Grace's Guide To British Industrial History

Registered UK Charity (No. 115342)

Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 162,483 pages of information and 244,521 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 147,919 pages of information and 233,587 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

Soho Foundry

From Graces Guide
1847 gasometer at the Soho Foundry. This has traditionallly been ascribed to William Murdoch, but it was probably constructed 9 years after his death[1]
Wheel lathe, built c.1850
The c.1850 lathe, now preserved at the Thinktank museum in Birmingham, with James Watt and Co steam engines beyond
Staff of the Soho Works, 1860.
Im1956EnVCen-p232.jpg
Coining presses in the Soho Foundry Mint (successor to the Soho Mint). From 1909 article in 'The Engineer'
1834 side lever engine. From 1909 article
20 ton crane. An historical relic at the Soho Works. From 1909 article
Lathes, with nut tapping machine (wrongly described as a vertical boring machine) in background. From 1909 article. See The Engineer 1909/09/10 and The Engineer 1909/12/17
Nut tapping machine (wrongly described as a vertical boring machine). From 1909 article. See The Engineer 1909/09/10
Lathe with worm drive. From 1909 article. See The Engineer 1909/09/10
Watt tilt steam hammer. From 1909 article. The Engineer 1909/09/10

The Soho Foundry at Smethwick, near Birmingham, (grid reference SP037885) was about one mile west of the Soho Manufactory.

Soho Foundry, conceived in 1795 and opened in 1796, was the first purpose-built steam engine factory in the world. However, it was by no means the only factory producing complete steam engines, including the casting and machining of cylinders. These tended to be general engineers who adapted their facilities to produce steam engines.

It allowed Boulton and Watt to produce all the components and, in some cases, to assemble and test steam engines on one site. Previously the firm had produced some components at the separate Soho Manufactory and buy in many others from various specialists. These included the critical iron cylinder castings, which had hitherto been supplied by Bersham Ironworks. The decision to produce the castings at the Soho Foundry was encouraged by the closure of the Bersham Ironworks, in consequence of the falling-out of the Wilkinson brothers.

Another factor in the decision to build the Soho Foundry was the entry into the firm of the founders' sons James Watt (Junior) and Matthew Robinson Boulton, who brought new thinking and enthusiasm. James Watt Jr took the lead in establishing the new works, Matthew being preoccupied with the development of Matthew Boulton's Soho Mint. Valuable advice was provided by the Wilkinsons. Peter Ewart was a key figure in the design and construction of the buildings and machinery.

The site also included houses for key workers.

Initially, production was seriously hampered by the difficulty in recruiting skilled workers. They were able to recruit some key workers from Bersham, including Gilbert Gilpin and Abraham Storey.

Abraham Storey was appointed as the first foundry manager.

In 1802 William Brunton, who joined Boulton and Watt as a mechanic in 1796, was appointed superintendent of the Soho engine yard, a separate establishment of the Soho Foundry. His contributions included a machine for cutting and shaping the teeth of gear wheels.

c.1808 Brunton was succeeded by Mr. Hayden, who was foreman for many years

c.1824/25 Hayden was succeeded by Buckle, who possessed good mechanical knowledge and scientific research, and was always guided by experimental truths rather than trusting to theory. He experimented on fans and fan blasts, under different conditions, on the velocity of water issuing through pipes from different altitudes, and the velocity that water attains when rushing into a vacuum. He constructed a mill for pulverising bones for agricultural purposes and also a machine for sowing turnip or other seeds with fertiliser[2]

Mid 1830s James Watt (Junior) took the French Walls Works into his own hands and ran it in conjunction with the Soho Foundry, though as a separate concern, until old age forced him to give it up in 1842 [3].

The French Walls works provided the Soho Foundry with boiler plates and uses (semi-finished forgings for engines) as well as turning out merchant iron and steel. Scrap from the Foundry was returned to the French Wall's for reworking [4].

1847 Large new erecting shop constructed, with an iron roof made by H. Smith of Vulcan Works, West Bromwich. This shop still survives[5]

1848 The 8 HP A-frame engine from the '14H Shop' was removed and sold to J. H. Machu of Bunhill Row, London.[6]

1849 After James Watt (Junior)'s death, The Soho was let to various persons. The name of Boulton and Watt's company was changed to James Watt and Co.

1850 William Buckle was appointed to the Royal Mint.

1860 A new mint was built at the Soho Foundry by James Watt & Co. It acquired the name Soho Mint, causing confusion, since the original Soho Mint was at the old site, adjacent to the Soho Manufactory

c.1860 An order for 12 coin presses was placed by Calcutta Mint[7]

William Henry Darlington became the General Manager of James Watt and Co (successors to Boulton and Watt), and was there in the last days of the company, helped by his sons Seymour Nance Darlington and Courtney Darlington. He was responsible for saving many historically important documents and artefacts from the works, helped by George Tangye and Samuel Timmins.See 1910 article in the American Machinist here.

1895 The Soho Foundry at Smethwick closed and was purchased and rebuilt as the Avery company's main factory. A reporter from The Engineer visited the works shortly after it ceased production, and noted that the unfinished work was 'perfectly good, but it must have been slowly and dearly turned out by such obsolete machinery. One feels, in fact, like being in a museum when one sees vertical drilling machines built in the wall .....'[8]

Circa 1896 Avery, acquired the celebrated Soho Works (sic) of Messrs. Boulton and Watt and carried on the business under the title of Messrs. James Watt and Co. [9]

1909 A former employee, Charles H. Wall provided some interesting reminiscences in The Engineer in 1909 [10], although he tended to omit the forenames of key personnel. We learn for a period from the late 1850s to 1873 or 1874 a Mr. Brown was the Managing Director. When Buckle left (to become Bullion Manager at the Royal Mint) his successor as Works Manager was Mr. Carmichael, who came to Soho from Portsmouth Dockyard. He left in 1863, to go to Banbury as a partner in Barrows and Carmichael. He was succeeded by his former assistant David Anderson, who had gone to Soho c.1854 from Portsmouth Dockyard and remained in post until he retired in 1883. Another of Carmichael's assistants was Mr. Forbes, who became chief of the outdoor staff. Mr Garland was Chief Draughtsman, with Mr Jolly as his assistant. Frank Shaw was the foundry foreman. Mr Lewis foreman patternmaker, Walton foreman coppersmith, Mollineux foreman blacksmith.

Charles H. Wall shed some light on the history of some of the equipment which intrigued The Engineer's reporter in 1895. He described a pipe flange facing machine which was effectively a milling machine, having a facing cutter with inserted tools. The horizontal spindle was driven by a worm and wheel. The pipe was clamped to a table, and the machine's headstock traversed on abedplate. The machine was designed in the 1850s by Carmichael and his assistant Harper, and it became known as 'The devil'. A machine designed c.1850 used magnets to separate ferrous and non-ferrous material in swarf. A wall planing machine was described at some length. It was designed by Carmichael and Harper in the early 1850s. It had a stroke of 15 ft. A similar machine with a stroke of 25 ft was built later.

The factory is mostly extant, and was latterly the home of Avery Weigh-Tronix (formerly W. and T. Avery, then Avery Berkel), who make weighing equipment. The site includes William Murdoch's cottage and overlooks Black Patch Park.

There was a small museum there, open only by appointment.

The grade II listed Pooley gates, of cast iron, are marked with "a Liver bird above ropework draped with cloth, flanked by nautical symbols including oars, flags and bugles, ships' wheels and intersecting dolphins". A plaque reads: "These gates were cast by Henry Pooley and Son about 1840 for the Sailors' Home, Liverpool. The Avery and Pooley Foundries were amalgamated in 1931".

The building is a Grade II* listed building. The gates and adjacent canal bridge are Grade II listed.

Two large machine tools from the works were saved for preservation. The large c.1850 wheel lathe is on display at the Thinktank museum in Birmingham, while a large wall planing machine lies dismantled amongst other historic treasures in the Birmingham Museums reserve collection.

Description in The Engineer

The Engineer published a series of articles on The Soho Foundry in 1895.

Read them at the links below;

Further recollections of Soho Foundry were published in The Engineer 1909/09/10 (photos reproduced here) and in The Engineer 1909/12/17. The latter includes interesting accounts of early manufacturing and measuring methods practised at the works.

A Detailed Study, 2022

The book 'The Soho Manufactory, Mint and Foundry, West Midlands' by George Demidowicz provides a comprehensive and profusely illustrated analysis of the Soho factories [11]


See Also

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Sources of Information

  1. 'The Soho Manufactory, Mint and Foundry, West Midlands - Where Boulton, Watt and Murdoch made History' by George Demidowicz, 2022. Liverpool University Press for Historic England, p.181
  2. The Engineer 1895/09/27
  3. Victoria County History, History of the County of Stafford: Volume 17: Offlow hundred (part)
  4. Victoria County History, History of the County of Stafford: Volume 17: Offlow hundred (part)
  5. 'The Soho Manufactory, Mint and Foundry, West Midlands - Where Boulton, Watt and Murdoch made History' by George Demidowicz, 2022. Liverpool University Press for Historic England, p.179
  6. 'The Soho Manufactory, Mint and Foundry, West Midlands - Where Boulton, Watt and Murdoch made History' by George Demidowicz, 2022. Liverpool University Press for Historic England, p.181
  7. The Engineer 1909/12/17
  8. [1] The Engineer, 24 May 1895
  9. The Engineer 1898/07/15
  10. The Engineer 1909/12/17, p.624]
  11. 'The Soho Manufactory, Mint and Foundry, West Midlands - Where Boulton, Watt and Murdoch made History' by George Demidowicz, 2022. Liverpool University Press for Historic England