Fantastic Lives: Three Wise Men; Then

Article excerpt


IN most books written on the history of Birmingham the names of Boulton and Watt go together like Port and Stilton or Morecambe and Wise.

Yet the Matthew Boulton and James Watt partnership came together by chance, each man having already earned recognition for individual achievements.

They were later joined by a third successful 18th-century icon -the highly successful engineer, William Murdoch. An impressive statue built in appreciation of what the trio did for the Industrial Revolution and Birmingham still stands proudly in Broad Street.

Matthew Boulton was born in 1728 at No 7 Snow Hill. His father was a fairly wealthy button and buckle manufacturer who had moved to Birmingham from Lichfield years earlier.

The young Boulton received a private and grammar school education before setting up his own buttons and buckles business.

His willingness to go it alone must have impressed his father because he bequeathed his business to him rather than his brother after his death.

The faith was justified as Boulton developed and expanded the business, creating the famous Soho Factory on a vacant plot of land on Handsworth Heath.

It was a perfect site because the nearby Hockley Brook could be used to drive his water-powered lathes.

During his early days Boulton's debts were often greater than his wealth. His ultimate success was largely due to his belief that massproduced items would always be more attractive to prospective purchasers because of reduced costs.

Because of the general increase in wealth during the 18th century, people like farmers and merchants had accrued more financial stability.

Luxuries such as fancy buckles and jewellery became more accessible and Boulton's capability of mass production satisfied an ever-growing demand. More people wanted the nicer things in life and were able to afford them.

It was on the back of those social changes that Boulton eventually became wealthier than he could ever have imagined.

Boulton was arguably the pioneer of what became Birmingham's Jewellery Quarter and he was also influential in securing the opening of the city's first Assay Office.

He also befriended Josiah Wedgwood, the Staffordshire potter, by copying some of his designs, producing items such as cloth-covered buttons in various mixed colours, cameos and cameo plaques.

In 1766 Boulton built his ownhome at a cost of pounds 10,000 next to his Soho Factory.

Soho House still stands today for all to see as a museum to the man who once lived there.

Life for Matthew Boulton, however, wasn't without its tragedies. His first wife, Mary Robinson, from Lichfield, died at the age of 32, having had children who had either died from illness or been stillborn. …