Matthew Boulton (1728-1809) is one of the most important historic figures associated with the city of Birmingham.
“The father of Birmingham”
During his lifetime Boulton was a world-famous figure, but since the twentieth century his name has been largely overshadowed by that of his business partner, James Watt. But without Boulton’s entrepreneurial vision, drive and ambition it is unlikely that Watt would have fulfilled his potential as an engineer and inventor. Boulton’s work as well as Watt’s pushed the technological boundaries of his time and led directly to Britain occupying centre-stage as the world’s first industrial nation, something which has shaped our lives ever since.
Matthew Boulton was born in Birmingham in September 1728, the son of a buckle-, button- and ‘toy’-maker. ‘Birmingham toys' were not children’s playthings, but small decorative objects such as snuff boxes, toothpick cases, nutmeg graters and other trinkets. After attending a local school, Boulton joined his father’s business in the early 1740s. At 21 he married Mary Robinson, daughter of a prosperous Lichfield mercer. Both Mary and Boulton senior died in 1759. Matthew Boulton took over the business, and soon began to think about remarriage. In 1760 he married his late wife's sister, Ann Robinson.
The following year he acquired land at Handsworth, some two miles from Birmingham town centre, and began building the great Soho Manufactory. Here, introducing modern production methods and a pioneering workers’ insurance scheme, he set about becoming what JosiahWedgwood called ‘the Most compleat Manufacturer in Metals in England’. Jewellery, ‘toys’, Sheffield plate and sterling silver tableware, ormolu (gilded ornamental wares), coins, medals and tokens poured out of his workshops and were exported all over the world.
The Soho Manufactory became a must-see stop on the itinerary of well-heeled early industrial tourists, who were fascinated by the sight and noise of its machines and its hundreds of employees at work. So popular was it that Boulton had a tea-house built in the grounds, where visitors could take refreshments after their factory tour.
Matthew Boulton’s notebooks show that he was insatiably curious. His interests ranged exuberantly over astronomy, meteorology, chemistry, electricity, medicine, the fine arts, classics, music, and the new fashion for landscape gardening. Largely self-educated in these subjects, he counted as friends such people as Benjamin Franklin, Mrs Elizabeth Montagu, Sir Joseph Banks, Sir William Herschel, and Sarah Siddons.
In 1766 Boulton became one of the founders of the Lunar Society. Their meetings (at full moon) were delightfully described by Erasmus Darwin as ‘a little philosophical laughing’. They gave this small but influential group of ‘natural philosophers’ the opportunity to share their sometimes ground-breaking scientific ideas, enlivening the discussions with the occasional experiment.
Boulton and Watt
The start of the great Boulton and Watt business came in 1775 when Boulton, recognising the potential in James Watt’s development work on the steam engine, offered the Scottish engineer a partnership at Soho. Not long afterwards another inventive Scot, William Murdoch, joined them. The trio’s combination of brains, investment and enterprise was powerful. Boulton &Watt engines became the driving force behind much of the emergent Industrial Revolution, in Britain and later across the world.
In 1788, resolving to make life difficult for forgers, Matthew Boulton established his Soho Mint, producing high-quality coins and medals. Eventually he was awarded the contract to produce the British copper coinage, and between 1797-1799 alone, c.45 million pennies, two-penny pieces and halfpennies, designed by the leading European medallist, Küchler, were produced at the Soho Mint – an extraordinary leap in the mass-production of images. Boulton &Watt also re-equipped the Royal Mint and mints abroad.
In a crowded life, Boulton still found time for public office. He campaigned energetically for the establishment of Birmingham Assay Office in 1773, and served on committees which oversaw the development of the Birmingham Dispensary (which provided medicines and medical care for the poor) and the General Hospital. A lifelong Handel fan, he helped to promote the early music festivals, which were held in aid of the Hospital.
Determined to raise the tone of Birmingham’s cultural life, he chaired the committee which masterminded improvements to the theatre. He commissioned family portraits from some of the finest portrait painters of the age, and his son likened the Soho Manufactory to an art school, where promising apprentices received tuition in drawing and were encouraged to attend plays and exhibitions to develop their artistic sensibilities. In 1794 he served as High Sherriff of Staffordshire.
Read The Boulton Legacy
View objects related to Matthew Boulton on BMAG's online database. Please note that this does not cover all Boulton related objects in BMAG's collections.