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17. Commemorative Button Badge of General Roberts

By Helen Sunderland (@hl_sunderland)

The Second Boer War of 1899-1902 is renowned for raising popular imperialist fervour to new heights in Britain. Extravagant public rejoicing marked key turning points in the conflict. Most notoriously, uproarious celebrations followed the Relief of Mafeking in May 1900, even coining a new term in the English language. Historians continue to debate the extent and significance of this public display of jingoism – or ‘mafficking’.

Commemorative badges take us away from the streets of Mafeking Day to everyday interactions with the Boer War in Britain. Invented in the 1890s, button badges were quickly adopted to promote a wide range of political, religious, and charitable causes. These small but politically loaded objects allow us to glimpse the experiences of individuals marginalised from histories of the conflict, including children.

This commodification of imperialism created new opportunities for young people to express their support for or opposition to the British imperial cause. Daisy Cowper, who was born into a working-class family in Liverpool in 1890, remembered the rivalries that sprung up between children over the badges during the war. ‘We youngsters vied with each other in the wearing of metal buttons showing “Bobs”, Baden Powell, White, Dundonald and Lucan, while Buller was greatly admired’.[1] Some children used the badges to display their admiration for Britain’s military heroes.

However, button badges were not straightforward expressions of juvenile imperialism and could be mobilised to show more complex attitudes towards the British Empire. After her brother’s death fighting in South Africa, the future Labour MP Leah Manning turned against the conflict. She marked her shift towards pacificism symbolically by destroying her once-cherished badge of General Roberts. ‘I took the little button of ‘Bobs’, which I used to secrete in my satchel, only pinning it on my dress when I got to school, and ground it under my foot.’[2] For Manning, what began as a powerful means to express imperialism among her schoolfellows – rebelling against the influence of her pro-Boer grandfather – became a symbol of personal tragedy and political awakening.

References:

[1] Burnett Archive of Working-Class Autobiography, Daisy Cowper, De Nobis, 1:182, vol. I, p. 48.

[2] Leah Manning, A Life for Education (London, 1970), p. 27.

Image: General Lord Roberts VC Boer War Union Jack Flag tin button badge. Reused with kind permission from Sally Bosleys Badge Shop.

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