Updated: Nov 6, 2020
He backed the development of steam engines, built the first factories, minted our coinage and created beautiful objects from silver and precious stones and hosted moonlit suppers for fellow businessmen.
"I sell here what all the world desires to have - power" (Matthew Boulton 1728-1809)
He was widely known during his lifetime but his business interests don't survive into living memory to the extent of one of his contemporaries - Josiah Wedgwood.
Boulton mass-produced functional items such as buckles, buttons and housewares. His high value items in silver and Blue John survive in museums and private collections but are not widely known. His steam engines became obsolete and as a consequence he hasn't lodged in the mainstream of 18th century history. But his story is worth telling and he does appear on the £50 note along with his business associate James Watt.
He was born into the Birmingham business of 'toy' making - the mass production of buckles, decorative chains, snuff boxes and other steel trinkets. During his lifetime England was increasing in wealth and power and the merchant middle classes were growing in number, keen to emulate the lifestyles of the landed gentry.
Boulton's business was perfectly positioned to furnish them with what they wanted. He invested £11,000 with his partner, John Fothergill and built a 'manufactory' (factory) on the outskirts of Birmingham at Soho. They struggled at first to make a success of things, costing items badly and failing to chase up bad debts. Boulton started courting affluent customers and making bespoke items from ormolu, silver and rare minerals including Derbyshire Blue John.
The Soho Manufactory became a tourist attraction in the late 1700s bringing visitors from the UK and Europe. Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton visited in 1802. A special showroom was set up with high value items for the wealthiest visitors. There was even a refreshment room.
As a local business entrepreneur he was a founder member of the Lunar Society along with Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles), James Watt, Josiah Wedgwood and Joseph Priestley. They met each month on Sundays nearest the full moon (so the light from it could help guide them home afterwards). they met to discuss new ideas in chemistry, engineering and physics, conducting experiments to test new theories.
Boulton's business included silversmith work and he was reluctant to have to take items from Birmingham to Chester to have them assayed (tested for purity) and stamped. With other like-minded businessmen from Sheffield he successfully lobbied the London Goldsmiths to permit the creation of new Assay Offices in Birmingham and Sheffield. On his numerous campaigning visits to London he stayed at the Crown & Anchor on the Strand. When the offices were operational they used two new silver symbols to represent the towns - a Crown for Sheffield and an Anchor for Birmingham.
Boulton was keen to expand his business operations and he needed more efficient ways to generate the power needed to craft his products. The answer lay in steam - and this will form the basis of part two of his story, to be continued sometime soon.