Hello, I’m Louise Deakin and I work at Soho House museum as a Visitor Services Assistant. Soho House was the elegant home of industrialist and entrepreneur Matthew Boulton from 1766 to 1809.
The other week I was lucky enough to attend the Birmingham Hidden Spaces photography exhibition at Curzon Street Station. Opened in 1838 as a link from London to Birmingham, the station has Grade I listed status and has been closed to the public since 1966.
Amongst the photographs on display were those of the Birmingham Assay Office on Newhall Street, in the Jewellery Quarter. Opened in 1773 it initially operated from three rooms in the King’s Head Inn, managed by four staff and only operating on Tuesdays. Upon opening, it’s first customer was industrialist and entrepreneur Matthew Boulton, who had led the campaign for its establishment in 1773. It later moved to it’s own office on Little Canon Street in 1815. Finally making it’s home on Newhall Street in 1877, it is the largest Assay Office in Europe and a fine example of Birmingham’s industrial heritage and Boulton’s determination.
Matthew Boulton thrived on charming his way through society, presenting goods to the aristocracy and encouraging them to place orders. Renowned for Silverware and Sheffield plate (silver-plated copper) the Soho Factory brought fancy tableware to the new middle classes. Frustrated by the time delays on sending silver pieces for hall marking in Chester or London (then the only Assay Offices in the country), Boulton campaigned successfully for over two years, laying the foundations for the growth of the Jewellery Quarter.
Many people are confused by the Birmingham Anchor hallmark, as we are situated so far from the coast. However, the decision was made while Boulton was staying at the ‘Crown and Anchor Tavern’ in London, to discuss the possibility of the office. The rumour goes that the choice was made on the toss of a coin which resulted in Birmingham winning the Anchor and Sheffield with the Crown (later changed to a rose).
The office’s silver collection contains over 1,400 pieces of Birmingham craftsmanship, showing the many different styles over the centuries. There is also an archive library that houses rare books, including ones owned by Boulton himself. Today the Jewellery Quarter is Europe’s largest concentration of businesses involved in the jewellery trade, producing 40% of all jewellery made in the UK, hallmarking around 12 million items a year.
Matthew Boulton lived to the grand age of eighty, succeeded by his son Matthew Robinson and his life’s work. The Soho Factory stood for one hundred years and some of the silver it produced can been seen on display at Soho House.
Visitor Services Assistant,