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The Boulton Legacy

Methinks Public gratitude should erect a Column to the memory of the First engineer, Artist and manufacturer that ever existed whose Ingenuity and perseverance enriched his Country beyond the powers of calculation; and the place should be called Boultonia, or Boulton’s Town.’

J. H. Reddell to Matthew Boulton, 1800

After Matthew Boulton’s death in 1809, James Watt wrote: ‘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 immortalized.’ As Watt hinted, he did far more than that, and much of what he did has a direct bearing on modern life, not just in his home city but in other parts of the world.

Commemorative Medal - Death of Matthew Boulton, 1809, Soho Mint, Birmingham

The steam engine developments for which Boulton and Watt are best known contributed significantly to the foundation of Britain’s nineteenth-century wealth. And the insurance scheme, which from the 1770s provided assistance for Boulton’s workers in times of sickness, was the model for later schemes. Today’s Lunar Society, like its eighteenth-century predecessor, provides a forum to influence change through stimulating ideas and debate and catalysing action.

The canal network which threads its way through our countryside and cities, is a legacy of the faith of the generation of early canal investors like Matthew Boulton, who wanted to improve transport links and achieved the extraordinary feat of making Birmingham the most landlocked port in Britain.

The fact that Birmingham now has the world’s busiest Assay Office is a testament to the doggedness with which Matthew Boulton led the campaign for its establishment in 1773. The setting up of The Birmingham Assay Office was a vital factor in the expansion of the jewellery and silver trades in Birmingham, still the main centre of gold jewellery production in Britain. The Birmingham Assay Office continues to test and hallmark millions of precious metal items every year. It has sent its expertise across the world.

Engraving of Soho Manufactory

The Soho Manufactory was demolished in the 1860s, but its gleaming fashionable products in silver, Sheffield plate and ormolu can still be seen in museums and historic houses around the world. In Handsworth the main evidence of Matthew Boulton’s ‘empire’ today is his home, Soho House (now a museum run by Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery). Parts of the Soho Foundry survive at Smethwick. Boulton & Watt’s Smethwick engine, the world’s oldest working steam engine, is at Thinktank, the Birmingham science museum. And in the Archives of Soho, housed in Birmingham City Archives, are to be found not only Matthew Boulton’s life-story but information on almost every aspect of eighteenth-century life.

From the hundreds of letters and notebooks emerges an attractive and engaging character, a one-time buttonmaker who was as welcome at the court of King George III as he was at the fireside of his friends.

Bibliography

Delieb, Eric: The Great Silver Manufactory (London, 1971)

Dickinson, H.W.: Matthew Boulton (Cambridge 1936, republished Leamington Spa, 1999)

Doty, Richard: The Soho Mint and the Industrialisation of Money (Smithsonian Institution, 1998)

Goodison, Nicholas: Matthew Boulton: Ormolu (Christie’s Books, London, 2002)

Goodison, Nicholas: Matthew Boulton’s Trafalgar Medal (Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery, 2007)

Mason, Shena: The Hardware Man’s Daughter (Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery, 2002)

Mason, Shena: Soho House Guide (Phillimore, 2005)

Schofield, R.E.: The Lunar Society of Birmingham (Oxford, 1963)

Uglow, Jenny: The Lunar Men (London, 2002)

Jones, Peter: Industrial Enlightenment: Science, Technology and Culture in the West Midlands, 1760-1820 (Manchester University Press, 2008))