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Black Country-made buttons that gave the edge to a copper’s uniform

By john workman  |  Posted: August 19, 2013

James Grove police butttons made out of buffalo horn.

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Police uniforms varied considerably before the inception of the earliest mainstream ploice force in the country and the passing of the Metropolitan Police Act of 1829. With other county police acts following in quick succession, policing became standardised and so did a policeman's uniform.

After our feature 'Ello, 'ello, ’ello! what’s goin’ on ’ere then? appeared in Bugle 1090, we had a tremendous response from former police officers with memories to share of their time pounding the beat, and in the coming weeks we hope to publish these in full.

In the meantime, and also after reading our earlier article, Bryn Williams of Cradley decided to tackle a more specific aspect of a policeman’s lot, and as a former employee of James Grove & Sons of Halesowen, he was able to show us the connection between this famous button making Black Country firm, which sadly closed just before Christmas last year after 155 years, and the policeman’s uniform.

In his time at James Grove Bryn collected a few artefacts and now has a veritable museum in his possession. But as a proud former employee of the firm and a keen historian, Bryn’s actions have safeguarded the history of James Grove for future generations.

He emptied a bag of button dies, a selection he’d brought with him to Bugle House, all made from steel and weighing a considerable amount when added together.

There were the details of police forces from all over the country, some of which were probably disbanded many years ago; Lancashire Police, City of Wakefield Police and the Surrey Constabulary, to name but three, and some unusual examples such as the Rural Police Norfolk, and the Dockyard Police.

On each die there was stamped the year of manufacture and a number, the significance of which Bryn explained.

“Each button had to be a certain size to compliment a different part of the uniform and the individual numbers are called lines, with each measurement taken from a line gauge.” The line-gauge Bryn had with him was in marvellous condition and very old, made out of boxwood and brass (later versions were made entirely out of brass). The makers name stamped perfectly on the edge of the tool was J. Rabone & Sons, a Birmingham manufacturer famous for its rulers and measuring devises, founded in Hockley in 1784.

Then from another bag Bryn produced a selection of buttons, all in pristine condition and some still with surplus around the edges which would have been filed away in the final process.

Staffordshire County Police, Metropolitan Police, East Sussex Constabulary and Birmingham Police were just a few of the police forces represented, all made from pressed buffalo horn. The buffalo horn was imported from India and in its raw state it was pressed flat under pressure. The blanks would have been machined out, and using the dies the buttons would have been made and then finally polished.

The different years stamped on the individual dies suggests that James Grove & Sons enjoyed quite a lengthy spell as a manufacturer of police uniform buttons – the years on the dies that Bryn showed us ranged from 1902 to 1926. Bryn reckons James Grove had a monopoly of making police uniform buttons in the first quarter of the 20th century.

The final piece in this jigsaw of button memorabilia and the most tangible link between James Grove & Sons and the manufacture of police uniform buttons was the best piece of all.

On the reverse of one of the buttons and clearly marked were the words “Grove & Sons, Halesowen”, a name that was synonymous with button making for 155 years and a name that will always remain an important part of the Black Country’s industrial history.

 If there are any former James Grove & Sons employees who would like to share an anecdote or two about this famous Black Country button manufacturer with Bugle readers, please email jworkman @blackcountrybugle.

co.uk or phone Bugle House 01384 567678.

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