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Industry's Great Innovator
By Jennifer Tann, Anthony Burton
The History PressCopyright © 2013 Jennifer Tann & Anthony Burton
All rights reserved.
Eighteenth-Century Birmingham: Birthplace of Matthew Boulton
Early eighteenth-century Birmingham had grown up at the intersection of three shire counties – Staffordshire, Warwickshire and Worcestershire. It was not an ancient city or borough and its emergence as a significant settlement was due to the metalworking trades in the town and its environs, with the coal and iron industries of east Shropshire as well as the coalfield area between Nuneaton and Coventry.
Birmingham's emergence might be explained by the resource endowments of iron, limestone, fireclay and coal, and certainly later eighteenth-century visitors to the region attributed the miracle of Birmingham to the abundance of coal. Yet, in the mid-eighteenth century Birmingham was not really on the beaten track at all. Visitors had to leave the main highway to reach it; there was no river communication such as the Severn, which was navigable as far as Shrewsbury. It was not well supplied with water power, the small streams rising on the edge of the Midlands plateau being shallow and generating little power. It was developments in transport – the turnpiking of roads and the construction of canal and river navigations – that promoted the integration of Birmingham into the West Midlands. In this way the relative isolation of Birmingham was resolved.
Turnpikes came early to the region. The first public stage coach service to London was established in 1731, notice being given that the journey would take two and a half days at a cost of 1 guinea per passenger. And canal building was incentivised by manufacturers such as Josiah Wedgwood, Matthew Boulton and Samuel Garbett, who all had good reason to promote canals either for bringing in raw materials or for enabling more effective access to markets for their products.
While Wedgwood promoted the Grand Trunk Canal, which was begun in 1766, it was not until 1777 that travel along its entire 140 miles was possible. The Birmingham Canal Bill passed both Houses of Parliament in 1768, enabling a waterway to be constructed through the Black Country with the aim of joining up with the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal. This made it easier to bring coal and iron by boat and provided a route for Birmingham wares to go to the Severn and down to Bristol. In 1772, with the completion of the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal, the West Midlands had its first access to the sea. The Birmingham Canal gave a huge boost to the economy of Birmingham and the Black Country, as did the Birmingham & Fazeley Canal of 1783, which made a shorter route possible to the port of Hull and northern European markets and also provided a link to the southern canal system and, via the Thames, to London. William Hutton noted how, before the opening of the Birmingham Canal, 'it was common to see a train of carriages for miles, to the great destruction of the road, and annoyance of travellers'. Whereas pit coal from Wednesbury had sold in Birmingham for around 13s per ton before the opening of the 22-mile cut, the price fell to 7s per ton in 1772.
Matthew Boulton was not only a promoter but benefited from the new canal system in two ways. First, it greatly reduced the cost of raw materials and, second, investment in judiciously purchased canal shares proved profitable. And, of course, the canal provided a ready market for Boulton & Watt pumping engines, besides promoting canalside locations for new factories. In 1795, Matthew Robinson Boulton and James Watt junior selected a canalside site in Smethwick for their new Soho foundry.
Moreover, improvements to roadways reduced the passenger journey times between London and Birmingham to fourteen hours by 1782. The turnpikes enabled Boulton and Watt to travel to Paris in six days. And when French visitors came to see Joseph Priestley in 1785 they noted that the road between Birmingham and Wolverhampton – 14 miles – was almost 'one continuous town'.
Birmingham's emergence as a centre of metal trades can be traced to at least the sixteenth century, for by this time it was more than a village – indeed a small market town. After the Civil War, minting and gun-making trades came to Birmingham, as did brass working and in 1689 a French visitor wrote that, while he had seen fine swords, cane heads, snuff boxes and works of steel in Milan, they 'can be had cheaper and better in Birmingham'. The town had supported Cromwell in the Civil War and there were many nonconformists there, particularly after the 1660s when they were banned from worshipping in the chartered towns. Nonconformists were excluded from public office, from teaching and from the universities in the Test Acts of 1673 but, after the Toleration Act of 1689, some chapels and meeting houses were built. The Baptists, Presbyterians and Quakers brought energy to Birmingham; its citizens were independently minded and made the most of the lack of corporate regulations.
Birmingham became a town noted for the manufacture of toys: ornamental fashion and decorative goods such as buttons, buckles, snuffboxes and much else besides, which had been made there from the late seventeenth century. Buckles were worn by men, women and children, and were made mainly of white metal to resemble silver. (It was fashionable for them to be worn not only on shoes but also on men's knee breeches.) The variations in design seemed endless and sometimes, depending on fashion, they could be up to 6in in width. But the market for buckles collapsed at the end of the eighteenth century; buttons seemed to be a safer bet, less liable to market fluctuation. Between 1770 and 1788, the number of button manufacturers more than doubled. Meanwhile, the more utilitarian ironwork and edge tools migrated to the Black Country, to be replaced by workshops for goods which produced greater value-added to the raw materials than mere metal bashing.
As early as the 1670s, Birmingham had grown in size to equal some of the county towns of the region. Whereas in 1700 there were over 2,500 houses in twenty-eight streets, by 1781 there were just over 9,500 houses in 133 streets. A visitor in 1776 reported, 'half the town is new, and they continue to build with greater rapidity than ever'. In 1791, William Hutton estimated that there were just over 12,500 houses and 203 streets, by which time Birmingham had become the third largest town in England in terms of population.
Arthur Young, the agricultural writer, visited Birmingham in the 1760s and 1770s, and in 1791 called it 'the first manufacturing town in the world'. By the end of the eighteenth century it was the most significant centre for hardware (pots and pans) manufacture and toys, a position that it maintained into the mid-nineteenth century when the British Association for the Advancement of Science met in Birmingham, the Handbook noting that 'within a radius of 30 miles of Birmingham nearly the whole of the hardware wants of the world are practically supplied'.
Entrepreneurship and innovation characterised Birmingham industries in the later eighteenth century – both product and process innovation; the former to increase market share in businesses subject to rapid changes in fashion, and the latter to secure cost reduction and produce consistency. Birmingham was a noisy place, a German visitor to Soho noting the incessant 'hammering, pounding, rubbing and chiselling' that assailed him on entering the town. Peter Jones draws attention to the rapid response to opportunities in the marketplace which characterised Birmingham's 'formula for commercial success', buckles and buttons being frequently changed in shape, materials and design. And, while Prosser justifiably celebrated the inventiveness of Birmingham manufacturers, as evidenced in the number of patents granted between 1760 and 1850, it is clear that much of Birmingham's inventiveness never reached the patent books. Edward Thomason, for example, successively invented a self-steering fire-ship, a one-sail windmill for pumping water from ponds, folding steps for carriages, an improved corkscrew, a sliding toasting fork, a metal walking cane incorporating a cigar lighter, and a dice-throwing machine. Speed of response to perceived demand was vital, for, as Hutton commented, 'the fashion of today is thrown into the casting pot tomorrow'.
In the early eighteenth century, Birmingham manufacturers largely supplied a domestic market with its more basic hardware. However, by mid-century much of the ornamental work was being exported. In the mid-1760s, Matthew Boulton remarked that 'more than half the letters we receive are wrote in the German language'. It is likely that overseas trade was dominated by the larger manufacturers such as Boulton, John Taylor and others, while the smaller manufacturers focused on the home market. John Fothergill, Boulton's partner in the toy trade, had been travelling in northern Europe from the late 1760s, and in 1776 went to St Petersburg. By 1790, around a quarter of Birmingham's hardware output was directed overseas, but this was severely disrupted when European markets were blocked during the French Revolution and its aftermath. France declared war on Britain in 1793 and much of the Continent rapidly became closed to Birmingham manufacturers, with catastrophic consequences for many. Boulton managed better than some, not least because his London bankers were supportive but also because he had by that stage diversified into a number of different businesses.
In 1757, Josiah Tucker drew attention to the fact that 'almost every Master Manufacturer hath a new Invention of his own, and is daily improving on those of others'. This was, he asserted, a 'Specimen of practical mechanics scarce to be paralleled in any part of the World'. As an example, Dickinson draws attention to the invention of the fly press which was used for stamping buttons in the latter part of the seventeenth century. A simple mechanism, the press was operated by pulling a lever by which the upper die was brought down on to the lower with great impact which could force a thin piece of metal placed between them into almost any shape. The fly press had a great many uses in button, buckle and trinket manufacture, besides minting.
There was considerable differentiation and specialisation within Birmingham and the Black Country. Nail making, which had been important in Birmingham in the sixteenth century, had largely migrated to Dudley and Stourbridge in the seventeenth. Edge tools, knives and sword manufacture, which had been located in Birmingham in the seventeenth century, had left the town altogether. The trades that developed in Birmingham were ever more highly skilled. Buckle manufacture began in Walsall, but as the designs became more and more elaborate it migrated to Birmingham where it grew rapidly.
Birmingham, not being a borough or city, did not have trade guilds or compulsory apprenticeship. This gave entrepreneurs the freedom to employ people based on their demonstrable skills rather than the fact that they had served an apprenticeship, as was compulsory in the corporate towns up to at least the seventeenth century. Trades in incorporated towns were highly regulated, but in Birmingham no one was asked whether they had served an apprenticeship or not. The absence of restriction attracted dissenters of all kinds, particularly Quakers in the eighteenth century, and the new industries attracted skilled craftsmen from some distance. Boulton recruited from France, later in the eighteenth century, for example. Thus new blood coming in facilitated the spread of new techniques and ideas. Birmingham must have been an energetic town in which to live and work. William Hutton identified it as the place for a man to make his fortune; many arrived on foot and left in chariots.
Matthew Boulton's grandfather, John, married an heiress, which may have enabled the family to set up a reasonably capitalised business early in the eighteenth century. His son, Matthew senior, was a toymaker specialising in the steel toy trade. The business was located in Snow Hill, then almost on the outskirts of the town on the road to Wolverhampton. Matthew Boulton, the subject of this biography, was born on 3 September 1728 (14 September in the new calendar) in the house behind the workshop in Snow Hill which abutted on to Slaney Street. The name Matthew had been given to the firstborn son of his father who had died, aged 2, in 1726. Matthew was a double namesake and, while he had a brother John and two sisters, it was clearly he who embodied his father's aspirations.
Boulton went to school at the academy of the Rev. John Hausted, who was also chaplain at a chapel in Deritend. He did not have the classical education of a gentleman, but he certainly had some knowledge of both the classics and English literature and throughout his life actively pursued learning. As he walked to school he would have passed the houses in Temple Row occupied by well-to-do businessmen and professionals and would then have gone down High Street, the nearby lanes and courts being filled with workshops and all sorts of markets. Corn and garden produce were sold in the Bull Ring and there were a number of bookshops along the route. Distraction was everywhere for a boy with curiosity. The town and its workshops taught Boulton as much as the classroom.
While his many notebooks kept in adulthood demonstrate his inquisitiveness, they also show a knowledge of mathematics, science, engineering and much else besides. Boulton probably left school aged 14, as was usual at the time, and entered into his father's business. It would seem that he had both energy and enthusiasm for this.
In 1755, Boulton made a note of the books he had bought to set up in his study. The list contained many items that would have been found in a gentleman's library. There were four collected volumes of The Tatler and eight of The Spectator. There were English, Italian and French dictionaries and the complete works of Pope, Swift, Shakespeare and Locke. Then there were the more practical works such as Clare's Introduction to Book Keeping, besides a number of books on electricity.
His father specialised in buckle manufacture and it is said that at the age of 17, young Boulton produced an inlaid buckle which broadened the product portfolio and helped to enlarge his father's business. He became a partner at the age of 21 and, from that time on, was entrusted with the management of the business.
Matthew was a sociable individual, a trait remarked upon throughout his life. Amongst his friends were Samuel Garbett, button and hardware maker; Garbett's partner John Roebuck, the industrial chemist; and the great printer John Baskerville. All were independently minded, 'risktakers pursuing their ends with dogged perseverance'. Garbett taught Boulton how to finance large projects, and Roebuck showed him that science was important and could be made to pay, while Baskerville demonstrated that art and experiment were good bedfellows.
Later on, Boulton was an engaging host to the many Soho visitors, as well as to members of the Lunar Society. He was dark, with curly brown hair and a wide smile, well dressed, perhaps slightly flamboyantly, and had a sense of humour and an eye to the main chance in looking for a wife. He sought both love and money, and found this not once but twice through family connections in Lichfield. In 1749, at the age of 21, Boulton married Mary Robinson, daughter of a prosperous Lichfield mercer. The marriage settlement brought both land and money which were to benefit him as his businesses grew. Mary died ten years later, in 1759, being buried not in Birmingham but near Lichfield. Boulton was heartbroken and wrote a poem which he placed in her coffin (having carefully made a copy first). But only months later, he was sending love letters to Mary's sister, Ann, his 'lovely, dearest, sweetest charmer', whom he married in 1760, despite family and public disapproval. Ann brought additional land and capital and, on the death of her brother Luke, this was greatly increased.
In 1759, his father died leaving his property to Matthew junior. He got on well with other manufacturers in Birmingham and the surrounding area and was probably regarded as an eligible bachelor. This brought Boulton more into the public domain, and his demeanour and a degree of diplomacy must have singled him out to be prominent in petitioning the House of Commons in 1760, at the age of 32, when he appeared before a Parliamentary Committee as a representative of the buckle makers of Birmingham, Warwick and Wolverhampton. It is not known how he was selected, but this was only the beginning of a remarkable career as a parliamentary lobbyist.
It was reported that more than 8,000 people were employed in buckle making in the counties of Warwick and Stafford, and this excluded those employed in making tools and preparing materials. Buckles were made of copper, brass, iron, tin and spelter and many were set with glass in imitation of jewellery. The purpose of the inquiry was the buckle makers' petition to the House of Commons for leave to bring in a Bill to prohibit the export of buckle chapes – the part of the buckle by which it was fastened to a strap or ribbon. Chape making and buckle making were distinct and independent, only one example of the huge subdivision and specialisation within the toy trade. The division of labour and its separation into distinct businesses was a characteristic of a number of Birmingham industries, notably the gun trade in the nineteenth century.
Excerpted from Matthew Boulton by Jennifer Tann, Anthony Burton. Copyright © 2013 Jennifer Tann & Anthony Burton. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
1 Eighteenth-Century Birmingham: Birthplace of Matthew Boulton,
2 The Soho,
3 The 'Toymaker',
4 Family Life,
5 The Lunar Society,
6 Ormolu & Plate,
7 The Birth of the Steam Engine,
8 Boulton & Watt,
9 Patents & Piracy,
10 Birmingham Assay Office,
11 Money & Medals,
13 The Final Years,