Father of the Industrial Revolution
John Martin Robinson profiles the designerentrepreneur who shaped neo-classical taste through his early mass production of metalware from a factory famed as the wonder of Europe
In 1769, Josiah Wedgwood described Matthew Boulton as the ‘First Manufacturer in England’. This was apposite, as they were both pioneering figures in the Industrial Revolution and transformed the branches of manufacturing of which they were the respective leaders: Wedgwood pottery and Boulton ormolu and silverware.
Boulton was the son of a successful ‘toy’ manufacturer—a trade that encompassed the production of brass buttons, buckles and other metal goods—and grew up in a Birmingham newly humming with industry, innovations and ideas. He became a partner in the family firm in 1752 and, on his father’s death in 1759, took sole control, transforming its output in both sophisticated design and scale of production.
His new factory at Soho on Handsworth Heath was the largest in England and the wonder of Europe. Completed by Benjamin Wyatt and Sons in 1766, it employed 700 workmen and was much visited by royalty, the nobility and gentry, as well as foreign tourists. Boulton devoted much of his time to the entertainment of visitors to his house at Soho, networking, promoting his production and obtaining new clients and orders.
His great significance was that he brought the design and manufacture of English metalware into line with the architecture that had been developed in England since the 1750s.