Birmingham: “The Toyshop of Europe”

1728 - 1809 (c.)

Image: Matthew Boulton by C F Von Breda, 1792. Oil on Canvas. Boulton was the most famous of Birmingham’s toymakers. The portrait shows him examining items from his geological collections with Soho Manufactory, the biggest factory in the world in the background. Boulton produced buttons, buckles, steel jewellery and silverware at Soho.

Image from: Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery

Text: Shena Mason

Image captions: Malcolm Dick


Birmingham’s industrial reputation in the late 18th and early 19th centuries largely rested on its importance as a “metal–bashing” town. It manufactured items from brass and iron, that required brute strength to forge and create household goods such as cooking pots or engineered products like the steam engine. There was, though, another side to Birmingham’s importance, the making of “toys”, small decorative objects from silver, bronze and other metals and Edmund Burke, the MP and philosopher described Birmingham as “The Toyshop of Europe”. John Taylor and Matthew Boulton pioneered the mass production of buttons, buckles and boxes, but manufacturers also produced other highly decorated items for the home and personal use such as caddy spoons and candlesticks.

Shena Mason explores the history of this industry and its cultural, social and commercial context, including industrial tourism, insurance for workers and marketing. Her research has been based on primary sources in Birmingham Assay Office, Birmingham Central Library, Birmingham City Archives and Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery. The article is also illustrated with images from these locations.

People:   |  
Browse:   |    |  
Image courtesy of: Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery
Donor ref: 1987 F106

Continue browsing this section

205-0Birmingham: “The Toyshop of Europe” 180-1Toys in Birmingham 91-0John Taylor and Matthew Boulton 113-0The Soho Manufactory: From Snow Hill to Handsworth 4002-0The Soho Manufactory: The Ingenious Mr Boulton 3616-0The Soho Manufactory: Industrial Tourism 3999-0The Soho Insurance Society: Ahead of its time 3987-0Birmingham Toys: Makers and Materials 4003-0Birmingham Toys: The Hallmark 4004-0Birmingham Toys: Made at Soho 185-0Birmingham Toys: “Cut Steel” 3685-0Birmingham Toys: Manufacturing Techniques 111-0Salesmen, Customers and Competitors: The Home Market 1260-0Salesmen, Customers and Competitors: Export Markets 95-0Salesmen, Customers and Competitors: Travelling Salesmen 100-0Salesmen, Customers and Competitors: Agents 1245-0Summary and Developments
Sources and Further Reading

The Archives of Soho, Birmingham City Archives, Birmingham Reference Library
Birmingham Directories, various, published at regular intervals since 1767 (Birmingham Reference Library 6th Floor).
Crisp Jones, A K (ed.), Birmingham Silversmiths and their Marks (London, 1981).
Delieb, E, The Great Silver Manufactory: Matthew Boulton and the Birmingham Silversmiths, 1760-1790 (London, 1971).
Dickinson, H, Matthew Boulton (Cambridge, 1936, re-published Leamington Spa, 1999).
Gill, T, Technological and Microscopic Repository (London, 1830).
Goodison, N, Matthew Boulton: Ormolu (London, 2003).
Hopkins, E, Birmingham, the First Manufacturing Town in the World 1760-1840 (London, 1989).
Mason, S, Jewellery Making in Birmingham 1750-1995 (Chichester, 1998).
Mason, S, Soho House Guidebook (Birmingham, 2002).
Ransome-Wallis, R, Matthew Boulton and the Toymakers: Silver from the Birmingham Assay Office (London, 1982). Goldsmiths’ Hall Exhibition Catalogue.
Robinson, E, “Boulton & Fothergill, 1762-1782, and the Birmingham Export of Hardware”, in University of Birmingham Historical Journal, Vol. VI, No. 1 ((1957).
Tann, J, Birmingham Assay Office 1773-1993 (Birmingham, 1993).
Uglow, The Lunar Men (London, 2002).
Wright, J S, “The Jewellery and Gilt Toy Trade” in Birmingham and the Midland Hardware District (Birmingham, 1866).