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Matthew Boulton’s Steam Mint - The Early Years

MATTHEW BOULTON’S STEAM MINT - THE EARLY YEARS

by Chris Leather

 

I have to confess that I produced a title page to this presentation, something in the nature of a tease. The graphic style of the eighteenth century is quite distinctive, and I thought that I would like to attempt something in the same fashion – rather like Rolf Harris! By adopting a layout, which would have been fresh and up to date at the time, and adding a modicum of modern technology, I ended up with the result that you see before you. Just let your cursor hover over the small thumbnail to the left.

 

There is a point to all this, as my title page stands as a parable of Matthew Boulton and his enterprises. He, too, looked about him at the style of his times, and at its methods of production, and did everything he could to improve and enhance both – subject of course to the need to make the odd penny or two as well!

 

Making money was in fact only a small part of Boulton’s manufacturing enterprise but, as the subject of my presentation is Matthew Boulton’s Steam Mint, it will be the development of the Mint that we will look at here.

I have to confess that I produced a title page to this presentation, something in the nature of a tease. The graphic style of the eighteenth century is quite distinctive, and I thought that I would like to attempt something in the same fashion – rather like Rolf Harris! By adopting a layout, which would have been fresh and up to date at the time, and adding a modicum of modern technology, I ended up with the result that you see before you. Just let your cursor hover over the small thumbnail to the left.

 

There is a point to all this, as my title page stands as a parable of Matthew Boulton and his enterprises. He, too, looked about him at the style of his times, and at its methods of production, and did everything he could to improve and enhance both – subject of course to the need to make the odd penny or two as well!

 

Making money was in fact only a small part of Boulton’s manufacturing enterprise but, as the subject of my presentation is Matthew Boulton’s Steam Mint, it will be the development of the Mint that we will look at here.

I have to confess that I produced a title page to this presentation, something in the nature of a tease. The graphic style of the eighteenth century is quite distinctive, and I thought that I would like to attempt something in the same fashion – rather like Rolf Harris! By adopting a layout, which would have been fresh and up to date at the time, and adding a modicum of modern technology, I ended up with the result that you see before you. Just let your cursor hover over the small thumbnail to the left.

 

There is a point to all this, as my title page stands as a parable of Matthew Boulton and his enterprises. He, too, looked about him at the style of his times, and at its methods of production, and did everything he could to improve and enhance both – subject of course to the need to make the odd penny or two as well!

 

Making money was in fact only a small part of Boulton’s manufacturing enterprise but, as the subject of my presentation is Matthew Boulton’s Steam Mint, it will be the development of the Mint that we will look at here.

Money was, and is, a Royal monopoly – leaving to the hangman those private entrepreneurs who throughout history have felt that a place should be made for their own, not quite official, products. Be that as it may, our main experience is with coins bearing the portraits and titles of the monarchs. The years from 1714 to 1830 were the years of the King Georges, and to distinguish between succeeding Georges, we add an ordinal number. They were obviously all extremely popular monarchs, as the following ditty suggests:

 

George the First was always reckoned

Vile, but viler George the Second,

and what mortal ever heard any good of George the Third?

So when from earth the Fourth descended,

God be praised, the Georges ended.

 

In this light, it seems rather cruel to create a comparison by assigning a number to Matthew Boulton, the greatest private exponent of the art of making money. The reason for this is not any pretension to royalty by the Boultons, but a confusing tendency for all the Boulton boys to be called Matthew.

Matthew the Third was his son, Matthew Robinson Boulton, who was born in 1770 and who, having achieved his ambition to be as unlike his father as possible, died not quite so full of years and, though probably richer, certainly not nearly so full of pence, rupees and roubles, in 1842.

 

His son was Matthew the Fourth, Matthew Piers Watt Boulton, who was born in 1820, and we will not speak about him. His unspeakable contribution to the Soho story was to take the decision to close and sell the Mint, which was done in 1850. What he did with his years and pence we shall ignore as he was, in our sense, the end of the line.

The Boulton Line

 

Matthew Boulton the First enters our story at the beginning of the eighteenth century. He was a manufacturer of small metal objects – “toys” in the terminology of the time. Though undoubtedly worthy, he was neither rich nor famous, and hence no-one thought to take his likeness. From our point of view, though, his principal production was Matthew the Second.

 

Matthew the Second is “our” Matthew Boulton, the founder of the Mint. He was born in 1728 and died full of years and pence, rupees and roubles, in 1809. To signal his true worth, we will simply call him “Boulton.”

The Arms of Hanover prior to 1837

The Dawn of the Revolution

 

While the eighteenth century saw the beginning of what we call the Industrial Age, our Boulton, Matthew the Second, was born into a world which was mostly agricultural, where what manufacturing there was consisted of crafts and craftsmanship in a mostly rural and domestic environment.

 

We tend to look back on this period as a kind of pre-assembly line Golden Age, when everything was made to last by men and women who knew their jobs to the finest detail. In practice, it meant that so much time and labour was invested in any craftsman-made article that it had to last for many years, because it was so valuable, yet for which readily available spare parts did not exist because everything was made individually. The social consequence was that most people owned very few things, and that fashion and change was driven only by the small group of people at the top of society who could afford to discard or replace possessions at a whim. Indeed, the first true factory, which was established by Thomas Lombe at Derby about 1717, and which employed 300 people, produced silk textiles – hardly a mass market product.

 

The principal problem in making anything was machinery. Usually it was the lack of it, but even when it existed, the trick was to make it work. Most machinery requires, as the source of power, something to rotate, preferably quite quickly, and preferably at the same speed continuously for a long time.

A water-powered spinning machine - more like domestic furniture than industrial plant!

Yet at the start of the industrial age, there were only three effective sources of power. Man and Beast power was weak and unreliable, tired quite quickly, and could be temperamental. Wind power was stronger but unreliable, and quite inconsistent. Water power was much the most reliable, but the need for a suitable fall limited the number of places where it could be used. And then of course there was the weather. While British weather is dull and wet, at least to foreigners, there are of course extended periods when the wetness is rather sparsely distributed, and during the harsh winters of the 17th and 18th centuries, frozen ponds and mill races certainly contained the wrong sort of water.

 

It was, of course, the coming of steam which revolutionised manufacturing. Firstly with the atmospheric engines, pioneered by Newcomen and installed from 1712 onwards, and then later by the high pressure engines developed by James Watt in the 1760s.

The Start of the Boulton Enterprise

 

But none of this impinged on the history of the family Boulton just yet. Matthew the First had established a small workshop in his house at the corner of Snow Hill and Slaney Street in Birmingham, in which he made buckles. They must have been good buckles, because they allowed “our” Boulton the luxury of attendance at a private school, though it would seem from later documents that either it wasn’t a very good school, or that spelling did not feature largely on the curriculum. But of course, he also had to work at making the buckles, and very good he became, introducing a new type of buckle, apparently very successfully, at the age of 17. Matthew the First must have been duly impressed with his son as he was taken into partnership on his coming of age, with the management of the business following immediately.

 

With our Boulton at the helm, the buckle business thrived but, as in our own time, business and politics were inextricably interlinked. Boulton became deeply involved in promoting a Parliamentary Bill to ban the export of buckle-chapes, the chape being the tongue which fastens the buckle to its strap. The reason for this was simple. Exporting chapes would allow foreign buckle manufacturers to thrive, which would hurt the budding Boulton buckle business. The corollary, which was that banning such export would hurt English chape manufacturers, was fully appreciated by Boulton but, after all, it was a case of everyone for himself. The bill was lost, but the Boulton enterprise survived, anyhow!

Sarehole Mill, playground of the infant Tolkien and inspiration for 'Middle Earth' in Lord of the Rings.

By the mid 1750’s, the Boultons’ business had outgrown the domestic premises and in 1755, at our Boulton’s behest, Matthew the First bought an extended site at Sarehole Mill. For reasons now unknown, this did not prove satisfactory, and within five years, Number Two was on the property trail again.

The Start of the Soho Years

 

This time, he acquired a site at Handsworth Heath, at a place called Soho on the Hockley brook, with a substantial piece of newly enclosed heathland attached. In response to criticism of him for using enclosed common land, Boulton later wrote that:

 

“I founded my manufactory upon one of the most barren commons in England, where there existed but a few miserable huts filled with idle beggarly people, who by the help of the common land, and a little thieving, make shift to live without working. The scene is now entirely changed. I have employed a thousand men, women and children in my manufactory for nearly thirty years past.”

 

The move to Soho was at a time of both tragedy and triumph for Boulton. His father had died in 1759, shortly before its acquisition, and in the same year Boulton’s first wife died. But it was their deaths, and the resulting inheritances, which financed the Soho project and, whether through cupidity or the activities of Cupid, Boulton eventually married his first wife’s sister, and secured the remainder of her family’s resources.

 

The site at Soho, with its plentiful water supply, allowed Boulton to develop those ideas on manufacturing which he had formulated during the years in his father’s workshop. Ten years after its foundation, Soho was described by contemporary guidebook writer Myles Swinney as consisting:

 

“of four Squares, with Shops, Warehouses &c for a Thousand Workmen, who in a great variety of Branches, excel in their several Departments; not only in the fabrication of Buttons, Buckles, Boxes, Trinkets &c in Gold, Silver, and a variety of Compositions, but in many other Arts, long predominant in France, which lose their Reputation on a Comparison with the product of this Place.”

A Château set in a country park? No! Soho Manufactory.

Cut steel ornament extremely popular at the time

And it is by the Natives hereof, or of the parts adjacent, whose emulation and taste the Proprietors have spared no Care or Expence to excite and improve, that it is brought to its present flourishing State. The number of ingenious mechanical Contrivances they avail themselves of, by the means of Water Mills, much facilitates their Work, and saves a great proportion of Time and Labour.”

 

By this time, Soho occupied about 40,000 square feet of space, and although it was stated that it could employ a thousand people, the implication is that this was not always the case, and that work was rather more seasonal and cyclical than the owner might have desired. To put the numbers into perspective, Birmingham in the 1770s comprised around 40,000 people living in 7,000 dwellings. This was a significant growth from the Agricultural age, but also suggests that the Industrial Revolution was still only in its early stages.

Boulton’s Manufactory soon became one of the foremost attractions of Birmingham, and Boulton the Shrewd, exploiting full well the value of his connection (or as we would say: networking) was more than happy to entertain influential visitors there and also at his home, Soho House, which was just a few hundred yards away.

 

But as we heard from Myles Swinney, the Soho Manufactory was still water powered. How did Boulton become addicted to the steam power which would rule the second half of his life? Like so many great historical developments, the matter was one of chance.

Soho House, Boulton’s home from 1765 up to his death in 1809

A Good Head of Steam!

 

Dr John Roebuck, of Birmingham, was an entrepreneur with an interest in coal mining and ironworks in Scotland, indeed, he was the founder of the Carron ironworks near Falkirk, producing a particular type of cannon which became known as a Carronade. James Watt was a Scot with an interest in selling steam engines to entrepreneurs. With these common interests, the two formed a partnership in 1769 by which Roebuck’s money was used to fund Watt’s engine developments, and to buy him a share in Watt’s patent for the high pressure steam engine.

 

In 1772, Roebuck fell victim to the serious economic depression which was afflicting much of the country’s business, and in 1773 became bankrupt. Although this didn’t directly involve Watt, the failure of his financial backing was a serious blow to him. As it happened, Boulton was a creditor of Roebuck, to the extent of £1,200, and having first met Watt on a visit to London in 1768, took over the share of the Watt patent as settlement of his claim. So it transpired that a new enterprise, Boulton and Watt, was formed to develop the engine business.

 

Boulton radically improved the state of his manufactory by the introduction of steam. Partly this was due to the use of the engine to pump the used water back up to the mill pond to be used again to drive the water powered section of the works but, more significantly, it also allowed the powering of new machines, by drive shafts and belts directly from the steam engine.

 

The agreement between the new partners provided, briefly, that Watt was to assign two thirds of any patent rights to Boulton, and was to make drawings, give directions and make surveys. Boulton undertook to clear expenses already incurred, pay all future experimental costs, and keep the books of the concern. Profits would be assigned pro rata.

Boulton set out to obtain orders for engines, and went at his task hammer and tongs, selling Watt engines to collieries, to John Wilkinson the Ironmaster, and to the new Canal companies to allow them to refill their lock reservoirs from lower levels.

All around the country, new uses were being found for engines of all descriptions. And, of course, the availability of machine tools made it so much easier to make new machines, in a kind of Chaplinesque “Modern Times” merry-go-round.

 

The stage was thus set for the next phase in industrialisation – the Great Expansion. The principal problems we identified earlier – how to make the machines and how to make them work – were largely solved. But a new, and hitherto unconsidered, problem arose.

Hover your cursor

Cash in Hand

 

From the beginning, the aspiring factory or mill owner discovered that he needed large numbers of human workers to mind and maintain the machines. He could only attract these workers in one particular way, and with one particular commodity. The aspiring factory or mill hand found that he could only survive in the new urban world full of strangers, without his rural family network to support him, if he received an adequate supply of that particular commodity. As I’m sure that you have all guessed by now, that commodity was MONEY. The Industrial Revolution was based on the payment of regular wages in the form of coinage. Since the typical wage for a manual worker was only around ten to twelve shillings a week, what was most urgently needed was a large number of low denomination coins. Without that coinage, wages could not be paid, and without monetary wages no one would willingly leave the clear air of the countryside for the urban squalor of Leeds or Birmingham, or Manchester!

George III Halfpenny, Royal Mint, 1772

As matters stood, there was very little small change in circulation, the Royal Mint having ceased production of copper coinage in the 1775, just as the Industrial Revolution was getting underway, while the last silver struck in any quantity dated back even further to the 1750s. The Mint’s hand operated presses required two men to swing a weighted lever to drive down a screw die, with a third placing the blanks between the dies, producing coins one by one, a slow process capable of striking, at best, no more than about ten coins a minute – and even that only for short periods. This lack of small change meant that, often, an employer would give high value coins to groups of workmen to share between themselves as best they could. “Here you are, my lads, here is a guinea between you.”

Outstandingly bad forged halfpenny with evasive reverse!

If he was lucky, the best our worker might expect to find in his pay packet was silver worn down to a fraction of its legal weight, a motley collection of counterfeit halfpence and farthings, with a leavening of worn-out regal coppers from any time during the last century. Boulton once estimated that two out of every three coppers was doubtful, other observers put the figure at over 90% duds. In the trays, there are examples of the excessively worn silver together with genuine and imitation coppers. Incidentally, many of these forgeries were produced to look worn, even when new, in order to improve their street cred. These dreadful products were augmented after 1787, in the continuing absence of regal coins, by privately produced tokens.

 

In the early years of their production, token makers often used “evasive” designs, which were sufficiently unlike regal coins to avoid any accusations of forgery – which was, of course, a serious crime.

 

But with these first tokens lies the connection we have all been waiting for.

 

The need is for copious supplies of low value coinage.

The Government didn’t provide any.

Enterprising traders and manufacturers stepped in with private tokens.

These traders needed someone to produce their tokens, quickly, cheaply and reliably.

This could best be done by manufacturers used to making small metal objects.

 

The Problem

 

If he was lucky, the best our worker might expect to find in his pay packet was silver worn down to a fraction of its legal weight, a motley collection of counterfeit halfpence and farthings, with a leavening of worn-out regal coppers from any time during the last century. Boulton once estimated that two out of every three coppers was doubtful, other observers put the figure at over 90% duds. In the trays, there are examples of the excessively worn silver together with genuine and imitation coppers. Incidentally, many of these forgeries were produced to look worn, even when new, in order to improve their street cred. These dreadful products were augmented after 1787, in the continuing absence of regal coins, by privately produced tokens.

 

In the early years of their production, token makers often used “evasive” designs, which were sufficiently unlike regal coins to avoid any accusations of forgery – which was, of course, a serious crime.

 

But with these first tokens lies the connection we have all been waiting for.

 

The need is for copious supplies of low value coinage.

The Government didn’t provide any.

Enterprising traders and manufacturers stepped in with private tokens.

These traders needed someone to produce their tokens, quickly, cheaply and reliably.

This could best be done by manufacturers used to making small metal objects.

The Solution

 

We can see the connection between industrialisation and the expansion of coinage quite readily, but we cannot be certain that Boulton approached it from quite the same direction. Indeed, we cannot be certain exactly when Boulton began to link in his own mind the application of steam power to coin production. He wanted to meet the need for more coinage, this is true, and he was committed to steam through his partnership with Watt.

 

The best estimate, based on later accounts, is that by 1784 or 1785 he had an imperfect vision of a steam engine, driving a circular flywheel, with an escapement which would individually engage with a number of screw presses mounted below the flywheel. But at this stage, it remained a vision.

 

As he developed and promoted the virtues of his concept for producing coinage, he saw an expansion of output, always and only, in conjunction with an improvement in quality. More and better coins created would inevitably drive out the fakes and duds – a curious repeal of Gresham’s law. Steam power could create more and better coins, and it could create them more cheaply.

 

And there were personal issues and beliefs which affected the way Boulton viewed the various developments.

 

- Boulton had a social conscience, which saw him introduce compulsory health and accident insurance for his workforce; which saw him serving on a local committee dealing with crime and social problems, and advocating single cells in gaols, rather than the common clinks then in use. This conscience drove him to see a proper coinage as a necessity for the poorer classes and “the means of saving many an unfortunate man from an ignominious death.”

 

- Boulton had civic pride too, which, though it forced him to admit that Birmingham was the source for many of the counterfeit coins in circulation, prompted him to propose that beautiful, unforgeable new coins, made in Birmingham, would rescue the city’s reputation, and raise it to new heights.

 

It is very easy for a cynical twenty first century observer to mock such lofty ideals, but these principles, with a modicum of self interest, governed Boulton’s remaining years, and formed the core of his work.

Striking Developments

 

But ironically, given the need and the will, Boulton’s first order for coins, received in June 1786, was not for the deserving British poor, or even for deserving or undeserving British employers. Once again, the circumstances highlight the curious chance on which historic developments can depend. Boulton, in his other persona as supplier of luxury goods, had provided silver wares to Mr John Motteux, who successively served as Director, deputy Chairman, and then Chairman of the Honourable East India Company. When a need arose for copper coin, for trading with the natives at Benkoolen in Sumatra, the East India Company looked around for someone to provide this for them. The Royal Mint, having shown its usual degree of entrepreneurial interest, was soon dropped from consideration, and Boulton’s name was remembered.

What happened next was rather remarkable. Boulton got the order. There doesn’t appear to have been any formal, written, contract, and Boulton didn’t admit to having any coining machinery, though this now seems a little bit odd, as he had produced a series of coin weights, which have many of the characteristics of coins, from as early as 1775. He did, however, have the equipment to produce the blanks, and these were made in Soho, before being shipped to London. There, Boulton established a traditional hand-operated mint, paid for by the East India Company, and which produced eighteen tons of coins between August 1786 and the middle of May 1787. The East India Company was not pleased at the delay, but nonetheless awarded Boulton a second order for thirty tons in May 1787.

A hand-operated coining press as portrayed by Lutwyche, one

of Boulton’s competitors in the token business

One Keping piece for the East India Company settlement at Bencoolen, Sumatra

Blanks produced at Soho, coins struck in London. Boulton’s First Coins!

These were completed early in 1788, and by this time Boulton was beginning to become enthusiastic about coining. He solicited a third order from the East India Company, but his lateness in delivering the first order was now remembered, and no further business was immediately forthcoming. Boulton calculated the costs of his production, noted the price paid by the East India Company, and concluded that minting could be profitable, but not the way he was doing it at that moment. Concentrating all the production at one site, and using steam power – that was the way forward.

 

During 1787, the Ministry of William Pitt showed certain signs of willingness to come to grips with the problem of the coinage. With all the zeal of the convert, Boulton started to lobby the Government, and lobbied, and lobbied, and lobbied. He achieved the appointment of a Privy Council Committee to look into his proposals for a revitalised coinage. They looked carefully, and continued to look carefully, for three years before making a series of recommendations which were, in the end, ignored. Nothing changes.

 

But in the meantime, Boulton had been making progress on his own account. In 1786, on a business visit to Paris with James Watt, the two of them, accompanied by the American Minister Thomas Jefferson, visited the Paris Mint, where they met the Engineer and Engraver, Jean Pierre Droz. Throughout 1787 Boulton remained in contact with Droz, and it seems that he viewed the combination of steam power and Droz as something approaching a dream team. Droz had done remarkable work at the Paris Mint, designing the mechanism by which incuse edge inscriptions could be added to coin while it was being struck. While Watt and the engineers worked on harnessing steam power to coining presses, Boulton sought to induce Droz to come to Soho, as engraver in residence, and eventually succeeded, or thought he had. With the two pillars of his establishment apparently in place, Boulton, ever the optimist, believed that it was only a matter of time before the contract to make a new regal copper coinage would be handed to him.

Thomas Williams of Llanidan

‘Despotick Sovereign of the Copper Trade’ or ‘Fair Play Tom’

The Dream Team and ‘Fair Play Tom’

 

The slag in the ingot, to coin a phrase, was one Thomas Williams, a North Wales lawyer, and the driving force behind the Anglesey Mines. Williams had begun in 1787 to coin the copper from his mines, and started a long series of pennies and halfpennies bearing a Druid’s Head – almost the first of many hundreds of private tokens. Williams, too, was interested in securing the services of Droz, and tried blandishments, inducements, and even a personal visit to Paris, but Droz elected to continue with his attachment to Soho.

 

There were probably many times during the next couple of years when Boulton must have wished that Williams had succeeded. Boulton wrote to Droz. Droz did not reply. Boulton sent to Paris a number of images of King George III to assist Droz in preparing a pattern die. Droz demanded a plaster bust. Droz demanded certain sums of money for his work, Boulton agreed, and then Droz demanded more. And still the work did not get done. Droz came to England to meet Boulton, and left a few trifling bills in London ‘which he was sure Mr Boulton would take care of.’ Droz returned to Paris having promised that he would work on Boulton’s patterns with renewed vigour.

 

The only concrete result of the collaboration during 1787 was the knowledge which Boulton gained of certain features of the coin press which Droz had developed. By October of that year, Boulton was engaged in drawing up the specification of the Droz presses. By November, the building to house the mint was taking shape.

 

But then bureaucracy stepped in. The Privy Council Committee, in the midst of its deliberations, summoned Boulton to appear, with patterns for the coinage he had proposed. Not yet ready, Boulton put off his journey to London on account of ill health from December 1787 to January 1788, while writing to Droz to send him anything, anything, in the way of a pattern. Of course, Droz had produced nothing. Boulton appeared before the committee with no patterns, but nonetheless succeeded in impressing the members.

The outcome Boulton desired would have been a coinage contract. He had high hopes, and came away from the meeting with the strong impression that matters would move forward very soon. They did not, and although he probably did not appreciate it at the time, this failure to win an order was very fortunate. Boulton as yet had no mint, no engraver, and no experience. Had he been given the contract, it is quite possible that he would have failed, and his later successes would have been prejudiced. There was one minor success however - the rejection of the competing proposals put forward by Thomas Williams. There might be no Boulton coinage, but there was to be no Williams coinage either.

‘The Great Opencast’ at Parys Mine, Anglesey

April 2008

The Foundations Laid

 

1788 progressed, and work proceeded. The early months of the year saw timber bought, casting work started on the presses, and the first skilled hands employed. Droz continued at his usual pace, and to try to encourage him, Boulton sent a business associate Andrew Collins, and his son Matthew the Third, over to Paris to keep an eye on matters. This had some effect, and Droz produced a halfpenny pattern by the end of February. A handsome coin, the only problem was the reverse die, which broke after a dozen or so specimens had been struck. Droz then abandoned engraving and started work on the models for the presses. By the middle of May, it looked as though Boulton’s insistence on Droz’s coming to Soho was having an effect. Droz demanded a further £200 or £300 to settle his affairs in France before moving. Boulton sent the money. Droz didn’t move.

 

By the middle of the year, Droz had engraved a new reverse die, and had produced fifty four pattern halfpence on gilt blanks supplied by Boulton. Unfortunately, together with the coins, came an apology from Droz for the fact that he had had to strike the coins by hand. All was not well with the presses. The coins themselves were, however, most impressive, especially when compared with other patterns prepared at the Royal Mint by their inferior Chief Engraver Lewis Pingo.

 

Boulton returned to his networking, handing out the gilt patterns to anyone who might have access to the levers of power. The outcome was a meeting with Lord Liverpool at the end of June. The phrase “the more things change, the more they stay the same” could have been coined for the outcome of this meeting. A selection of reasons was advanced, but nothing happened. No coinage was ordered. It was never said, but there must be at least the suspicion that the opposition of the Royal Mint played a part. They could not possibly compete with the quality of Droz’s pattern, so adopted the view that no coinage was better than Boulton’s coinage.

Pattern Halfpenny by Jean-Pierre Droz, 1788

Bonjour, M. Droz!

 

Then, just to put the icing on Boulton’s cake, Droz turned up. Together with cart loads of baggage, his wig dresser, his workman, and his mistress. To add insult to injury, Droz’s baggage was impounded by Customs, probably at the instigation of the Royal Mint, and Boulton had to pull a number of strings at Ministerial level in order to obtain the release of the cases. As Droz’s secret device for marking the edges of the coins was in one of these, much anxiety was caused in case the Royal Mint stole the idea. In the event, the device was overlooked, and the secret remained safe.

 

With Droz on site, even if not greatly productive, matters did move forward, and by July 1788 Boulton was ready to have another go at officialdom, with a long letter to Lord Hawkesbury, and a visit to London to point out the advantages of his new system. The reason he got nowhere this time was the health of the King. George III was suffering from the first of the attacks which would blight his reign, and at the time it was not known whether he would survive. No-one wanted to order a new coinage which might, by the time of delivery, be bearing the portrait of a former monarch. At least, that was the story. But then Fortune appeared to smile.

Medal by Droz to celebrate the restoration of the King's health, Soho 1789

The King recovered, and Boulton decided to issue a celebratory medal, in gold, silver, copper and Barton’s Metal. Several thousand of these were produced, and created a positive impression in all who saw them, but resulted in no actual benefit to Boulton or Soho, and, incredibly, represented nearly the total sum of Droz’s commercial work.

 

Boulton was losing his fascination with Droz and his works, and starting to look more closely at what was being done by his own engineers. The main problems had been with the laying-on of the blanks before striking, the ejection of the coin after striking, and the marking of the edges. James Watt and his team, through dogged persistence, and some inspired evolutionary design work, were winning the battle.

TopEarlyYears

Full Steam Ahead!

 

The really exciting period at Soho now follows - the final construction of the mint and the winning of the first business. Unfortunately, if there were any, almost none of the records have survived. The striking of the King’s medal lasted in fits and starts from April to June 1789. By then the engineers had the presses up to a speed of 40 coins per minute – several times the best that a hand press could manage – and Boulton had gone off to London to launch yet another campaign. By July they were up to fifty five coins per minute, and had were developing a collar, which meant that for the first time truly round coins could be produced. And none of these developments used Droz’s designs.

 

Boulton’s trip to London produced no progress in the quest for a regal coinage, but it had the most far reaching consequences in a parallel universe. The success of the Parys Mines' Druid tokens, produced by Thomas Williams, had started first a trend, and then a craze, for privately produced tokens to remedy the cash shortage. The Government, of course, did nothing – neither providing regal coinage, nor making private tokens either legal or illegal. So they propagated.

 

The characteristics of Boulton’s coinage at this time were based around his guiding principles: quality, and value for money. The technical merit of the strikings was vastly greater than anything being produced anywhere else. The artistic merit was something which Soho took very seriously, while the weight of the coins reflected, as far as the customers would allow, the link to the face value.

 

Value for money and artistic merit loomed large in Matthew Boulton’s thoughts at this time. Droz was still consuming huge quantities of money and producing next to no useful work in exchange. One of his few achievements was a new pattern halfpenny, ready in 1790, but by that time of very little use to Boulton, who was beginning to look in other directions for artistic excellence. Relations went from bad to worse, and by the middle of 1790, arbitrators were appointed to sort out the mess. That it took until the middle of 1791 to do so should come as no surprise. In total, Boulton spent over two thousand pounds on Droz, and received almost nothing for his money. The character of Droz is well illustrated when, on his dismissal by Boulton, he offered “to pledge his honour, or leave his mistress as an hostage” as security for his debts. He returned to Paris, rejoined the French Mint, and was much appreciated in his later years!

Packing Up and Consigning the Goods

 

We have followed the birth and early development of Boulton’s steam mint. We have to leave it at the point where steam power allied to Boulton and Watt’s ingenuity was producing the finest coinage being struck anywhere on earth. There is much more to relate, which is covered elsewhere on the website.

Matthew Robinson Boulton

1770-1842