Published in the ‘Illustrated Times’ for 10th May 1862
The Soho Mint existed in three incarnations. The first, from its establishment by
Matthew Boulton in 1789, lasted about ten years. The principal characteristic of
the initial Mint was a circular arrangement of presses, each ‘moved’ by a lever and
escapement powered by a large circular wheel turned directly by a steam engine.
This arrangement contained much of Boulton’s own design but, though it worked, it
was extremely noisy, and unable to cope with the stresses of striking large coins
such as the Monneron 5 sols and the Cartwheel pennies and tuppences. These caused
continual damage to the Mint machinery, and stoppages of production, and it became
obvious to Boulton that he could not hope to undertake the national coinages he was
seeking with the Mint as it was.
So was born the idea of the second Soho Mint. Work on Soho II commenced in the Spring
of 1798; the presses were the same, but each was connected to the steam engine by
a vacuum pipe, which allowed an in-line configuration to be adopted - with greater
efficiency in operation. The second Mint began operation in 1798, and lasted until
Matthew Robinson Boulton ran out of enthusiasm and orders in 1813. There followed
eight years of inactivity until the Mint was sold to the East India Company for use
in Bombay, after striking the St Helena halfpence in 1821.
The third Mint was a reconstruction, on a smaller scale, of the second, undertaken
because, it seemed, his customers would not allow Matthew Robinson Boulton to enjoy
his status of wealthy gentlemen in peace and quiet. By 1826, a shadow of the former
Soho Mint had been assembled: there were four presses only, rather than eight, and
the Mint was not even steam powered until 1831. This final, rather pathetic, version
of Soho Mint continued in service until the Soho Sale of 1850 when the entire estate
was disposed of.
Small, and relatively pathetic, it may seem to us compared to the glory days, but
Soho III did actually make money in every sense. Tens of millions of coins for the
East India Company and tokens for Canadian bankers and the merchants of Singapore,
poured forth, until the final output of fifty thousand penny tokens for Annand Smith,
Family Grocers of Melbourne, left the works in 1850.
A section of Boulton’s Escapement showing
the location and operating mechanism for one press
But even in 1862, there were the signs of the times. Although not shown with the
Boulton screw presses, Heaton’s also operated one lever press: this technology would
supersede Boulton’s in all the Mints of the world in due course. In Great Britain,
the home of steam minting, the last of the Boulton presses were retired from Heaton’s
Mint, and from the Royal Mint in London, in the 1880s. But athough technology moves
on, many of Boulton’s presses remained in service for eighty years or more which
speaks volumes for their strength and utility, characteristics which would have appealed
to Boulton as much, if not more, than any other.
Unfortunately, while there are schematic plans, there are no known accurate pictures
or photographs of the Soho Mint, in operational condition, from any of the three
phases, but all is not lost! The Mint was bought, almost completely, by Ralph Heaton
of Birmingham, transported a couple of miles to his premises, and reconstructed.
And not just reconstructed, but expanded. The four presses which Heaton had bought
in 1850 had become eleven by 1862; presses which were identical to those original
four, because Heaton had also purchased the wooden patterns from which the press
castings had been made, and he had been able to replicate the machinery.
So when, on 10th May 1862, the ‘Illustrated Times’ published some beautifully detailed
engravings of the workings of the Heaton Mint, their readers may not have been aware
that what they were looking at was, to all intents and purposes, the Soho Mint from
The ‘Illustrated Times’ was first published in 1855 as a rival to ‘The Illustrated
London News.’ It employed such noteworthy engravers as Gustav Doré and George Cruikshank.
It was eventually taken over by its rival and allowed to wither away.
The Minting Hall at Heaton’s Mint, 1862
Showing the eleven Boulton screw presses then in operation
The Rolling Mill at Heaton’s Mint, 1862
showing the rolling machines purchased from Soho in 1850
A Boulton screw press in operation
in the Minting Hall at Heaton’s Mint, 1862
A Lot from the Soho Auction Catalogue..
“Each Press is constructed in a massive iron frame, with 5½-inch screw, working in
a heavy metal nut; the dies are placed in a steel collar, which rises as the blank
is struck, thereby preserving a square edge to the Coin. It is fed by a self-acting
layer-on, so formed as to reject an imperfect or improper Blank, and requiring merely
the attention of a child in order to the efficient operation of the Machine. The
speed varies from 60 to 80 blows per minute, according to the size of the Coin.