What all the world desires

Soho Foundry, Smethwick, West Midlands

Soho Foundry, Smethwick, West Midlands

At the very start of the partnership between Matthew Boulton (1728-1809) and James Watt (1736-1819) in 1776 Boulton told James Boswell, “I sell here, sir, what all the world desires to have – POWER.”

Boulton and Watt made their fortunes but realised that when their patent expired in 1800 they must build complete engines, rather than fabricate engine-parts and draw royalties on the invention.

Boulton’s Soho Manufactory was unsuitable for full-scale engine construction, so they established the Soho Foundry, about a mile away alongside the Birmingham Canal in Smethwick in 1796.

Their eventual third partner, William Murdoch (1754-1839), developed the manufacture of gas-lighting equipment at the Foundry.

The original partners passed on the business, Boulton, Watt & Co, to their respective sons, Matthew Robinson Boulton (1770-1842) and James Watt Jnr (1769-1848).  After James Watt Jnr’s death the company became James Watt & Co and continued to build steam engines almost to the end of the nineteenth century.

The Soho Foundry built the screw engines for Brunel’s SS Great Eastern (1859), and the ornate pumping-engines that are preserved at the Papplewick Pumping Station, Nottinghamshire (1884).

In 1895 the site was taken over by the weighing-machine maker, W & T Avery, whose successor, Avery Weight-Tronix, continues to innovate and manufacture on the site.

Though actual casting ended in 1954, the site has remained a key location for the development of digital weighing equipment of many kinds.

The ground is rich in archaeology, much of which remains to be uncovered.  The gatehouse block houses the fascinating Avery Historical Museum.

And high on a gable in the surviving Forge buildings is the name ‘James Watt & Co’, linking back to the dour Scotsman whose genius transformed the world.

There can’t be many industrial sites in Britain that have worked continuously since the late eighteenth century.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s Birmingham’s Heritage lecture, please click here.

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