Capital and Labour- Industry and Foreign Trade


Boulton's business, even before he took up tile steam-engine, had had direct connections in many European countries. The addition of the steam-engine to his manufactures, for the time, concentrated his attention on England; but, at a time when markets for most commodities were restricted and local, there was, as there had always been, an international market for power.

Boulton's relations with France had always been successful and honorable. In 1768 Boulton was asked to send some counterfeit two sous pieces, but refused. " It is a trade that I have much exclaimed against since I saw a possibility of its being very prejudicial to our manufactory, and it may cause a more particular and more scrupulous prohibition of all such things as we are now enabled to introduce into France."1

However, Watt's engine was not the first English steam-engine to be exported to France. The first chapter in the long history in the quarrel about the exportation of machinery had already been written, about 1726. French authors manage to claim for Papin a large share in the invention of the steam engine,2 and no doubt they are justified, but it is only recently that the existence in France of English steam-engines in the first quarter of the eighteenth century has been proved, and this by the exertion of a Frenchman there existed, at Passy, and near Paris, and probably some other places, steam-engines erected by Englishmen, in the years 1726-7.3

The steam-engine was, then, not a success in France, Paris being contemptuous of the new invention.4 However, about the time that Watt's engine first appeared to be successful, Paris was undertaking a new water-works scheme. Boulton, hearing of this, wrote to Panchard, a banker in Paris, asking about the scheme, and desiring his assistance in obtaining a patent in France. 5 Wilkinson, who at the beginning worked very closely with the engine firm, was eager for the work to be obtained at any cost. Boulton & Watt would have preferred a grant of patent rights, but they comforted themselves with the fact that, though the French might find out the engine secrets, they could not manufacture one without Wilkinson's assistance.6 Thus is shown the close dependence of the engineer upon the iron founder. Oilier inquiries from France about engines came to Birmingham,7 but for a time, the engine firm stuck to the idea of a French patent. Early in 1779, however, M. Perier, of the Paris water-works scheme, came over to England to see Boulton & Watt and their engine. Boulton writes to Watt, " I was at Shadwell yesterday with Perier, the engine works well and hath shortened the men's day's work, as it only works from 6 to 6.8 Perier was very well pleased with what he saw and arranged for a large engine to be supplied as soon as possible. In payment they were offered a choice between shares in the water-works company and ready money ; Boulton & Watt chose the latter because of the financial difficulties.9

The engine was of 85 horse-power, and there were difficulties over the transport, especially as England was at war with France at this time.10 Thus passports had to be obtained, not only from England, but from France and America.11 The boat chartered had difficulty in sailing, owing to an embargo on shipping, " which is very distressing to trade."12 Eventually The Mary sailed, and having managed to elude the privateers of all fleets, reached France. The engine was forwarded to Paris and was set to work.

Two interesting accounts of the starting of the engine were given by two people, who were present, and subsequently visited Soho.

" Senor Carretto saw M. Perier and the engine just before it set to work, and in consequence thereof, he wrote an account of it to Turin, and said it did great honour to the French nation and to M. Perier in particular, who had told him that he had got the pipes and cylinders cast in England, but not a word of Watt."13 A year later Baron Reden and M. de Luc called at Soho, and the latter gave an account of the actual start of the engine in the presence of the Royal Academy. " He says M. Perier did not pretend to the Academy that it was his own invention, but that the Academy knew it to be ours . . which circumstance we did not know before, at least, I did not."14 But M. de Luc was a friend of Perier !

In all this Wilkinson had heartily cooperated , and about this time he contracted for the supply of iron pipes (forty miles in length), necessary for conveying from the River Seine sufficient water for all Paris.15 Wilkinson took shares in the Water works Company, which was a great success ; for after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, in 1815, Wm. Wilkinson collected £10,000 interest and principal for his shares, while Mr. Adam, as trustee of the estates of John Wilkinson, received a large sum, probably about half a million.16

British machinery and British capital were both being employed to develop French resources, at a time when the two countries were at war. More than that, John Wilkinson was of the opinion " that the French would soon be on an equal footing with England in the mercantile arts, if that country should turn out to be equally favoured and rich enough in minerals."17However, Wilkinson supplied Perier with a Boulton & Watt engine unknown to the engine firm, but the quarrel was patched up, as both firms were interdependent.18

In 1786 Boulton and Watt went to Paris together, chiefly to see Boulton's son, but also on business. Various projects were suggested ; new steam-engines, a hardware warehouse in Paris, coinage contracts, and the engagement of French artists.19

During the next year, Boulton's close relations with France continued. He wished a French artist, named Droz, to come to Soho, but the unsettled state of affairs prevented him from making up his mind. " I wish the ministry of France was once settled, and then I would offer Mr. Droz my advice what he should do, but it is in vain to say anything until we see whether Mr. De Calonne will keep his place or not." De Calonne, at this time, was struggling to obtain the approval of the Council of Notables for his financial policy, he failed and was dismissed in the same year. Boulton, however, delayed a full opening up of trade with France; he says, " I fear the English are sending more goods to France than that market can consume, and thereby they will be obliged to sell many things for less than prime cost.

"When this first convulsion, occasioned by the commercial treaty, is over, and the trade found its proper level, I shall then think it more prudent to go into it. At present I am full of orders, and should lose many valuable customers if my invoices were to be seen in the Palais Royal."20

The commercial treaty between the two countries had been part of Calonne's policy, and had been concluded in September, 1786. The effect of this was to increase the French imports into England from 21,000,000 livres, before 1786, to 34,000,000 livres, in 1787. Nevertheless, the treaty caused much discontent in France, as the French manufacturers were often inferior to their English rivals in mechanical power and business organization. The French Revolution, until 1793, when England declared war on the Revolutionary Government, had no effect on trade relations with England. Boulton " executed a considerable quantity of beautiful coin for the Revolutionary Government of France, while we remained at peace with that country, which coin was afterwards suppressed by the arbitrary measures of a fresh set of rulers in that unhappy country, to the great loss of the French contractors, who, nevertheless, paid Mr. Boulton honourably.21

He also executed medals for France after the outbreak of war, and at one time he sent twenty tons of medals to Messrs. Monneron, his Paris agents.22 Boulton belonged to that section of the nation who, from the beginning, adhered to the principles of the French Revolution. Among his friends he numbered Priestley, Wilberforce, and Wllitbread ; while James Watt (junior) went to Paris with an address of congratulation to the Jacobin Club, in 1702.

However, it is noticeable that it was with difficulty that political treaties and ruptures could prevail upon the trading interest to conform to the decisions of governments. The economic motive was becoming stronger than the political one, at any rate, outside the ruling bodies of states.

Though France was the foreign country that was most closely connected with England at this date, other countries were interested in our engineering progress. In 1778 an inquiry was received from .Holland,23 and, in 1776, one from Silesia.24 Germany, Prussia especially, was interested in steam-power, and following the inquiry, in 1776, a further inquiry from Prussia was made through M. Magellan, in 1778. Watt's answer was to demand an exclusive privilege for fourteen years at least, and to inquire whether the mines were " the immediate property of His Majesty's or farmed out."25 After the peace of Hubertsburg (1763), when Prussia had finally established herself as one of the great powers, Frederick the Great set to work to restore his country, and managed so successfully that within seven years all traces of the war had nearly disappeared. Among his efforts were those for obtaining steam-power to clear his mines.26 Men were sent over to England to attempt to discover the methods of erecting steam-engines and the secret of Watt's patent. Their unscrupulous methods are set forth in a document, written in 1786 by Boulton, which describes a series of attempts beginning in January, 177927 when Master Assessor Buckling, Counsellor of Mines to his Prussian Majesty, unsuccessfully endeavored to bribe Harrison and Cartwright, who were erecting the engine at Chelsea, to betray their masters, and ended in 1786, when Baron Stein endeavored to take notes about the engine at Barclay &Perkins brewery, and also to persuade Cartwright, who was again in London, to go abroad with him. In both of these attempts he failed, and Boultou sent him a complete account of the various machinations of Prussian spies, with the comment that the Baron's " conduct was not agreeable to Mr. Boulton's notions of Honour," and refused to see him.28

With the rest of Europe, nothing very important was done by the engine firm. 'The difficulty was usually over the patent grant, which Boulton & Watt insisted on. They had conversations with the Ambassadors of Sardinia and Venice, but nothing came of them,29 and only four engines had been erected outside England, in 1800.30

Difficulties of payment often occurred, and after the commencement of the Revolutionary War, the exchanges rapidly got into a muddle. Boulton had a large business with Russia, and it was there that the matter was most serious.31

Boulton was so perturbed that, in 1793, he wrote to Lord Hawkesbury, Secretary for Foreign Affairs, on the subject, " I need not point out to your Lordship the effect which the Anarchical state of France and the Country thereunto adjoining has upon our trade, by depriving us of our payments, and of more than quarter of our usual orders ; to which add the serious distresses arising from the extraordinary rate of exchange between this and almost all the other commercial countries in Europe, which not only deprives us of our regular payments, but the orders also that are usually sent with them and thereby puts it out of the power of the master manufacturer to employ one-half of the people he hath usually done. The calamities of War I bow to with patience, but these are exaggerated by the edicts and prohibitions of our friends and allies. The particular object of this letter is to mention that in consequence of a late edict, published by the Empress of Russia, I shall probably be plunged into great loss and difficulties, unless some means can be devised to mitigate them."32

The difficulty was met in a rough and ready manner ; " In consideration of the low courses of exchange," Boulton allowed his debtors to pay only a part of the amount, sacrificing one-half of the difference between the amount at the old and the amount at the new rate of exchange.33 In connection with petitions and applications to the Government, the growth of Chambers of (commerce is important. A Chamber of Commerce is a combination of manufacturers, merchants, and others, in order to safeguard their interests and to develop and extend their business, and again shows the effect that increased uncertainty was having on manufactures. Boulton played a large part in the foundation of a Chamber of Commerce in Birmingham and was prominent in the deliberations of the London Chamber. The weight which his judgments carried in both these assemblies, shows that the prestige of his firm must have been very great, not only in home industry but also in foreign trade.


1 Boulton to Motteaux, January 15, 1768. Tew MSS.

2 M. Arago, Eloge suy Jas. Watt, Passim.

3 Privilege a. Jean May Anglais d'etablir, construire, enseigner et mettre en pratique une nouvelle machine propre a elever leau, dessecher les mines et marais dans tout le royaume." Archives Nationales0, '71, fo. 4l9, quoted by M. Lemonnier in a communication to the Commission du vieux Paris sitting in 1916, No. 9, p. 255. An engine had been erected by Meyer and May, Englishmen, at Passy; it burnt wood, but to what purpose it was put is as yet unknown. A Frenchman also erected a steam-engine in 1726, and both engines were examined by members of the Academic des Sciences : the results of which examinations are contained in the Proces verbaux inedits de l'Academie des Sciences. However, a Frenchman named Belidor in 1737-9 wrote a considerable book on L'architecture Hydraulique, which does not mention the engine at Passy, but gives one steam-engine only as then working in France, at a colliery at Fresnes. There is some curious discrepancy here, but until further evidence is secured, we can only say that shortly after 1727 Paris ceased to employ steam-engines, but that several engines existed outside Paris, and that those which still existed came from England. English writers are also ignorant of the existence of these early engines. Farey, op. cit., refers only to the one at Fresnes.

4 Proces Verbal du Commission du view Paris, 1916, P. 256.

5 Boulton to Panchard, April 2,1777. Tangye MSS.

6 Watt to John Wilkinson, May 11, 1777. Tangye MSS.

7 Proposals by M. B. and J. W., of Birmingham, to Mr. Joseph Jary, Concessionaire du Roi pour les mines du nord pres de Nantes , April, 1778. Tahgye MSS. Boulton to Magellan, May 2, 1778. Tangye MSS. " The Count de Heronville wants an engine upon the moeres near Dunkirk."

8 Boulton to Watt, February 2, 1779. Tangye MSS.

9 Watt to Perier, April 6, 1779. Tangye MSS.

10 France had declared war in February, 1778, and the action of the French fleet at Chesapeake Bay had cut off all hopes of relief being sent to the English forces in America, and had forced Cornwallis to surrender to the Americans in 1781.

11 Watt to Wilkinson. July 6, 1779. Tangye MSS.

12 Watt to Perier, August 12, 1779. Tangye MSS.

13 Boulton to Watt, November 17, 1781. Tew MSS.

14 Watt to Boulton, October 29, 1782. Taw MSS.

15 Randall, The Wilkinsons, p. 58.

16 Ib., p. 58.

17 Ib., p. 58.

18 Boulton to Watt, February 11, 1783: "The engine now lying at Bersham I have just learnt is for Perier, who has sent a passport to convey it to St. Domingo, where it is to be erected. Put not your trust in founders." Tangye MSS.

19 " In 1786 Mr. Boulton and I were in France, where he saw a very fine crown piece executed by Mr. P. Droz in a new manner. As to his mechanical abilities Droz joined that of being a good dye sinker, Mr. Boulton contracted with him to come over to England at a high salary and work at Soho, Mr. B. having then the prospect of an extensive copper coinage for the East India Company, as well as a probability of one from Government." Boulton to M. Pradaux, March 29, 1787. Tew MSS. In the same letter Boulton announces that he has " not yet come to any decision respecting the keeping of a warehouse in Paris ; there are many things against it and many in favour of it, but I will very soon make up my mind." Also Watt, Memorandum on Boulton. 'Tew MSS.

20 Boulton to Pradaux, August 2, 1787. Tew MSS. Cambridge Modern History, Vol. viii, p. 99-l00.

21 Watt, Memorandum on Boulton. Tew MSS.

22 Amongst the medal subjects commemorative of the great event of the French Revolution were the following : The Emperor of Russia ; assassination of the King of Sweden ; restoration of King of Naples ; filial interview of the King of France; execution of King of France ; execution of Queen of France ; serment du Roi; Lafayette; J.J.Rousseau and Respublica Gallica

23 Boulton to J. P. H. van Liender, August 29, 1778. Tangye MSS.

24 Watt to Fred Lewis Kaller, November l0, 1776. The terms offered are £5,000 for the delivery of an engine with instructions.

25 Watt to Magellan, March 24, 1778. TangyeMSS. Watt had previously investigated the Prussian engineering works. He says, " It gives me some consolation to see the great Leibnitz, the rival of Newton, bungling repeatedly, applying windmills to raise ore while water ran idle past him." Watt to Small, May 28, 1769. Tew MSS.

26 Boulton to Watt, March 21, 1782 : " The Baron (Reden) says there is not more than one mine at the Hartz that can want an eagine they have been at an immense expense in bringing water over and through hills to turn water-wheels." Prussia acquired the Hartz Mountains in 1648. Tew MSS.

27 Boulton to Watt, January 6, 1779. Tangye MSS.

28 Facts Relative to the Baron Stein, 1786 (circa). Tew MSS.

29 Boulton to Watt, October 4, 1779. Tangye MSS.

30 Two in France. and two at Cadiz,in Spain, vide supra,pp. 172-3.

31 Watt had received favourable offers to go to Russia in 1775. but had refused. Boulton to Watt, February 23, 1775. " The balance of trade is always considerably in favour of Russia against England owing to our importing such large quantities of raw materials, iron, hemp, etc." Farington Diary, August 17, 1795.

32 Boulton to Lord Hawkesbury, July 19, 1793. Tew MSS.

33 Andrew Collins (Boulton's Russian traveller) to Boulton, August 19 or 30, 1793. Tew MSS. Boulton could obtain no support in this matter from Glasgow, whose only trade with Russia was the import of iron and deals. Lord G. Hamilton to Boulton, March 18,1794. Tew MSS.


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