Summary and Developments

Image: A Jeweller, The Book of Trades or Library of Useful Arts, Part I, third edition (London Tabart and Co, 1806). The print shows a craftsman in a workshop. The board at which he works is fastened with leather skins to catch the filings of small pieces of precious metal. The tools include files, drills, a small hammer and a crucible on a block of wood. On his left hand is a drill bow, a flexible instrument consisting of steel to which is fastened a cat-gut. The cat gut is twisted round one of the drills to enable the jeweller to drill small pieces of metal. The flatting mill on the right consists of two highly polished steel rollers and is used to flatten wire. Behind him is a drawing bench on which he draws out gold or silver wire. A German stove is represented at the front of the print to heat the workshop. There is a crucible on the stove and another on the floor. The crucibles are not heated in the stove but in a forge.

Image from: Science, Technology and Management, Birmingham Central Library

When Edmund Burke first gave Birmingham the nickname “The Toyshop of Europe”’, it may not have been entirely complimentary – Birmingham had a reputation for making cheap and shoddy trinkets. Matthew Boulton and some other manufacturers strove to improve Birmingham’s reputation by endeavouring to produce better quality goods. An industry making largely inessential items became essential as a major collective employer of labour. It should also be remembered that it greatly increased Birmingham’s wealth, and that Birmingham’s supremely adaptable workers learnt from it how to do more things with metal than they had ever thought of before, knowledge which became part of Birmingham’s skill and knowledge base for succeeding generations of manufacturers of all kinds.

The toy trade itself led directly into the development of the city’s jewellery trade. In the late 18th century, as shoe buckles began to go out of fashion, to be replaced by ‘shoe strings’ (shoe laces), many bucklemakers turned to jewellery to survive, and some of the city’s oldest-established manufacturing jewellers could trace their origins back to buckle, button and toy makers. Some, like John Bragg I, emigrated to America to try their luck at buckle-making there. He, like many others immigrants, succumbed to the yellow fever which was raging in New York in the 1790s. His widow and children came home to Birmingham, and his son and grandsons went on to create one of Birmingham’s best-respected jewellery companies, T. & J. Bragg, which was awarded the Royal Warrant in the 1880s.

The importance to the city of these closely related trades cannot be over-estimated. As one 19th century commentator put it, it was “buttons that made Birmingham, not Birmingham that made buttons”.1

1.  Birmingham Weekly Post, 11 October 1884

Salesmen, Customers and Competitors: Agents

Image: Factors or Commercial Agents in Birmingham with a view of the Crescent and Wharf. J Bisset, Bisset’s Magnificent Guide or Grand Copper Plate Directory for the Town of Birmingham…(Birmingham, Printed for the Author by R Jabet, 1808). Factors transacted business for another, bought or sold goods on commission or loaned money. J Hancock’s engraving is dominated by a scroll, supported by a crane, which provides the names of twenty-one businesses. To the left is a view of canal wharves near the Crescent, a distinguished Georgian terrace. The canal basin presents commercial activity including barges, a canal bridge and a lock, which is partly hidden by the scroll. Goods in packages and barrels are shown ready for loading.

Image from: Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library

Agents provided a valuable service to manufacturers by having show-rooms, dealing with retail customers, holding stock, arranging credit and handling payments. In 1793 Boulton appointed Richard Chippindall of 59 Watling Street, London, as his agent, and the letters between them give some useful insights into the relationship.

Chippindall’s early efforts showed he had the right contacts and his finger on the pulse of fashion. He supplied samples to the Royal family, and sent advice on what size and shape of shoe buckles were the height of fashion in the capital. There was a careful exchange of letters in which the exact method of describing different buckles was established, so that there would be no misunderstandings. Boulton also sent advice on coating steel goods with light oil and storing it in air-tight containers, to prevent it tarnishing while in stock.

On the matter of prices, Boulton observes:

First, there is my profit; then 2nd, the Birmgm Factor who rides from one Country Town to another for small orders, travils at great expence & must have his profit. He sells to the Newcastle or Exeter wholesale dealer who must have his, 3rd, profit, & he sells them to the small Retail Shopkeeper, who must also take a 4th profit, which is perhaps the largest of all because it is taken upon a larger sum per pair & his returns are small. Hence the more of these profits that can be spared or reduced the more extensive will be the Sale.1

One of the common problems was the length of time customers took to pay. Six months’ credit was generally offered, and some overseas customers were reluctantly allowed as long as 18 months’ credit – hazardous when dealing with customers abroad.

1.  MBP 300/57, 4 October 1793

Salesmen, Customers and Competitors: Travelling Salesmen

Image: Advertisement for Merchants in Birmingham. J Bisset, Bisset’s Magnificent Guide or Grand Copper Plate Directory for the Town of Birmingham…(Birmingham, Printed for the Author by R Jabet, 1808). A scroll lists the proprietors of twenty-one mercantile businesses, including Matthew Boulton resting on an anchor. There are several images linked with trade and the wider world, including ships, a globe, the winged staff of Mercury, barrels and goods wrapped for transport. Holding the scroll is the patriotic figure of Britannia. Her foot rests on another scroll which contains the message “Shipp’d by the Grace of God on Board the Good Ship”.

Image from: Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library

More glimpses of life on the road as a travelling export salesman come from the letters of Peter Chamot, of the hardware merchants Glover & Chamot (based in Cannon Street), who in 1763 set off for Amsterdam on the first leg of a Continental sales tour. It would be fully 12 months before he returned home. In that time he travelled through Holland, Germany, Austria, and France, visiting established and new customers.

Wherever he went, he took orders for goods which he sent back to Birmingham, checked out what the competition was doing, sent back market research, ran status checks on new customers, cajoled old customers whose accounts were overdue (being careful, of course, not to offend them so that they did not place a new order) – all the tasks generally associated with a sales job then and now, in fact.

Chamot was selling goods from Soho as well as other Birmingham manufacturers. Some of these buyers Boulton also dealt with direct. An order Chamot took in Vienna included buckles, beltlocks, spoons, sugar tongs, crosses, watch chains, links, instrument cases, pencil cases and pencils, nail clippers, candle snuffers and snuff boxes, in steel, pinchbeck and gilt.  An overdue account in Amsterdam was due to the customer having married off his daughter recently and being short of money as a result of providing her dowry. In France, there were ways of getting round import restrictions on certain goods, by disguising the parcels as permissible goods and placing them in the centre of the shipping casks, surrounded by non-restricted goods, so that customs inspectors who drilled into the casks and checked the first packages they came to would find nothing to confiscate.1

1.  ‘A “Commercial” on the Continent a Hundred Years Ago’, in Birmingham Weekly Post, series of letters re-printed from 28 April 1877

Salesmen, Customers and Competitors: Export Markets

Image: Merchant, The Book of Trades or Library of Useful Arts, Part II, third edition (London Tabart and Co, 1806). Merchants bought and sold goods and were an essential component of Birmingham’s industrial economy. The entries and advertisements in local directories show that the town had developed a large commercial community that engaged in the commercial aspect of the “toy trade.”

Image from: Science, Technology and Management, Birmingham Central Library

If the home market was important to the toymakers, the export trade was vital. In 1759, Samuel Garbett told a House of Commons Select Committee that there were at least 20,000 people employed in the ‘toy’ trade in Birmingham, producing goods worth some £600,000 a year, of which £500,000-worth was exported.1 This astonishingly high export trade was achieved by a small army of commercial travellers bumping and rattling across Europe in coaches, some employed directly by large manufacturers and some by Birmingham factors like Lewis & Capper, who represented several firms. Bigger manufacturers, like Boulton, also appointed local agents in some countries. The Birmingham makers faced tough competition from local manufacturers in some countries, notably France and Germany, but generally scored on price because they were more highly mechanized. Portugal and Sweden both imported a large amount of Birmingham goods until both placed prohibitions on Birmingham hardware imports to protect their own manufacturers. (“Hardware” in the 18th century covered the whole range of metal goods from fenders to jewellery.)

Boulton also investigated overseas markets himself, making visits to France and Holland. In his notebook for 1765, during a visit to Paris, he headed a list “We must make”. The list includes gilt, lacquered and plated buttons, steel snuffers, corkscrews, ear-rings, crosses, and a variety of buckles including “common steel” and “ditto fine”. His business partner John Fothergill spent months at a time abroad. In one letter, Boulton writes to a contact that Fothergill is to leave St Petersburg “by the first sledges that go to Narva, Metteau, Riga & Konigsburg”.2 In another, Fothergill writes of his desire to come home and the complaining letters from his wife about his long absence. In 1767 Boulton told a German business partner, J.H. Ebbinghaus of Iserlohn, “Steel Chains we have made immence quantity of this Year & have yet very great orders”. Three years later, a German firm offering to act as Boulton’s agents advised “We do not want samples of steel chains; the roads are paved with them in France, and there are no more sold.”5

1. House of Commons Journal, 20 March 1759.

2. MBP 307/46

3. MBP 307/53

4. MBP 135 Letterbook ‘C’, p.30

5. MBP 218/254

Salesmen, Customers and Competitors: The Home Market

Image: Advertisement for Button Makers in Birmingham. J Bisset, Bisset’s Magnificent Guide or Grand Copper Plate Directory for the Town of Birmingham…(Birmingham, Printed for the Author by R Jabet, 1808). Twenty-five button-making businesses are named on a scroll. The engraving is particularly interesting in showing machinery for the trade, including a stamp, lathe and presses. Button making had become one of Birmingham’s most important industries by the early 19th century, benefiting from rising demand at home and overseas and increased mechanisation.

Image from: Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library

The market for ‘toys’, at home and abroad, was large and long-lasting, providing a great deal of employment. It also had a broad social spread, from the emerging middle classes to the nobility, for while the latter could and did buy silver, gold and diamonds, there is no doubt that they were also captivated by the sparkling steel wares which came from Birmingham, and also Wolverhampton and Woodstock.

Matthew Boulton had no doubt that he had a market for his steel wares among the upper echelons of society, and he deliberately set out to woo them. Wealthy customers who bought cut steel dress sword hilts or chatelaines, elegantly embellished with blue and white jasperware plaques from his friend Josiah Wedgwood, might also be tempted to become customers for silver or Sheffield plate tableware, and ormolu ornaments. In 1763 he wrote to his wife, Ann, from London:

Yesterday morning I got a Friend to present one of my Sword Hilts to the Prince Edward who was so pleased with it that he orderd it to be mounted immediately & I had ye pleasure of seeing him ware it at the Play last night. The Prince of Wales also liked it very much & desir’d I would make him one but a little different.1 

Boulton relied heavily on networking, personal contact and lots of letter-writing to build his customer base, but advertising was also increasingly employed by the Birmingham manufacturers to promote their works. The first illustrated directory of Birmingham, Bissett’s Directory of 1800, contains a number of finely-engraved advertisements from local manufacturers in the fields of button, toy and silverware.

1. MBP 279/8, April 1763

Birmingham Toys: Manufacturing Techniques

Image: Button Maker, The Book of Trades or Library of Useful Arts, Part III, third edition (London Tabart and Co, 1806). Buttons were could be made from a wide range of materials including gold, silver, steel and other metals, glass, silk, mohair and pearl. In this image the button maker is using a machine which takes dies to stamp a pattern on a metal button. By means of a single pulley he raises a weight to the lower part of which is fixed a die. He lets the weight fall down on the metal and the item is stamped. The button then has to receive a shank which is performed by solder and then polished by women workers.

Image from: Science, Technology and Management, Birmingham Central Library

Mass production led to a move away from the old system where one craftsman would make an item from start to finish, to the factory system, where each person carried out one stage in the process. A visitor’s account from 1755 describes button production at John Taylor’s factory, making it clear that division of labour is in use: “The Multitude of Hands each Button goes thro’ before it is sent to the Market is surprising; you will perhaps think it incredible, when I tell you they go thro’ 70 different Operations of 70 different Work-folks;”1

Stamping, pressing, piercing and polishing were all done with the help of machinery introduced during the 18th century, and many new alloys were introduced which were suitable for use with these machines. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries Birmingham manufacturers obtained numerous new patents for producing components for the buckle, button, toy and jewellery trades. A visitor to Soho in 1787 described

Wheels, vices, pincers, cranks, lathes, drills, shears, hammers of all sizes, coin- presses, all assist the workmen in binding, twisting, shaping, pointing, cutting, marking, and turning the metals with wonderful quickness to produce the requirements of men, women and children, for all changes and caprices of fashion. The workmanship is most easy and quick. Women and children at low wages can help the workmen in many ways… In many cases the work is so divided that the workman knows only his own part and not the complete work… Some of the machines for stretching, gilding or silvering sheets of copper I have seen in France [rolling mills]…2

1. Four Topographical Letters Written in July 1755….. (Newcastle upon Tyne, 1757)

2. ‘England by an Italian Traveller in 1787’, from The Birmingham Weekly Post, 22 November 1890

Birmingham Toys: “Cut Steel”

Image: Cut Steel Shoe Buckles, 1780s

Image from: Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery.

Steel toys and jewellery are often referred to now as “cut steel” because of the tiny beads and studs which have facets cut on them, like gemstones. The studs are riveted or screwed into steel backing plates cut to the required shape.

A wide range of jewellery, and other items such as chatelaines, watch chains, beaded purses, sword hilts, buckles and buttons were made in cut steel. Some of these achieved a very light, delicate effect by the use of dozens of tiny studs or beads, and steel jewellery and decorative articles were extremely fashionable, glittering in candle-light in a way that mimicked the sparkle of diamonds.

Cut steel is sometimes confused with marcasite, which is a similar colour and produces a similar effect. The difference is that cut steel is metal, while the stones in marcasite jewellery (which are usually mounted in silver) are indeed ‘stones’ – marcasite is the jeweller’s term for the mineral iron pyrites.

In 1830 Thomas Gill described the production of steel jewellery in Birmingham, from cutting the blanks for the steel beads or studs, to final polishing in a mixture of lead and tin oxide with proof spirit on the palms of women’s hands, to achieve their full brilliance. Gill comments: “No effectual substitute for the soft skin which is only to be found upon the delicate hands of women, has hitherto been met with.”1

People often ask, doesn’t cut steel jewellery go rusty? The answer is yes – when it was in regular use it had to be carefully dried if it got wet (for instance, shoe-buckles on a wet day). Some cut-steel jewellery, especially that made in Woodstock, Oxfordshire, had studs which could be unscrewed from the backing plate for thorough cleaning and drying.

1. ‘Fine and delicate steel works’ from Thomas Gill’s Technological and microscopic repository, VI,

(London, 1830)

Birmingham Toys: Made at Soho

Image: Photograph of first items in the Plate Register of Birmingham Assay Office, 31 August 1773, registered by Matthew Boulton and John Fothergill. The original is no longer available.

Image from: Birmingham Assay Office

Though Matthew Boulton played a leading part in the establishment of Birmingham Assay Office, and was the first maker to register his mark there and take a consignment of goods for assaying and hallmarking, his manufacture extended over a much wider range of metals than just silver.

In his notebook for 17711 he headed page 1 ‘A List of the Articles Manufactured at Soho’ and over the next seven pages carefully noted down the following headings: ‘Buttons’, ‘Chains for Men & Women’,  ‘Buckles’, ‘Boxes, Instrument Cases &c’, Links or Sleeve Buttons’, ‘Candlesticks’, ‘Plated Wares & Braziery’, ‘Belt Locks’, ‘Cane Heads’,  ‘Trinketts’, ‘Tapestry Hooks’, ‘Chapes’ (the ‘working parts’ of buckles), and ‘Watch Hooks & Keys’.

The majority of these (with the exception of candlesticks and plated wares) would come under the heading of toys, and under each heading he listed the range of metals in which they were being made at Soho. The metals include gold, silver, plated metal, gilt, pinchbeck, platina (a white metal alloy, not platinum), steel, and various other alloys. Some are said to be inlaid or decorated with enamel or glass.

Much of Boulton’s toy output, and that of other Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Walsall and Woodstock manufacturers, was in steel. Birmingham directories for the 18th and early 19th centuries list numerous steel toy makers. Even before Soho was built, Boulton was buying steel from Benjamin Huntsman in Sheffield 2, and discussing prices of goods with Timothy Hollis in London3. Writing to him in 1757 about the tendency of other makers to undercut his prices, Boulton commented: “For as I have put my Selfe to a greater expense than any Body else in erecting ye Best Convenience & ye compleatest Tools for ye purpose, methinks I would not let any interloper run away with ye Business…’ He adds that he hopes to merit orders by “superior work”.

1. MBP 376/6, Notebook 6, 1771

2. MBP 133, Letterbook ‘A’, p.2

3. MBP 133, Letterbook ‘A’, p.1

Birmingham Toys: The Hallmark

Image: Hallmark from an engraved snuff box with bright-cut decoration made by Samuel Pemberton in 1788:

The Head of George III – duty mark

Lion – England

Anchor – Birmingham Standard Mark

Q – 1788

SB – Samuel Pemberton

Image from: Birmingham Assay Office

For over 700 years there have been laid-down minimum standards for silver and gold alloys. Gold and silver are alloyed, or mixed with other metals, for both economic and technical reasons, but the proportion of silver or gold to other metals in the alloy must conform to one of the legal minimum standards.

King Edward I instituted the forerunner of today’s UK hallmarking system in 1300. ‘Guardians’ were instructed to visit goldsmiths’ workshops to assay (test) items for their precious metal content. If goods passed the assay they were stamped with a leopard’s head to guarantee the standard. Other marks included a letter indicating the year, and the maker’s initials. If goods failed to come up to standard, they were broken. In 1478 the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths established their first assay office at Goldsmiths’ Hall. From then on London makers had to take their goods to the Hall for assaying and marking – hence the term “hallmark”. By the 18th century there were assay offices in a number of provincial towns. Each had its own town mark, to show where the item had been hallmarked.

Matthew Boulton’s leading role in the establishment of Birmingham Assay Office (which initially met with considerable opposition from London) was referred to in Section 1.2. It is often asked why Birmingham’s mark is an anchor, when the city is so far from the sea. From 1771-73 Birmingham and Sheffield ran joint campaigns to have their own assay offices, and met periodically to discuss tactics at the Crown and Anchor Tavern in the Strand in London. When the Bill was passed, Birmingham took the anchor for its mark and Sheffield the crown – perhaps on the toss of a coin. (Sheffield later changed to the Tudor rose.) The opening of the Assay Office marked an important step in the development of Birmingham’s toy trade.

Birmingham Toys: Makers and Materials

Image: Engraved snuff box with bright-cut decoration made by Samuel Pemberton in 1788, an example of the range of silver items that were manufactured in Birmingham in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Image from: Birmingham Assay Office

‘Birmingham toys’ (sometimes disparagingly referred to as ‘Brummagem toys’) comprised a very wide range of small items for personal use. Matthew Boulton perhaps made the widest range of any of the Birmingham makers, but he was certainly not without competition, although we know far less about his rivals. Apart from his largest and oldest-established competitor, John Taylor, who claimed in 1759 to be employing 600 people, there were several smaller local makers whose work, particularly in silver, became well-known.

They include several members of the Pemberton family, notably Samuel Pemberton (1738-1803), Matthew Linwood (1754-1826), Joseph Taylor (1767-1827), Edward Thomason (an ex-Soho apprentice and the first Birmingham manufacturer to be knighted – in 1832), Thomas and Joseph Willmore, and later, the famous Nathaniel Mills (very collectable today). Comparatively little is known about most of them, but Birmingham Assay Office has a fine collection of Birmingham silver ‘toys’, including nutmeg graters, snuff boxes, vinaigrettes, card cases, caddy spoons, child’s rattles, toothpick boxes, and buckles.

Toys were made in a variety of materials. Metals included silver, gold, brass, steel and pinchbeck (a gold-coloured alloy of copper and zinc). Other materials used included tortoiseshell and mother-of-pearl. Usually, only the silver and gold items can be definitely identified and accurately dated. This is because, as precious metals goods, they had to have the hallmark. Items made in non-precious metals, such as steel, were not required to be hallmarked and rarely have any helpful marks.

The Soho Insurance Society: Ahead of its time

Image: Rules for Conducting the Insurance Society belonging to the Soho Manufactory. The image is an imaginative display of how Boulton wanted to represent his business as a caring concern.  The scene connects wisdom, art, prudence and industry and is a remarkable attempt to marry classical imagery with 18th century industry. A more detailed description follows in the text.

Image from: Birmingham City Archives and Soho House Museum

Matthew Boulton claimed to have 1,000 workers at the Soho Manufactory, including men, women and children. Among the innovations at Soho was one of the world’s earliest works insurance schemes. Workers’ ‘friendly societies’ or ‘box clubs’ began forming in manufacturing areas in the mid-18th century. Societies of this kind, which often met in pubs, were early forerunners of the trade union movement. Societies based in the workers’ place of employment were rare. Exactly when the Soho society started is uncertain, but it was definitely before 1782. That year, Dr Thomas Percival of Manchester wrote to ask how it worked. Boulton’s manager John Hodges answered the letter, and his reply makes it clear that the scheme had already been in operation for some time:

Inclosed herewith for your friends inspection is a printed paper of the rules of the Soho Club, which have been adhered to, with very little alteration, ever since its institution, and have been found to answer the chief intent, ie, that of being a sufficient support for any of its Sick Members during the time of illness. From the contributions of People who visit here, with the weekly payments of the Workmen, it has scarcely ever been exhausted, tho’ several times it has been very low, and it of course rises or falls according to the number of the sick. At this time it is what is deem’d very rich, having near £120 in Stock. 1

The Rules which Hodges sent Dr. Percival still exist. They are printed on a sheet headed by an engraving showing the Manufactory in the background. In the foreground sits a worker with his arm in a sling, surrounded by figures representing Art, Prudence, and Industry. Other components of the design represent fidelity, stability, plenty, commerce, and wisdom. Near the Manufactory are ‘little Boys busy in designing, &c, which shew that an early Application to the Study of Arts is an effectual Means to improve them’.2

From the rules, we can get a good idea of how the scheme was run. Every male worker earning two shillings and sixpence per week or more was a member of the society. New employees received a copy of the rules, payment for which served as a joining fee. Men paid one shilling to join, boys aged 14-18 eightpence, and younger members sixpence. For new employees aged 45 or over membership was optional. Women were evidently not included in membership. Whether, as low-paid workers, they would have been considered for discretionary grants (see below) is not specified.

Having joined, each member paid regularly into the ‘treasure box’ on a sliding scale according to his earnings. Weekly contributions ranged from a halfpenny from those earning two shillings and sixpence per week, up to fourpence from those earning twenty shillings (£1) a week. Workers whose wages were below two shillings and sixpence a week did not pay into the scheme, but could be made a discretionary grant from it in times of hardship due to sickness. Payments were collected every Monday morning. Careful records of members, payments and benefits were to be kept.

Members of the Society who were off sick could start drawing benefit after they had paid in to the scheme for three months. Those injured in accidents at work could draw from it immediately. A sliding scale of benefits operated, ranging from one shilling a week for the lowest paid members (contributing a halfpenny a week), to eight shillings a week for the highest paid (contributing fourpence a week). These payments would continue in case of need as long as the fund contained at least £100.

The scheme was managed by a committee of six workers, whose conduct was subject to inspection by six ‘elders’ appointed by Mr Boulton. Workers claiming sickness benefit were to be visited daily by a committee member.

There was a range of fines and forfeits to discourage both fraud by workers, and inefficiency or fraud by the committee. Committee members were fined for failing to attend meetings, and workers were fined for fraudulent claims (including working elsewhere while claiming to be off sick), and begging for tips from “gentry” visiting the Manufactory. Senior staff who guided these visitors round were fined for keeping money given to them by the visitors instead of putting it in the “treasure box”. One rule stated: “As it is for the health, interest, and credit of the men as well as masters, to keep this MANUFACTORY clean and decent, it shall be deemed a forfeit of one shilling to the box for any one found guilty of any indecencies, or keeping dirty shops…”. 

In cases of severe hardship, the committee had discretion to increase benefit. However, if the sickness was found to be due to drunkenness, debauchery, quarrelling or fighting, the worker would not be entitled to receive any sick pay for ten days. In cases of death in service, the deceased’s family would receive help towards funeral expenses, at the rate of thirty shillings for the lowest-paid contributor to a hundred shillings (£5) for the highest-paid.

1. MBP 147, Letterbook ‘N’, p. 48, John Hodges (Soho) to Dr. Thomas Percival (Manchester), 16 November 1782

2.  Rules for Conducting the Insurance Society Belonging to the Soho Manufactory (framed copy at Soho House)

The Soho Manufactory: Industrial Tourism

Image: Soho Manufactory. William West, Picturesque Views… of Staffordshire…(Birmingham, 1830). Engraving by T Radclyffe was based on a drawing by F Calvert. This is an untypical view of the building from the rear and presents the complex of forges, mills and engine houses behind the neo-classical façade of the factory. The Soho Works became a tourist attraction as people came to view Boulton’s manufacturing processes. The image shows visitors in the foreground.

Image from: Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library

At this early stage of the Industrial Revolution, the sight of machines at work producing goods fascinated people, and in manufacturing centres like Birmingham ‘viewing the manufactories’ became a popular pastime for visitors to the town. There are many journal accounts of such visits to Soho and other manufactories, including one dated 1755 describing a visit to John Taylor’s works.1

Matthew Boulton initially thought it was useful to encourage visitors to the Soho Manufactory because it helped to increase the market for his goods. After a while the number of visitors grew so great that he had a tea-house built in the grounds of the Manufactory, and after visitors had been given a guided tour of the works they were entertained to tea or wine and cakes in the tea-house, and often bought goods in the showroom before leaving.

The visitors included counts, dukes, duchesses, ambassadors, scientists and all manner of well-to-do travellers who felt their tour of Britain would not be complete without seeing Soho, its machines and its hundreds of workers.

Eventually the number of visitors grew so great that they began to disrupt production. Managers, or Boulton himself, had to spend time showing them round and explaining things, and workers begged for tips. Boulton decided to call a halt to factory tours and put up a notice in every inn for some miles around, announcing that henceforth visitors would not be admitted to the Manufactory. For some VIPs he relented!

1. Four Topographical Letters Written in July 1755….. (Newcastle upon Tyne, 1757)

The Soho Manufactory: The Ingenious Mr Boulton

Image: A pair of Apollo and Diana candelabra made by Boulton and Fothergill. Ormolu, bronze and marble. c. 1775 from Soho House, Museum, Handsworth Birmingham.

These items represent the highest quality workmanship at Soho Manufactory. Apparently only two pairs were made. The pedestals are made from white marble and the 12 inch bronze figures are fixed to the base by a copper plate. The three-branched candelabra are shaped in the form of palm branches and are made from ormolu. “Or moulu” is French for ground gold. The process of creating ormolu involved amalgamating gold with mercury to enable brass or bronze to be gilded.

Image from: Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery

4. The Soho Manufactory: The Ingenious Mr Boulton

Once the Soho Manufactory was built, Matthew Boulton moved his business from Birmingham town centre. With his business partner John Fothergill he continued the buckle, button, jewellery and ‘toy’ trade. Boulton & Fothergill also expanded into tableware and decorative goods, for which there was an expanding market.

Boulton & Fothergill was probably the first firm outside Sheffield to produce ‘Sheffield Plate’. Silver and copper were fused together and rolled into bi-metallic sheet, from which tableware was produced at a much lower price than items made entirely of silver. Silver-on-copper plating was in use until the invention of electro-plating in the mid-19th century. It opened up a new market for affordable domestic ‘silverware’.

Boulton & Fothergill also produced sterling silverware. This had to have the hallmark. Birmingham did not have an Assay Office when the business started, so goods had to be sent to London or Chester for hallmarking. As a result of a campaign led by Boulton, the first Birmingham Assay Office opened in 1773 and began hallmarking locally-made precious metal goods with the anchor mark still used today.

Fashionable ormolu (mercury-gilded ornamental items such as candelabra, clocks and perfume burners) was also produced at Soho. Often the richly gilded metal parts were combined with colourful stone such as Blue John from Derbyshire. Other Soho products included coins and medals.

In 1775 the Scottish engineer James Watt moved to Birmingham and joined Matthew Boulton in partnership to develop the steam engine. Not only did Soho switch over from water power to steam power; Watt’s steam engines were installed in many countries as industrialisation began to take shape. The Boulton & Watt partnership became the most famous part of the Soho business.

The Soho Manufactory: From Snow Hill to Handsworth

Image: View of Matthew Boulton’s Soho Manufactory and Royal Mint Offices in Handsworth near Birmingham. J Bisset, Bisset’s Magnificent Guide or Grand Copper Plate Directory for the Town of Birmingham…(Birmingham, Printed for the Author by R Jabet, 1808).

Matthew Boulton’s Soho Works was built between 1762 and 1764 to provide a base for his expanding buckle and button business. The advertisement lists the “annexed firms” which formed part of his industrial and commercial empire, producing buttons, buckles, and latchets, silver and plated goods, coins, medals, iron, steam engines and letter copying machines. The stables and latchet works are shown on the left of the engraving. Behind the factory on the right is the rolling mill.

3. The Soho Manufactory: From Snow Hill to Handsworth

Matthew Boulton did not have room to expand the business at Snow Hill, so he began looking for a site for a new manufactory. In 1761 he leased 13 acres of land just over the Hockley Brook, in Handsworth. This was about two miles from Snow Hill, and just inside the Staffordshire border. The land included a mill and a house. The area was already known as Soho. The name probably has the same derivation as the Soho in London – it is based on a hunting cry. An inn in the area was said to have a signboard showing a huntsman blowing a horn, from which the word “Soho!” issued.

On this site Matthew Boulton built the Soho Manufactory. It was completed in 1765 at a cost of some £10,000. The house on the site, Soho House, had been built c.1757. In 1766 Boulton and his second wife moved into the house so that he could live nearer the business. Boulton was one of the founders of the scientific society known as the Lunar Society, and Soho House became one of the group’s regular meeting places.

John Taylor and Matthew Boulton

Image: Advertisement for J Taylor, Gold and Silversmith, Jeweller, Tortoiseshell and Ivory Box and Toy Manufacturer, Birmingham. J Bisset, Bisset’s Magnificent Guide or Grand Copper Plate Directory for the Town of Birmingham…(Birmingham, Printed for the Author by R Jabet, 1808).

The engraving represents a tomb, with a cherub and an angel to the right and left advertising the business founded by John Taylor, who died in 1775, one of Birmingham’s major entrepreneurs who manufactured buttons and snuffboxes. Little is known about the business, but Taylor was a pioneer of mass-production methods for manufacturing “toys” before Matthew Boulton. In the background, the ship symbolises the firm’s trading links overseas and the elephant the source of ivory. In the foreground are jewellery boxes, gold and silver items and a tortoise, another creature providing a raw material for the business, in this case tortoiseshell.

2. John Taylor and Matthew Boulton

From the mid 18th century there were many toymakers in Birmingham. Most of them were small businesses which we know only by their names, listed in directories. The two largest were John Taylor, and Matthew Boulton (1728-1809). The only information on Taylor’s business is from visitors’ accounts.

Matthew Boulton was born in Birmingham in 1728. His father, Matthew Boulton senior, was a buckle and button maker whose small factory was near the house in Snow Hill. Large quantities of buckles and buttons were being produced in Birmingham by this time. Matthew Boulton junior joined the family business after leaving school c.1745. In 1749 he married Mary Robinson, daughter of a wealthy Lichfield mercer. She died in 1759. A few months later Boulton’s father also died and he took over the business. The following year he married his late wife’s sister, Ann. The money he acquired through his marriages enabled him to expand the business at Soho in Handsworth.

Boulton’s Soho Manufactory was founded on steel toys, and his surviving papers (the Archives of Soho at Birmingham City Archives, Birmingham Reference Library) give us an insight into both his business and the background to the wider trade which created Birmingham’s reputation as ‘the Toyshop of Europe’.

Toys in Birmingham

Image: Button made from Shell, Copper, Glass and Brass c. 1790-1800.

This example shows both the intricate nature of toy manufacturing and the variety of materials that would often be used to create one item. Buttons were worn by men rather than by women. They are difficult to date unless they were made from silver and therefore hallmarked.

Image from: Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery

1. Toys in Birmingham

In the 18th and 19th centuries the manufacture of “toys” was a major industry in Birmingham. But these “toys” had nothing to do with children’s games. The term “Birmingham toys” refers to a multitude of small, decorative personal accessories. Their production provided work for thousands, gained major export markets and led to the development of manufacturing techniques which could be applied in other fields. Birmingham’s first directory, Sketchley’s Directory of 1767, lists 100 firms in the “toy” and related trades and describes the industry as follows:

….for the information of Strangers we shall here observe, that these Articles are divided into several Branches, as the Gold and Silver Toy Makers, who make Trinkets, Seals, Tweezer and Tooth Pick cases, Smelling Bottles, Snuff Boxes, and Filigree Work, such as Toilets, Tea Chests, Inkstands, etc. etc. The Tortoise Toy maker, makes a beautiful variety of the above and other Articles; as does also the Steel, who makes Cork Screws, Buckles, Draw and other Boxes, Snuffers, Watch Chains, Stay Hooks, Sugar Knippers, etc., and almost all these are likewise made in various Metals, and for Cheapness, Beauty and Elegance no Place in the world can vie with them.1

1Sketchleys Birmingham Directory, 1767

Birmingham: “The Toyshop of Europe”

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.