Image: Russian Medallion to commemorate the erection of Peter the Great’s statue in 1773. The medal was struck during the Reign of Catherine the Great and shows a bust of the Empress.

Image from: Birmingham Assay Office (605)

The letter from Matthew Boulton to James Watt does not seem to have been published in its entirety. Samuel Smiles appears to be the first historian who saw the original. He did not publish it, but in his book Lives of Boulton and Watt (1865) he quoted this particular sentence in the following context:  “Among other things he [Boulton] informed Watt that he had put his little boy Jamie to a good school, and that he was very much occupied, as usual, in entertaining visitors. “The Empress of Russia”, he wrote, “is now at my house and a charming woman she is” (p.216).

Seventy years later, in 1936, H W Dickinson repeated this information in the book Matthew Boulton: “He even had the Empress Catherine herself in 1776”. Since then several generations of scholars from various fields of academic research have picked up the phrase from Smiles’ or Dickinson’s books in order to support their own speculations. We find it in the article “Matthew Boulton and Conrad Heinrich Kuchler” by J G Pollard (The Numismatic Chronicle, Vol.X, London. 1970); on the recent website which introduces the history of Birmingham; in the E. Robinson’s article “Birmingham Capitalists and Russian Workers”; in the second edition of H W Dickinson’s book (1999); and even in as authoritative publication, as The Industrial Revolution. A Documentary History, Series One, Part 1 (Andrew Matthew Publications, 1993).

At the present time Catherine the Great’s visit to Soho seems almost common knowledge and an established fact of local history.

One of the particular features of Catherine’s II reign was that she never travelled abroad. During the 34 years of her reign, she undertook only the journeys between St Petersburg and Moscow, or to the environs of Moscow for obligatory Orthodox pilgrimages. The only really long journey that she made was in 1787, to the South of Russia, in order to see her recently annexed territories, especially the Crimea.

She had serious reasons not to leave the country. As a German princess succeeding to the throne after the murder in 1762 of her husband Peter III, who was the legitimate descendant of Peter the Great, she had to be very cautious in order to keep her own position safe. The situation was particularly dangerous for her at the time of her supposed journey to England. A short time before, a two year long peasant war led by E.Pugachev had shaken the state. It is significant that Pugachev declared himself the Emperor Peter III, who had not been murdered but now appeared to fight against “the German, the Devil’s daughter”. And he was not the first, but the third pretender to take the name of Peter III. With great difficulty the revolt had been suppressed, and the leader of the rebellious Cossacks was beheaded in Moscow on 10th of January 1775.

At the time of the Pugachev’s revolt, the so-called Princess Tarakanova who had proclaimed herself a daughter of the Empress Elizabeth, appeared in Europe. She was kidnapped by Alexei Orlov, in June 1775 brought to Petersburg, and died in the Peter-Paul-Fortress in December 1775. It is obvious, that this series of pretenders was a real threat to Catherine II, so it would have been a most inappropriate time for her to leave the country.

Furthermore, a number of contemporaries were present at the Russian Court at the time of her supposed visit to England. A French envoy, Chevalier de Corberon, kept a diary of his life at Court. Gossiping about Catherine’s love affairs, and her relations with G Potemkin and P Zavadovskii, de Corberon at the same time testified to the Empress’ presence in Moscow, and then in Petersburg in January-March 1776, the time of her alleged journey abroad .

The date of M Boulton’s letter should also have alerted local historians. The usual way from Russia to England was by sea, but it was impossible to undertake this journey in January-February, as navigation had to stop for the winter months because the Finnish Gulf was frozen.

By 1776 Catherine II was one of the strongest and most influential European monarchs. Shortly before Sir Robert Gunning had approached her for military assistance in the American War . She refused, but anyway, her visit to England would have been an event of particularly great importance for British politics. It is unbelievable that it was not mentioned in any Russian or British documents except Matthew Boulton’s letter.

All these facts are very well known to scholars involved in historical research. Such a mistake could not have been made by authors undertaking Russian and Slavonic Studies.

The scholars who have quoted the sentence did not see the whole text of Boulton’s letter. It would have been obvious, that he simply made a little joke, and had mentioned not a visit of Empress Catherine the Great to his house, but the receipt of some image of her, presumably a portrait, on which she looked “a charming woman”. In 1772 Boulton had sent a huge amount of ormolu wares to Catherine the Great, and she repeated the orders in 1774, and then in 1776, although at the same time she did not buy his sidereal clock . However, a portrait, or perhaps a snuffbox with a portrait (a usual present from Russian Emperors in the 18th century) might have been a sign of her appreciation.

It is pity to destroy a nice Birmingham legend, but even local studies must be based on historical truth. This truth however opens the way for looking for the image of Catherine the Great – an artefact, which could become a fine addition to the commemorative museum in Matthew Boulton’s Soho House.


The Evidence

Image: J S C Schaak, Portrait of Matthew Boulton aged 42 (1770).

Image from: Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery

Among the Matthew Boulton’s papers in the archives at Birmingham Central Library, there is his charming letter to James Watt:

Soho Feb 24th, 1776

Dear Sir,

I have this moment received yours (sans date) from Stratford [?]. As I have ½ an hour to spare and can’t employ it so agreeable to my self as by writing to you my occurring thoughts, produced by your letter, I will ventor [sic] to trespass on your patience.-

1st. I am glad to hear that you are pretty well and that you are so very happy in your present situation.-

I observe you are thinking of making an inverted cylinder. Pray how are you to counterbalance the descent of the piston and pump rods? Which will be a vast weight. If by a counterweight you get nothing, but if you can employ the power that arises from the descent of that vast weight to strain a spring that will repay its debts, if by it, you can compress air in an Iron Cylinder, which in its return will contribute to overcome the Vis-inertiae of the column of water to be raised, you thereby will get quit of that unmechanical tax and very much improve the reciprocating engine. But how to make your piston steam tight requires.  —— I know not what. —-

There seems to be a vacancy in our great Smiths shop at present, and therefore I intend on Monday morning to divide the Wheal engine amongst them, and get it finished out of hand.

I forget the specifick gravity of our Metal, but I fear it’s so light as to rise above the center of this wheel and so run out at the 3 steam pipes; at least you’ll be confined to work with a weak steam but that defect may be remedied by making the pipes bent thus. Hence the fluid metal may rise if necessary as high as A. The steam pipes may be continued by the side of the wheel up to A and then turn towards the Axis.

[Diagram in margin of the letter]

You seem to think of setting the engine to work by the end of the week, but from your own acc[ount] of what is undone I think you will not quite so soon, and I am sure you will not, if you run into one error that I am more guilty of than your self: but you know an old sinner is best qualifyed to preach good doctrine and therefore I say unto you, brother don’t offer to take, even one stroke, before the Bans have been pub[lished] 3 times and no impediment can be found; then in the name of God fall to and do your best.

We have not yet got all the Castings from Bradley for Bloomsfield [?] but Joseph says that he thinks we may probably have them by Wednesday next; if so we shall set to work in 2 days after, unless Mr Wilkinson’s man at Bradley is unwilling to loose his wager which is, that we don’t set to work for 6 weeks.

Pray tell Mr Wilkinson to get a dozen of Cylinders cast and bored from 12 to 50 inches diameter and as many Condensors of suitable sizes, the latter must be sent here, as we will keep them ready fitted up and then an Engine can be turned out of hand in 2 or 3 weeks. I have fixed my mind upon making from 12 to 15 reciprocating and 50 Rotative Engines per annum. I assure you that of all the toys and trinkets which we manufacture at Soho non[e] shall take place of fire Engines in respect to my attention.

Pray remember that ye celebration of ye 3rd full Moon will be on Sunday March 3d. Darwin and Keir will both be at Soho. I then propose to make many motions to the members, respecting new laws and regulations, such as will tend to prevent the decline of a society which I hope will be lasting. Pray bring Mr Wilkinson. I think he will make a good member.

Jimmy is well. I will take him to school tomorrow and will call upon Glover on Tuesday.

I have received a letter from Mackey who advises of having sent me a larg[e] quantity of his different Iron Ores to Assay for him, and also some of his Fossill Charcoal. I think he may be likely to find me employ[ment] for my leasure hours.

Carleton hath beat the provincials at Quebeck, hath killed Montgomery, taken Arnold prisoner and about 300 men. Don’t oppress Mr Wilkinson’s spirits with this bad news; he will hear it too soon.-

I sent your letter to the office. There is another arrived, shall I send it to you or not?

The Empress of Russia is now at my house and a charming woman she is.

John Wood hath determined to have his great engine altered as soon as we can, which with ye orders I suppose you bring home will make a great figure in our order book. Pray make my respectfull compliments to Mr Wilkinson hoping he will make Soho his home when he comes this way. 

I think I’ll not begin a fresh side but say adieu.


Hardly could have Matthew Boulton imagined writing this long friendly letter to James Watt and sharing with him a stream of various thoughts, that one careless cheerful phrase towards the end of the letter (given here in bold) would produce a lasting local legend, and excite the speculations of several generations of historians about the visit of Russian Empress Catherine the Great (1729-1796) to Soho.

Catherine the Great and her non-visit to Soho House

Image: Death of Catherine the Great. Double-headed eagle and bust of the monarch. 1796. Designed by Conrad Heinrich Kuchler.

Image from: Birmingham Assay Office (19)

Text: Olga Baird


Historical evidence can be misinterpreted. The 19th century writer, Samuel Smiles seems to have been the first person to have published a claim that the Russian Empress, Catherine the Great, visited Matthew Boulton at Soho House. This claim was based on a misunderstanding of a phrase in a letter from Boulton to James Watt on 24 February 1776. Nevertheless, Smiles’ claim has been repeated by others who relied on his secondary source without going back to the original evidence. As a result, the alleged visit of Catherine the Great to Soho has become a local legend. There are though, no hard facts to support the claim. In her article, Olga Baird shows conclusively, that Smiles’ claim was based on a misinterpretation of a casual phrase in a long letter. Catherine the Great did not visit Soho.