May

‘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

5 Responses leave one →
  1. Gee Farrow permalink
    May 17, 2024

    These old style shops fascinate me….I always wonder how they make a living out of them! There is/was a very similar shop in Islington, just down from Highbury and Islington station, selling bits and bobs (mainly lingerie), but I haven’t been that way in ages to check if it’s still there. They are like precious little time capsules.

  2. Andy permalink
    May 17, 2024

    That’s a beautiful story . Tribute to a beautiful craftswoman and a man who gives people a chance the Gentle Author .
    Thank you and bless you both .

    Andy Strowman

  3. May 17, 2024

    My days as a collector are mostly over — but whenever I come across an old button box or glass jar of saved buttons, I have to succumb. Within the random treasures inside are always “extras” –
    enough for a short story, methinks. A single pink garter, a tiny religious medal, a clutch of hair pins, a lone wooden toggle button (big as a knuckle), a necklace of safety pins, a beyond-tattered cloth flower, and more.

    A minor Dickens connection perchance? – This morning I recalled that my mother’s button box was a repurposed tin from a holiday fruitcake, with a full-color illustration from “A Christmas Carol” on the lid. The cheerfulness of the image always added to the enjoyment of sitting next to my mother at her sewing machine, making doll clothes, in childhood. And, yes, the old machine endures.

    Buttons hold us together. Stories, too.

  4. Cherub permalink
    May 18, 2024

    I have jars of colourful buttons, also shell buttons and glass buttons from Eastern Europe. It’s easy to revamp clothes and give them a new life by simply changing the buttons or by adding a nice trim. Inexpensive and better for the environment than ending up in landfill. If I’m ever in London I would love to pay a visit to this treasure trove of a shop, I think I could spend all day there and have a lovely time.

  5. John French permalink
    May 20, 2024

    I went to this shop 5 years ago. After the closure of The Button Queen in Marylebone Lane I doubted whether I would be able to find another shop that specialised in buttons. Taylors was a visit to the past. Exceptional service and prices that belonged to the 1940s. Two button problems were resolved for a ridiculously low price – and very accurate advice was dispensed.
    It isn’t often that you find a shop owner who seems to be doing a job for enjoyment rather than profit.

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