Biography of Matthew Boulton

Matthew BOulton

Matthew Boulton was an eighteenth century industrial pioneer and manufacturer.

When and Where was he Born?

14th September 1728, New Hall Walk, Snow Hill, Birmingham, England.

Family Background:

Son of Matthew Boulton senior the manufacturer of buckles and metal “toys” and Christiana Piers. One of four children of parents formerly of Chester.

Education:

Reverend John Hausted’s Academy in Deritend, Birmingham. Left school at 14 to become a partner with his father.

Timeline of Matthew Boulton:

1745: Boulton enters his father’s business.

1756: He marries Mary Robinson a distant cousin and daughter of a Lichfield mercer.

1759: Death of his father leaving him his manufacturing business. Death of his first wife Mary.

1760: Matthew Boulton represents the buckle makers of England before a House of Commons Committee. He begins manufacturing Sheffield plate which was a process of laying a thin layer of silver on base metal. He marries Mary’s sister Anne who drowned in the swimming pool at Soho House, it is said because she couldn’t cope with the scandal.

Sarehole Mill
Sarehole Mill, Hall Green, Birmingham was used by Boulton before he moved to Handsworth.
 JRR Tolkien also found inspiration here at a later date (copyright Anthony Blagg)

1761: He leases land at Handsworth and begins building the Soho Manufactory in Birmingham, which consists of workshops, warehouses and dwellings for the workmen. Soho House itself was built in 1757.

1762: Boulton begins to build the Soho Works. He starts a partnership with John Fothergill to help him export products to Europe.

Soho House
Soho House, Handsworth, Birmingham (copyright Anthony Blagg)

1766: Completion of the Soho Manufactory and restoration of Soho House. The foundation of the Lunar Society which meets at Boulton’s house. Legend has it that the name came from the practice of holding meetings on evenings of the full moon so visitors could see their way home. The Society was originally founded by Boulton and Erasmus Darwin but later included such notables as James Watt, Benjamin Franklin and Josiah Wedgwood. He begins manufacturing items in ormolu as well as jewellery, ‘toys’ (items such as gilded snuff boxes), Sheffield plate and sterling silver tableware. Boulton and his wife move into Soho House for the first time. Boulton has a tea house built in the garden for visitors to take tea after their visit to the factory which became one of the wonders of the modern world. He begins to count amongst his friends eminent people such as Sir Joseph Banks, Benjamin Franklin, Sir William Herschel and Sarah Siddons.

1767: The first visit of James Watt to the Soho works even though Boulton wasn’t present on his occasion. Boulton’s interests were wide and he was largely self taught. He studied chemistry, meteorology, astronomy, medicine, electricity, the arts and classics as well as music.

1768: Watt meets Boulton for the first time. His daughter Anne is born on 29th January. He is placed on the General Hospital Committee, which has the task of organising the first of the Birmingham Music Festivals.

Dining Room Soho House
The Dining Room at Soho House where Lunar Society meetings were held (copyright Anthony Blagg)

1769: The first patent between Boulton and Watt for a steam engine is taken out. Boulton later seeks an extension of this patent until 1800 which was to give the pair a significant commercial advantage.

1770: Birth of son Mathew Robinson Boulton.

1770’s: Boulton begins the first minting of coins to give a standard weight and design.

1772: The botanist Joseph Banks takes some glass earrings designed by Boulton with him on Captain Cook’s circumnavigation of the globe. These are meant as bartering goods to give to the natives.

1773: The Birmingham Assay Office is officially opened which speeds up the process of officially marking silver in the area after a campaign by Boulton.

1774: Watt moves to Birmingham.

1775: He enters into a partnership with James Watt to build and market Watt’s steam pump. Not long after they were joined by another Scot, William Murdoch.

1781: A partnership with Fothergill is dissolved due to heavy financial losses.

1783: He is elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

1785: Boulton is elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.

1788: He invents a new process of manufacturing coins which makes them more difficult to counterfeit.

1790: Soho House is improved by James and Samuel Wyatt.

1792: Boulton becomes a Member of the Society of Civil Engineers.

Study at Soho House
Boulton’s Study at Soho House (copyright Anthony Blagg)

1793: Boulton becomes Chairman of the Birmingham Theatre Proprietors Committee.

1794: He becomes High Sherriff of Staffordshire.

1795: The company Boulton, Watt and Sons is formed. The Soho Foundry in Smethwick is opened.

1796: Richard Trevithick visits the Soho Foundry after the opening of a purpose built steam engine manufactory. Boulton begins the remodeling of Soho House. Boulton and Watt steam engines are soon being exported to all parts of the world.

1797: The Royal Mint gives him a contract to make copper coinage at Soho Manufactory.

1800: He becomes a proprietor of the Royal Institution.

1805: Boulton strikes a commemorative medal for sailors who fought at the Battle of Trafalgar.

When and Where Did he Die? 

17th August 1809, Birmingham, England of kidney failure.

Age at Death:

81.

Marriages:

  1. 1756 to Mary Robinson a distant cousin and daughter of a Lichfield mercer. (died 1759)
  2. 1760 to Mary’s sister Anne who drowned in the swimming pool at Soho House, it is said because she couldn’t cope with the scandal.
Statue of Boulton,Murdoch and Watt
Statue of Matthew Boulton, James Watt and William Murdoch in Broad Street, Birmingham (copyright Anthony Blagg)

Site of Grave:

St. Mary’s Church, Handsworth, Birmingham, England. Often referred to as the Cathedral of the Industrial Revolution.

Monument to Boulton on the wall of St Mary’s Church Handsworth, Birmingham. There is a brass plaque below containing details of burial. Boulton is buried nearby under the floor. (copyright Nicholas Caulkin – by kind permission of Rev Dr Bob Stephen)

Places of Interest:

BIRMINGHAM:

Soho House, Handsworth. (Part of Birmingham City Museums).

DEVON:

Ornamental Work at Saltram House, Devon. National Trust.

KENT:

The Historic Dockyard, Chatham,14 New Road, Chatham, Kent ME4 4QR
(The museum has one of Matthew Boulton’s Trafalgar medals which was issued to Francis Graham, a gunner on H.M.S. Minatour).

MIDDLESEX:

Kew Bridge Steam Museum, Green Dragon Lane, Brentford, TW8 0EN holds a Cornish Engine.