BOULTON, WATT AND THE CANADIAN ADVENTURE is a review of the trials and productions
of the Soho Mint in pursuit of business in Canada. The paper is by Dr Richard G Doty,
and was included in the American Numismatic Society’s volume “Canada’s Money” published
The paper appears here by kind permission of Dr Doty and the ANS.
1843 New Brunswick Penny Token
Boulton, Watt & Company, the coining and machinery firm founded by Matthew Boulton
of Soho near Birmingham, prepared coins, tokens, dies and machinery for a variety
of places around the world. Some of these were logical indeed, bearing numismatic
testimony to the old adage that trade follows the flag. Thus the British occupation
of India first resulted in coinages for various parts of this enlarged sphere of
influence, and eventually the provision of mints for the striking, in India, of a
colony- wide coinage on Boulton’s model.
In other cases, the paths of coinage and minting machinery take us by surprise: what,
precisely, was Matthew Boulton doing in Russia? What did he think he was doing when
he actively solicited business from Britain’s mortal foes, the Revolutionary French?
This cheerful ability to pop up in unexpected places is one of the more interesting
aspects of the Boulton operation, but it was not the most profitable. Taking the
overall view, Matthew Boulton, his successors, and their firm had their most persistent,
most lucrative dealings with those areas under British political and/or commercial
control. India is a prime example, but the English possessions in the Caribbean are
another. Canada is a third, and it forms the subject of this article.
Boulton and Soho: Not Wanted in the United States
The connections between the Birmingham firm and the British possession lasted, in
an episodic way, for over half a century. To a degree, they functioned in the shadow
of Soho’s largest concerns and hopes vis-à-vis Canada’s southern neighbour and, indeed,
Soho’s successes in the Canadian arena can only be fully understood with due regard
to its failures in the American one.
Matthew Boulton had long enjoyed an ambivalent relationship with the inhabitants
of the former thirteen colonies. In the mid 1770s, he had spearheaded a remonstrance
to Parliament, condemning American insurgency in highly intemperate language. By
the following decade, his views towards Americans had mellowed, Boulton wishing them
well in their new government experiment. In part, this originated in a natural desire
to increase the volume and types of business which his company had with the former
colonists. But it also stemmed from an authentic progressivism, one which was doubtless
reinforced by all the trouble and blind obstinance which Boulton was now encountering
in his attempts to secure a regal coining contract from the British King and his
Domestic resistance to new ideas, along with several thousand pounds’ worth of improved
minting equipment which he could not profitably allow to stand idle, led Matthew
Boulton into a number of speculative contracts with the Americans. His primary contact
in these early negotiations was John H Mitchell of Charleston, South Carolina. Boulton
first discussed the possibilities of a state coinage with this young, prematurely
optimistic planter. After the creation of the new national government under the Constitution
(which document prohibited state coinage) Boulton and the Charlestonian explored
the prospects of securing the right to strike our new, national coinage. Boulton
would fail in both attempts, in part because of the spirited opposition of Secretary
of State Thomas Jefferson to the national proposal. But an American coinage would
shine before Matthew Boulton and his successor like a numismatic Holy Grail for the
next two decades. Meanwhile they would content themselves with lesser things. And
here is where the contact with Canada originated.
● To read about Boulton’s problems with Thomas Jefferson and an American Coinage,
The Copper Company of Upper Canada
We have no archival testimony bearing on that first connection; there is only the
evidence of the coins. Or, rather, tokens; from 1794 come extremely rare pieces struck
on behalf of the Copper Company of Upper Canada. They are unquestionably Soho products,
their obverse die created by Noël-Alexandre Ponthon, who worked for Boulton between
1791 and 1795. Ponthon may have gotten the idea for the composition from a previous
Boulton piece, the 1791 Glasgow token for Gilbert Shearer & Company, the product
of an earlier, equally short term, engraver, Rambert Dumarest. The lettering surrounding
the figure, sunk into a raised border, was a distinctive Boulton touch from the mid
1790s, which would soon find a more important expression, on Soho’s regal copper
issues of 1797.
The reverse of the Canadian pattern is problematic. Ponthon presumably created it
as well, for its style is highly reminiscent of the reverses used for the Monneron
tokens, pieces for which Ponthon was certainly responsible. But its very simplicity
renders such an attribution uncertain; virtually any middling diesinker could have
created it. It seems to me that this plainness of reverse design may be ascribed
to one of two possibilities. Boulton may have counselled haste in filling a request
for a pattern, assuming that the artistry of Ponthon’s obverse would carry the project
to success. Or he may have viewed its prospects as unlikely, not worth the time of
an elaborate effort for the reverse die. Of the two possibilities, the former strikes
me as the more probable, for it corresponds to Boulton’s business procedure in several
other instances. But the contrast between obverse and reverse, however it originated,
strikes us as jarring. Walter Breen suggest that the Copper Company of Upper Canada
token was created on behalf of Governor Simcoe, whose recall in 1796 might explain
why the pieces never got beyond pattern stage.
Upper Canada, Kentucky, and Mules
There is a second, related, piece worth mentioning, a mule created by combining the
reverse of the Upper Canada token with the obverse of a second Soho pattern for American
consumption, a speculative halfpenny ordered by Philip Parry Price Myddelton for
a new settlement in Kentucky. The scheme never came to fruition, but a few tokens
did get manufactured, harbingers of what would have been a large issue had irate
Crown officials not prevented Myddelton and his flock from proceeding with their
Soho tended to save dies, even those for unsuccessful coinages. After the demise
of the firm, many of them were reused to create restrikes and mules by W J Taylor,
a Birmingham die sinker. Active between the 1860s and the 1890s, Taylor has made
matters miserable for several generations of scholars and collectors of Boultoniana,
many of his concoctions are readily identifiable, but others are not.
In the case of the Myddelton/Upper Canada mule, a restruck concoction by Taylor is
definitely suggested. Photographs of the piece indicate rust spots, which is precisely
what one encounters on other Taylor restrikes, pieces made decades after their purported
date. Additionally, coins, tokens, and medals made at Soho, even those manufactured
beyond their stated date, tend to have an internal consistency. Put another way,
there are very few mules in the legitimate Soho series. This piece, with not one
but two unrelated American references, strains credulity: the Soho coiners simply
did not embrace that sort of practice. In my opinion, this hybrid is a later concoction,
done outside the Soho Mint. But only a minute examination of the actual piece, its
surfaces, and especially its edges (Taylor’s edges are generally less precisely finished
than Soho’s) will tell for certain.
A Bit of a Puzzle
This second stage in Soho’s dealings with Canada is represented by a single document
in the Birmingham Reference Library Collection. It is a reply to a letter of 21st
January 1821, from W Richardson of Halifax, Nova Scotia. Richardson had written to
Boulton and Watt (the branch of the firm which built steam engines, which eventually
forwarded the letter to the coining branch of the operation) apparently requesting
information on the firm’s prices for preparing one or more orders of commercial tokens
for Canadian circulation. M R Boulton’s reply sets down the general parameters of
a business arrangement.
“Not possessing the advantage of being personally known to you, I hope it will not
be deemed improper on my part, previous to our entering upon the subject of your
letter, to beg the favour of a reference to some mercantile house of acknowledged
respectability in England, who may be willing to take upon themselves the responsibility
of answering my drafts for the amount of all your orders. It will also be requisite
for your correspondent in this country to furnish me with a licence from the Privy
Council for Trade and Plantations, authorising the export of these tokens, the making
and shipping of which would otherwise be considered illegal.”
The younger Boulton was being prudent here: the firm had been less cautious in several
other initial contacts, and it had occasionally paid dearly for its naïvété. But
its polite request for credentials may have cost it dearly in this instance as well:
we hear no more of Mr Richardson in the Birmingham Archives, and if he had tokens
struck they were not elaborated at Soho.
What might they have been? As far as I have been able to determine, there are no
tokens of this period from Nova Scotia, or from any other Canadian province, made
for a Mr Richardson. It is conceivable that he was involved in the semi-official
Nova Scotian halfpence and pence of 1823-24, but these coins were definitely not
Soho products, with a standard of workmanship far inferior to anything emanating
from the Boulton Mint. At present, nothing further can be said, and we are simply
left with one more instance of an initial contract left unfulfilled.
Four Banks of Lower Canada: Soho Awakes!
The next contract would come during the later 1830s, and it would generate concrete
results. Soho would carry through, actively solicit Canadian minting business, and
create an excellent token coinage which would add much credit to its name, and much
vitality to an ageing coinage operation..
Between the beginning of 1838 and the spring of 1845 Boulton, Watt designed and produced
no less than 90 tons of penny and halfpenny tokens for four fiscal institutions in
Lower Canada: the Bank of Montreal, the City Bank, the Quebec Bank, and the Banque
du Peuple. During these activities, the venerable firm showed a surprising degree
of celerity and panache, characteristics which stood in obvious contrast to the stodgy
ways in which it had tended to conduct its affairs in previous years. Only replying
by letter to an initial request made in late January 1838, Soho actually had dies
engraved, copper rolled and struck, and the first batch of penny tokens (for the
Bank of Montreal) out the door within three weeks time. And the Birmingham coiners
were soon sending them to their British port of embarkation by a new-fangled, time-saving
invention called a railway.
What had happened? Why should Soho have behaved with an activity worthy of the elder
Boulton when it had very recently displayed a cheerful indifference to timeliness,
and an absentmindedness which drove its clients to distraction?
The answer may be that the firm had just lost a lucrative piece of business, its
lackadaisical tradition having perhaps been a factor. The severed connection had
been in place for over 40 years, and it had been with one of the elder Boulton’s
targets of keenest interest, the United States of America. We need not go into details
here about the supply of planchets for United States cents and half cents, and in
any case they are covered in an article I published in the British Numismatic Journal.
It must be admitted that there is no mention of habitual lateness in carrying out
orders as a factor in the decision to end the United States Mint’s links with Boulton,
Watt, either in the Mint Papers at the National Archives in Washington, or in the
Birmingham Reference Library. But Soho’s tardiness in filling and sending orders
had annoyed the Mint on numerous occasions, and one virtue of the new American supplier
was that it was American, and hence somewhat more amenable to influence from Philadelphia.
In any event, Matthew Robinson Boulton and the other ageing members of the Soho operation
must have gone through extensive soul-searching once the surprising and irrevocable
decision of the Mint became known, and a determined resolve to do better with any
future coining contracts would have been a logical reaction. And history would repeat
itself: the disappearance of a moneying possibility with the Americans would, once
again, inspire increased attention to the land to the north.
Tokens for Lower Canada
Soho’s tokens for Lower Canada bear dates of 1837, 1842 and 1844. The dates are generally
inaccurate as to the time of manufacture. While 1842-dated issues actually were made
in the Summer of the year whose date they bear, the 1837 tokens were struck on several
occasions from the winter of 1838 through the Summer of 1839, while tokens dated
1844 were made well into 1845. This was reasonably common procedure at Soho, as indeed
it currently was, or had been, at many other mints. But confusion over the correct
year to place on a die might explain the fact that there are also extremely rare
halfpence dated 1845.
These pence and halfpence featured two designs. The 1837 issues for the four Lower
Canada banks already mentioned, display a ‘habitant’ or French-Canadian settler on
their obverses. This figure was widely, though incorrectly, thought to be Louis Joseph
Papineau, leader of an abortive rebellion against British rule in 1837, the date
given on the reverse. The primary design on that side of these penny and halfpenny
tokens, was a rendering of the arms of Montreal. The name of the actual issuing bank
may be seen in minute incused lettering on the ribbon beneath the arms. This reverse
was retained for the issues of 1842 and 1844, but a frontal view of the Bank of Montreal
was substituted for the habitant. I have been unable to uncover the name of the designer
or designers of these tokens, although they may have been the products of John Sheriff,
who was employed at Soho on Mexican coinage at the time the Canadian order was first
A progression of sorts exists in the Canadian activities of Boulton, Watt & Company
in the 1830s and 1840s. That is, the firm’s first Quebec coppers were created on
behalf of several strictly private banking institutions, while its second series
had a quasi-official air about it. The Bank of Montreal had secured what amounted
to a monopoly for the importation and circulation of copper tokens before placing
its second batch of orders with the Soho coiners. From now on, Boulton, Watt would
be coining for Canada in, at least, a semi-official capacity.
For a detailed view of the coins, please hover your cursor over the small image
Pattern Halfpenny by Ponthon for the Copper Company of Upper Canada?
New Brunswick: “a more beautiful coinage was never before issued from our Mint”
For New Brunswick, penny and halfpenny tokens were created in record time by Boulton,
Watt. On 4th August 1842g, J Tarratt & Company of Ann Street, Birmingham, made enquiries
to Boulton, Watt concerning a possible coinage for the province of New Brunswick.
A list of charges was sent to Tarratt’s the following day. For the next several months,
neither side appears to have pursued the issue: for Soho, the younger Boulton’s death
in mid 1842 would have complicated matters, as would have its current engagement
with the Bank of Montreal. But contact was resumed once the Montreal order had been
finished; in early January 1843, a contract was drawn up between Tarratt & Company
and John Westley on behalf of Boulton, Watt. Pence and halfpence were wanted, but
speed was of the essence; a Captain Dudne was in Britain on business for the colony,
and he hoped to return to St John with the tokens at the end of February. The constraint
of time in this particular instance (as well, I suspect, as a lingering memory of
the United States trade) inspired Soho to a speed and an artistic excellence, a sort
of numismatic grace under pressure, which would have done credit to the firm at any
time during its career, and which was truly extraordinary this close to its end.
Soho’s estimate of charges for the coinage went out on 6th January. More copper was
arranged for the following day (for the coinage would exhaust the slender resources
remaining after the Montreal order had been filled) An engraving of a frigate had
been procured by the 10th, and a rendering of this vessel would adorn the reverses
of the new coppers.
Metal for the issue was being rolled by the 16th. Dies were to be ready by the 22nd.
In the event, Soho had to wait until 2nd February for them, John Westley explaining
to the impatient Captain Dudne “that artists in our business are most notorious for
procrastination, much to our annoyance.” He added that the delay would be worthwhile,
considering the quality of the resulting tokens. Actual striking was underway by
the middle of February and this, the most crucial part of the operation, had been
completed by about the end of the month. On 1st March, Westley wrote to Captain Dudney
proudly to inform him that “I hope to have the pleasure to transmit the New Brunswick
coinage per railway on Saturday next, the 4th instant, being six days before the
time you gave us.” And on the following day, Westley passed a final judgement on
the new money. In a letter to Thomas Jones Wilkinson, he boldly said that “a more
beautiful coinage was never before issued from our mint.” History supports this view.
For all the speed with which it was executed, the New Brunswick coinage must certainly
stand as one of Soho’s loveliest creations. These are heavy pieces, the pence weighing
26 to the pound and the halfpence, 52. The depiction of the frigate is rendered with
the greatest attention to detail, while the head of the young Queen is charmingly
presented. These pieces are simply superb productions and they invite comparison
with the better-known Heaton issues of 1854.
A Dieu to Canada
By that time, of course, Soho no longer existed, having gone out of business at mid-century,
but since Ralph Heaton & Sons had purchased the earlier firm’s coining machinery,
a direct line of descent exists between the issues of 1843 and those of 1854. Those
machines, first developed by Matthew Boulton and carefully tended by generations
of Soho artisans, still had much work to do. And if a high degree of wear means anything,
then the products they struck for Canada enjoyed an eager and sustained acceptance
among several generations of a growing nation. Matthew Boulton could not have wished
for a better, more lasting, Canadian legacy than this.
498,576 Pennies struck at twenty six coins to the pound of metal.
710,112 Halfpennies struck at fifty two coins to the pound of metal