Address given at a Service to dedicate a memorial to Matthew Boulton

17 October 2014 at 12:00 pm

Sir Nicholas Goodison,

It is a delight for all of us to be at this service of dedication of a national memorial to Matthew Boulton. And I hope we have helped to reshape historical perceptions of one of the most remarkable figures of the eighteenth century.

Until recently Matthew Boulton has been overshadowed by his younger Scottish partner in the steam engine business, James Watt. It is entirely fitting that their memorials should now be united in the Abbey.

The firm of Boulton and Watt played a compelling role in the drama of the industrial revolution. Together, they revolutionised the production of power. Watt's invention of the separate condenser brought down the quantity and the cost of the coal needed to drive the engines. It profoundly changed the economics of mining and factory production.

But Watt, genius as he was, would have got nowhere without Boulton. Boulton welcomed him to Birmingham, established him there, was crucial to the extension of his patent, took him into partnership, and masterminded the development of their business and the marketing of their engines.

Boulton was the entrepreneur, the risk-taker who made things happen, who created the success of the inventor—and he contributed, as an engineer, to the refinement of their products.

James Watt paid tribute to Boulton's engineering skills. He called him 'an ingenious mechanick'. He said, in his Memoir after Boulton's death, that he had the 'faculty of rendering any new invention of his own or others useful to the public by organising and arranging the processes by which it could be carried on.'

In his own time Boulton's fame spread far and wide. Even before he met James Watt, his friend Josiah Wedgwood called him in 1767 'the most complete manufacturer in England in metal'.

Boulton's large factory at Soho just outside Birmingham was one of the sights of Britain, one of the must-do's on travellers' tours of the Midlands. People came from all over Britain, from all over the world, to look at it. They marvelled at the huge range of metal goods that it produced—from buttons and buckles, snuffboxes, seals, chatelaines and trinkets, and sword hilts to the finest silver and Sheffield plate and ormolu ornaments. They marvelled at the division of labour which was the basis of the factory's partly water-driven production process.

Later, in the 1790s, he was famed not only for steam engines but also for his new and innovative steam-driven mint, which created vast quantities of coins, including the national copper coinage. Boulton was seen as one of the Great Contemporaries, his factory as one of the wonders of the modern age.

Had there been, in the eighteenth century, one of those Sunday newspaper lists of the most influential people in Britain, he would have been on it.

And he was a major contributor to natural philosophy—what today we call the sciences—to the debates and experiments and to the intellectual buzz that enthralled the thinkers and doers in those exciting years of the Enlightenment.

He was a major contributor too to commercial, social and cultural improvements in Birmingham, as the biographical note in the Order of Service underlines.

He was one of Birmingham's greatest citizens. It is wonderful to see so many people from that great city celebrating him here today.

His legacy is a rich amalgam of curiosity, experiment, engineering, innovation, design, quality, and above all enterprise—all themes of which we need a brimful supply in Britain today.

There are other memorials to Boulton. There is the monument by John Flaxman in St Mary's Church, Handsworth, near to his home and factory, with its fine marble bust. There are the commemorative bronze medals issued after his death in 1809, and in 1819. There is a gilded, very gilded, statue of him and his colleagues in the engine business, James Watt and William Murdock, on Broad Street in Birmingham, which was unveiled in 1956. There is above all his home, Soho House, the most illuminating memorial of the man and his life and work. But there has been no national memorial.

Now we have it, and that is a matter for rejoicing and gratitude—and also for reflection. It will serve to remind us of all that he achieved and all that he stood for, and of the relevance of those achievements and convictions to our modern age, to our young people, and to aspiring many walks of life.

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