On Friday 17th October staff and volunteers from Soho House Museum attended a special service at Westminster Abbey. The service was to commemorate a memorial stone dedicated to Matthew Boulton.
This is not the first time Boulton has been memorialised. Brummies are familiar with the gold statue on Broad Street that depicts Boulton, his business partner James Watt and Soho’s master engineer William Murdoch.
Matthew Boulton was a master manufacturer in the 18th century and along with other members of the Lunar Society has been credited for developing concepts and techniques that laid the foundations for the Industrial Revolution.
There are several other places throughout the city of Birmingham that memorialise Matthew Boulton. Matthew Boulton College opened in 1957 in his honour, and Boulton Road in Handsworth is a stone’s throw away from Soho House, where he lived for 43 years and which displays the first of three blue plaques.
Sarehole Mill in Hall Green was leased by Boulton between 1756 and 1761. He probably used the mill to produce sheet metal until all production moved to the new Soho Manufactory in the 1760s. Today the mill displays a blue plaque recording Boulton’s time spent there. Steelhouse Lane in Birmingham city centre also has a blue plaque. It was here that Boulton was born and his father had a toy, button and buckle workshop.
In 1788 Boulton established his Soho Mint and in 1797 he won a contract to produce Britain’s copper coinage. During the next two years his mint struck 45 million coins. Boulton was able to provide the Royal Mint with better machinery and coins from his workshops were exported around the world. Most importantly, his coin designs were so good it hugely decreased forgery, thus enabling the working classes a secure form of payment for a day’s work.
On 2nd November 2011, in recognition of their advancements in engineering and coinage, Boulton and Watt were immortalised by the Bank of England on the fifty pound note.
On 10th March 2009, he along with other industrialists and inventors was honoured with the issue of a Royal Mail postage stamp. The stamp bares his image alongside the Soho Manufactory – home to his Sheffield Plate, Sterling Silver tableware and Ormolu ornamental wares.
Matthew Boulton is celebrated in St Mary’s Parish Church, Handsworth. Boulton, Watt and Murdoch were all buried in the churchyard. The church was later extended over the site of his grave. In recognition of this, inside, on the north wall of the Sanctury is a large marble monument to him, commissioned by his son, Matthew Robinson Boulton.
Very active in public life, Boulton was involved with Birmingham Dispensory (which provided the poor with medicines), the General Hospital and established Soho Manufactory’s insurance scheme. This provided financial support for his workers who were sick and became the model for later schemes.
In the Westminster order of service The Bidding reads:
‘We come to add another illustrious name, that of Matthew Boulton of Birmingham, to the long list of distinguished men and women from the United Kingdom and from overseas who are buried or memorialised in Westminster Abbey.’
‘James Watt was given a memorial 189 years ago, within a few years of his death in St Paul’s Chapel […] Now an omission will be corrected. Matthew Boulton, without whom his achievements might not have been recognised, will be memorialised beside his business partner.’
Boulton and Watt’s Smethwick engine, the world’s oldest working steam engine can be seen at Thinktank Museum and the Archives of Soho House, including thousands of Boulton’s letters can be viewed by appointment at the Library of Birmingham.
Visitor Services Assistant,
Matthew Boulton was a founding member of the Lunar Society. The group were made up of 14 members who would meet once a month during a full moon. These meetings would often take place at Boulton’s home, Soho House, in the dining room, now known as The Lunar Room. The group was comprised of some of the greatest minds of the period and contributed to scientific understanding.
The other founding member was Doctor Erasmus Darwin. Physician, botanist, zoologist and grandfather of Charles Darwin. An enormous man in both personality and stature, Darwin had an enormous appetite for ‘natural philosophy’ and scientific discovery. In his most famous work ‘Zoonomia’ Darwin anticipated natural selection. He is also credited with inventing a steering device for his carriage that would be adopted for cars more than 130 years later.
Like Darwin, Boulton was also fascinated by the beauty that occurred in the natural world and kept a fossilry at Soho House. This room has specially commissioned cabinets which hold forty specimens drawers for Boulton’s vast collection of fossils and minerals.
Other members of the Lunar society included Josiah Wedgewood, best known for his beautiful pottery and skill as a chemist; Joseph Priestley who discovered several ‘airs’ including oxygen and invented soda water; James Watt, Boulton’s business partner at Soho and engineer who improved the efficiency of the steam engine.
The collection at Soho House reflects the interests and contributions Boulton and the Lunar Society made to 18th century Britain.
The collection at Soho also includes several time pieces. The pendulum clock was invented in 1656, only a century before Soho House was built. The longcase clock (also known as the grandfather clock) was first created to house the pendulum and works by the English clockmaker William Clement in 1670 or 1671.
The most famous clock in the collection is the Ormolu Clock. A popular style in France, ormolu is the process of grinding gold, mixing it with mercury and gilding it to bronze and other metals at high temperature. There are two ormolu time pieces at Soho, the most famous being the Sidereal Clock in the Drawing Room. Sidereal time uses the position of a star to measure the days, hours and minutes. The star will be found in nearly the same location on another night at the same sidereal time. However, unlike solar time which relies upon the sun, sidereal is much more exact. A sidereal day is about 23 hours, 56 minutes and 4.0916 seconds. It does not account for longer days depending on the earths position, nor leap years. The exactness of sidereal time is most probably is reason it never gained in popularity.
As well as treasures from the land, Boulton looked to the skies for answers to the world around him. Astronomy and meteorology were two of his passions. The earliest recorded working telescopes were the refracting telescopes developed by Lippershey, Janssen and Metius in 1608 in the Netherlands and soon after improved by Galileo.
Originally Boulton intended to have an observatory built in the grounds of Soho House, but for what ever reason this was never fully realised. He did however have a telescope positioned on the roof of the house. He was so obsessed with keeping weather records that when away on business his daughter Anne would observe changes for him. In his twilight years he still insisted on viewing the stars from the roof, even on bitterly cold nights.
The land around Soho House was slowly sold acre at a time by Bouton’s grandson. A inner city built up area today, the views enjoyed by Boulton in the 18th century would have been very rural. You can experience a taste of this on the Heritage Open Weekend (13th and 14th of September) when we will be offering free rooftop tours.
We will also be celebrating the achievements and inventions of the Lunar Society on 6th September with a free family event ‘Crazy Science‘.
For more information on all upcoming events at Soho House visit: www.bmag.org.uk/events
Visitor Services Assistant,
Now in it’s third year, Jane Austen Day is celebrated each summer at Soho House museum and this year’s celebration took place just over a week ago. Although Austen herself never visited Boulton’s home, the Georgian property provides the perfect setting to bring the world of her novels to life.
Austen was a novelist whose works earned her a place as one of the most widely read writers in English literature. Georgian society is the backdrop of all of Austen’s novels. Set during the reign of George III, they describe everyday lives, social hierarchies, gender roles, marriage, and the pastimes of well-off families. They provide an insight to the English society of this period.
Austen lived her entire life as part of a close-knit family located on the lower fringes of the English landed gentry. The support of her family was critical to her development as a professional writer. Her father was a clergyman and after his death, she, her mother and unmarried sister Casandra went to live in a cottage on her brother’s estate. Cassandra was Austen’s closest friend and confidante throughout her life. It was in these later years Austen successfully published four novels which were generaly well-received: Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park and Emma. These works were published anonymously and brought her little personal fame. Austen’s most famous work remains Pride and Prejudice. In this novel her most beloved heroine Elizabeth Bennet must navigate the complexities of life as a young woman of limited dowry. During Jane Austen Day Pattern 23 performed famous scenes from Austen’s books, including Mr. Collins ill conceived marriage proposal to Elizabeth.
When Jane Austen’s characters talk about buying a dress, it means in fact that they are going to buy the necessary fabric, which they will then give to a dressmaker who will make a dress to their specifications. Patterns for dresses in the latest London fashion were found in all the women’s fashion newspapers. In ‘Emma’ Harriet Smith buys muslin cloth with this intention. For Jane Austen Day I asked a friend to make a Regency gown for me to wear. During the day there were also period hair and make-up demonstrations carried out by Julie Stevens.
Austen’s plots, though fundamentally comic, highlight the dependence of women on marriage to secure social standing and economic security. A woman would have belonged in the first instance to her father and later her husband. She would have been legally subordinate to him, without rights and would not even have even been able to choose where she lived.
All members of the Lunar Society, who regularly met at Soho House, were committed to the idea of education, but what that meant for daughters and wives tended to be different from what it meant for sons. The subjects both Jane Austen and Matthew Boulton’s only daughter, Anne studied formed the main elements of the typical middle-class young woman’s curriculum. While away at school, Anne studied English, French, drawing, history and geography. Later, she learnt music from a Mr Harris in Birmingham, botany from Boulton’s friend Dr William Withering, and embroidery from Mary Linwood, a celebrated embroiderer of so-called ‘needle paintings’. Austen has been described by biographers as an accomplished seamstress and was very fond of dancing. These education topics were highlighted during Austen Day, with embroidery and dancing demonstrations for visitors to take part in.
Jane Austen acquired the remainder of her education by reading books, guided by her father and her brothers and had unlimited access both to her father’s library and that of her uncle. Like all gentry of the day, letter writing was a favoured and necessary past-time. In an uncharacteristic letter, the usually kind Anne Boulton is scathing about an expected visitor (in tone similar to Austen’s much-loved character Emma Woodhouse):
‘She is neither young, or handsome, has what some people call a pleasing cast with one eye, talks a great deal and would be glad to be thought young, notwithstanding wrinkles and grey hair begin to appear, but with all these perfections and imperfections she is I am told a sensible and entertaining woman.’
Unlike Austen, Anne was not dependent on the kindness and charity of her brother and relations after the death of her father in 1809. Boulton laid his plans well: ‘I propose to set apart, in my lifetime, as much money, land, stock or good securities as will be sufficient to support my daughter handsomely and comfortable’
Boulton left Anne a combined fortune of £34,000, enabling her to move from Soho in 1818 to a house of her own after her brother married. At Thornhill she kept a very comfortable but modest home. Upon her death in 1829 she left each of her servants one years wages, plus a further £20 each for the two longest-serving. Land she had purchased and the remainder of her fortune she left to ‘my dear brother to whom I now bid a long and last farewell.’
Jane Austen continues to be a huge influence on popular culture and this year’s celebration at Soho House was a great success. Staff, volunteers and visitors had fun immersing themselves in Austen’s stories, etiquette, interests and wit.
Visitor Services Assistant,
Quotes: The Hardware Man’s Daughter by Shena Mason, published by Phillimore & Co Ltd, 2005.
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,