Monday, 3 October 2011

Matthew Boulton & James Watt: Empowering the World

Paper delivered by Roger Williams at the Matthew Boulton Bicentenary Conference,
Birmingham University, July 3–5, 2009

BARCELONA, THE INDUSTRIAL city of Spain, has a lively main avenue called the Rambla. The word comes from the Arabic, ramla, meaning a dry river bed. About a mile long, the course of this former river runs down to the port beside the old city wall. Opposite the wall there was once a string of convents. In fact, by the beginning of the 19th century there were so many religious houses here that the Rambla was sometimes called Via Conventa – Convent Way.

None of these convents exists today. In their place are some memorable buildings – the Liceu opera house, the city market (Mercat San Josep, known as the Boqueria), the Santa Monica Arts Centre and the Plaça Reial – all of them rising from the ruins of the religious houses, while in the old town both the Mercat Santa Caterina, recently rebuilt, and the beautiful modernista Palau de la Mùsica Catalana, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, have monastic foundations.

The city was cleared of its convents by the mob one hot and steamy summer night in 1835. The perpetrators were a dissatisfied bullfight crowd. It was the eve of the Feast of St James, and the birthday of the liberal Queen Regent Isabella. According to reports in The Times public fury was ignited when not one of the six bulls in the corrida would come out to fight. One after the other, they had simply refused to leave their pens and enter the arena. Increasingly irate, the crowd booed and jeered, blaming the authorities, the enemies of the Queen, the Carlist rebels who had been causing trouble in the hills, and a state church that had become corrupt and intolerable. The audience wanted entertaining, they wanted their money back, they wouldn’t be treated this way. Entering the arena, they dragged out the last bull and slaughtered it, before hauling it along the quayside into town, becoming more excitable as their courage grew and the sun began to go down. By the time they had reached the bottom of the Rambla, they had already caused a disturbance at several religious houses.

When they started up the Rambla from the port, they began breaking down the doors of the convents and monasteries, pulling out the church vestments and furniture, and making bonfires in the street. Gold and silver treasures were added to the flames. Priests and monks were chased out into the night and beaten. In attempts to expose hidden tonsures, hats were snatched from anybody who looked suspicious. When they reached the top of the Rambla some of the mob headed down Carrer Tallers to the El Vapor cotton mill, where the first steam engine in Spain had just been installed. The manufactory was broken into and the new selfacting looms and other machinery was attacked.

Among the sixteen people who died that night were seven monks and a French engineer. Two weeks later, workers in the city, incensed that the self-acting weaving machines that were being installed in El Vapor were putting so many out of work, rioted again, and this time they burned the El Vapor manufactory to the ground [1]. A dozen died in the fracas.

WHEN I LEARNED of these events, I immediately wondered where El Vapor’s steam engine had come from. My knowledge of industrial history is not profound, but I thought it a fair bet that it was a Watt engine. So I went to Terrassa, a suburb of Barcelona, where the textile industry had flourished in the 20th century and where an industrial museum [2] had just opened in a former mill. And there, among the displays, I found a small scale model of El Vapor’s engine, and a plaque to show that it had indeed been manufactured by Messrs Boulton & Watt.

There were also diagrams of selfacting looms (selfactines) from Roberts of Stalybridge, which were to be used in El Vapor’s mill, and which its owner, Josep Bonaplata, had hoped to manufacture under licence at the optimistic rate of 400 units a year. And I was pleased to see a fulsome exhibit devoted to William Murdock, the inventor of gas lighting, and the third of the trio that made Soho the foremost manufacturing company in the world.

El Vapor was a large undertaking [3]: a cotton mill on five floors built against the city wall. Bales of cotton unloaded at the port would be turned into fabrics with a variety of finishes, and the machinery was additionally capable of producing worsteds and linens. Bonaplata had planned for “a minimum” of 40 spinning machines and 200 weaving looms [4], and the complex included the fire house and a foundry. No images or plans remain of that first steam manufactory, though we know that it stood roughly where the offices of La Vanguardia newspaper are today.

Bonaplata’s father, Ramon, was an established Barcelona calico manufacturer, and the installation of steam had been Josep’s dream. He first visited Soho in 1817 when on a fact-finding tour of the Lancashire mills with his partner, the royal manufacturer Joan Rull, and his energies were spent on acquiring knowledge in France and Britain during his exile (1826–29) when liberals’ lives were at risk from bands of “exterminating angels” in absolutist Spain.

His older brother, Salvador, inherited the family business when their father died. Narcís, the youngest of the brothers, was employed by El Vapor, though not as a partner; he was also Captain of the National Militia’s First Battalion, and after El Vapor burned down he went to Seville where he became mayor and instigated the renowned April Fair.

A bachelor, Josep belonged to the Age of Enlightenment, and had he visited Soho a generation earlier, he would undoubtedly have been invited to sit around the mahogany table with the masters, Matthew Boulton and James Watt, and other members of the Lunar Society. As it was, like Matthew Robinson Boulton and James Watt Jr, he was in danger of becoming what the Greeks called an epigone, someone who lives in the shadow of a much more glorious generation. But as the man who first introduced steam into the country, it was Josep, not Ramon, who would ensure that the name Bonaplata lived in the history books on industrial Spain.

After the destruction of El Vapor, Josep Bonaplata demanded compensation from the authorities: he would settle for either the bronze bells from the ruined convents, or for their cash equivalent. What was left of the convents was now being pulled down under a national programme of desamortisation, but the authorities wanted the bell metal for war work, and he was offered the prime site of the demolished monastery of the Order of Mercy instead. But for reasons that are not clear, Bonaplata chose to turn his back on both the textile business and Barcelona, and he set out for Madrid. There, in 1837, he started a foundry on a former convent in Calle de Hortaleza. It was larger than the one at El Vapor and he ran until his death in 1843. The new company’s name was Bonaplata, Sanford y Cie. Sanford was apparently an English engineer – or an angles, which could make him Scottish or Welsh – and his first name was William, but archives in Barcelona reveal nothing more about him. Nor is there any sign of either Sanford or Bonaplata in the Boulton & Watt archives in Birmingham.

HAVING DISCOVERED all this, the urge to find out more, and to write a adventure story [5] based on these bald facts was irresistible. Who exactly was William Sanford? And what was he doing in Spain? Surely he must have been sent from Soho to erect El Vapor’s engine. And if he had been, he would in all likelihood have been there when the manufactory was attacked and burned down. Where was he when the mob started to threaten his handiwork? Had his own life been in peril? Had he realised the hazards his work might entail? And how, exactly, do you install a steam engine a thousand miles away from home?

There is a good deal of published information about the Soho manufactory in Handsworth. Certainly enough to set the stage. Yet however many facts and answers one discovers, writing a work of fiction requires a great number of facts, and questions about daily life in this extraordinary manufactory that Matthew Boulton had created continued to be raised. Did workers really take Mondays off? Who lived in the dormitories – were they segregated? How did the workers regard their employers? Were there always visitors and guests staying at Soho House? Who could read and write? Who could afford to own a horse? To what extent did religion or superstition enter daily life? What did employees eat and what daily vittals were supplied by the Works?

Having read all I could, I began to imagine a Drawing School and Ormolu Paint Shop staffed by women; I envisaged carriages rattling in and out of Soho – more glorified mansion than manufactory – reigned over by the masters in their project-filled workrooms, and I conjured a den of spies in the Waggon and Horses pub in Handsworth, toffs on the turnpike and out-of-work navvies on the tramp. I imagined extended families employed at Soho, and gave my two sparring clans, the Buckles and the Armstrongs, tied cottages on Handsworth Heath belonging to Soho, where newly cast kitchen ranges sat on earth floors and the landlord’s promise of Murdock’s gas light in their homes remained forever unfulfilled. Here foundrymen, paint shop workers, machinists, apprentices and odd-jobbers had lived for three generations. But most highly regarded of all were the young engine erectors, who dashed about the country spreading steam and putting England at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution. If Matthew Boulton had what the world wanted, then these young men were the people to deliver it.

INTERNATIONAL TRADE was fundamental to the merchants of Birmingham, who by the mid-18th century had spread its name around the world. The historian William Hutton summed up this dominance: “The West Indies and the American world are intimately acquainted with the Birmingham merchant: and nothing but the exclusive command of the East India Company over the Asiatic trade prevents our riders from treading upon the heels of each other in the streets of Calcutta…. To this modern conduct of Birmingham I ascribe the chief cause of her rapid increase.” [6]

Matthew Boulton was in the forefront of this international trade. In many parts of the world men were polishing his buttons and buckles, women were admiring their ormolu tableware and people were showing off his wonderful ‘toys’. It is no surprise to learn from the excellent exhibition at Birmingham Museum, which coincided with this conference, that Boulton supplied Captain James Cook with coloured beads to trade with the Pacific natives. I imagine a man of huge curiosity and vitality who liked nothing more than talking to people and finding out what was going on in the world, a man like Samuel Johnson who believed that any day without making a new acquaintance was a day lost. And I like to think that in the courtyard at Soho a visitor could hear a babel of tongues.

Boulton’s first partner, John Fothergill, was a specialist merchant in the markets of Russia and Scandinavia, and he spent two years abroad making contacts with European customers. In 1767 Boulton wrote that “more than half the letters we receive are in the German language.” [7]

James Watt taught himself French and Italian, and sent his son to Geneva to study for two years. James Watt Jr even addressed the Assembly in Paris during the French Revolution.

Yet overseas trade held many risks, and not just the financial concerns of the currency markets and the difficulty of chasing bad debts. Indeed, when the company’s fortunes ebbed, Boulton would complain about the lack of remittances from abroad [8]. There was local disturbance, as in the case of Barcelona. And there was the danger of travel itself, journeys preyed on by accidents, disease, brigandry and war – Boulton’s partnership with Watt began in 1775, the year the American War of Independence broke out, while Revolution and Napoleon frustrated Continental sales. Often he was unsuccessful, as speakers at this conference have pointed out. Dmitri Ghouzevitch [9] relates the failure caused by lack of local expertise in Russia, while Dan Christensen [10] describes the fiasco of exporting to Denmark. But Boulton was seldom daunted, and often seems to have viewed these impediments as a challenge. Jennifer Tann [11] shows that he was never short of thinking of ways to exporting to France even at the height of war.

It was not a world in which a company would want to lose a well-trained engineer for months at a time. The main components of the Boulton & Watt engine destined for El Vapor left England on board Favourite on March 5 1835, and did not arrive in Barcelona until the end of May, a journey of nearly fifty days. In my story I envisaged Boulton & Watt sending a young engine erector – William Sanford – along with the engine, for its installation and to instruct local engineers.

Engine erectors had long apprenticeships and were hard to come by, so few overseas orders would have the benefit of an accompanying Boulton & Watt trained engineer. As I understood it, in most cases Boulton & Watt would make the calculations and drawings for each order, which they would send their client along with a manual – Directions for Erecting and Working the Newly Invented Steam Engines (1779) and Directions for Working Rotative Engines (1784) – of how to build the engine. These manuals are extraordinary documents. They shows in such detail how inventive James Watt was, and how skilled the erector had to be. They also include a few eye-openers:

The proper grease for the piston and cylinder stuffing box is melted tallow, and for the chains, gudgeons, etc, common Spanish olive oil (called sallent oil), which for some uses may be thickened by dissolving some butter or tallow in it…”

James Watt is said to have been popular with women because he could always offer domestic tips about the best way to heat a stove or clean a pan.

Parts that needed precision engineering would be produced at Soho, and it wasn’t until the Foundry was established in 1796 that a more comprehensive manufacturing service was offered to clients and whole engines could be built and sold. Until this point all industrial manufacturing, from pins to carriages, was an assemblage of parts made in different locations. By putting all the component manufacturing under one roof, Matthew Boulton had made Soho the world’s first complete engineering factory.

The selling and installation of the machines was not the end of the story. Clients needed trained men on the spot to attend to running repairs, and they often wanted engine erectors sent by Boulton & Watt to remain long enough to hand on their skills to the local workforce. As this was the first engine to be installed in Spain, it would seem reasonable to imagine that the company might want to get a foot in the door, and one way of doing this would be to supply their own engineer who might establish contacts in a new market. Without this backup, which other companies could offer, Boulton &Watt would fall behind in an increasingly competitive world in which the James Watt rotative engine was the most expensive of its kind.

The West Indies provided a good example, for it was partly this lack of local skill that initially prevented Boulton & Watt’s business taking off in the lucrative sugar plantations. At first, Matthew Boulton had tried a policy of sending erectors to Jamaica on three-year contracts, but it quickly foundered as the engineers defected or drifted away. So the estate owners were then asked to be responsible for their own erector, which proved just as hazardous for the client.

In 1809 Sir Alexander Grant paid £67 7s for Soho to train an engineer to be sent to his estate in Jamaica, but the man died shortly before he left England [12]. The person they found to replace him the following year reached Jamaica but expired before his task was completed. Eventually William Murdock Jr was sent out, and after completing his work he stayed on as the island’s chief engine erector until 1827. His presence helped to ensure the installation of some 200 Boulton & Watt engines in the sugar plantations.

The fact that there is no record of Matthew Boulton condemning the slave trade does not mean he condoned it, though he certainly profited from it, as did Watt. Corresponding with a French manufacturer after slave riots in Sant-Domingue (now Haiti) in October 1791, Watt wrote “...we heartily prey that the system of slavery so disgraceful to humanity were abolished by prudent though progressive measures.” [13] It is hard to imagine any of the enlightened members of the Lunar Society expressing a different view.

The steam engine did not arrive in Spain for more than two decades after it had been set up in Jamaica. The Napoleonic wars had interrupted trade, and it was not until the 1830s that the Industrial Revolution really got underway on the continent. Yet it was also not until the 1830s – more than a generation after the Boulton and Watt partnership had come to an end – that steam power became a significant feature of industry in Birmingham.

William Murdock himself was unquestionably the greatest of Soho’s engine erectors, but he was too valuable to send any further away than the tin mines in Cornwall. The anecdote provided at this conference by John Grifiths, of Boulton writing to the Cornish mines to ensure Murdock was properly fed with decent meat pies, shows not only the master’s regard for Murdock, but, I believe, his whole attitude to employment. He saw labour as a respectful deal between those with skills and those who wanted those skills. Any man who worked well would gain his respect.

But not everyone in the Murdock family was up to the job. In 1793, some forty years before El Vapor installed steam, Messrs Fermin de Tastet & Company ordered an engine for a saw mill in the dockyard in Cadiz. William Murdock’s younger brother, James, was sent to install it. But things didn’t work out well. James Murdock’s letters to Matthew Boulton [14] (some addressed and underlined to ‘Matthew Boulton Himself’) complained that the engine house he had expected to find when he arrived had not been started and there was no sign of any drawings for the engine, which he had imagined would be there. He had been forced to bear extra expenses, live for two months without being paid, and had been robbed of his clothes and ‘150 dollars’. There is no correspondence back from the Works, or from Messrs Fermin de Tastet, but it is quite clear that throughout his 100-day expedition, James Murdock became increasingly agitated as Boulton continued to take his client’s side, until eventually Murdock was recalled to England and dismissed for improper conduct. This must have been an extraordinarily acrimonious event, but the masters were firm in all their dealings. “Whatever the reasons,” John Griffiths writes in his biography of William Murdock [15] , “the difficulties and expense of working abroad do not seem to have been fully appreciated by B&W.”

MOST OF THE research for Burning Barcelona was carried out before broadband reached my village in Kent. And by the time the novel was written the characters were very real in my mind, particularly the young Boulton & Watt engine erector, William Sanford. In subsequent research for this paper, I went online to see if there was anything more to be learned about my invented engine erector. There was.

The first thing I discovered was that in 1902 Evaristo Sanford, the son of Bonaplata’s partner William Sanford, is credited as having invented a motor car that ran on alcohol, which was exhibited at a trade fair in Madrid. But there was still no biographical information about William.

I knew from my research in the city archives in Barcelona and Terrassa that Josep Bonaplata had died in Madrid in 1843, five years after establishing Bonaplata, Sanford y Cie, but there were no surviving primary sources about the company and its partners. A new view on this enterprise came from a paper given by Carlos J. Pardo Abad of Bio Bio University in Concepción, Chile in 2006 [16]. According to Pardo Abad, the firm of Bonaplata, Sanford y Cie produced “engines, turbines, wheels, printing machines, hydraulic presses and steam engines of various sizes”. The steam engines were constructed in the factory with some elements being imported directly from England – possibly, I imagine, from Boulton & Watt. Pardo Abad concludes: “This reflected the beginning of the opening of Madrid trade to the exterior and of a slow but irreversible process of growing industrialisation.

In 1846 Sanford’s foundry moved to a larger site on the Paseo de Recoletos where the convent of Augustinian Recoleto friars had been. According to Pardo Abad, the move signified a growth of the industry as its production process meant the end of a reliance on foreign imports.

So William Sanford’s factory was, in effect, instrumental in igniting the industrial revolution in the capital. It supplied parts for the first gasometer – he must have had knowledge of Murdock’s invention – and was involved in making engines for the first railway in the capital, between Madrid and Aranjuez. The adventurous young man I still want to believe was the original Boulton & Watt engineer erector in Spain, a man who would have been blessed with the extraordinary advantage of an apprenticeship at the Boulton & Watt Manufactory, has a crucial role in Spanish industrial history. Despite the burning of the convents and of the destruction of the first steam engine in Barcelona, through Boulton & Watts’ William Sanford, Spain opened its doors to the industrial age.

WITHOUT BOULTON’S drive and prescience, without his ambition and global outlook, the name of James Watt and the spread of steam may not have occurred as it did. And if anybody doubts the importance of Boutlon & Watt’s contribution to the world, if they think that nothing could match the rapid change of pace of life that modern information technology, for example, has given us, they should read the 17Euloge for James Watt written by the French Catalan scientist and politician François Arago, and published in 1839. It explains just one part of the Matthew Boulton story, of how different the lives of the people of Spain, and elsewhere, would become as a result of men like Bonaplata and Sanford, and why so many people came to Birmingham to knock on the great Birmingham manufacturer’s door.

..A time will come when the science of destruction shall bend before the arts of peace; when the genius which multiplies our powers, which creates new products, which diffuses comfort and happiness among the great mass of the people, shall occupy, in the general estimation of mankind, that rank which reason and common sense now assign to it.
..Then [James] Watt will appear before the grand jury of the inhabitants of the two worlds. Every one will behold him, with the help of his steam-engine, penetrating, in a few weeks, into the bowels of the earth, to depths which, before his time, could not have been reached without an age of the most toilsome labour; excavating vast mines, clearing them, in a few minutes, of the immense volumes of water which daily inundated them, and extracting from a virgin soil, the inexhaustible mineral treasures which nature has there deposited.
..Combining delicacy with power, Watt will twist, with equal success, the huge ropes of the gigantic cable by which the man-of-war rides at anchor in the midst of the raging ocean, and the microscopic filaments of the aerial gauze and lace, of which fashionable dresses are so principally formed.
..A few strokes of the same engine will bring vast swamps into cultivation; and fertile countries will also thus be spared the periodical return of deadly pestilential fevers, caused in those places by the burning heat of the summer sun.
..The great mechanical powers which had formerly to be sought for in mountainous districts, at the foot of rapid cascades, will, thanks to Watt’s invention, readily and easily arise in the midst of towns, on any storey of a house.
..The extent of these powers will vary at the will of the mechanician; it will no longer depend, as heretofore, on the most inconstant of natural causes – on atmospheric influences. The different branches of each manufacture may be carried on in one common space, under the same roof; and their products, as they are perfectioned, will diminish in price.
..The population, well supplied with food, with clothing, and with fuel, will rapidly increase; it will by degrees cover with elegant mansions every part of the earth; even those which might justly have been termed the Steppes of Europe, and which the barrenness of ages seemed to condemn to be, for ever, the exclusive domain of wild beasts.
..In a few years, hamlets will become great towns; in a few years, boroughs such as Birmingham, where there could hardly be counted thirty streets, will take their place among the largest, the handsomest, and the richest cities of a mighty kingdom.
..Installed in ships, the steam-engine will exercise a power a hundredfold greater than the triple and quadruple ranks of rowers, of whom our forefathers were wont to exact a labour which is deemed a punishment for the most atrocious criminals.
..By the help of a few bushels of coal, man will vanquish the elements; he will play with calms and contrary winds, and storms. The passage from one place to another will be much more speedily accomplished; the moment of the arrival of the packets may be known beforehand, like that of the public coaches; no one will any longer wander on the shore for whole weeks and months, with a heart tortured with anguish, watching with restless eye the horizon, for the dim outline of the vessel which is to restore a father, a mother, a brother, or a friend.
..Lastly, the steam-engine, drawing in its train thousands of travellers, will run on rail-roads with far greater speed than the swiftest race-horse, carrying only his light jockey.
Such is a very brief sketch of the benefits which have been bequeathed to the world by that machine...which, after so many ingenious efforts, Watt has brought to an admirable perfection.”

This passage follows Arago’s expressed surprise that Watt had not received a peerage:

Well might I be amazed at such an omission on the part of a nation so justly proud of her great men. On my enquiring the cause of it, what, think you, was the reply? “A dignity such as that of which you speak, is reserved for officers of the army and navy, for influential orators in the House of Commons, and for members of the aristocracy. It is not the custom,” (I am not inventing, – those were the very words,) “it is not the custom to grant it to scientific or literary men, to artists or to engineers!” I well knew that in the reign of Queen Anne it was not the custom; – for Newton was not made an English peer. But, after a century and a half of progress in science and philosophy; and since each one of us in a short period of his life, has seen so many wandering kings, deserted, proscribed, supplanted on their thrones by soldiers without genealogy, and sons of their own swords, had I not some right to expect that men were no longer to be thus circumscribed... that, in a word, an absurd custom (since custom it is) would no longer be suffered to disgrace the institutions of a great nation.”

The same criticism might be made for the lack of public recognition for Matthew Boulton, without whom Watt’s steam engine would not have been so successfully marketed. Edward Strutt, Lord Belper, a cotton manufacturer from Derby and a Liberal MP, was the first industrialist to receive a knighthood, half a century after Boulton’s death.

1 Les Bullangues de Barcelona Durant la Primera Guerra Carlina (1835-1837) Volume 1, pp128–132, by Josep M. Ollé Romeu, Edicions El Mèdol, Tarragona
2 Museo de la Ciencia y de la Tecnica de Catalunya, Terrassa
3 ¡Hubieso Querido El Cielo Que No Anocheciera Jamás! El Proceso de Disoluciôn de la Sociedad Bonaplata, Vilaregut, Rull y Cía (1835–1838) by Alex Sánchez, published in La Industrializació i el desenvolupament econòmic d’Eapanys, Vol 1, p965ff, Ed Dr Jordi Nadal, Publicacions i Edicions Universitat de Barcelona, 1999.
See also: Bonaplata, Sanford y Cie: Jordi Nadal, Los Bonaplatas, Revista Econòmica 1983 pp 87-89, & 1997 pp26-30. Los Bonaplata: tres generaciones de industriales catalanes en la España del siglo XIX; Revista de Historia Economica, 1 (spring), 1983
4 Historia d’España, Vol VII, pp25–27, Ed F Soldevia, Ediciones Ariel, Barcelona 1959
5 Burning Barcelona, by Roger Williams, Bristol Book Publishing, London, 2007
6 History of Birmingham, p70, by William Hutton, 1783,
7 M. Boulton Letter Book, Boulton Archives, 1767
8 Letter dated August 9, 1782, M. Boulton Letter Book, Boulton Archives.
9Russian Visitors to Soho and the Transfer of Steam Technologies at the end of the Eighteenth Century’ by Dmitri Ghouzevitch, Matthew Boulton Centenary Conference, Birmingham University, 2009
10 ‘Big Business in a Time of War: Matthew Boulton, the Kingdom of Denmark and the British Bombardment of Copenhagen, 1807’ by Dan Christensen, Matthew Boulton Centenary Conference, Birmingham University, 2009
11Matthew Boulton: Creative Pragmatist’ by Jennifer Tann, Matthew Boulton Centenary Conference, Birmingham University, 2009
12 Jamaica in slavery and freedom: history, heritage and culture, pp252–254, Ed Kathleen E. A. Monteith, Glen Richards, University of West Indies Press, 2002
13 Boulton & Watt Archives, Birmingham Library
14 James Murdock correspondence from Boulton & Watt Archives, Birmingham Library
15 The Third Man p.233, by John Grifiths, Andre Deutsch, 1992
16 Asuntos Urbanos Internacionales, ‘El Patrimanio Industrial Urbano de Madrid’ p.55, by Carlos J. Pardo Abad, Universidad del Bio Bio, Chile, 2006.

Roger Williams
78 Fenwick Road, Peckham Rye, London SE15 4HN
Tel 020 7358 0044.