Matthew Boulton (1728-1809) was one of the leading figures of the early Industrial
Revolution. He was responsible, with his business partner, the engineer James Watt,
for developing new applications for steam power and supplying steam engines for industrial
processes throughout Britain and Europe, and as far afield as Australia and the Americas.
His Soho Manufactory in Handsworth, on the outskirts of Birmingham, where jewellery,
silverware, ormolu, coins and medals were produced, attracted flocks of early industrial
tourists, who came to gaze at its machines and the hundreds of employees at work
– and then took tea in the tea-room alongside the aviary.
Boulton’s interests ranged far and wide over the natural sciences and the arts. The
new fashion for landscape gardening particularly appealed to his imagination and
from the 1760s, when he and his wife went to live at Soho House, he set about creating
his own landscape with woodland, lawns, colourful flower beds and borders, water
features, garden buildings and walks.
After his death his son, Matthew Robinson Boulton, continued to develop the garden.
Not initially knowledgeable about horticulture, he became more engaged with the subject
and his notebooks contain much of interest to historians and to growers of early
varieties of many fruits and vegetables. Following his death, Joseph Chamberlain
attempted to turn Soho’s gardens into a public park, but the idea was rejected in
favour of building leases, and bit by bit Matthew Boulton’s landscaped park was replaced,
first with upmarket villas and later with terraced housing, a railway coal yard and
workshops and other premises, as Birmingham’s industrial heartland spread outwards.
In the 1990s Soho House and the remaining small garden were restored and developed
as museum. This, the first history of the garden, throws surprising light on a lost
and intriguing aspect of the city’s heritage. A number of drawings and watercolours
made by John Phillp in the 1790s are included and provide the only surviving contemporary
visual evidence for how the garden once looked.
A LOST LANDSCAPE: Matthew Boulton's Gardens at Soho