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Birmingham City Council

Archives of Soho - An Introduction


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What are The Archives of Soho?

Matthew Boulton (1728 -1809) and James Watt (1736 -1819) are two of the greatest figures in Birmingham's history. Boulton was world-famous for a dazzling array of goods, from bejewelled swords to buttons, and his minting machinery revolutionised money production. Watt's improvements to the steam engine gave the industrial revolution its power source. Their partnership changed manufacturing forever.

The Archives of Soho, named after Boulton's Manufactory at Soho, Handsworth, are the papers of these remarkable men. The three collections (the Matthew Boulton Papers, the James Watt Papers, the Boulton & Watt Archive) record their businesses and much more besides; their families, estates and households, scientific interests, and the people they had contact with.

The collections are among the most important in Birmingham Archives and Heritage Service. They have been catalogued by the Archives of Soho Project, funded by the City Council, the Assay Office Charitable Trust and the Heritage Lottery Fund. They are revealing on nearly every aspect of their times, from farming to businesswomen, from attitudes to slavery to factory management. Exploring Boulton and Watt's world opens a window on every aspect of 18th and 19th century life and they are open to all to study


Matthew Boulton Papers

Matthew Boulton is arguably the most important man in the history of Birmingham. His magnificent Manufactory at Soho, Handsworth, built in the 1760s, was Europe's largest, producing articles for sale in Britain and on the Continent, including buttons, buckles, silverware, and ormolu.


In 1773, through Boulton's efforts, Birmingham was granted its own Assay Office, which meant that silverware no longer had to be sent away to be stamped. Soon afterwards he brought James Watt here to begin the famous steam-engine partnership. The two men became important members of the intellectual group known as the Lunar Society, whose members included Joseph Priestley, Erasmus Darwin, and Josiah Wedgwood. Boulton's greatest achievement, however, was considered to be his invention of steam-powered coining machinery, designed to prevent the counterfeiting of coins.

On permanent loan from the Birmingham Assay Office, the Matthew Boulton Papers are the private and business records of Boulton and his successors. Besides the records of various Soho firms, they contain the correspondence of Boulton family members with people of every description, and minutely detailed household and estate records from Soho.


The James Watt Papers

The James Watt Papers cover the life, career and interests of James Watt, one of the greatest inventors of his age, best known for his improvements to the steam engine. However they also document three generations of Watts: James' father James Watt of Greenock, and his sons James and Gregory. The papers came to Birmingham in two parts: the part from the Muirhead family was given to the Reference Library in the 1930s, while the part known as the James Watt Papers was purchased by Birmingham City Council in 1993.

The collection contains extensive correspondence between Watt and many of the greatest scientists and engineers of the time. Other papers record his early career as a canal surveyor in Scotland, his struggle to protect the patents on his steam engines, and his later life as landowner managing estates in Wales.

There is much more to discover. From Cornish mines to the craters of Vesuvius, kaleidoscopes to central heating, apple trees in Handsworth to experiments in medicine, and the first mechanical means of copying letters. Find them here.


The Boulton & Watt Archives

James Watt and Matthew Boulton were partners from 1775 to 1800. During that time Watt's steam engine revolutionised industry and manufacturing, but the firm they established lasted over 120 years, making engines at Soho Foundry in Handsworth until 1895.The firm has left a remarkable archive, which was given to Birmingham by the engineer George Tangye in 1911. It records everything, from James Watt's first engines for pumping water out of mines to huge steam ship engines, and many surprising things besides. Did you know that Boulton & Watt made fire extinguishing systems for cotton mills? Thousands of drawings, many beautifully coloured, show their engines. Hundreds of letters tell the story of these engines and relations between Boulton & Watt and their customers. Order books and production records record minute details of their operations.

The Boulton & Watt archive holds a wealth of information, about engineering, its impact on society, and about the people who worked with it. It is a legacy of industrial history from one of Birmingham's most celebrated firms.


Guide to the Collections in Birmingham City Archives
Birmingham Archives and Heritage Service
The Bicentenary of Matthew Boulton 2009