Tag Archive: industrial history

May 27 2019

Book review: Matthew Boulton: Selling What All the World Desires by Shena Mason

matthew_boultonMatthew Boulton: Selling what all the World Desires by Shena Mason is a rather sumptuous book featuring a collection of articles and a catalogue of objects relating to Matthew Boulton, organised by Birmingham City Council on the bicentenary of his death in 2009.

Boulton was famous for his Soho Manufactory built a couple of miles from the centre of modern Birmingham. There he started making “toys”, following in the footsteps of his father. At the time “toys” were small metal objects such as buttons, buckles, watch chains and the like for which Birmingham was famous. Over time he brought a high degree of mechanisation and productionisation to the process.

But “toys” were only the start of his business interests, he soon moved into making higher value objects such as vases, candle holders and tableware made from silver, Sheffield plate (silver plated tin) and ormolu (gold gilded bronze or brass), aiming to supply a growing middle class clientele by producing objects at scale with a high degree of mechanisation to reduce cost. For this he cultivated connections in well-to-do society, and employed the best designers.

I was interested to read the article on Picturing Soho by Val Loggie which talks about how the architected design of the factory was essentially part of Boulton’s marketing strategy. The Soho site drew many visitors, it was a feature of the late Enlightenment that facilities such as these attracted visitors from across Europe and America. Boulton even installed tea rooms and a show room to furnish their needs. Although a continuing concern was the risk of industrial espionage which led ultimately to the curtailment of such visits in the early years of the 19th century.

As part of his silver work he campaigned for Birmingham to have its own Assay Office to hallmark silver goods. Previously silver items needed to go to Chester to be assayed and receive a hallmark which was a lengthy journey, costing money and risking damage to items. Gaining an assay office required an act of parliament for which Boulton lobbied in the face of opposition from London silver and goldsmiths. The London case was damaged when a “secret shopper” investigation showed that most silverware passing through the London assay office was below standard, and furthermore they were caught trying to bribe Boulton’s former employees to speak against him. An assay office was granted to Sheffield in the same act.

Boulton also built a mint at Soho, pretty much fully mechanising the process of producing coinage, trade tokens and decorative medals. This work seems to have been one of his more profitable enterprises. Towards the end of the 18th century the government had not minted new copper coinage for quite some time which caused problems because it was often pennies and tuppences that workers needed to buy essentials. Ultimately Boulton was given the contract to mint a large quantity of copper coinage, and was selling minting machinery around the world.

Finally, there was his work on steam engines with James Watt. Watt invented an improvement to the Newcomen steam engine in use at the time which made it much more efficient, in terms of the amount of coal required to produce the same power. Watt also developed engines that produced reliable rotary motion, essentially for driving factory machinery rather than just pumping water out of mines. In the first instance Watt and Boulton acted as consultants, designing engines for specific customers and buying in parts from various suppliers to construct them. They charged a fraction of the cost saving from reduced coal use, which sounds like it was rather difficult to administer. The engine business, they maintained their income by lobbying parliament to extend their patent. Later they built a foundry at Soho which made all of the parts of the engine.

Actually, there was one more thing, Watt and Boulton produced a system for mechanical reproduction of letters and paintings.

Boulton’s businesses were continued after his death by his son, and the son of the James Watt. The silver plate company and foundry lasted longest but by the end of the 19th century they were gone. The Soho Manufactory made it to the dawn of photography but was demolished in 1863. Boulton’s Soho House remains on the site but the rest of the works, and parkland in which they sat have been overtaken by housing. 

In some ways he was the metalworking equivalent of Josiah Wedgewood with whom he was well-acquainted through there membership of The Lunar Society, you can read more about them in Jenny Uglow’s The Lunar Men. He was also interested in the science of the time.

Many of Boulton’s ventures seem to have been of limited commercial value, they often required significant investment which he raised via loans, and revenue typically fell below expectations.

This is a beautiful book, the articles cover the key parts of Boulton’s work at Soho but it is not a biography. The catalogue, which makes up half the book is worth reading too – the photographs are gorgeous and there are descriptive text boxes which explain the wider context of the objects.

Apr 23 2017

Book review: Man of Iron by Julian Glover

This review is on man-of-ironMan of Iron: Thomas Telford and the Building of Britain by Julian Glover. Telford fits in with my interest in the Industrial Revolution, which are longstanding – in my very early teens my first stay at a hotel was in Ironbridge for a weekend of visiting the museums in that area. More recently I moved to Chester which is not that far from the famous Pontscysyllte Aqueduct and the Menai bridge and London to Holyhead roads, all works Telford was involved in.

Telford was born in Eskdale in the Scottish Borders in 1757, a tightknit rural community from which a number of great names have emerged  – William Pulteney (formerly William Johnstone) key amongst them, as an early patron of Telford. His father, a shepherd, died shortly after he was born.

He originally apprenticed as a stonemason in Eskdale before travelling to Edinburgh and London, where he worked on the refurbishment of Somerset House. He next worked in Portsmouth where he started to be involved in architectural design. He moved to Shropshire to become (eventually) county surveyor in 1786, where he was engaged in a wide range of projects.

As we head into the 1790’s the projects he is involved in expand enormously. Starting with the Ellesmere Canal, which includes the Pontscysyllte Aqueduct. Originally it was intended as a lower level, stone structure with locks taking the canal into the valley, at one point it was proposed that it should carry a rail-way. However, when the moment came the economy and lightness of iron led to the high level structure we see today.

Telford then went on to an enormous construction project in Scotland including harbours, the Calendonian Canal, numerous bridges and roads which necessitated extensive biannual visits over a period of 20 years or so. This project was put in place by the government, keen to see development in the Highlands, and later in the period having more cash to fund such work having finished fighting the French.

In common with William Smith, who made the first geological map of Britain, and Erasmus Darwin he was tremendously mobile forever travelling at a time when travel was hard. (Both of these men were his contemporaries). Telford knew the Darwin family and admired Erasmus Darwin’s “The Loves of Plants”, an epic scientific poem (a genre that has long fallen into disuse). In his earlier years Telford turned his hand to (not particularly good) poetry in the manner of Robert Burns who again was also a contemporary and was born not far from Eskdale.

In addition to this he directed the construction of the London to Holyhead road including the Menai Bridge, and with spurs along the North Wales coast to Conwy. He also planned the Göta Canal which crosses Sweden from the North to the Baltic Seas. The book includes a lengthy appendix listing his works (and the resident engineers on those projects, where relevant), I did consider mapping all these works but decided the list was too long!

Much of his inner motivation we learn from his correspondence with Andrew Little, a boyhood friend which sadly ends in 1803 with the death at age 48 of Little. Telford never married and there is scarcely a hint of any relationships with any women, Glover suggests in passing that his relationship with Little may have been very deep.

In his correspondence with Little we see Telford’s voracious appetite for continuous learning, but also a degree of cunning in his ambitions. He is not just a skilled technician in his fields but also a skilled worker of contacts, and project manager. He had a keen eye for his progress.

There’s some discussion in the book as to how much we should consider the projects he was involved in as his individual successes or as part of a team. This seems to me to be something of a trap, we tend to seek out the hero, the individual in any venture rather than truly appreciate the team effort. Think for example the way in which individual footballers are adulated. This carries over into histories of science and engineering, much of popular history of science is about the “great man” rather than the broader sweep or the group effort. Telford was no doubt technically able across a wide range of topics, he knew how to work his patrons, and he seems an excellent project manager. It’s clear there were often others like William Jessop who were notionally his superior for projects such as the Ellesmere Port canal and some of the Scottish work and likewise he had strong independent subordinates, particularly in Scotland, who delivered the work. Often biographers seems to fall into the trap of considering their subject “not sufficiently recognised”.

Telford died in 1834, a somewhat diminished figure. By that time the railways were starting to spread across the country and they would soon displace the canals and roads that had been his life’s work. I can’t help thinking that the projects that he worked on such as the Menai Bridge, the London – Holyhead road and the Ellesmere Canal demonstrated that the railway lines which were to come were feasible, if not always economically viable. Many times whilst reading this book I googled for the bridges he had built and found them still standing, sometimes still in use, sometimes by-passed by newer versions built to carry traffic unimaginable 200 years ago. Nevertheless they represent an impressive legacy. 

Nov 14 2015

Book Review: Canals: The making of a nation by Liz McIvor

canalsCanals: The making of a Nation by Liz McIvor is a tie-in with a BBC series of the same name, presented by the author. It is about canals in England from the mid-18th century through to the present day although most of the action takes place before the end of the 19th century.

The chapters of the book match the episodes of the series which are thematic, rather than chronological. Each chapter introduces a different topic, loosely tied to a particular canal.

The book starts with a discussion of the growth of London, and the Grand Junction canal linking it to Birmingham. The guild system was a factor in limiting the growth of the capital until the mid-18th century. The “Bubble Act” of 1720, enacted in the aftermath of the South Sea Bubble likely also had an impact. It prevented the formation of any joint stock company without an act of parliament to approve. It was repealed in 1825 before the railways saw their enormous growth. The Grand Junction canal was built as Birmingham became a manufacturing hub and London a great city with many requirements for daily life, and also a showroom to at least the United Kingdom, if not the world.

I was chastened to discover that the Bridgewater canal, one of the earliest of “canal boom” projects of the 18th century is only just up the road from me in Chester. I’d always assumed it was close to the town of a very similar name in Somerset! Bridgewater is named for the Duke of Bridgewater, Francis Egerton, for which the pub just over the road from me is presumably named. The Bridgewater canal was built around 1760, linking the Duke’s coal mines at Worsley to Manchester. With this revelation I realise that the Bridgewater canal and the Liverpool to Manchester railway, the first exclusively steam railway, are sited very close to each other.

Support for manufacture was the theme of canal building in the North of England, and also around Birmingham with canals built to move bulky raw materials to factories placed to benefit from hydraulic power, and benevolent climates for the processing of materials such as cotton. Manufacturers such as Josiah Wedgewood were keen to see their fragile wares safely make the outward journey to the showrooms of London.

The Kennet and Avon canal was built to provide navigable water access from Bristol to London. William Smith, who produced the first geological map of Great Britain is introduced in this chapter. I read more about him in The Map that Changed the World by Simon Winchester. The digging of canal cuts and tunnels reveal the local geology. Nowadays we see canals as bucolic thoroughfares but when they were built they were raw cuts indicating industrialisation.

The Manchester Ship Canal was opened in 1894 to bypass the port of Liverpool, these were the dying days of canal building. 154 died in its construction and 1404 were seriously injured from a workforce of 16,361. For comparison, projects such as the 2012 London Olympics and the close-to-completion Crossrail project are of similar scale yet have casualty numbers hovering around zero although these are best-in-class projects for health and safety. In this chapter McIvor talks more of the Irish “navigators” who built the canals, and something of the early trade union movement.

The families that worked the canals were seen as outsiders, once the long networks were set up they led an itinerant lifestyle with no fixed church or school for their children. The Victorian moralists arguing for improved conditions for the boat families seem to do so from the point of view of pointing out how bloody awful they were!

It’s interesting to see the likes of Thomas Telford and John Rennie cropping up repeatedly in this book. They have the air of rockstar engineers, not a niche found these days. Perhaps this is a result of the work of the Victorian writer, Samuel Smiles, who was very keen on self-improvement and wrote biographies of these men to promote his ideas.

To me the book lacks a little prehistory, the great boom for canal building in the UK was at the end of the 18th century but the very first “pound lock” in England was built in 1566 on the Exeter canal. What went on between these two times? And what was happening elsewhere in the world? Perhaps the answer here is that the canals in Britain never represented a technological revolution, they were always about the social and commercial climate being right.

Canals: The Making of a Nation is an unchallenging read, well-suited to a holiday. If you’re on a canal boat it won’t tell you much about the particular bridges and tunnels you pass over but it will give you a strong feeling for the lives of the people that built and used the canals, and why they were built in the first place.