Midlands Archive : A New Era after Industrial Revolution; Chris Upton Looks at the Building of the Soho Foundry, While below, Ross Reyburn Looks at the Area as It Is Today

Article excerpt

Byline: Chris Upton

"On Saturday last the Rearing Feast of the new foundry, lately built by Messrs Boulton, Watt & Sons at Smethwick, was given to the engine-smiths and all the other workmen employed in the erection. Two fat sheep (the first fruits of the newly cultivated land at Soho) were sacrificed at the Altar of Vulcan, and eaten by the Cyclops in the Great Hall of the Temple, which is 46 feet wide and 100 feet long. These two great dishes were garnished with rumps and rounds of beef, legs of veal, and gammons of bacon, with innumerable meat pies and plum puddings, accompanied by a good band of martial music."

So ran the report in Aris's Birmingham Gazette on the opening of the Soho Foundry on January 30, 1796, and even allowing for a spot of poetic licence on the part of the reporter, it suggests that a grand time was had by all. Especially so as this was at the depth of economic recession.

Across town soup kitchens were dispensing broth to the poor and starving and the workhouse was dealing with 6,000 people in need of relief.

Given the country's worst recession in generations, one might question whether this was the right time to launch a new enterprise on this sort of scale.

The cost of land purchase and building amounted to about pounds 27,000 which, as they always say, was a lot of money in those days. But the creation of Soho Foundry was the product of both ambition and necessity, the driving forces of most business ventures then as now.

Necessity came in the shape of James Watt's patent for his improved steam engine, which was due to run out in 1800. The famous partnership of the Birmingham businessman, Matthew Boulton, and the Scottish engineer, James Watt, based around Watt's engine, had transformed the nature of industrial production and was arguably the keystone to the Industrial Revolution.

So profitable was the new engine that the company had never needed to manufacture it themselves, only to sell the designs. The engines were constructed on site - beside a canal or in a factory - and the company simply took a share (generally a premium of one third) of the profits from the fuel saved by the more efficient engine.

That alone could amount to more than pounds 200,000 per engine.

But the legal battles James Watt had faced to protect his patent against infringement made it abundantly clear that when the patent expired an engineering free-for-all would ensue and customer loyalty would not alone keep the rotative wheels turning at Soho. …