Matthew Boulton – Working in Precious Metals – 1773

Matthew Boulton and James Watt formed a partnership in 1773 after Boulton took a share in Watts engine as settlement of a debt.  Today they are honoured for their work in superior coinage with them both featuring on the new £50 banknote.  Below is an article from The Antiquary Volume 35 by  Edward Walford, John Charles Cox, George Latimer Apperson and published in 1899 – featuring Matthew Boulton.

Matthew Boulton – Working in Precious Metals – 1773

Portrait Medal of Matthew BoultonThe “Industrial Revolution,” as the struggle between handicraft and machinery has been called, largely changed the aspect of the gold and silversmiths’ work, though methods remained little different for many years. The picturesque in the old life became stern reality; the mediaeval workshop became the factory.

A representative worker in metal under these new conditions was Matthew Boulton, a native of that “ancient town of smiths,” Birmingham. He came to the craft as the potter’s son comes to the wheel, his father being the owner of a prosperous manufactory for stamping and piercing silver. To this business Matthew Boulton succeeded in [1759], resolved to still further extend it, and openly announcing his determination to adopt every invention which promised as good work at a quicker rate and diminishing labour.

When extended premises became a necessity, he purchased a tract of barren heath, near Birmingham, named Soho, where he started a factory for the production of “honest and artistic articles,” in gold and silver, steel, tortoiseshell and various compositions. One of his first inventions was a new way of inlaying steel, followed by many novel methods of decorating buttons, trinkets, buckles and ornaments. It is, however, for what he accomplished in the improvement of our coinage that Boulton’s name will be longest remembered. After assiduous experiments at his own factory at Soho he produced an improved coinage machinery, and also a perfected coinage which was introduced by him to the Mint of London, and also to the Russian, Spanish, Danish, and Indian Mints. It was only in [1882] that a Boulton Press, at the Mint, Tower Hill, was finally discarded.

Though co-operation enters largely into all work done by gold and silversmiths to-day, all really good productions are handwork, and the labour in many instances is as costly as the material used. The work differs from mediaeval handicraft in possessing less originality and individual flavour, whilst the workman is more a mechanical agent fulfilling another’s design than in olden days. In some cases the worker and designer are one, and a harmony of form and decoration is then gained, often missing in work which passes through several hands. The mediaeval smithing naturally forms the model with which modern workers compare their work, and it is their pride to acknowledge that, given time, they could produce plate equal in every point. To quote the words of a well-known metalworker of to-day, “the desire of the public to buy cheaply too frequently compels workers to send out articles much below the degree of excellence they could easily achieve.”

Much elaborate and beautiful work is done in Birmingham and Sheffield by means of the lathe or wheel upon which the metal is “spun,” and with the die with which metal is stamped in order to shape the article required. A vessel made by the latter process would have two completed halves, fashioned first, and the soldering of these together would form a second process. In point of durability and intrinsic value, such a piece of plate would fall far short of the handmade vessel beaten out of one piece of metal until the requisite shape was gained.

English artificers have always been quick to adopt new styles of work and the method of foreign workers.

Excerpt from The Antiquary Volume 35 by  Edward Walford, John Charles Cox, George Latimer Apperson and published in 1899

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Further Reading and External Links

BBC News – New £50 banknote – featuring Matthew Boulton and James Watt