Matthew Boulton of Soho

" I would not be understood as saying that there is not what may be called a genius for business, an extraordinary capacity for affairs, quickness and comprehension united, an insight into character, an acquaintance with a number of particular circumstances, a variety of expedients, a tact for finding out what will do."HAZLITT.


WATT'S situation was not in reality as desperate as might appear from the account that has just been given. For when the crisis came he was not entirely dependent on Roebuck for support. Among Roebuck's friends in his Birmingham days was Matthew Boulton the big hardware manufacturer. Boulton was not merely a competent scientist and a keen patron of the arts; he was, without doubt, the greatest industrial organiser of the century. Roebuck had tried to persuade him to join him in his excursions into coal-mining, but Boulton was fully occupied with his own factory at Birmingham and had wisely declined. The two men continued good friends, and when Roebuck heard of Watt's invention he naturally told Boulton about it, for he knew that he too had been doing some experiments on " fire-engines " with a view to introducing them into his own works. Boulton's interest was at once aroused, and he invited Watt to come and see him. In I767 Watt went, but Boulton was away, and it was his friend, Dr. Small, who showed him over the factory. Boulton had been for some five years installed in his magnificent premises at Soho, two miles north of Birmingham. The inspection of this most up-to-date of modern factories made a great impression on Watt. There was a quality about its ordered efficiency that he had never met with before. Roebuck and his works seemed crude and feeble beside this creation of the organiser's genius. And he was equally delighted with Dr. Small.

Small was a man after Watt's own heart. He t was an ingenious scientist with a taste for mechanical invention, and the agility of his mind and the keenness of his perception enabled him to fathom Watt's character, to follow, or even to anticipate, his moods, and to appreciate the quality of his work. He was quick to understand exactly how much progress Watt had made, where he was certain and where he was still guessing, and he was instantly at his side, viewing the problem from the same angle, and never needed to be brought laboriously up-to-date. He fully shared that passion for perfection in design, that acute sense of beauty in machinery which was the cause of so much friction between Watt and those of his colleagues who were out of sympathy with this side of his character. There is more real intimacy in his letters than in those of any other of Watt's correspondents.

Watt came away from Soho with his eyes opened. He had been given a glimpse of a world that was new to him, and to which he instinctively felt that he belonged. But already he was pledged to Roebuck. He suffered all the torments of a young man who marries in his own narrow circle and, on passing out into a wider sphere, sees at once that he has married too soon. At the same time he was absolutely loyal to the partner he had chosen. Boulton and Small were just as eager to capture him as he was to join them, if he could do so without being unfair to Roebuck. " Before I knew your connection with Dr. R.," wrote Small, "my idea was, that you should settle here, and that Boulton and I should assist you as much as we could, which in any case we will most certainly do." The most that Roebuck would consider, when the case was put to him, was to allow Boulton a limited share in the business, which would have put him in the position of an inferior partner, and would have prevented that close co-operation between inventor and manufacturer which Boulton regarded as essential. Boult on very rightly mistrusted Roebuck's business ability, and, realising that he was out of sympathy with Watt and did not understand how to make things easy for him, he wanted to get the unhappy engineer under his own protection.

Watt talked over his troubles with his friend, Professor Jardine, who then went to sound Roebuck again. The letter in which he reported to Watt the results of his interview is full of interest. " I waited to find, without direct inquiry, if he had in any respect consented to the proposal from the South; but understand, that the more he is convinced of the practicability of the scheme, the keener he is of carrying it to practice yourselves for your mutual advantage. . . . And, therefore, my opinion is, James, that you will find it necessary, on account of your intimate connection, to fall in with his senti ments...." Then he touched on the point that hurt Watt most of all. " The very nature of your improvements is such that it is im possible it can fail to succeed much to your interest, even though it should not be carried to such perfection as might be expected from the gentleman in the South's assistance." But James was miserable at the prospect of losing Boulton's help and with it the hope of perfection, and he pressed Roebuck until he made a definite offer. It was a very poor one} amounting only to a share in the engine as regards the three counties of Warwick, Stafford and Derby.

Boulton's reply to Watt is a masterpiece. The tone is firm and decisive, suggesting the strong man of business who knows his own mind and shrinks from no responsibility, however great. His was the strength that Watt was craving for to lift the burden of anxiety from his shoulders. " It would not be worth my while to make for three counties only; but I find it very well worth my while to make for all the world." And Watt knew that it was not an idle boast; he could do it if he wanted to. At the same time he showed a subtle appreciation of the causes of Watt's distress. While professing to be giving his view of the proper way of running the business, he painted a picture which was the ideal of Watt's dreams. " My idea was to settle a manufactory near to my own, by the side of our canal, where I would erect all the conveniences necessary for the completion of engines, and from which manufactory we would serve all the world with engines of all sizes. By these means and your assistance we could engage and instruct some excellent workmen, who . . . could execute the invention 20 per cent. cheaper than it would be otherwise executed, and with as great a differ ence of accuracy as there is between the black smith and the mathematical-instrument-maker." And the letter concluded ambiguously, leaving a loophole for fresh negotiations.

This brilliant piece of business diplomacy had its effect. Watt never ceased to long for association with these two men, the quick- witted scientist and the strong and understanding man of business, who perceived his wants even before he expressed them. At the end of September, I769~~ Roebuck, weakened by his own financial difficulties and Watt's insistence, made Boulton a new offer. He proposed to sell him one-third of the rights in the patent for a sum of not less than a thousand pounds, to be fixed later. Boulton was to have a year in which to decide and complete the purchase. The formal proposal was sent in writing on November 28th, and two days later Small wrote to Watt, " I have only time to say that Mr. Boulton and I have agreed with Dr. Roebuck." To which Watt replied, " I shake hands with you and Mr. Boulton on our connection, which I hope will prove agreeable to us all." The immediate result was that Watt sent drawings of an engine to Boulton, which he at once began to put into execution at Soho.

But the price had not been fixed nor the transaction concluded, and before the year was out Roebuck's financial distress was so evident that the whole situation was changed. Boulton and Small had accepted the offer of partnership, unsatisfactory though it was, in order to help Watt. But now the scheme was no longer merely unsatisfactory; it was rapidly becoming dangerous. The price had been left to Boulton. This put Watt in a very delicate position, of which he was acutely sensible, for he could not ask his friend Boulton to pay a high price for something he was only buying to please him, nor could he advise his friend and partner Roebuck, considering his urgent need of money, to take a low one. " I admire your delicacy," he wrote to Small, " I have urged the Doctor to sell, and you to purchase, perhaps further than I ought to have done. I have had reasons which I cannot further explain by letter; when you know them all, I suspect you will acquit me of selfish designs in teasing you so much." There was, in fact, so much delicacy on both sides, that no progress could be made.

The commercial crisis that finally ruined Roebuck also put Boulton into temporary difficulties, and all hope of a conclusion vanished. But the solution came another way. Roebuck went bankrupt, and his affairs were put into the hands of trustees. This Boulton had not expected, and at first he was not certain how to deal with the situation. If Roebuck's property in the engine had any value, all his creditors had an equal right to share in it. Boulton was himself a creditor to a considerable extent, and when he found that the other creditors considered the engine to be worthless, he was able, with their consent and hearty approval, to take over the full property in the patent in return for a complete renunciation of all his claims on the estate. Nothing now stood in the way of a new partner ship between Boulton and Watt. In May, I774 Watt left Glasgow to join Boulton at Soho.

Birmingham had been a town of some importance in the Middle Ages, and was already famous for its hardware when Leland drew up for his master, Henry VIII, a full and picturesque account of the resources, antiquities and curiosities of his kingdom. In the seventeenth century specialisation went still further, some branches of the hardware trade moving to other centres. A traveller, writing in I690's tells us that those " swords, heads of canes, snuff-boxes and other fine works of steel," which can be seen in such perfection in Milan, " can be had better and cheaper at Birmingham." Its supremacy in the production of all manner of metal trinkets and plated goods won for it the name of " the toy shop of Europe," and inspired a local poet to sing:

" See from the sooty toils what wonders rise ! Behold yon radiant family of toys ! Th' elastic buckle casts a silver ray, And the gilt button emulates the day; Here sparkling chains in bright confusion lie, Chains not to fetter limbs, but grace the thigh."

The very rapid industrial development of Birmingham was made possible by its freedom from medieval restrictive customs. The great aim of new and expanding industries in the early days of the industrial revolution was to escape from " the miserable little politics of corporate towns," for the jealous spirit that had prevented Watt from setting up his shop in Glasgow was an enemy to all progress and innovation. But Birmingham had not been incorporated, and it opened its doors to all. It had no Gilds, prepared to see the nest empty rather than run the risk of mothering a cuckoo, and no champions of religious persecution, heroically defending their city from the contamination of the unorthodox. It was ready to welcome new blood whether it ran in the veins of capitalists or unapprenticed workmen, of Quakers or Dissenters.

Birmingham ardently embraced the doctrines of modern commerce. By the middle of the eighteenth century she enjoyed an unchallenged pre-eminence in the fabrication of shoddy goods and gimcrack vulgarities. She tickled the appetite of fashion for " new- born gawds " and throve by the satisfaction of its greed. For years she lived by buckles; buckles that grew more dazzling and more monstrous every season. But, in I790 the buckle was ousted by " the effeminate shoe-string," and 20,000 good craftsmen of Birmingham went hungry. It was an undignified position for a great city, but she had only herself to blame. She was suffering the same convulsion of mind and body that afflicts the East when touched by western civilisation. In changing her way of life she rejected the old standards and could find none to take their place. Quality was sacrificed for the sake of quantity, and her products lost all permanent value.

Matthew Boulton set himself steadfastly against the degrading influences of the day, and he deserves credit for having proved that quality may be combined with quantity, and shares with Josiah Wedgwood the almost unique distinction of having made the factory the province of the artist. The toymakers of Birmingham had many tricks to deceive the inexpert eye of the purchaser, and palmed off as articles of price much ill-made, meretricious trash. Against these practices Boulton never ceased to wage war. ." As I am an old buttonmaker," he said, " allow me to advise my brethren to make excellence rather than cheapness their principle of rivalry." But the struggle still goes on, and modern man now assumes, with affecting modesty, that he has lost for ever the faculty, possessed by his ancestors, of making articles that are both sound and beautiful, and his ideal home is fitted, indeed, with every modern convenience, but beautifully furnished throughout with genuine antiques.

Boulton inherited a comfortable fortune and a prosperous business from his father, who died in l759, but instead of retiring on the proceeds, he devoted his life to the service of industry. Wishing for larger premises, he selected a site at Soho, and there built a factory to accommodate, it is said, over a thousand workmen. Hither he migrated in I762 and, with no experience to guide him and no one to turn to for advice, he created by his inventive genius and his force of character an organisation that was accepted as a model by all the aspiring captains of industry of that generation and the next, including even Josiah Wedgwood, the founder of Etruria. He was soon one of the best known men in England. In order to provide himself with designs to copy, he borrowed the art treasures of the nobility, made drawings of the exhibits in the British Museum, and sent agents to ransack the curio shops of Italy. His work in consequence became fashionable in high society, and won a reputation throughout Europe. He had long interviews with the King and Queen, both of whom gave him several orders. " The king," he wrote to his wife, " hath bought a pair of cassolets, a Titus, a Venus clock, and some other things, and inquired this morning how yesterday's sale went. I shall see him again, I believe. I was with them, the Queen and all the children, between two and three hours.... The Queen showed me her last child, which is a beauty." A few years earlier he had not been considered good enough to marry into one of the county families. Soho became one of the sights of the kingdom and was visited by the crowned heads and nobility of Europe; Boulton won recognition as the greatest living authority on matters of industry and trade, and became the trusted adviser of governments. But it was not only on account of his business ability and his great resources that Watt found in Boulton the ideal associate. Watt needed a sympathetic friend as well as a partner, and I Boulton's personality fitted him to fulfil both functions. He was a profound judge of character, I and understood Watt's longings and anxieties better than he did himself. He had a deep I affection for his colleague which increased with time, and throughout the period of their partner ship he sustained him with his unselfish devotion. Watt was often petulant and irritable, chafing under discomforts that were trivial compared with the worries that Boulton had voluntarily taken upon himself in order to relieve his friend's anxieties. But Boulton's patience never failed, and he watched over him and cared for him as a nurse watches over a delicate, nervous child. Boulton was like a comfortable arm-chair after a long day's walk. His strength was always there to support you) his gentleness and sympathy to receive you and protect you from all the jarring roughnesses of the world. His massive forehead, strong features, and firm mouth inspired confid ence, and his eyes invited confidences. In ingenuity of mind, Watt was his superior, but Boulton has a place among the great men of history.

When Watt came to Soho, work began at once. The old Kinneil engine was brought over in pieces, finished, and set to pump the water that drove the water-wheels in the factory. It was familiarly known as " Beelzebub." In December, I7742 Watt wrote to his father: "The business I am here about has turned out rather successful, that is to say, that the fire-engine I have invented is now going, and answers much better than any other that has yet been made; and I expect that the invention will be very beneficial to me." It was the first decisive success he had been able to report since the birth of his idea, nine years before. At the moment, too, the prospects of finding a market for the engines were good. In I77I Boulton had heard that four or five copper mines in Cornwall were about to be abandoned owing to the cost of the coal consumed by their old pumping engines, and at the same time he had had inquiries from a mining company in Derbyshire. But already there were competitors in the field. Other engineers were at work, both improving the old atmospheric engine and producing new models of their own, and one at least had stolen Watt's ideas.

Boulton realised that he had no sufficient guarantee that, if he invested his capital in the engine, he would be able to reap the profits that were his due. The patent was for fourteen years, and six of these had passed before he was in a position to execute a single order. Boulton's first care was to discover how he could obtain an extension of the period during which he and Watt might enjoy a monopoly of manufacture, and at the same time secure a public confirmation of their rights which would strengthen their hands in dealing with pirates. He sent Watt up to London to prospect. Boulton favoured the plan of surrendering the patent and getting a new one. This would have allowed him to increase its effectiveness by patching up any loopholes it might contain. But Watt reported that every one advised him to get the existing patent prolonged by Act of Parliament.

This course was adopted, and a bill was introduced in February I775; owing to considerable opposition in the House, it was not passed till the following May. It recited that, whereas James Watt had carried out experiments along the lines indicated in his patent, and whereas heavy expenses had been incurred and would still have to be incurred before the public could receive the full benefit of his valuable invention, so that " the whole term granted by the said Letters Patent may probably elapse before the said James Watt can receive an advantage adequate to his labour and invention," it was enacted that the sole privilege of making and selling his engines in Great Britain and her colonies should be vested in him and his executors for a term of twentyfive years. Boulton now felt that he could safely embark on manufacture on an extensive scale.

Contents     Chapter 7