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Soho Mint - A World First!

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James Watt

Soho - Birmingham, as seen by 'The Penny Magazine' 5th September 1835


"The Penny Magazine, published every Saturday from 31 March 1832 to 31 October 1845, was an illustrated British magazine aimed at the working class. Charles Knight created it for the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge in response to Chambers's Edinburgh Journal, which started two months earlier. Sold for only a penny and illustrated with woodcuts, it was an expensive enterprise that could only be supported by very large circulation. Though initially very successful—with a circulation of 200,000 in the first year—it proved too dry and too Whiggish to appeal to the working class audience it needed to be financially viable. Its competitors—which included a weekly short story—grew more slowly, but lasted much longer." -Wikipedia


SOHO, although essentially appertaining to the great manufacturing town of Birmingham, is situated about two miles from the centre of the town, upon the road to Wolverhampton, and although but a few yards beyond the parish of Birmingham, is in a different county--that of Stafford.


The declivity of the hill which is now covered with the buildings and plantations of this magnificent establishment, was, previously to 1757, a barren heath occupied only by rabbits and by a warrener, whose hut was on the summit. In that year, the spot with some contiguous land, was leased for ninety-nine years to Messrs. Ruston and Evans, who erected a house and a mill for rolling metal. In 1762 the whole was bought by Mr. Boulton, who rebuilt and enlarged the mill, and soon after removed his manufactory thither from Birmingham; but the works not being found sufficient for the vast undertakings upon which his increasing means enabled him to enter, he laid the foundation of the present manufactory in 1764, and it was finished in the following year. Mr. Boulton at the same time erected a handsome private house for his own residence. The manufactories consist of four squares, with connecting ranges or rather streets of warehouses, sufficiently extensive for the accommodation of 1000 workmen, and where upwards of 600 are usually employed.


No expense has been spared to render the works uniform and handsome in architecture, as well as neat and commodious. The same liberal spirit and taste have been displayed in the adjoining gardens and pleasure-grounds, and render Soho much admired for its picturesque beauty. Warner, in his 'Tour through the Northern Counties,' praises the commanding situation of the house, the tasteful disposition of the grounds, and the manufactories "as striking for their neatness as magnificence," and adds, "the different features of the place form a strikingly fine whole, both grand and beautiful; the more interesting when we consider that it is entirely the creation of modern years, formed by the combined operation of taste, science, and wealth, out of a desolate heath inhabited only by a colony of rabbits." We are glad to find the same writer afterwards saying, "As much praise is due to the highly-gifted proprietors of Soho for their attention to morals as to scientific improvements in their extensive works, which has shown itself in the orderly and citizen-like behaviour of the little army of labourers employed upon them. All is decorum, cleanliness, and decency throughout the works; the pleasing effects of good example and wise regulations." This, which was written in 1801, is not less true now.


At the commencement of this great manufactory its productions were only such as were usually made by the artists in this part of the country, namely, buttons, buckles, watch-chains, trinkets, and articles of a similar description. In a short time, however, the manufacture of plated wares on a large scale was likewise introduced; and when these and other useful branches of manufacture had been firmly established, the proprietors (for Mr. Boulton had by this time been joined by a Mr. Fothergill) began to bring forward works of elegence and grandeur in bronze and or molu. Their plans were princely. They established an extensive mercantile correspondence throughout Europe; and held forth every encouragement to men of talent in drawing, modeling, and other branches of the arts. Their works consisted of all kinds of vases, candelabra, clock-cases, watch-stands, and similar ornamental articles. This novel manufacture was no sooner fairly begun than it received the sanction and encouragement of the king and the principal nobility of the kingdom. With this support the proprietors were soon enabled to bring the manufacture to a high state of perfection. Not only was the importation of articles of the same kind from France very materially reduced, but a new and valuable branch of commerce was thus opened with the principal cities of Europe.


This success encouraged the enterprising proprietors to embark in new undertakings; and their next principal one was of no less novelty and of much more importance than the former. It was the manufacture of articles of silver, to facilitate which they succeeded, after considerable difficulty, in obtaining the establishment of an assay-office at Birmingham for testing the purity of the metal. Since the attainment of this object, silver plate has been a prominent article among the many rich productions of Soho, to the extension of which far beyond the limits that at first seemed probable the steam-engine has since, in no ordinary degree, contributed.


To the steam-engine we now come, for it was at Soho that Watt was enabled to mature his plans and carry them into full effect. We cannot of course enter into the history of the steam-engine here, but may state a few facts which will illustrate the nature of the connexion of that mighty and universal agent with Soho.


When Watt's partner, Dr. Roebuck, became unable to render him the stipulated assistance in his undertakings in consequence of the pecuniary embarrassments which followed the failure of some mining speculations in which he had engaged, Watt was so much discouraged, that he was on the eve of abandoning the further prosecution of his plans. Mr. Boulton had at this time become well known as one of the most intelligent and enterprising manufacturers in the kingdom; and, with the consent of Mr. Watt, a negotiation was opened with him and was brought to a conclusion in 1773, when Dr. Roebuck resigned his share of the steam-engine patent to Mr. Boulton on terms very advantageous to himself. This was one of the most happy events in the career of Watt, for his new partner was a man of wealth and of great personal influence: "to a most generous and ardent mind," says Playfair, "he added an uncommon spirit for undertaking what was great and difficult. Mr. Watt was studious and reserved, keeping aloof from the world; while Mr. Boulton was a man of address, delighting in society, active, and mixing with people of all ranks with great freedom and without ceremony. Had Mr. Watt searched all Europe he could not have found another person so fitted to bring his invention before the public in a manner worthy of its merit and importance; and, although of most opposite habits, it fortunately so happened that no two men ever more cordially agreed in their intercourse with each other." Watt himself more than confirms this account of the "princely Boulton," whose name occupies no second place among those of the large-minded and honourable men to whom our various manufactures are indebted for their introduction and improvement. When, in 1809, he finally closed his long and active career, Watt took an opportunity of speaking of his obligations to his lamented friend. He alludes in the first instance to the renewal of his patent, which was obtained from Parliament about the time that his partnership with Mr. Boulton commenced:--"At the procuring of this Act of Parliament I commenced a partnership with Mr. Boulton, which terminated with the exclusive privelge in 1800, when I retired from business; but our friendship continued undiminished to the close of life. As a memorial due to that friendship, I avail myself of this, probably a last, public opportunity of stating, that to his friendly encouragement, to his partiality for scientific improvements, and his ready application of them to the processes of art, to his intimate knowledge of business and manufactures, and to his extended views and liberal spirit, must, in a great measure, be ascribed whatever success may have attended my exertions." The incalculable value to Watt of such a partner as this may be best estimated by the fact, that the firm expended no less a sum than 47,000l. on the speculation in Watt's steam-engines before they began to receive any remuneration.


When Watt went to Birmingham, part of the establishment at Soho was appropriated to his use, and with the advantages he there enjoyed he soon produced some capital engines. They came but slowly into use, but in time found their way into the mines and manufactories all over the kingdom. It was ultimately found necessary to erect, at a convenient distance, an iron-foundry, to which comes a branch of the Birmingham canal, whereby coals, iron, sand, &c., were brought to a wet dock within the walls, and the engines and other heavy goods transported in boats to every part of the kingdom. The firm, however, did not confine its attention to the manufacture of engines, but devised means of applying their powers to various operations in the manufactures of Soho. Thus the extensive experience of the proprietors enabled them to apply a steam-power to the boring of cylinders, pumps, &c., to drilling, to turning, to blowing their melting-furnaces, and to whatever tended to render their manufactures more perfect and to abridge human labour.


But of all the different processes conducted at Soho perhaps none have, first and last, attracted more attention than the application of steam to coining at the Soho Mint. The coining-mill, or engine, which Mr. Boulton first established there in 1783, was afterwards much improved, and ultimately not only produced coins with astonishing expedition but with an accuracy which the coinage of this country had not previously exhibited. The engine in this mint, as thus improved, worked at once eight machines, each capable of striking from 70 to 84 pieces in a minute, or between 4000 and 5000 in an hour, so that the eight machines together would produce between 30,00 and 40,00 coins in one hour. The following are the processes executed by these machines as operated upon by the steam-engine:--rolling the masses of copper into sheets; fine rolling of the same cold through cylindrical steel-rollers; clipping the blank pieces of copper for the die; shaking the coin in bags; striking both sides of the coin at once and milling the edges, and immediately displacing it and placing another for the same operation. To their other properties the machines add that of preventing fraud by keeping an accurate account of the coin on which it operates. By this machinery, a few boys of twelve years of age are able to coin about 200,000 coins in the course of six hours. These processes have been thus poetically described by Darwin, with a particular reference to Soho.


"Now his hard hands on Mona's rifted crest,

Bosom'd in rocks, her azure robes arrest;

With iron lips his rapid rollers seize

The lengthen'd bars in their expansive squeeze;

Descending screws with pond'rous fly-wheels wound

The tawny plates, the new medallions round;

Hard dies of steel the cupreous circles cramp,

And with quick fall his massy hammers stamp.

The harp, the lily, and the lion join,

And George and Britain guard the splendid coin."


The improvement in the coin itself may be seen by a comparison of the copper coins before and since 1799, in which year Mr. Boulton contracted for the copper coinage on his improved principle; since which time no alteration has taken place, except perhaps a little improvement in the finish. As this is a point of some interest, we may state the difference between this and previous coinages in the words of a paper circulated in November, 1779.


"Soho Mint.--This mint, invented and executed by Mr. Boulton, is perfectly new in its principles; and is more accurate in its performance, and more powerful in its effect, than any mint in Europe. The coin produced by it differs from all money coined by any other means in the following particular:--it is perfectly circular; and all pieces of the same denomination are of equal diameter; by which means it is subject to a double trial, fiz., both of measure and weight; but guineas and louis d'ors are only properly examinable by their weight, none of them being perfectly circular, so that a stell gauge is not correctly applicable to them, but to Mr. Boulton's money it is applicable. The concavity of the new halfpence and farthings protects the devices, and makes it difficult for the false coiner to imitate by dies, for want of a sufficiently nice apparatus to execute the money in that form; and the indented milled edges will prevent imitation by the common mode of casting in sand moulds. The surface of this money is clearer and smoother than that of any copper money ever put into circulation, though not so perfect as gold and silver coin may be made. The superiority and difficulty of the workmanship, and the intrinsic value of the money, will prove great hindrances to counterfeiting; and it is hoped that a full supply of this money, equal to the public demand, will in a short time put all the false money out of circulation."


Of the produce of his mint the copper coins now in circulation are specimens; besides which copper has been coined by contract for the different European states, for the East India Company, and for the Americans. Mr. Boulton's improvements in the coining mill, originally brought into peration at Soho, have also been adopted at the Tower Mint, and by various European governments. This has tended greatly to the improvement of the modern coinage, not only in copper, but in silver and gold, the same process being of course applicable to other metals. Indeed both gold and silver have on different occasions been coined at Soho, not to speak of the various exquisite medals which have from time to time been struck there.


In this account we are obliged to leave even unenumerated many of the enormous or minute processes, and the massive or delicate works executed at Soho; and have perhaps not succeeded in conveying any very adequate idea of those of which we have spoken. It would be doing injustice to this great theatre of practical art, and to the able and large-minded man by whom it was established and to whom its glory is owing, if we separately considered the various improvements which have issued from thence, or regarded only their personal effects as to Mr. Boulton and his partners. Soho, although a nominally private concern, has, in point of fact, been an establishment of the very highest national importance; and this not only in its large operation upon the commercial interests of the nation, in extending the power of man, and in enlarging the comforts and conveniences of life, but also in improving, in a degree beyond calculation, the public mind by the encouragement it has given to artists of all descriptions, and still more by the healthy rivalry and competition in skill which is kept continually in exercise.

Soho - Birmingham, as seen by the Penny Magazine

For a short biography of

James Watt, click anywhere in the box.

Soho - Penny Magazine