Stories of Burns Past: Destiny and The Button

Some stories you’re meant to tell. And there are days you’re meant to tell them. The Button’s tale draws together work and people, linking individual ideas, the plans of different projects, and global travel. For me, the story began in 2018, but for The Button, this all started in 1890.

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Some items contained in the samples box, from the T. B. Wilkins Collection, Birmingham Museums. Author’s own image; Birmingham Museums.

Birmingham Museums’ ‘Birmingham Manufactures’ project  was coming to a close, with the intention to interlace information from research work and the physical products of past labours in a new holdings catalogue of items made in the city. It seemed an ideal opportunity to put some of the ‘Forged by Fire’ findings to good effect, and I’d worked with Birmingham Museums before, specifically with Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (BMAG), sometimes coming and going through its Great Charles Street entrance. After a 2012 post-doctoral position at Woodbrooke, Europe’s largest Quaker study centre, I was asked to research and co-curate Central England Quakers’ large, six-month 2015 exhibition, ‘Faith & Action: Quakers & the First World War’, at BMAG. Part of the centenary commemorations, the exhibition considered how the faith group negotiated the conflict through their historic commitment to peace and peace-making, and featured members of the Cadbury family. Once I’d offered ‘Birmingham Manufactures’ a list of businesses that cropped up in burn- and scald-related deaths in the coroners’ records (held at the Library of Birmingham), the museum staff found surviving objects from a few of these companies. An object-handling visit to the Museum Collection Centre confirmed that there was only one collection that was both sufficiently rich and contemporaneous to a burn incident: T. B. Wilkins, items 40-47.  One of these items is a sample box of products, made up of four layers of ‘ornaments’: buttons, badges, medals, pins and buckles. From the original label on the lid, it seems the first time the samples were sent out to this specific potential customer was 1892. And so I set about the hunt for information beyond the coroner’s investigation into the death of Charles Radley, the firm’s bookkeeper and manager.

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Label on the samples box from the T. B. Wilkins Collection, Birmingham Museums. Author’s own image; Birmingham Museums.

T. B. or Thomas Bent Wilkins was a military ornament manufacturer. Birmingham had been the global leader in the production of buttons and similar items, though by the time Thomas relocated from Vyse Street in the Jewellery Quarter to Great Charles Street in 1863, the international marketplace was becoming increasingly competitive. Nevertheless, according to census returns, the workforce at the manufactory increased from 15 men, 17 boys and 8 ‘females’ in 1861, to 21, 16 and 13 respectively in 1881. Some of these workers would have walked past BMAG as it was being built, and may have visited after it opened in 1885.

Making small metal items incorporated various hazards, including fire, mercury and acid, which were used to shape, stamp, surface, burnish, and lacquer the items. With such materials and processes going on alongside the hum of labourers and machinery, working in Wilkins’ factory and warehouse would have been a sensory experience. Sounds and smells permeated the air, and all around were, according to an 1874 advert, the glints of military and sporting ornaments ‘for boys and men’. (You can scroll down to see a couple of earlier ads for Wilkins here, and read more about metal workshops in the Jewellery Quarter here.)


‘Women at JW Evans silverware firm, in the Jewellery Quarter, in the late 19th century’, image from the Birmingham Mail website.

The Button was one among the multitude of ornaments, but it alone altered the destiny of Wilkins’ family and business. On 17 October 1890, Charles Radley – who, as Thomas’s son-in-law, was being lined up as the manager of the firm – went in search of the lost ornament with sixteen-year-old employee, Ada Smith. In the dark of the manufactory, Charles lit a match and saw a gleam at the bottom of a vat of lacquer. The end of the match fell into the lacquer, which exploded and caught fire. A contemporary newspaper reported that Charles, ‘[k]nowing the danger to life and limb of a fire in the factory’, sent Ada away and tried to remove the blazing vat. Other records show that Ada returned with help, including 64-year-old Thomas, who had to be held back while men with buckets of water extinguished the flames. In rushing to assist, John Buckley, the Foreman-Stamper, stated that he had found Charles ‘staggering towards me, his clothes … part burnt off’, and carried him downstairs. Charles was taken by cab to Queen’s Hospital. Based on the witness testimony of Thomas, Ada and John, the coroner’s verdict was of accidental death; a single death in one workshop in ‘the city of a thousand trades’.

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Some items contained in the samples box, from the T. B. Wilkins Collection, Birmingham Museums. Author’s own image; Birmingham Museums.

Yet the story of The Button is a much larger tale of Birmingham and of Britain as a global exporter of people, as well as goods. I’ve used Ancestry many times before, and found working with family historians a positive two-way relationship (you can see the product of one such connection here). I began looking there for Charles Radley. What I found stopped me in my tracks: Radley was a Quaker. Of all the possible fatal burn and scald-related incidents that had come before the coroners’ court, of all those that occurred in the workplace, of the surviving products held by Birmingham museums, I had found a Quaker in one of the most unexpected of places – working in the manufacture of military uniform. Next, in the images one family member had publicly posted, were handwritten notes from 1890 based on a conversation with Nurse Dillon, ‘a solid, motherly woman of about 60’. Dillon had looked after Charles as he lay dying in hospital. She had wanted to remember well the details to pass onto his friends, including Hannah Cadbury, whom she thought would be ‘anxious to know’. To date this is the only first-hand account of what nursing in a nineteenth-century ‘burns ward’ was like to have been found, and which reveals the patients’ perspective. In particular, Dillon mentioned there was a total of seven or eight patients in the ward, including a young boy. All were kept awake with the dying exclamations and prayers of Charles, and they all joined in with the psalm, ‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…’.

Other than the nurse’s testimony, the genealogist posted newspaper clippings online, which helped to reveal that Charles had married into the Congregationalist Wilkins family, and he and his wife Louisa had a one-year-old child. The small Button clearly left a gaping hole in the family’s futures. Indeed, from exchanges with descendants, it became clear that Thomas Wilkins’ son had emigrated to Australia prior to 1890, leaving behind the family business and Thomas and Charles to run it. Within a few years of Charles’s death, the firm seems to have folded: looking through Goads Fire Insurance Maps of the city, the premises were vacant a few years later. But while so much has been lost, it is just possible that The Button survives amongst the items in the c.1890 sample box held in the museum collections.

Here, then, is the story I was meant to tell today, 17 October, the anniversary of Charles’s burn injury, which also happens to be the UK’s National Burn Awareness Day. The tale of The Button is stamped with the hallmark of Birmingham’s history: metal working, dangerous processes, and Nonconformist complexity – a pacifist working in a military ornament factory away from conflict, dying in the midst of the stuff of war. But the impact of The Button is much greater than that; it has also fastened together past and present, Britain and Australia, academy and family.

Dr Rebecca Wynter


With sincere thanks to the descendants – and family historians – of Thomas Bent Wilkins.


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