Warwick Vase and Cover, M. Boulton & Plate Co. 1827

Image from: Birmingham Assay Office.

A very large Roman marble vase from the second century BC was found in the grounds of Hadrian’s villa in 1770.  It was purchased by Sir William Hamilton, the British consul in Naples, who was well-known for his famous collection of antiquities. Hamilton later gave the vase to his nephew, the Earl of Warwick. Today the original is in the Burrell Collection (Glasgow), and a copy is to be seen at Warwick Castle.

The Warwick Vase inspired many leading silver makers to produce copies, adapting the vase for wine coolers, tureens and centrepieces. It was also reproduced in other media in the 19th century, including stone and iron. The Warwick Vase produced by Matthew Robinson Boulton, the son of Matthew Boulton, was a presentation piece given to John Foster (1765-1831) of Brickhill, agriculturalist and landowner.

Cup and Cover, Boulton & Fothergill, 1777

Image from: Birmingham Assay Office.

A two handled cup and cover of neo-classical shape made for Cornelius O’Callaghan, MP for Felthard in Ireland.

(It may be useful to compare a cup and cover with the description of a vase in a poem by Erasmus Darwin. It was written in the form of a letter to Matthew Boulton in about 1778. It celebrates Darwin’s love for Mrs Eliza Pole. He married her in 1781 after the death of her husband. The letter is in Birmingham City Archives and is available on the Revolutionary Players web site along with other letters written by Erasmus Darwin to Matthew Boulton and James Watt)

One of a pair Sauce Tureens, Boulton & Fothergill, 1776

Image from: Birmingham Assay Office.

This is one of the finest items designed by Robert Adam in the Neo-classical style which was popularised by Matthew Boulton. He expressed his feeling about the new fashion in his letter to Mrs Montagu in 1776: “I flatter myself its neatness, its simplicity and durability will be more agreeable to you than French finery or dirty richness.”

Mazarin, or Fish Strainer, Boulton & Fothergill, 1769

Image from: Birmingham Assay Office.                                    

This machine-pierced circular dish was hallmarked in Chester. This circular dish is machine-pierced. The hand-engraved shield shows the arms of Smith of Theddlethorpe, Lincolnshire.

One of a pair of candlesticks, Boulton & Fothergill, 1768

Image from: Birmingham Assay Office.

An example of the earliest of Matthew Boulton’s silver items, hallmarked in Chester, before the creation of Birmingham Assay Office in 1773. These candlesticks were designed in the intricate rococo manner and based on a candlestick by the French artists Nicholas Dumée and Francis Butty. Dumée may have worked at Soho from 1768 to 1773. The nozzles are of Sheffield Plate.

Matthew Boulton and Silver Making

Image: Sweetmeat Basket, Boulton & Fothergill, 1774

This basket was possibly designed by Robert Adam. The body is made from wire supporting stamped repeated ornaments of grapes and vine leaves.

Image from: Birmingham Assay Office.

Working in solid silver, Boulton had to compete with well-known London craftsmen. He turned for inspiration to the vases in the famous collection of Sir William Hamilton, and to Original Designs by the contemporary Italian designer Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778). Many fine artists were already employed at Soho, but Boulton also obtained designs from leading architects of the time, such as Sir William Chambers (1723-1796), Robert Adam (1728-1792), and James Wyatt (1746-1813). New techniques and classical moulds were adopted to make expensive ornaments for the nobility and cheaper versions for the middle class.

Boulton dominated silver making in Birmingham during the last thirty years of the 18th century. Soho produced a great variety of silver and silver-plated items, ranging from salt cellars to church plate. Silver production reached a peak around 1776-1777 but then slipped, both because it proved unprofitable and because Boulton re-directed his attention to his steam engine business. However, silver and Sheffield plate still remained a staple of the Soho trade.

The Assay Office and hallmarking helped Matthew Boulton to achieve his ambition to become a great silversmith and to earn Birmingham a reputation for style, taste, fashion and quality. This reputation was confirmed by the following generation of fine local craftsmen and their elegant items. Some of them can now be seen and admired in the silver collection of Birmingham Assay Office.

Hallmarking and the Work of Birmingham Assay Office

Image: Hallmark from Boulton and Fothergill fork for year 1774.

Image from: Birmingham Assay Office

The hallmark on the Boulton and Fothergill’s fork represents all information specified by the Act of 1773: “MB” and “IF” stand for Matthew Boulton and John Fothergill, the Anchor represents the Birmingham Assay Office, the Lion means sterling silver marked in England, and the “B” stands for the year 1774.

The Assay Office was not controlled by the trade but by a Board of thirty-six Guardians of the Standards of Wrought Plate who were elected for life. They were appointed for their position in the region, or for their knowledge of wrought plate. Matthew Boulton himself was among the first Trade Guardians.

Hallmarking and the Work of Birmingham Assay Office

Image: Boulton and Fothergill Forks and Spoons showing Hallmarks for 1774

Image from: Birmingham Assay Office

On 31 August 1773, the Birmingham Assay Office opened in three modest rooms at the King’s Head Inn, in New Street. Boulton was the first manufacturer among the town’s forty licensed silversmiths to submit his wares (and the first to have his items returned smashed because they were not up to standard).

By 1815, the Assay Office moved into offices of its own in Little Cannon Street. In 1877, the site in Newhall Street was acquired, and the Office has remained there to the present time.

The original Act of 1773 only enabled the Birmingham Assay Office to assay and hallmark goods of silver plate. But in 1824 it was granted power to assay and hallmark both gold and silver made in Birmingham, or within 30 miles of the town.

Matthew Boulton and the Formation of Birmingham Assay Office

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

Image from: Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery

By the beginning of the 18th century Birmingham was already noted for the manufacture of large quantities of small metal objects known as “toys”. This trade was a part of a long local tradition of working in iron and, from the 17th century, in brass.

Some Birmingham toymakers worked in silver, but most of them could not afford precious metals. Among outsiders, their ware was often referred to as “Brummagem toys” because of their cheapness and sometimes shoddiness.

It was Matthew Boulton who changed the picture. He had a strong drive to produce elegant articles of high quality and fashion. From 1762 he was extending his toy business, and also started to make fine wares in “Sheffield plate” – copper, silver-plated by fusion. The technical process had been developed in 1742 by a Sheffield cutler, Thomas Bolsover, but Boulton became the first really large producer of Sheffield plate.

In the late 1760s, Matthew Boulton turned his attention to solid silver. But the production of silver wares was problematic because they could not be sold as such without the stamp of an assay office to guarantee their quality. The nearest assay office was in Chester, 72 miles away. So it was vital to have a local assay office in Birmingham itself.

Supported by local silversmiths, Matthew Boulton approached wealthy patrons and the local nobility and gentry, many of whom were his customers. At the end of 1772, proposals for an assay office had been discussed by the Birmingham toymakers. They decided to apply to Parliament for an Act. Sheffield craftsmen also prepared their own petition, and on 1st and 2nd February 1773, Petitions for establishing assay offices in Sheffield and Birmingham were presented to the House of Commons.

In support of the petition, Boulton distributed a Memorial relative to assaying and marking wrought plate at Birmingham among Members of the House of Commons. In this Memorial, Boulton admitted that the Goldsmith’s Company in London and other towns containing assay offices might raise objections. But as Birmingham was not near any particular market for silver plate, the only way in which Birmingham manufacturers could deprive other towns of their business would be by working better and more cheaply. Price and quality were the means by which the threatened towns should compete, rather than relying on their established privileges.

The Bill had its first reading in the House of Commons in March. Despite strong opposition from the London Goldsmiths’ Company, it passed through all subsequent stages, and finally, on 28th May 1773, the Lords agreed to the Bill. Royal assent for establishing of assay offices in both Birmingham and Sheffield was given on the same day. Matthew Boulton’s triumph was a tribute to his outstanding organisational skills.

During Boulton’s stay in London, much of the business concerning the Assay Bill took place at the Crown & Anchor Tavern, in the Strand. It seems that Boulton and the Sheffield representatives decided to use the sign of the tavern in their Assay Office marks. Since 1773 the mark of Birmingham has been an Anchor. Sheffield employed a Crown (later would be changed to the Tudor Rose).

Matthew Boulton and Birmingham Silverware in the late 18th and early 19th centuries

Image: The painted sign for the King’s Head Inn, New Street, Birmingham showing the Head of George III. The premises of Birmingham Assay Office were located in this tavern from 1773 to 1815. The Office assayed or determined the proportion of silver in a manufactured object and hallmarked silver items. This guaranteed the quality of silverware produced in Birmingham and its surrounding area.

Image from: Birmingham Assay Office.

Text: Olga Baird

Photographs: Kinson Chan (November 2003)


Birmingham’s industrial base in the 18th and early 19th centuries was complex. The town produced a range of metal goods from brass weights to garniture for decorating the mantelpieces of the wealthy. The manufacture of silver items was one aspect of local metal working. Many local products had a reputation for shoddiness. Matthew Boulton and other local silversmiths campaigned to establish a local assay office which would measure the silver content in individual products and issue hallmarks to guarantee quality standards. In 1773, an Act of Parliament was passed to create Birmingham Assay Office. The hallmarking system provided a date and identity marks for silver products manufactured in and near the town. Birmingham became one of the most important centres for British silver manufacturing.

This exhibition provides a selection of silver products produced by Matthew Boulton and Mathew Robinson Boulton from the collections of Birmingham Assay Office ( The Revolutionary Players Project is grateful for the permission granted by Birmingham Assay Office to photograph items in its collections.