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Soho Mint - A World First!

Mint Equipment - What Did Soho Look Like?

A VIEW INSIDE HEATON’S MINT, BIRMINGHAM

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 1798 onwards.

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

Mint Equipment

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.