A rare burst of sustained organisation caused me to finish bagging, labelling and storing various artefacts I have picked up over the past two-and-a-half years. They are now housed alongside innumerable other finds in what we jokingly refer to as the “Briggs Museum”, one shelf of which looks a little something like this…
While I was going through all of the flint flakes and medieval pottery sherds, I rediscovered a tiny brass button I picked up walking across Lees field at the western end of Puttenham village in August 2011 (approximate OS grid reference SU924478). In the wake of finding it originally, I did a spot of research into the artefact with an eye on posting it here but never got around to writing anything. Second time around, I’ve broadened the online search and now can do the topic justice.
The button gives the name of a company, Smalpage & Son, and the locations of their premises: Maddox St[reet] and a second, now illegible street name. Research reveals that Smalpage & Son was a tailors, and the second location is Bond Street which is near Maddox Street. This much I learned from an 1892 advert for the “Comfort rug cloak” (presumably too large a garment to incorporate the tiny button I found) reproduced on the Grace’s Guide industrial history website. It gives the specific information that the Maddox Street address was at numbers 41-43 (still in existence as can be seen in the photo below) but not a lot else besides. More informative is the wonderful publication London of To-Day 1890: an illustrated handbook for the season (available to download as a free e-book from Google Books). According to its author(s), who clearly had first-hand experience of the tailors, Smalpage & Son were “of the first rank of their craft” and “of many years standing” (page 385).
Such a glowing published endorsement is more than matched by the standing of a couple of its customers. The first I found was the artist James (Abbott) McNeill Whistler. In a letter of October 1893, sent from “110 Rue de Bac. Paris” to his brother William, he refers to “Smalpage the tailor” in a way that intimates he knew the latter personally, quite possibly as a customer when he lived in or visited London. Like J. M. Whistler, Smalpage & Son seem to have been Anglo-American, at least for a time; The American Traveller’s Guide. Harper’s Handbook for Travellers in Europe and the East: Volume 1, published in 1874, describes them as “fashionable tailors of London…who have also established their name very favourably in the United States” and moreover as agents for the White Star and Cunard lines, making them “a great convenience to Americans in the West End” (page 112). (This page from an 1885 edition of The Chicago Tribune apparently refers to the company, though you will have to subscribe to the host site if you want to read it.)
The other well-known figure with a documented connection (and a significantly earlier one than Whistler’s) is the explorer Henry Morton Stanley. The collections of the Belgian Royal Museum for Central Africa includes a receipt dated 4th October 1872 for the sum of £40 paid by Stanley (catalogue no. 4897). This connection is interesting in view of Puttenham’s proximity to Stanley’s house at Furze Hill near Pirbright. Indeed, this is not the only piece of evidence associating Smalpage & Son with Surrey. A notice of “Special Resolution for Liquidation by Arrangement of the affairs of John Henry Smalpage”, published in the London Gazette of 22nd August 1879, refers to an address at “the Firs, East Sheen” (page 5160 – it seems to have been a notable property which existed at least as far back as the mid-eighteenth century). I have been unable to ascertain from the material I have been able to consult online whether the evidence for a Surrey link is significant or coincidental given the provenance of the Puttenham button.
However grim things looked for Smalpage & Son in the summer of 1879, the tailors evidently survived on both sides of the Atlantic. Business may well have been more brisk in the United States – might the comment by authors of London To-Day that the London branch of the tailors was “too unproductive, we fear, of profit” (page 385) reflect continued financial struggles? Nevertheless, a letter dated 29th January 1896 to the American entomologist Herbert Huntingdon Smith was sent from Smalpage & Son in London. Around the turn of the century they were producing exquisite court swords (shame it was only a button I found). Unfortunately, this second lease of life was not to last. The London Gazette of 26th October 1906 carried a notice of a General Meeting to be convened at 38 Walbrook in the City of London for the continuation of the activities necessary to complete the liquidation of the company; Henry John Smalpage is named as one of the two liquidators.
All of this suggests that the button from Lees field belongs to the period from circa 1860 to 1906. As a tailor of no meagre repute and a distinguished clientele, it must be presumed that whoever owned the garment to which the button was attached was a man or woman of considerable means; it may be no coincidence that in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries at least the field was part of the demesne of the manor of Puttenham (I can’t remember to whom the Tithe Award of the early 1840s attributes it). Whatever the truth, I love how a tiny button picked up in a Puttenham field has led to me finding out about Smalpage & Son and their up-and-down history in London, the United States – and maybe even Africa. It all goes to show that staring at your feet as you walk sometimes pays off, though I guess this applies more to open fields than woods or marshes. Well, I’d hate to be responsible for any injuries.