A tale of two buttons and some supernatural events

I’ve been cataloguing buttons from Baker’s Flat. The ones in the picture below are known as trouser buttons (suspender buttons if you’re in the US) and were used mainly on work trousers and shirts. These four hole, sew through buttons were stamped from large metal sheets, usually copper alloy. Manufacture began around 1810, and by 1850 they were being produced in massive numbers. They’re a common find on archaeological sites.

These ones have flat rims and the typical deep central recesses for the eye holes. Stamped around the rims are the words KIRKHAM EVANS & CO BON MARCHÉ. Because they’re branded in this way, it’s possible to discover quite a lot about these small, otherwise unremarkable artefacts.

Two trouser buttons, stamped with words KIRKHAM EVANS & CO BON MARCHE
Two trouser buttons stamped with KIRKHAM EVANS & CO BON MARCHE

As a starting point … In June 1884, Kirkham Evans announced in the local Adelaide newspapers that he was opening a gentleman’s outfitting and fashionable tailoring establishment. Called the Bon Marché, it was located at YMCA Buildings, on the corner of Gawler Place and Grenfell Street, Adelaide. At the same time, he advertised for a respectable and well-behaved apprentice. He also wanted tailors and tailoresses – they must be first class coat, vest and trouser hands. And he was looking for a good presser and machinist. He was clearly expecting business to be successful!

On sale were shirts, scarves and collars, hats and umbrellas, travelling bags and cases, and rugs. His tailoring department was in the hands of a first-class cutter, a trial suit was guaranteed to give perfect satisfaction with strictly moderate prices, and he could provide practical wear, clerical suits and liveries. His target audience was not just the men, youths and boys of South Australia, but also the ladies whose garments would be cut on the premises.

So … when it comes to these trouser buttons, I can determine that the earliest date they could have been made was June 1884. And the latest date is December 1897 when the last advert by Kirkham Evans, Gawler Place was placed. An advert shortly afterwards by Smith and Hawkes indicated that they had taken over the business. To be honest, that’s probably all the information I needed for my button catalogue – I’d already described the buttons and now I had dates, so far so excellent.

But my foray into the fabulous Trove had hinted that there was more to Kirkham Evans. It turns out that he was a prominent member of the YMCA, Our Boys Institute and the Boy Scouts.

Although the Adelaide branch of the YMCA had been started in 1850, its first permanent headquarters was opened in 1884 at the corner of Grenfell Street and Gawler Place, the very place where Kirkham Evans opened Bon Marché. He must have been the first shop tenant.

And there’s more. Kirkham Evans was also an accomplished amateur conjurer and a reformed spiritualist. He appears to have made it his mission to seek out and debunk unexplained phenomena of an otherworldly nature, informed by his own experiences with spiritualism as a malign influence. He believed that all mediums were imposters who preyed on the vulnerable.

Take, for instance, the case of the German cello player and passionate spiritualist, Christian Reimers. In late 1884, he organised a series of séances in Adelaide led by Catherine Wood, a well-known English medium who had been in Australia for about a year. You might imagine that Kirkham Evans would have been a bit tied-up with his new shopping emporium in late 1884. But he made time to attend one of the gatherings. Poor Catherine Wood held only a few sittings before she caught typhoid fever and died in a North Adelaide hospital.

Within a week of her death, Kirkham Evans delivered a public lecture at the YMCA Hall in front of an audience of 1,100. Here, he revealed that the séances were a hoax – he had hidden in the rafters and with the assistance of two friends had generated various raps and noises that appeared to be supernatural – and asserted that Wood was a trickster. A battle in the local press ensued between Reimers and Evans, bolstered by opinion pieces and letters from members of the public. Overall, public sympathy seemed to lie with Reimers who was described as ‘a thoroughly honest spiritualist’, while Kirkham Evans and his friends were advised ‘to be most heartily ashamed of themselves’.

Port Adelaide News and Le Fevre’s Peninsula Advertiser 19 December 1884, p.4.

And then, a few years later in 1887, there was the Cradock Ghost scare in the north of South Australia. A nine-year-old girl, Sissy Schultz, was apparently under the influence of supernatural powers, which manifested as loud knocks and occasional electric shocks. Kirkham Evans went to investigate, and together with the local schoolmaster, spent a night watching the girl sleep. Sure enough, loud raps were heard, but only when the child had moved far enough over in the bed (a mattress on the pug floor) to be able to reach out and tap the floor. The schoolmaster had taken the precaution of sprinkling lampblack on the floor, and sure enough, when inspected the child’s knuckles were black. This story also caused a sensation in the local press.

However, Christian Reimers’ assertion that Kirkham Evans was not as honest and reputable as he claimed did have merit because some years later, in 1917, a cryptic announcement appeared in the gazette of the Boy Scouts’ Association. It stated that the office of metropolitan commissioner, formerly occupied by Mr Kirkham Evans, had been declared vacant. It transpired that allegations had been made of sexual misconduct with the boys. In the age-old tradition of institutional cover-ups, Kirkham Evans had been given an opportunity to leave Australia. He fled Adelaide for Sydney under cover of darkness, with the intention of heading to Fiji, and was never held accountable. And there the story ends.

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6 Responses to A tale of two buttons and some supernatural events

  1. Peter Pascoe says:

    Sorry, but I don’t want to be reminded about Barker’s Flat buttons! 😢😢😢

  2. Kathy L says:

    Great tale! Thoroughly enjoyed this story.

    • sarthure says:

      Thanks Kathy! I didn’t expect to find so much interesting material when I was really just trying to date a button!

  3. GenieJen says:

    Who’d have thought you’d learn so much about menswear and this man by researching buttons you’ve found in a dig. Brilliant

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