Without question, the most prominent of the Sheffield Plate manufacturers is English inventor and entrepreneur Matthew Boulton (1728-1809), credited as being one of the first entrepreneurs to truly realize the implications of serving the middle class with mass-produced items. For more than 50 years, Boulton worked to improve and perfect the silver plating craft and his works were considered among the finest ever created. It was during this period that Sheffield Plate reached its peak in terms of popularity, quality and design, thanks in large part to Boulton's efforts.
Today, pieces created by the Boulton manufactory are highly sought after by collectors. Indeed, during his lifetime, Boulton was able to build a solid reputation for producing only the finest quality products, quite a distinction during a time of lower quality mass production.
Boulton's father, Matthew Boulton Sr., owned and operated a silver-over-steel plate stamping and piercing business at Snow Hill, Birmingham. The younger Boulton was involved in the family business at a young age; and, naturally possessed by an innovative, determined mind, he introduced his father's factory to several important improvements in the manufacturing of buttons, watch chains and other trinkets. By the age of 17 he had even invented a way to inlay steel belt buckles with enamel and is considered the first innovator of inlaid buttons. Once he became of age, his father took him as his partner in 1749.
Unfortunately, Boulton's personal life was not as prosperous as his business. He married his first wife, Mary Robinson (1727-1759) in 1749. They had several children together, but all were either stillborn or died within the first year of life. Shortly after her death, Boulton married his deceased wife's sister, Anne Robinson (1733-1783), in 1760. He and Anne met much resistance during their courtship and marriage at this time, for such marriages were deemed illegal. His second marriage produced two children, Anne (born 1768) and Matthew (born 1770). Both were very sickly: Matthew being weak for most of his young life and Anne had a diseased hip and leg, which plagued her all her life. His wife Anne died tragically; she was found drowned in the swimming pool of their home in Soho (commonly referred to as Soho House) in 1783.
In 1759, Boulton's father died, leaving him to carry on the family business in Birmingham. Fortunately, marriage to Anne brought with it a considerable dowry, allowing Boulton to expand the business and build his famed Soho manufactory. By this time, Boulton was already a renowned manufacturer in his own right. By the time he was 30, the younger Boulton had begun manufacturing and trading with other merchants on his own and employed an entire workforce of skilled men to work for him. By all accounts, he was an affable man, liked as much for his fine personality as for many of his products.
Boulton was a true entrepreneur of the Industrial Revolution and did not limit the scope of his business to just producing Sheffield Plate, though it was one of his more successful endeavors. From his earliest days in business, he was avidly looking for ways to increase the range of his products by improving the capabilities of his plant and for better ways to market his products worldwide. Toys, clocks, buttons, ormolu and, of course, silver plate, were all at one time or another being produced by Boulton.
In 1762, Boulton became business partners with John Fothergill (c. 1700-1782), a Russian businessman. Fothergill had numerous connections to potential customers from around the world and spoke several European languages, while it was Boulton who possessed the drive and business sense. From the beginning of the pairing, Fothergill fought continuously against what seemed to be Boulton's fickle money management, for it was not uncommon for Boulton to find himself penniless one moment and wealthy the next.
Boulton and Sheffield Silver
Boulton would soon direct his talents to the newly invented Sheffield plating process after making a trip to that town to acquire the details of the plating method directly from Thomas Boulsover. Boulton laboriously acquainted himself with the process and finally, in 1765, he began to produce Sheffield Plate.
The collection of Boulton wares that exists today clearly shows the diversity of pieces his factory produced. He realized that if he had a larger variety of items, he could appeal to the taste of people from the highest to the more moderate incomes alike. Some of the pieces he created included salvers, urns, silverware, candlesticks, salt cellars, tureens, buttons, buckles and epergnes. By 1771, the Soho Manufactory was beginning to come into its own. Boulton was producing superior pieces not only to be sold to the public, but he also held accounts with the English nobility, including the King and Queen. His factory became the largest producer of Sheffield Plate in Britain.
While his manufactory was enjoying great prosperity, the Boulton and Fothergill partnership was crumbling fast. Boulton was at the height of production in his silver manufactory and quickly found himself financially and physically extended on all fronts. In his eyes, Fothergill never shared the burden of planning and financing, yet was always present with constant words of criticism and doubt--leaving Boulton feeling much resentment. By 1781, the partnership was over.
The Boulton and Watt Partnership
Boulton would soon enter into another partnership that would become nothing less of a triumph. His inquisitive and imaginative mind allowed him to become one of the founding members of the Lunar Society of Birmingham, named after the timing of their monthly meetings during a full moon. It was a collection of the great minds of Birmingham, and included such notable figures as Josiah Wedgwood, Benjamin Franklin, Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of famed naturalist Charles Darwin) and mathematician and inventor James Watt.
When Boulton and Watt first met, Watt was experimenting with using steam to power machinery. While working at Glasgow University, he performed studies on a working model of Thomas Newcomen's engine, which led him to discover flaws in its design. Watt created his own version in 1763. The addition of a separate condenser allowed the engine to use two-thirds to three-quarters of the coal used by the original.
Watt's discovery was of great interest to Boulton. He was concerned because Hockley Brook, the stream from which he derived most of the waterpower needed to drive his lathes, had dried up. Watt offered Boulton a small share in his invention at first, but Boulton wanted a major interest or none at all. In 1773, their partnership became final with Watt designing and Boulton's factory producing these new engines. News of this incredible machine quickly spread and before long, orders poured into the Soho manufactory. The Boulton-Watt partnership also harvested patents for further improvements on the engine. In August 1773, two-thirds of the rights to the engine were passed to Boulton, while Watt received honorary degrees, fellowships, wealth and fame. Despite his contribution, Boulton never achieved equal rank.
By the end of the 1780s, Boulton was exhausting his energy as far as business was concerned, and wished to spend more time with his family in his later years. The business brought in by the partnership with Watt allowed him to pay off the debt he acquired as a young man and live comfortably. He entrusted the management of Soho to his associates in which he had the utmost confidence. He immersed himself in the life of his two children Anne and Matthew, though thoughts of his business were never far from his mind. On August 17, 1809, Boulton died at the age of eighty-one. Thousands of people attended his funeral service, including 600 workers from his Soho plant. All assembled in the Parish Church of St. Mary in Handsworth on August 24 to bid a final farewell to one of the most determined and inventive minds in history.