Image showing an article relating to assaying and marking a wrought plate in Birmingham

Trading in silver

Not content with the manufactory and trading which he had already accomplished, Matthew Boulton was often involved with important trading events on a national and international scale. One example of this is the founding of a Silver Assay office in Birmingham. The Boulton and Fothergill firm were producing silver goods by 1766, but the nearest assay office was Chester – a 144 mile round trip. The Earl of Shelburne had previously praised the manufacturing of silver goods at Birmingham, noting the inconvenience of the trip to Chester. In 1771 Boulton apologised to the Earl for the delay in sending two silver candlesticks, claiming that they had been damaged due to bad packing at the assay office:

I am very desirous of becoming a great Silversmith, yet I am now determined never to take up that branch in the large way I intended, unless powers can be obtained to have a Marking Hall at Birmingham.” [Letter. Matthew Boulton to Earl of Shelburne 7 January 1771. MS 3782/1/9]

However, there is no recorded letter from Boulton to his agent in Chester, suggesting the claims might have been a fabrication to galvanise the Earls support.

The archives of Soho also include the minutes of the Sheffield Assay petition committee, within which tradesmen were called to give witness. One described the need for a Birmingham assay office as buckle makers were “obliged to send their patterns up to London where they are liable to and apprehend danger.” [MS 3782/12/88/13] Another was questioned as London traders had asked him to illegally stamp silver plated goods for them, rather than silver alloy. [MS 3782/12/88/14] This was something that the London Goldsmiths had previously accused the Birmingham traders of. In 1773 Boulton had printed a “Memorial relative to Assaying and Marking Wrought Plate at Birmingham, &c”, within which he argued the case for Birmingham’s Assay office. [MS 3782/12/89/23] As can been seen in the image, Boulton’s memorial was forceful and all encompassing. The same year Parliament passed the act, creating the Birmingham and Sheffield assay offices. Birmingham’s hallmark became the Anchor and Sheffield’s the Crown as the two parties conducted business when in London at the Crown and Anchor Tavern in the Strand. Boulton and Fothergill were the first customers at the new assay office, submitting 104 articles for assay and hallmarking on 31 August 1773.

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