10th September 2019

Birmingham button manufacturing: Part 5

Matthew Boulton (1728-1809):

Matthew Boulton painted in 1792. The Soho manufactory can be seen in the background.

Contemporary with John Taylor, and his biggest rival, was Matthew Boulton Jnr, who probably built the second sizable factory in Birmingham.

His father, Matthew senior, was a buckle and button maker in a small factory. Matthew junior joined the family business in Snow Hill upon leaving school, and soon assumed responsibility for running it. Marrying into money, and taking over the family business after the death of his father in 1759, he was able to afford to build a large factory in Soho. It was built from 1762-65 at the cost of 10,000 pounds. As well as buttons, other goods such as silver plate, silver ware, table ware and decorative goods were produced  here.

Soho Manufactory as seen from rear, 1830. Tourists took guided tours of the factory.

In 1775 the Scottish engineer James Watt came to Birmingham. In partnership with Boulton he developed a steam engine business. The Soho factory was therefore able to change from water to steam power. However, it was not just in technical terms that he was successful. Boulton was very skilled in cultivating powerful and wealthy clients, and in promoting the business through advertising. He encouraged quality of product and was always innovating.

From 1762-1782 he had been in partnership with John Fothergill (1730-1781) as Boulton & Fothergill. However, during this time, in 1776, the main button trade was carried out in partnership with Charles Wyatt, then for a few months on this own, then in partnership with john Fothergill and John Scale from 1777.

Unfortunately, the partnership with Fothergill was not profitable and ended on bad terms in 1780. John Fothergill died the following year, deeply in debt. After this Matthew divided the firm into two parts. Matthew Boulton & Scale to continued the button making. (The other part of the business was for the silver and silver plate production.) They  produced buttons in “general, gilt, plated, silvered, semilor, pinchbeck, plantina, inlaid with steel, polished steel and jettina and steel tags, polished steel watch chains, patent cork screws etc.” The term ‘inlaid with steel’ refers to cut steel. Boulton claimed to have developed the cut-steel buttons, which was a huge success for the firm. Jasper ware medallions made by Josiah Wedgewood were sold to manufacturers such as Boulton, Green & Vale and Vernon & Hasselwood to be mounted as buttons, as well as being sold at Wedgewood’s outlet.

Wedgewood medallion with Boulton cut steels, c.1760

Around 1796 this partnership ended, and button production continued under the name ‘Matthew Boulton & Button Co.’ until 1809. Matthew had retired in 1800, passing his business on to his son, Matthew Robinson Boulton. He died in 1809.

Although Matthew Robinson Boulton  and James Watt junior directed the Soho manufactory after their fathers’ deaths, they did not continue to still made buttons apart, perhaps, for steel buttons until around 1832..  Most of their business was with their foundry, their mint,  steam engines and minting machines. Matthew Robinson Boulton died in 1842 a very wealthy man. The stock and machinery were auctioned off in 1850, then the building demolished.

Just Buttons magazine, December 1950 pg 61-2.






Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *