Tag Archives: Matthew Boulton

Decimalisation, Redundant Coins (& Slavery)

(Those of you who have read some of my short essays will know I can go down odd byways, so if you are not interested in curious numismatic history, please go to the end and I think the punchline there will surprise and I hope please you.)

Fifty years ago the government, pandering to foreigners and people who could only count on their fingers, changed our simple currency of four farthings to a penny, twelve pence to a shilling and twenty shillings to a pound, which had worked well for over a thousand years and ensured that every child had to have a reasonable knowledge of mathematics to survive, to a boring system of one hundred pence to a pound.

But I am not going to revisit that controversial decision, rather I want to consider far more controversial coins, the penny and two-penny coins of 1797.

In the 1790’s England’s currency was a mess (so was Scotland and Ireland’s but not quite so bad). The problem was the Royal Mint, it had become stuck in its ways since it was Sir Isaac Newton’s day job, and it didn’t like copper coins.

This may seem odd, but it was true. It felt that coins should be gold or silver. There were plenty of them, in gold there were Guineas, Half-Guineas and Third-Guineas (no Sovereigns then as the pound was a value, not a coin). In silver there were Crowns, Half-Crowns, Shillings, Sixpences, Groats and Threepences. Twenty years previously they had been forced to make Halfpennies and Farthings (again the penny was a value not a coin) but these were not very good and since then the Industrial Revolution had happened.

This had led to the growth of cities and factories, where people to be paid regularly, and without small change it could be difficult. Giving three men a guinea and saying, ‘That’s your pay for a week, sort it out’, wasn’t very helpful.

There were two ways people tried to get by, one was for firms to issue their own money, this worked but caused it’s own problems, the second was forgery. This was so common that one turnpike company complained that half the coins collected one year were forgeries.

A real halfpenny of 1775 and a contemporary forgery

Finally, things had to change and so, the government ordered that a new coinage should be authorised, penny and twopenny coins. There was just one issue, that didn’t seem too much of a problem, the mint insisted that;

The intrinsic value of such [coins], workmanship included, should correspond as nearly as possible with the nominal value of the same.

In other words a Penny should be worth a penny in metal and manufacturing costs, which would have been fine but for two things.

First, vast deposits of copper had just been found in North Wales and Anglesey, Britain was now the main producer of copper in the world, and the cost of the metal had plummeted.

Second, instead of the coins being produced one at a time by a man with a screw press in the basement of the Tower of London, the contract to make them had been given to Boulton and Watt. The coins were to be made using the massive steam presses at the Soho Factory in Birmingham, the most technologically advanced place on earth, manufacturing costs were tiny.

All this seemed great, but it meant that to fit the criteria of the Penny being worth one penny, it would have to be massive. In fact so big that the suggestion made by Charles Darwin’s mad grandfather Erasmus Darwin could be brought to reality. The coins would be made so that, ‘One Penny should weigh On Ounce and each Two Penny piece Two Ounces.’.

The coins are beautiful, but big – and heavy. If you had one shilling and fourpence in your pocket it would weigh one pound (453 grams if you count on your fingers). They were nicknamed ‘Cartwheels’ in part from the broad border and in part from their weight. They were universally disliked and after 1797 they were replaced by coins of the same size we used until fifty years ago.

You would think that coins minted in only one year over two hundred years ago, and rapidly withdrawn would be very rare but they are not. For one reason, remember they weighed one and two ounces. A properly made one ounce weight cost more than a penny, and so they survived, in kitchens and small shops, on the scales as weights!

But you may remember, if you got this far, I mentioned slavery in the title of this piece. A few years ago I found this copper disc, I could see it had been a coin hammered flat, a withdrawn cartwheel penny no longer used as a coin, just a copper disc. Then I turned it over, and felt faint as I read the words crudely stamped on the back, perhaps the greatest slogan ever written.

AM I NOT A MAN AND A BROTHER 1808

This was the motto of the abolitionists, and the date is the year after the Slave Trade was abolished. Tokens were routinely handed out at political meetings, was this made for a meeting celebrating the ending of the ‘the vile traffic in slaves’? or was it a meeting called to restart the campaign to finally abolish slavery throughout the Empire and later the World?

Whatever the truth, it still makes my hand tingle when I handle this tiny scrap of metal with its wonderful message.

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Filed under Coins, Georgian

1774 The Summer that Changed the World

Summer 1774
Matthew Boulton mopped his brow, it was hot. He looked across the lake and shook his head, where there should be a wide expanse of water there was a long, thin, channel marking where the stream had once ran before the dam had been built. He turned to his millwright,
“I’m sorry sir, but there is only water for one wheel, and if there is no rain even that will stop in two weeks.”

Boulton nodded, he knew the problem well enough. If there was no water, the water wheels wouldn’t turn, and without the power generated by the wheels the factory would stop. He needed more water, but how?

View of the manufactory of Boulton & Fothergill in Birmingham by Francis Eginton 1773
The two men walked back towards the mill, in the office they poured over a map of the district. The millwright pointed.

“Here sir, there is water enough in the river here, if we could get it into the pond. But it must be thirty or forty feet below the level of the leat.”

Boulton looked at the map, his man was right. A tributary entered the river below the point the leat ran off the river towards his pond. This tributary was still full of water and, he knew, usually was. There was just the problem of raising thousands of gallons of water up thirty feet.

“You are right, and there is a way. A pumping engine.”

“A pumping engine, aren’t they just used in mines?”

“Most are, but I have seen some used to raise water into canals, and one is even used to pump drinking water into London.” He paused and pointed “If we were to place one about here it could take water from the river and up to the leat, and there would be no trouble from any landowners as it would all be on my land.”

“Do you know where you could get an engine?”

“No, but there is a meeting next week, I am sure someone there will know.”

The millwright smiled, he knew about the ‘society’, they called it the Lunar Society as they met on the nights of the full moon so they could find their way home afterwards. People called the men who met there ‘Lunatics’, but Matthew Boulton knew different, he knew that in the room were some of the most brilliant men on earth, at the meeting he posed his question and got the answer he wanted.

“Young Watt, he’s the man for you. James Watt, he has improved the pumping engines in the Scottish mines so they use half and much coal as they did. I heard that he wants to leave Scotland for a while, family matters. If you like I will write to him.”

Matthew Boulton did like and a few weeks later the Scots engineer was standing by the dry mill pond as he explained the problem.

“Aye, I could build you a pumping engine to keep your pond filled. But I have an idea that would solve your problem in a much better way.”

 

And with that ‘But’ the world changed, children born after that ‘but’ grew up into a completely different world, no one, no place on earth was unaffected by the decision made that day.

 

Matthew Boulton was fascinated.

“Is it possible?” he asked, “and if so why haven’t you tried before?”

“Because I couldn’t get the materials, or the men skilled enough to build it. But I think there is a possibility now.”

Matthew Boulton looked at the plans, at the list of materials – and nodded.

“Yes, there is wrought iron strong enough, Henry Cort has made it down in Hampshire the Ironmaster can do the boring.” He grinned, and added “And as for the craftsmen, this is Birmingham – here we make anything and everything, the best craftsmen in the world are here.”

 

Over the following autumn and winter, the canals began to bring material to the workshop beside the Soho works. Wrought Iron from distant Hampshire, massive cylinders cast and bored by John Wilkinson the Ironmaster, coal from the mines of Yorkshire and timber from Shakespeare’s Forest of Arden, though even his wondrous imagination couldn’t have dreamed of what was being built on the outskirts of Birmingham. In secrecy the craftsmen laboured and slowly a machine grew, a machine unlike anything else on earth.

 

James Watt steam engine

By the spring it was ready, the men of the Lunar Society gathered to watch, the mill pond was full now but the millwright shut the sluices. The waterwheels stopped, the factory stopped, all of Matthew Boulton’s machines stood idle – then James Watt pulled on the leaver, steam hissed, the massive pivoted beam rose, and fell, as it did so the wheel turned. The engineer tightened the belts and power flowed into the factory, the machines started again powered by steam for the first time.

Everyone congratulated James Watt, but he was having none of it.

“No, it is good, but not perfect. If I were to build it again there are several improvements I would make.”

Erasmus Darwin, the mad grandfather of the brilliant Charles, asked.
“Are you going to build another?”

“Of course,” replied Matthew Boulton, “Another, and another, and another. We will give the world what it wants, even if it doesn’t know it yet”

“What is that?”

“Power, wherever and whenever it wants it. We will give the world power.”

 

Boulton and Watt’s steam engines changed the world. Developed first for Matthew Boulton’s factory at Soho near Birmingham, they were soon being built and exported around the world. No longer was power only to be obtained from wind or river, factories could be built anywhere, not just in places with a reliable water supply. The industrial revolution had properly begun.

 

I had been planning to retell this story for some time when my brother posted on his blog about a trip he had made to Arkwright’s mill in Derbyshire, and pondered on why it had been built in seemingly remote location. A location chosen only because of its proximity to a constant supply of moving water for power.

My tale tells of how the link between location and power was finally broken – and the world changed as a result of a hot summer in 1774!

Pictures from the internet

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Filed under Georgian, Historical tales