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|Explore the Birmingham Jewellery Quarter|
Two portraits of Matthew Boulton
A Boulton & Fothergill silver tureen, now in the possession of the Birmingham Assay Office
A George III cartwheel penny, minted at Soho, with the characteristic Boulton raised border
Matthew Boulton's home, Soho House, now a museum open to the public
Sarehole Mill, acquired by the Boultons in 1755 and later the boyhood haunt of JRR Tolkein and, with its environs, the inspiration for his Middle Earth. It is now open to the public
'Birmingham is my native town. I am interested in its manufactures both as merchant and manufacturer. Few men have endeavoured more than I to improve those arts upon which it depends.'
It was a proud boast, but no idle one. Not content with building what was in its time the most famous manufacturing businesses in the world (surely quite enough for one lifetime!) Matthew Boulton then went on to make a practical reality of James Watt's condensing steam engine and then, still not content, single-handedly set about solving a crisis in the nation's coinage which had defeated the government for thirty years, and in the process invented the modern, high quality, fraud resistant coinage we still have today.
Intensely ambitious, restless, far sighted, ingenious, shrewd and intelligent, unlike his long-term business partner James Watt he was not an inventor. But he was a man of many parts, an entrepreneur, an innovator, a problem solver, a perfectionist. He also seems to have been a nice man - trustworthy, fair minded, kindly, sociable, affectionate and loyal. James Watt described him as an 'amiable and friendly character', paid tribute to 'his sanguine disposition' and wrote, 'I can with great sincerity say that he was a most affectionate & steady friend & patron with whom during a close connection of 35 years I have never had any serious difference.'
Matthew Boulton was born in Birmingham in 1728. His father was a toymaker in Snow Hill, specialising in buckles and buttons. In 1749 the father took the young Matthew into partnership in his already flourishing business, and put him in charge of its management. He decided that, rather than following the traditional Brummie practice of specialising in one branch of the business and leaving things like co-ordination and marketing to the factors, he wanted to build up a business big enough to encompass the whole manufacturing process and to do its own marketing.
The Snow Hill premises being too small to accommodate such a lofty ambition, in 1755 the Boultons acquired Sarehole Mill in Hall Green, where they rolled sheet metal for six years. (By a remarkable coincidence, the young J R R Tolkein was later to grow up near this old water mill which, with its semi-rural environs, provided the inspiration for his Middle Earth. The mill is now open to the public.)
Upon the death of his father in 1759 Matthew Boulton took over the business and, for reasons unknown, two years later abandoned Sarehole Mill in favour of another water mill at a place called Soho by the Hockley Brook, and very close to the Jewellery Quarter. About this time he entered into partnership with John Fothergill, who had wide experience of European markets, which were very important to Birmingham's trade. To accommodate his ambitious plans he had to rebuild the mill entirely, transforming it into the Soho Manufactory, which in its day was the largest and most famous factory in the world. Finished in 1765, it became Birmingham's foremost tourist attraction, and knowing the importance of good connections, the shrewd Boulton was more than happy to entertain influential visitors there and at his home Soho House, which was just a few hundred yards away.
The three-storey premises of the Soho Manufactory housed not only workshops, but also showrooms, design offices, stores, and accommodation for the workers. At its height there were a thousand people employed there. But although on a big scale, it was not one of William Blake's 'dark, satanic mills'. Rather it was a collection of workshops such as were to be found all over the town, but brought together under a single ownership and a single roof. The workers employed here were the same skilled craftsmen as worked in the town's other workshops, and were well paid. Boulton's secret was to equip his workers with all manner of labour-saving devices, thus enabling them to be more productive. Such devices were made affordable by the use of clever designs with interchangeable components, enabling many products to be assembled from a relatively small number of components, each of which was efficiently manufactured in quantity. And instead of putting work out in the traditional way to to toymakers around the town, he brought all the functions of a modern business, including design and marketing, under his control.
He resolved at the outset to build his reputation on jewellery, silverware and plated goods of the highest quality. To this end he recruited the best designers and craftsmen he could find, and he always insisted that everything produced at Soho, however cheaply it might sell, should be of the best possible quality that could be achieved for the price. The many superb examples of his work in the Birmingham City Museum testify to his success in achieving these goals. The same integrity was applied to his relationships with his workers. He refused to employ young children; sometime in the 1770s he introduced a very early social insurance scheme, funded by workers' contributions of 1/60th of their wages, and which paid benefits of up to 80% of wages to staff who were sick or injured; and he always ensured that the works were clean, well lit and well ventilated.
One of the earliest manufactures was jewellery made of highly burnished steel, which was popular in the eighteenth century and earlier. Much of the steel jewellery made by Boulton & Fothergill was very beautiful and exhibited superb craftsmanship. He was also the first person outside Sheffield to take up the manufacture of Sheffield plate, effecting product improvements in the process. He went into the manufacture of ormolu and experimented with the mass production of clocks, including one designed by William Small which, according to James Keir, contained only one wheel. In all this he seems to have been chiefly motivated by a desire to produce objects of beauty, rather than to get rich (or as James Watt put it, 'the love of fame has been to him a greater stimulus than the love of gain'); for many years he sold mechanically-copied pictures produced by a process invented by Francis Eginton. Despite being carried on at a significant financial loss, this business only ceased when John Fothergill insisted that enough was enough.
As is recounted elsewhere, having failed over six years to get his condensing steam engine to work and with his patent running out, James Watt arrived in Birmingham in 1774 to enter into what was to be the most important partnership of the Industrial Revolution, with Matthew Boulton. They complemented one another perfectly, the ingenious and inventive Scotsman, and the ambitious, indomitable Brummie who, with the skilled and talented team of craftsmen he had gathered around him, never let a practical difficulty defeat him.
The first problem was to get the patent extended, which was done by means of a private Act of Parliament. In this, the advice of Matthew Boulton, who knew a thing or two about parliamentary lobbying, was all important. Despite some powerful opposition, the Act was secured, extending the patent to the end of the century. Meanwhile the skill and determination of Boulton and his team had achieved wonders with the engine itself. After six years of fruitless endeavour in Scotland, it took them less than two years to solve the problems of the machine's design and get the first two made, installed and running. In this way, Matthew Boulton made James Watt, who would never have achieved celebrity had his engine never worked.
Initially the firm of Boulton & Watt did not actually make steam engines themselves. The manufacture of the parts was subcontracted, and the machine was then assembled and installed in-situ by the firm. The reason for this was lack of capital. In part this was due to the difficulty of raising large sums in those days before stock markets and banking systems were well developed and when limited liability had yet to be introduced, but these difficulties were compounded by the fact that most of the early engines were sold to Cornish mines which, being financed under the so-called cost book system, were unable to raise capital to buy engines outright. This forced Boulton & Watt both to take shares in the mines and to sell engines to them on the 'never never' (see below). (In the end, the Cornish mines defaulted on perhaps as much as half of the money they owed to the firm.) A further problem was Matthew Boulton's cavalier attitude to profit. As James Keir wrote when Boulton was trying to persuade him to join him at Soho, 'The manufacture has been carried on for many years past with great loss ... The buildings, stock of tools &c are much too great for the business done.'
By virtue of their patent, Boulton & Watt had a monopoly in the manufacture of Watt engines until the end of the century and it is estimated that during that period they sold around 450 engines. The way they charged for them is interesting. James Watt had generously estimated that a horse could achieve a sustained work rate of 550 foot-pounds per second, which amounts to saying that a horse could move a weight of 75lbs (34kg) at 5mph, steadily throughout the working day. He called this work rate 'one horsepower'. If a Boulton & Watt engine were capable of producing, say, 20 horsepower, they charged the purchaser one-third of the estimated annual saving from using the machine (as opposed to using a team of twenty horses) each year for twenty-five years. This one-third share of the saving was generally reckoned at £5 per horsepower per annum, and comparing this income with the cost of new engines we can see that Boulton & Watt had to wait a long time for their money. For example, the cash price of a 4hp engine was £327. At £20 per annum, it would have taken over 16 years to recoup this money. On a 50hp engine they did better; the cash price in this case was £1727, which would be recouped in around seven years.
Some of the most important developments that James Watt made in steam engine design were urged upon him by the astute Matthew Boulton, who could always spot a good commercial opportunity, and who had a keen appreciation of the practicalities. He was convinced that there would be a huge demand from industry for a steam engine that could produce a constant rotary motion, and suggested that the Lancashire cotton mills would provide a ready market. James Watt was unimpressed, retorting that Lancashire had so much water power that there would be no demand for steam. But Matthew Boulton persisted and as usually happened, he got his way. In 1781 the necessary patents were obtained and the rotary steam engine proved every bit as successful as he had predicted. Another development that Boulton urged on Watt was the need for an automatic governor to control the speed of an engine, which James Watt designed in 1788.
Little by little, Matthew Boulton scraped together the capital needed to enable the firm to build its own engines. It was essential that they did so if they were to maintain the business, because once the patent expired their subcontractors would be at liberty to make and sell engines on their own account. Worse, despite rising turnover the business remained in financial difficulties and it became increasingly urgent, both to collect the money they were owed and to get control of costs, and in part that meant eliminating expensive subcontractors. In 1781 he erected a two-storey engine shop on his Soho site to make some of the smaller components. In 1794 the sons were formally admitted to the business, which became Boulton, Watt & Sons. This was to prove important, for whilst the sons were not particularly inventive or entrepreneurial, they did run the business efficiently, keeping detailed records of the costs and resources used in every operation, in what appears to have been an early form of work study, well ahead of its time. Then, in 1796, a purpose built steam engine factory was opened by the Birmingham Canal about a mile away from the manufactory. Christened the Soho Foundry, by the turn of the century the new plant had turned out around 50 steam engines. By contrast with the earlier struggles, this business, which was carried on into the mid nineteenth century by the sons James Watt junior and Matthew Robinson Boulton, who had equal shares, was extremely profitable.
In the eighteenth century the British coinage was a shambles. The Royal Mint had been using antiquated methods of coin production, with poor quality control, so that even coins of the same denomination did not necessarily look identical, and were often variable in size. This left the field wide open to crooks known as shavers and forgers, who were often the same people. Shavers would steal metal from coins by shaving the edge, thus reducing the diameter. This practice was carried on with virtual impunity because the Royal Mintís poor control of coin size meant that shaving was difficult to detect. The shavings were then used by the forgers to make new coins and again, the Royal Mintís crude technology was very easy to copy. It was estimated in 1786 that as many as two thirds of the coins then in circulation were counterfeit.
Apart from arresting the occasional forger (see right-hand panel), the only thing the government in London did about this appalling state of affairs was to close the Royal Mint, in around 1760. This merely made matters worse, by leading to an acute shortage of coinage. In order to keep the wheels of business turning, all manner of people, some of them none too savoury, minted their own tokens which were, in effect, private currencies. Even if you werenít swindled, tokens were inconvenient because they could only be used for a limited purpose.
Meanwhile, in Birmingham, the amazing Matthew Boulton, having already built up the world's most famous manufacturing business and midwifed James Watt's steam engine, embarked at the age of 59 on his third great enterprise. He decided that he, a private citizen, would sort out the mess the government had failed so lamentably to address, and in doing so Matthew Boulton invented coinage as we know it today. Oh, and by the way - an insignificant footnote to an extraordinary career - in doing this he also invented the in-line manufacturing process, the ubiquitous production line of modern industry.
He knew exactly what he had to do, seeing clearly that to beat the shavers and forgers, he had to dramatically improve the design and manufacture of coinage. Every coin had to be perfect, so that an imperfection immediately signified a forgery, and that meant that every coin of a particular denomination had to have exactly the same appearance, size and weight.
In typical Boulton fashion he recruited the finest engravers from France, Germany, wherever they were to be found, and brought them to Brum to work for him. He improved the manufacturing process to give first-rate quality control, building a battery of eight coin presses at the Soho Mint, which he set up in part of the manufactory. Crucially for coin quality, these presses had the power of a Boulton & Watt steam engine to drive them. The plant he installed was very ingenious. Although all eight presses were driven by the same engine and of them could be stopped and started independently of the others, and set up 'in a few minutes' so as to strike anything from 50 to 120 pieces per minute (again, independently of the speeds of the other presses), depending on the diameter and the degree of relief. Blanks were fed to the machines and finished coins removed automatically, so although each machine was tended by a boy (of twelve or above), he had very little to do.
His first coins, for Sumatra, which had been made in 1787 on old hand-operated coin presses he had got from a customer, were probably not much better than the Royal Mintís erstwhile output. But by 1791 he had solved the problem of achieving consistent size and weight. By 1794 he had introduced reeded and lettered edges, only recently copied by the Royal Mint with its £1 and £2 coins. Such edges made shaving instantly detectable and thus brought a halt to the practice by preventing shaved coins from being returned into circulation. Another innovation in the same year was to inset the lettering around the edge of a coin into a raised border, which made the forgerís life somewhat more difficult by improving the wearing properties of coins, since the raised border took the bulk of the wear. He also conceived of the idea of a gauge for detecting whether the coin was made of the right metal. This gauge was made to the precise diameter and thickness of the coin, which was first passed through it and then weighed. If a coin which contained, say, too little gold, passed through the gauge its weight would be short;, whilst if its weight were correct it would be too big to pass through the gauge. By 1799 he had devised a method of producing coins with diagonal reeding on the edge, which is extremely difficult to counterfeit. Two centuries later, the Royal Mint has yet to catch up. He also introduced the practice, still followed with regard to the British coinage, of making the weight of copper coins proportional to their value, 2d pieces weighing 2ozs, 1d pieces 1oz, and so on. This enables the value of a bagful of change to be determined simply by weighing it. The standards Boulton set for coin size and weight remained in force until decimalisation over 170 years later.
For a time Boultonís output consisted entirely of tokens and overseas coinage, as the British government continued to refuse to mint new coins. But in 1797 they finally relented and Matthew Boulton was commissioned to produce 45 million new penny and twopenny pieces. These large and beautiful coins, known as George III Ďcartwheelí pennies on account of the characteristic Boulton raised border, were the first coins to bear the kingís head for almost 40 years. Orders for the more widely used halfpence and farthings followed in 1799. This coinage is universally recognised as the first modern coinage. It represented a step change from what had gone before and in the two centuries that have since passed, nobody has been able to improve on the coins that Matthew Boulton minted at Soho.
In 1798 Boulton was asked to re-equip the Royal Mint in London, but bureaucratic delays meant that work was unfinished by the time of Boultonís death in 1809. Meanwhile the Soho Mint continued to produce all the nationís coinage. In about 1800 he was commissioned by Catherine the Great, who had herself visited Soho in 1776, to supply coinmaking machinery for the new Russian Mint in St Petersburg which, as we have seen, was designed by the Birmingham architect William Hollins. Here Matthew Boulton made another startling innovation, which was to have enormous implications - he invented the in-line manufacturing process. A strip of metal went into the line at one end and coins emerged at the other. Though the idea of making things on a production line is now commonplace, this was a revolution in its day.
Despite having received no more formal education than a few years at a private school in Deritend provided, in 1785 Matthew Boulton was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.
By the mid 1790s Matthew Boulton was in poor health, having developed the kidney stone which was to dog, and often incapacitate, him for the rest of his days. Despite this he continued working whenever he could until his death in 1809 at the age of 80, following which the Boulton & Watt companies went into a long and slow decline. The running of the companies was taken over by the two sons, Matthew Robinson Boulton and James Watt junior, who seemingly lacked both the inventiveness of James Watt senior and the business acumen of Matthew Boulton. They failed to capitalise on William Murdock's invention of gas lighting, although they did establish a world lead in marine steam engines. The manufactory was closed after the death of James Watt junior in 1848 and knocked down a few years later, although Boulton's adjacent residence, Soho House, survives and is now open to the public. The steam engine business continued until 1896, by which time the vertical-cylindered, low pressure bean engines James Watt had brought to a degree of perfection had been superseded by more compact high-pressure horizontal-cylindered machines. Whilst it is greatly altered, the Soho Foundry still exists as the premises of the scale-makers W & T Avery, who bought up the firm of James Watt & Co.
Matthew Boulton's estate was valued at £150,000, a very large sum in those days and equivalent to many millions in today's money. He is buried, along with James Watt and William Murdock, at St Mary's, Handsworth, Birmingham.
© 2001, 2002, 2005, 2006 Bob Miles