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Of all the men and women associated with the production of silver items in England, Matthew Boulton perhaps stands out as the most influential. Not in the accepted sense of being a silversmith himself, but as one of the first truly great entrepreneurs of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. For his achievements and services to the craft of gold and silversmithing he is worthy of inclusion in any list of prominant silversmiths.

Perhaps his most important achievement in the field of silversmithing was based on his patent for Old Sheffield Plate. A method of creating a compound metal of silver and copper, it not only had a profound effect on the production of silver items, but it also revolutionised the hot and cold forging of metals in general. He was also prolific in other areas of industry, and, although James Watt went down in history as, deservedly, the inventor of the steam-engine, he may not have done so without being in partnership with Boulton.

It was this great personal drive and ability that was to influence not only the industrial revolution but also lead directly to the establishment of the Birmingham and Sheffield Assay offices. These formed the cornerstone of the silversmithing trade in these towns, and without Boulton it is arguable that these two powerhouses of industry and commerce would not have been as successfull as they were in providing the world with items of silver and silver-plate.

In 1749 Boulton married Mary Robinson. But in 1759, Boulton suffered a double blow, with the death of his young wife (who left no children), and his father. He later found love with his sister-in-law Anne Robinson, whom he married against the wishes of the English church, and who bore him two children, a girl and boy.

In 1761 Boulton founded his new enterprise based outside Birmingham on Handsworth Heath. Here he built an estate with the curious name of Soho that was used to not only manufacture goods, but also served as a show-room, and house where he and his family lived. It was basically a factory but designed to look like a country mansion, set in a landscaped park, which was a revolutionary concept in the latter part of the 18th century. From here he designed, manufactured, and sold a huge array of Old Sheffield plated and silver items. He also used the services of two very influential designers of the period - Robert Adam and James Wyatt. He clearly placed as much importance on design as on craftsmanship, and Boulton made sure that his craftsmen were supplied with the most advanced technological inventions of the time.

Towards the end of his life Boulton concentrated his energies increasingly on his iron-founding, steam-engine, and coinage interests, although his manufactory continued to produce silver and Sheffield plate of a very high quality of workmanship based on superior designs. In 1783, his second wife, Anne, died in a tragic drowning accident on the Soho estate. He never really achieved his previous levels of drive and determinationa after this, and passed away peacefully in 1809.

Bryan Douglas 12 & 14 London Silver Vaults, Chancery LaneLondon  WC2A 1QSUnited Kingdom.
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