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,