Soho is the name of a hill in the county of Stafford, about two miles from Birmingham; which, a very few years ago, was a barren heath, on the bleak summit of which stood a naked hut, the habitation of a warrener.
In 1803, several regional English newspapers published a short, though detailed, history of the Soho Manufactory which had been built to accommodate the expanding buckle making business of Birmingham entrepreneur Matthew Boulton and his partner John Fothergill. The manufactory was built on leased land measuring some 13 acres, and was not quite as abandoned as the newspaper quote suggested. There was a mill on the land – and of course water was vital for steam – along with a house which had been built around a decade earlier and would become home to Mr and Mrs Boulton, as well as the regular meeting place for the likes of James Watt, Erasmus Darwin and Josiah Wedgewood.
There is no indication in the 1803 article of any concerns about the smoke pollution as a result of industrialisation. Rather, mass industry is presented as having a positive environmental impact:
The transformation of this place is a recent monument of the effects of trade on population. A beautiful garden, with wood, lawn and water, now covers one side of this hill; five spacious squares of building, erected on the other side, supply workshops or houses for about six hundred people. The extensive pool at the approach to the building is conveyed to a large water-wheel in one of the courts and communicates motion to a prodigious number of different tools. And the mechanic inventions for this purpose are superior in multitude, variety and simplicity to those of any manufactory (it is supposed) in the known world.
The article goes on to describe the numerous different types of articles, or toys, produced in the ‘highest elegance of taste and perfection of execution’, stating that ‘Mr Boulton has…joined taste and philosophy with manufacture and commerce. Soon the means of production, powered largely by the water mill, were no longer able to keep pace with demand for the goods and it was then that Boulton joined forces with Scottish engineer James Watt, who had already been working on improvements to the steam engine. As a result of this partnership, ‘several engines were afterwards erected at Soho…by which the manufactory was greatly extended, the source of mechanical power being thus unlimited.’
Finally, the report details the establishment of the Soho Mint, within the manufactory, in 1788. The coining machines were lauded for their efficiency, the steam engines driving them allowing them to be run ‘with greater rapidity and exactness by a few boys of twelve or fourteen years of age, than could be done by a great number of strong men without endangering their fingers’. The ‘coining mill’, the report reveals, consisted of 8 machines which were capable of producing between 30,000 and 40,000 coins an hour.
The Soho Manufactory continued to operate until the mid nineteenth-century, by which point steam engine smoke was becoming a less welcome feature of the town. Soho House is open to the public and well worth a visit to get a feel of how mass production from the later eighteenth century began to shape Birmingham’s identity.
The article used here was taken from The Hull Packet, Feb 1st, 1803, and provided by British Newspaper Libraries. You can subscribe to British Newspaper Archives for access to thousands of newspapers, but please use Library of Birmingham resources – which are accessible free of charge – wherever possible. If we don’t use it, we’ll lose it.
Information on visiting Soho House can be found at the site below. Whilst there is a charge for visiting, please remember that this enables upkeep and future accessibility of Birmingham’s historical sites. Ta.