Matthew Boulton’s Soho Works, Iron Foundry and House at Soho near Birmingham, 1801
1790 - 1810 (c.)
Text: Malcolm Dick
Stebbing Shaw’s The History and Antiquities of Staffordshire (1798 and 1801) is a major source not only for the antiquities and topography of the county, but for its economic, social and cultural circumstance at the end of the 18th century. His history is monumental, building on the limited accounts by Erdeswicke, Chetwynd and Plot in the 17th century, but he died before it was completed.
Amongst Shaw’s correspondents were two Lunar men, Erasmus Darwin and James Keir who provided him with information about the geology and industry of Staffordshire. Shaw traveled across the county recording his own observations on agriculture, manufacturing and urban development. He visited Etruria in North Staffordshire, the site of Josiah Wedgwood’s pottery works and residence. He also went to Matthew Boulton’s factories and saw his home and grounds in the south of the county.
As early as 1768, Shaw had received a letter from Erasmus Darwin about Boulton’s achievements and he used Darwin’s excited observations in his detailed account which is reproduced below from volume II of his history. Shaw wrote about Soho House and its grounds, the Soho Works in Handsworth and the Soho Foundry in Smethwick. He described many aspects of Boulton’s industrial enterprise and imagination:
• the production of toys and other small metal goods;
• the creation of sliver-plated vases, chimney pieces and candelabra;
• mechanically produced paintings which could not be distinguished from the hand-painted item;
• the application of mechanical power using James Watt’s improvements to the steam engine;
• the manufacture of steam engines at the Smethwick Foundry;
• coin and medal production in the Soho Mint;
• copying machines;
• overseas links;
• an insurance scheme for workers.
Shaw was enthusiastic towards the Soho Works and the landscaping of the surrounding area. He noted: “No expense has been spared to render these works uniform and handsome in architecture, as well as neat and commodious…” He also drew attention to the “gardens, groves and pleasure grounds” adjoining Boulton’s factory, which “render Soho a much-admired scene of picturesque beauty.” Here “we may…enjoy the sweets of solitude and retirement, as if far distant from the busy hum of men.”
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