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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.)

The Soho Manufactory

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. 

Boulton & Watt

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. 

The birth of modern coinage

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.

There is much more about the history of coinmaking in Birmingham here. For more about the now-defunct Birmingham Mint and the scandalous circumstances that led to its closure, see The Walk, 13

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.

Post mortem

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.





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Other sites: Matthew Boulton  Matthew Boulton (2)

Boulton & Watt letters on Cornish mining

Matthew Boulton & medal making

History of coinmaking in Birmingham

Rear view of Soho Manufactory


Famously, to James Boswell when he visited the Soho Foundry: 'I sell here, sir, what all the world desires to have - power!'

'I am so exceedingly vex'd about the disappointment and loss which have attended the two pairs of candlesticks that altho' I am very desirous of becoming a great silversmith, yet I am determined never to take up that branch in the large way I intended unless powers can be obtained to have a Marking Hall [assay office] at Birmingham.'

In 1767, on the stream of visitors to the Soho Manufactory:  'Each week brings forth new and unexpected engagements. I had Lords and Ladys to wait on yesterday. I have French men and Spaniards today, and the day after Germans, Russians, Norwegians.'

To the Earl of Warwick in 1770: 'It is from the extream cheapness that we are enabled to send [our products] into every corner of Europe altho' in many places they have as good and cheap materials as we have, and have labour Cent per Cent cheaper and yet nevertheless by the superior activity of our people and by the many mechanical contrivances, and extensive apparatus, which we are possess'd of, our men are enabled to do from twice to ten times the Work that can be done without the help of such Contrivances.' 

To James Watt in 1781: 'The people in London, Manchester and Birmingham are steam mill mad ... I don't mean to hurry you but I think that in the course of a month or two we should determine to take out a patent for certain methods of producing rotative motion.

On the difficulties he had in developing his coining presses: 'The great force which I find must be used to strike the 5 sous pieces has broke, bent and deranged most of the parts about the press's ... but this is not the only misfortune for this day. One of the great bars or balances on the press broke and with great weight fell and has very much hurt one of my workmen.'

James Keir on Matthew Boulton's tendency to over-diversify: 'Thus Mr B gave free scope to his active genius in the introduction to Soho of various manufactures each of which would have been sufficient for the sole occupation of a mind of ordinary energy ... many of the ... branches of manufacture on which so much ingenuity and capital were expended did not make suitable returns of profit, but were rather rewarded with the fragrant odours of Praise & admiration ... But if Mr B did not receive from the ormolu & the other elegant branches of his manufacture the intended recompense ... they greatly tended to his celebrity & admiration of his various talents, taste & enterprise. The desire of visiting Soho became a fashion among the higher and opulent ranks ... He thus gained the acquaintance of most men distinguished for rank, influence and knowledge in the Kingdom, the good effects of which he felt in his several applications to Parliament.' 

James Watt wrote of Matthew Boulton shortly after his death in 1809: (1) 'Mr Boulton possessed in a high degree the facility of rendering any new invention of his own or others useful to the publick by organising and arranging the process by which it would be carried on ... His conception of the nature of any new invention was quick and he was not less quick in perceiving the uses to which it might be applied and the profits which might accrue from it.'

(2) 'Few men have had his abilities & still fewer have exerted them as he has done and if to them we add his urbanity, his generosity and his affection to his friends, we shall make up a character rarely to be equalled.'

Dr Richard Doty of the Smithsonian Institute on the sad, dying days of the great Soho Manufactory, as the Boulton coin presses were removed to Ralph Heaton's mint: 'It was one of the most gentle yet furthest reaching transitions in the history of numismatics ... It is difficult to conceive the conditions under which those final pieces must have been struck ... a lowly press running in one corner, while workmen were busy dismantling machinery in another.'

James Watt on Matthew Boulton's achievements in the field of coinage: 'Had Mr B done nothing more in the world than what he has done in improving the coinage, his fame would have deserved to be immortalised; and if it is considered that this was done in the midst of various other important avocations, & at an enormous expense for which he could have no certainty of an adequate return, we shall be at a loss as to whether to admire most his ingenuity, his perseverance or his munificence. He has conducted the whole more like a sovereign than a private manufacturer.'


Matthew Boulton married twice, both times to distant cousins. His first marriage, contracted in 1749, was to Mary Robinson, daughter of Luke Robinson, a wealthy Lichfield mercer, and herself an heiress with a substantial fortune. Within four years Mary had borne three children, all of whom died in infancy, and was herself unwell. In August 1759 she died. There is no record of the cause of death, although notes found among Matthew Boulton's papers suggest that she may have been epileptic. Upon her death he wrote a verse which, while tender and affectionate, suggests that she was more in love with him than he with her. 

With Mary not long dead, he formed the intention to marry her sister, Anne. Although Anne  seemed willing enough, the match met with opposition from within the Robinson family, some of whom feared that too much of the family fortune would find its way into Boulton's hands. Worse, under ecclesiastical law, though not under common law, it was illegal to marry your dead wife's sister. None of this prevented the marriage going ahead on 25th June 1760 at St Mary's Church Rotherhithe, where there were no acquaintances to oppose the banns. This match, which did indeed bring Matthew Boulton a substantial fortune, proved a happy and affectionate one. It produced two children - Anne, born in 1768 and Matthew Robinson, born in 1770.

After 23 happy years, Matthew Boulton's second marriage ended in tragedy in July 1783. For some time the weather had been extraordinary - the hottest ever recorded, with a sultry haze enveloping the land. The sun was blood red and cast a red glow, even at midday. Though it was not realised till later, the cause was a massive volcanic eruption in Iceland. On 11th July, in the stifling heat, Anne Boulton was found floating face down in a pool at Soho, having apparently suffered a massive stroke. Matthew Boulton, who was in Coventry at the time, returned to the awful news, which knocked him sideways. His health failed, he was unable to work, and it was only after a spell away travelling that his customary ebullience, bonhomie and good spirits were restored.


Quite apart from attacking the forgers by his invention of fraud-proof coinage, Matthew Boulton was in no way averse to taking  direct action against them. In 1799, at the age of 71 and in poor health, he led a swashbuckling raid worthy of any TV cop, which he described in a racy account sent to a House of Lords Committee. Having taken care to obtain powers from the magistrates, Boulton took 14 of his own trusty men, together with the local constables, and  keeping the targets secret from all but his own men, planned and personally led simultaneous raids on three premises. Doors were battered down, men dived through windows, chases ensued, two of the three forgers were caught and large quantities of counterfeit coins and coining equipment were recovered. He then offered £50 (well over a year's wages) to one of the captives for information which would lead him to other forgers, though he does not report to the Lords on the outcome 'for fear of losing [missing] the post'. 

This was by no means the only incident of this kind. In 1792, threatened with a riotous attack on the Manufactory over a rise in the price of copper, which was attributed to the quantities of the metal he was using in coining, he had equipped his men with 200 oak cudgels and cleaned and charged some cannon he possessed. Fortunately, the threat passed. Then again, at Christmas 1800,  he  received a tip-off to the effect that thieves were intending to rob the counting house at the Manufactory. Arming himself, his son, James  Watt junior and a number of his men with blunderbusses and other weapons, Boulton and his men lay in wait until 2am. The thieves were allowed to break in and take the booty, but as they were about to make off, at a signal from Matthew Boulton flares lit up the scene. Four of the five felons were apprehended by Boulton and his men in the ensuing scuffle, whilst the fifth was arrested later.


One of the most notorious forgers was a Birmingham man, William Booth, who had the rare distinction of being tried twice (once in Birmingham and again at Stafford), hanged twice (the first rope broke) and buried twice (there were so may sightseers the first time that they dug him up and reburied him secretly later on). He is now buried at St Mary's, Handsworth, along with his arch enemy, Matthew Boulton.


Today's city leaders talk of turning Brum into a 'world class city', and amen to that. But they clearly have yet to realise the simple truth that every great city wears its pride on its streets, in the shape of memorials and statues to great people or events in the city's history. Not only can such memorials enhance the streetscape, they also serve to engender pride among the inhabitants in the city's achievements and to bring those achievements to the attention of visitors.

Matthew Boulton was one of Brum's greatest sons, a huge credit to the city and a man of truly outstanding achievement. But where is his memorial? There are statues to James Watt and Joseph Priestley, neither of whom were Brummie born, in Chamberlain Square. There is a memorial to Boulton, Watt and Murdock in Broad Street, but there is no prominent memorial to Matthew Boulton himself - a serious omission.  By this neglectful attitude, the city is failing to do  justice to itself. 

© 2001, 2002, 2005, 2006 Bob Miles