Numismatic myths are hard to kill. Some become so deeply entrenched in our literature and numismatic thinking they achieve a mantra-like status of “everybody knows.” This is no reason for not highlighting them in the hope of their eventual demise.
In researching a story on the Myddelton halfpenny token, I was reminded of one. It has been on public display in the shop-fronts of numismatics for decades. It is not so much a myth as a misunderstanding. It concerns the ownership of the world’s first steam-powered mint – The Soho Mint.
The mint gets brief mention in “A Guide Book to United States Coins.” In a short paragraph on the Myddelton tokens, these are described as being “struck at the Soho Mint of Boulton and Watt near Birmingham, England.” Implicit in this statement is that these two industrialists were joint owners in the Soho Mint.
This statement on the mint’s ownership is one that has been repeated countless times. It has considerable currency in webland. It is commonplace in auction catalog after auction catalog in reference to the provenance of certain coins and tokens. Yet it is wrong.
Richard Margolis highlights the error in endnote #8 of his 1999 paper on the Soho Mint’s striking of the Myddelton token: “It should be noted that Matthew Boulton was the sole owner of the Soho Mint, and on a number of occasions specified that he had no partner in the coinage business. Because of the justly famous Boulton and Watt partnership in the steam engine business, innumerable writers have referred incorrectly to the early Soho Mint as ‘Boulton and Watt’s Soho Mint.’”
In this statement, Margolis neatly encapsulates how the error likely came about. Writers have conflated Boulton and Watt’s business partnership in the manufacture of steam engines with ownership of the mint in which Boulton happened to use these engines.
That conflation is perhaps understandable. Boulton’s business empire was complicated at best. Partnerships came and partnerships went. It is necessary to digest H.W. Dickinson’s book “Matthew Boulton” published in 1937 and reprinted in 1999 to get a firm handle on them all. A brief summary is given here. Both chronology and background are important.
Boulton left school in 1745 and joined his father’s manufacturing business, aged 17. He became a partner and general manager in 1749. This same year, he had the good sense to marry a distant cousin who happened to be an extremely wealthy heiress.
In 1766, he founded what would be his core business, The Soho Manufactory, in conjunction with business partner John Fothergill. It occupied a site in Soho, West Midlands, then outside Birmingham.
These were the early days of the Industrial Revolution. The new factory was one of the pioneers of mass production and assembly lines. It produced buttons, buckles, sword hilts, boxes, japanned-ware and, later, silverware, ormolu and clocks.
The products were recognized as of high quality and artistic workmanship. They were patronized by King George III. However, come 1774, Fothergill believed the business was living on the edge of bankruptcy. It had sustained losses for many years.
This was not an unusual circumstance for a Boulton business. Many teetered on the edge of a financial catastrophe curve at some time their history before Boulton turned them around to reap a handsome return.
Certainly the Manufactory was still going strong in 1781 when Boulton dissolved the partnership effective Dec. 31 and split it into two new firms in the New Year.
In 1767, Boulton had recognized the Manufactory needed a better power supply than the water-driven metal-rolling mill he employed. About this time, he built and installed a primitive steam engine based on the designs of Thomas Savery.
He also approached James Watt with a view to employing one of his new improved engines. Watt saw the advantages of being associated with a well-known firm such as Boulton’s, but it would be some years before the two entrepreneurs would join forces.
Watt was already in partnership with Dr. John Roebuck. While Watt was an undoubted genius when it came to steam, he was financially inept, as was Roebuck. In 1772, Roebuck was in serious financial difficulties. Among others, he owed Boulton £1,200. Boulton took over Roebuck’s two-thirds share in Watt’s steam engine patent in satisfaction of that debt.
Three years later, in 1775, Boulton and Watt formally entered into partnership as Boulton & Watt. The business of the new firm was to assemble steam engines at the Soho Manufactory. Boulton owned two-thirds of the business and agreed to pay any and all costs of development. Watt had a one-third stake and provided designs for steam engines while taking a £300 salary.
The eventual success of the steam engine business is commonly credited to Boulton’s business acumen, application and generosity. He certainly devoted all the capital he had to this particular project – plus all he could borrow. But Boulton also possessed extensive technical knowledge and skills. He used these both to support Watt as well as grow the business.
The first Boulton &Watt engines were simple reciprocating beam engines. They found widespread use in the mining industry, as in pumping water out of copper mines in Cornwall.
Boulton realized a far more extensive market lay in driving machinery. To this end, he urged Watt to develop an engine that produced rotary motion. Watt delivered in 1781. He had successfully converted reciprocal motion into rotary via an ingenious sun and planet gear.
The new engine was put to work in Josiah Wedgwood’s Etruria factory. Within 15 years, over 500 Boulton &Watt rotative steam engines were powering British factories.
Up to this point, many of the main components for Boulton and Watt engines were produced by external suppliers. These included cylinders, piston rods, flywheels and boilers.
In 1795, Boulton commenced work on a purpose-built steam engine factory, the Soho Foundry. It was sited about a mile from the Soho Manufactory at Smethwick. Here the two partners and their three sons would make and sell complete engines. It opened in 1796 as Boulton, Watt & Sons.
Back in 1788, Boulton had conceived the notion of using one of the new-fangled rotative steam engines to drive a coining press.
He had many reasons to do so. By no means the least was that as a considerate employer he valued his workers. He had a large workforce, and such was the state of the nation’s coinage that over the years he had often struggled to find sufficient genuine coins to meet his wage bill.
Counterfeit coins were commonplace. There was no way Boulton would allow any of his workers be paid in bad coin; these would either be refused at local shops or accepted only at discount.
For a number of years, Boulton had studied all aspects of coining. He presented evidence on the state of the national coinage to a Privy Council Committee.
Using the power of steam, he saw the opportunity to mass produce a high-quality, uniform coinage that would be difficult to counterfeit. Steam would be used not just to drive the coin press but in all aspects of coin production, including metal rolling and blank-cutting.
In typical Boulton fashion, once he had thought through the project and decided it was feasible, he promptly set about bringing it to fruition. He started building his new mint in 1788. It was a single-story building some 120 yards from the Soho Manufactory, more or less in Boulton’s garden, tucked in behind a menagerie, tea house, fossil room and laboratory. Its location was chosen for security, not only of the raw materials and coins but also to frustrate industrial espionage that was rife in the late 18th century. The engine house contained a single 8 h.p. Boulton & Watt double acting sun & planet engine.
All coining operations were concentrated on one site. This enabled Boulton to control all aspects of the coining operation. The mint was his baby from go to woe.
The history of the Soho Mint and its coins has been detailed in a number of publications. Sufficient to comment here that, like many of Boulton’s businesses, the mint was not an initial financial success. It lost money for some years, but subsequently it became one of his more profitable enterprises.
By 1809, it had struck over 600 million coins, demonstrating the effectiveness of Boulton’s technology, much of which was his own design. Understandably, it was one of Boulton’s proudest achievements. It was responsible for changing the technology of coin manufacture throughout the world. From a being a simple coin and token factory, the mint eventually became a supplier of steam-driven presses and other coining equipment across the world.
The Next Generation
In 1800, both Boulton and Watt retired from their steam engine business. It was handed over to their sons: Matthew Robinson Boulton and James Watt Junior. The new company was known as Boulton, Watt & Co.
Boulton lived only nine more years. He died on Aug. 18, 1809. His mint was taken over by his son, Matthew Robinson Boulton. His home, Soho House, has become a museum.
The successful development of the Soho Mint was the subject of a 2010 Ph.D. thesis by Sue Tungate. Like Margolis, Tungate had full access to the Soho Archives. She is very clear about the mint’s ownership.
In an assessment of Richard Doty’s British Numismatic Society Special Publication No 2, 1998, “The Soho Mint and the Industrialisation of Money,” she observes, “He credits the Soho Mint to Boulton and James Watt, but in fact, it was solely Boulton’s enterprise” (p.5).
And on p.38: “The Soho Mint, which contained the first steam-powered press was run successively by Matthew Boulton from 1788-1809, Matthew Robinson Boulton between 1809-1841, and Matthew Piers Watt Boulton from 1841-1850.”
Acknowledgements: Thanks are due to Chris Leather for information and images. His website: www.sohomint.info, is a mine of information on the life and times of Matthew Boulton – and his Soho Mint.
Dickinson, H.W. 1937 (reprinted 1999). “Matthew Boulton.” Cambridge University Press, 353 pp.
Doty, R. 1998. “The Soho Mint and the Industrialisation of Money.”
British Numismatic Society Special Publication 2.
Margolis, R. 1999. “Matthew Boulton, Philip Parry Price Myddelton, and the proposed token coinage for Kentucky.” The Colonial Newsletter 39(3), pp. 1991-2024.
Tungate, S. “Matthew Boulton and The Soho Mint: copper to customer.” Ph.D. Thesis, University of Birmingham, 353 pp.
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