By the beginning of the Eighteenth Century, Birmingham had been established as the centre for British silversmiths. Hence, when at the end of the Seventeenth Century John Boulton, of Lichfield, fell upon hard times he sent his son, Matthew, to Birmingham, where he "became a silver stamper and piecer." This son was Matthew Boulton the elder, and his success in business was rapid.
Matthew's son, also called Matthew, was born in 1728, and by the time he was seventeen was already a power in the family firm, for he had invented the inlaid steel buckles which were soon to become very fashionable. The younger Boulton soon became a partner and took almost complete control of the workshop. The business prospered and Boulton set himself to raise the standard of his productions as high as possible, a goal that was to shortly benefit the whole modern world
In 1762, in pursuit of his goals, the 24-year-old Boulton set up a factory in Birmingham, England. Here he began making silver-plated objects with the Sheffield process and became the first really large producer of Sheffield plate. In 1765, he built the Soho manufactory on Handsworth Heath. Housing workshops and showrooms it was different from the normal sweat shops in and around the West Midlands. It was the first factory to be lit by gas and one of Birmingham's first tourist attractions. The manufactory started producing silver plate and Boulton was instrumental in pressing Birmingham's case for an assay office so that gold and silver could be hallmarked in the region. As a result on 31st August 1773, the Birmingham Assay Office was opened. Boulton's motivation had been the heavy losses he had suffered at the hands of Highwaymen, the damage to his wares during the transportation to and from Chester Assay Office, or his designs being copied by unscrupulous London silversmiths when he sent his work to London for Assay.
He soon became the first important maker of antique Sheffield plate. Hiring important designers, he made fashionable accessories for the burgeoning middle and upper classes. Robert Adam, the important London architect and designer of the neoclassical style, was among his principal designers.
"Matthew Bolton lifted Birmingham for being where small silver and metal goods were being made to a major silversmithing town." says Phyllis Benedikz, the curator of the archives at the Assay Office, "He did this by bringing in the best designers and producing goods that appealed to the very best type of customer."
In addition to his contribution to the silver industry Boulton was also instrumental in the adoption of Blue John for the production of decorative objects. Boulton was very attracted to the fluorspas and marbles of Derbyshire, but it was the colourful fluorspar Blue John that particularly caught his imagination and he used extensively for vase bodies. The working of Blue John showed considerable skill as it is a very soft and brittle stone, and its colour is easily spoiled by excessive heat.
Only six years after starting up the silver works Boulton met a struggling young James Watt. His new steam engine wasn't running, and his patron was going bankrupt. Boulton knew talent when he saw it, and he bailed Watt out in exchange for rights to produce the engine. In 1776, Watt moved to Birmingham. The two of them went full-time into the steam engine business, and the world has not been the same since. The improvements Watt made in the steam engine over the last three decades of the Eighteenth Century helped to fuel the industrial revolution, and in part, are responsible for our standard of living today.
Boulton's initial interest in steam engine power was sparked by his fear that the local stream supplying the water wheel power running his factory, could dry up. Therefore by 1786 Boulton and Watt had coupled steam engines to coining presses, and in 1790 obtained a patent for this marriage.
This allowed Boulton and Watt to turn their attention towards producing tokens and coins to meet a national shortage. Their pioneering steam powered coin press a tThe Soho Mint struck some of the British regal coins, many of the merchant and colonial tokens, coins for the East India Company, as well as many foreign coins. The best known was the 1797 striking of the British penny and two pence. Beautifully designed, this was the first copper British penny (up until then they had been silver), and the first British penny to show a seated Britannia, a popular design element used extensively even up to the most recent coinage.
Outside the Birmingham Register office on Broad Street stands a statue of Boulton, Watt and Murdock nicknamed 'The Golden Boys'.
H W Dickinson, 'Matthew Boulton' Cambridge University Press,1936.
Frederick Bradbury, 'History of Old Sheffield Plate: Being an Account of the Origin, Growth, and Decay of the Industry and of the Antique Silver and White' or 'Brittania Metal Trade'.
Glyn Davies, 'A History of Money from Ancient Times to the Present Day', rev. ed. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1996. p 294.
R.M. Cooper, 'The history of the Soho Foundry' , Avery Berkel.
Nicholas Goodison, 'Ormolu: The work of Matthew Boulton', Phaidon, 1974.