The Lead Whirligig

Some of my favourite and often visited old posts have disappeared forever; the blog posts on the kind of children’s toys found by detectorists were popular, especially the one on ‘Shy Cocks’; so hot with search engines that I had to change the title to ‘Unusual Toy’!

Today in my resurrection post I discuss the children’s toy often found and sometimes discarded by rooky detectorists because they think that they have unearthed another piece of rubbish … the whirligig.

My mother used some unusual words. For anything that spun or whirled around she called it a ‘whirligig’. It was a word that fascinated me, and one that I loved to utter, especially because it sounded fun.

William Shakespeare used the word in Twelfth Night as a metaphor for ‘what goes around comes around’; meaning that whatever decisions you make and the way you treat people they will be returned to you one way or another.

The word ‘Whirligig’ derives from two Middle Englishwords, ‘whirlen’ (to whirl) and gigg (top), or literally to whirl a top’.  And that is how my dictionary describes it … ‘a spinning or whirling toy’.

The oldest known type is also known as a button spinner or buzzer; simple spinning toys whereby two looped ends of twisting thread are pulled with both arms, causing the button to spin.

When I was a lot younger I used to raid my mother’s button jar looking for one that was particularly large and colourful. Then I’d string it on a long piece of twine and tie the ends together. With the button in the middle and the string held in both hands it was twirled and twirled until a twist was built up in the string. I’d pull the string outward, let my hands come together and then pull outward again. This was repeated was long as the string kept its twist. The spinning button made a humming or buzzing noise as it twirled.

Courtesy of the UKDFD

As I said earlier, the lead disc whirligig often found by detectorists is sometimes discarded as just being a lead weight. A couple of those shown below with a ’saw-tooth’ edge, feathered pattern markings, and three piercings and are a crude form of musical instrument and toy. Similar to my button, when pulled taut between two hands, the spinning of the disc produces a rhythmic humming (amplified by the toothed edges), which rises and falls with each pull of the cord. 

Whirligig ( 3 ) copy
© – Randy Dee – Whirligigs and dress weights?

Forgive me, but I don’t remember who suppled the above picture. If it was you, please get in touch and I will give you a credit (now sorted. Thanks Randy) The examples below are from the UKDFD, kindly provided by Dave Watson and D.R. Edwards.


Such toys have variously been home-made, not just from buttons, but more recently from cardboard, these being given as a free gift in comics as late as the 1950s-60s. With coloured panels printed on the cardboard the spinning produced a visual as well as audible toy. 

These musical toys have their origin in more ancient times when pig metacarpals and metatarsals were drilled and threaded to serve the same purpose. They have been found in Saxon to early post-medieval deposits in Britain. Lead ’saw-tooth’ medieval/post-medieval discs such as these have been found during surveys of Thames foreshore deposits in the City of London.

Whirling toys made of hammered lead musket balls or coins too old or thin to be of value have been excavated from early American towns, plantations, and military campsites. The sound of the whirling disk lends this folk toy its common name of ’buzzer’, although it appears in English literature as early as 1686 under the general name for spinning toys, whirligig. The scalloped edge of our buzzer identifies it more particularly as a ‘buzz saw’ toy. In past times the edge was often sharply cut into a sawtooth pattern, but a buzz saw with any shaped edge will produce an impressive loud, whizzing noise when it reaches full speed …

Whirligig3 copy

Another example sent by one of my subscribers. If you recognise it, please give me a call because I have lost all details and would like to give credit.



Peter writes: Excellent timing for a resurrected post. I found one last week and chucked in the scrap lead bin not having a clue what it was. Cheers John – educational as always. 


My posts were once warmly received on Toddy’s Scottish Forum and members took a keen interest. The fine examples below were contributed by Alexnikon and The Badger. Alex says:

Great read as usual John. A childhood memory flashed back to me of a 6 year old boy sitting with a piece of card, colouring pencils, string and scissors making whirligigs. No playstations or such like then. More importantly you have identified a piece of lead found on one of Toddys digs identical to an image on your site. Now I know for sure what it is. Thanks John. Keep them coming – Alex Smiley

© Whirligigs from Alexnikon (L) and The Badger.

Another example, this time from the PAS database, was mentioned in the Isle of Wight newspaper, OnTheWight.


Do you remember the ‘whizzers’ once made of cardboard and later of plastic which were packed in breakfast cereal boxes? They were round discs with two holes in them which had string threaded through.

After twisting the string a few times the whizzer would make a humming noise and the harder the string was pulled the more noisy it would become. Well, back in the post-medieval period children had the same toy.

Then called a buzz wheel they were made from old coins or tokens. In 2012 a buzz wheel was found on the Island which was made from a token bearing the effigy of a man’s head … Frank Basford, FLO


From The Searcher magazine, June 1999

Jim Halliday

Lead Whirligigs Help Research



Mudlarker David Rose sent me a whirligig he found at Woolwich, on the Thames Foreshore and wanted to know if It was Victorian or earlier. I’m no great expert, but suggest it may be from the medieval period.

© David Rose

29 thoughts on “The Lead Whirligig”

  1. Those are very neat old toys. I, too. use to raid the sewing box in search of the perfect buzzer button. When my kids were little, I would make them buzzers out of wood.
    Great Fun! Thanks for the history and the memories!

  2. John, I also raided the button tin that my grandmother had. I always looked for the odd and large button. Haven’t thought of this in years. Thanks for bringing the memories back.
    Roy R

  3. I remember my son having the free cardboard ones in the early sixties.

    We made our own way back in long gone days.LOL. Jerry.

    PS Dont forget that skirt weights can be mistaken for Whirligigs/buzzers.

    • I seem to remember that we had this conversation in the original post, Jerry. I wish I could see the original! The ‘serrated’ examples in the picture are definitely buzzers.

  4. You have just brought back a childhood memory for me John and also identified a piece of lead I brought back from a dig

  5. Nice to see that after your brief absence John your posts are now coming thick and fast again.
    Keep it up, it’s always a pleasure to turn my pc on in the morning and receive a post that interests me rather than the multitude of adverts I don’t want.

  6. Hello John
    We are away on holiday in the motorhome so restricted a bit to a response.
    I sent you the photo of six whirligigs / dress weights.

  7. I can remember when I was a kid cutting out a the shape of a “whizzer” from the cardboard cereral box and then painting coloured circles on it. When the whizzer was spun not only would you have the sound of the spinning but a multi-coloured effect!

  8. Although there is perhaps no way of proving it but I am sure I read somewhere that whirliegigs because of their similarity to a button could maybe have been used as a form of badge that would have also been similar to a beggars badge, but may have been used sewn to clothing to identify prisoners as well? This being read some years back in an old newspaper article, but funnily enough while detecting in Perthshire I was asked by someone to have a go over a lawn he had, this lawn had supposedly been the site of an ancient monolithic stone (prehistoric), that had been called Arthurs Stone, in the early 1800’s it was blown up and it was thought prisoners had been used to cart off the stone fragments. When I detected over the lawn I found a number of Georgian coppers, musket balls and two of those whirlygig button’s, which I gave to the owner.

      • Not really John, I did some digging on the net to see if any publication had been written up as I could see the logic in using these lead pieces as being a form of badge as well as toy, for in early times objects like these whirligigs had been adapted from other means such as skirt weights, so the same could have applied, some early beggars badges may have been double used as well, its a bit like spindle whorls having maybe a double use as well for I read recently that some experts believe a spindle whorl may also have had a use as horse decoration?

  9. That was a very well timed post resurrection John. I found one a week ago and chucked it in the scrap lead bin not knowing what it was. Very educational always.

  10. How times have changed from you being a young sprog John,whirligigs to play stations and X boxes 🙂 the youngsters of today just don’t know what they’ve missed out on.
    Just makes you think what the youth of today would say if you unplugged their gadgetry they fiddle with now and gave them a hoop and stick 😉

  11. John have you read or got a book called Toys, Trifles, & Trinkets by Hazel Forsyth and Geoff Egan, its a great big hardback volume and quite a read, I picked up s copy for a song on a discount book site for s fiver, there is a section all about these lead objects!

      • This Book is like a Bible on the subjects of just some of the early lead and pewter toys and trinkets from early times, well worth a look if you can get a copy!

  12. Hi John, my nephew found a whirligig at the weekend, and whist searching google for some more information for him up popped your blog in the search list.
    As usual it’s excellent, and there is some great information to pass onto my nephew regarding his “unusual bit of lead” that he found on Saturday.
    Thank you.

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