Steam engine pioneers on new £50 note

By on 02/11/2011 in News

Archives reveal story of Boulton & Watt's Soho Mint as steam engine pioneers appear on new £50 note

• Matthew Boulton and James Watt to appear on new £50 banknote
• Boulton's Soho Mint pumped money into 18th century economy
• Duo's Soho Mint strikes the first large copper British penny

As the new £50 banknote comes in to circulation on 2 November, Birmingham City Council's Boulton and Watt Collection held at Central Library reveals that, for entrepreneur Matthew Boulton and scientist James Watt, their appearance on the new £50 banknote is not their first encounter with currency.

While Boulton and Watt are most famous for the invention of the steam engine, from 1788 they also ran the Soho Mint in Birmingham, manufacturing currency for the UK and around the world.

In the 1780s Britain was suffering from a coin crisis and the economy was flooded with counterfeit coins. In 1788 Matthew Boulton set up a Mint, powered by Boulton and Watt's steam engine, which manufactured uniform coins that were difficult to counterfeit. By the end of the next decade the national financial crisis had reached its peak, and, in an effort to get more money into circulation, the Government adopted a plan to issue large quantities of copper coins. From 1798 Boulton's Mint was manufacturing these coins for the British government, producing the first copper coinage in a quarter of a century. The coins included the first striking of the large copper British penny, which continued to be coined until decimalisation in 1971.

Mike Whitby, Leader of Birmingham City Council, said:

“It is entirely right that Boulton and Watt's work should be commemorated with an appearance on the new £50 note. As well as being recognised for their wider inventions and entrepreneurship, as founders of the Soho Mint, their modern manufacturing methods helped the British government ease a financial crisis at a difficult time.

“The Boulton and Watt Collection at Birmingham Library and Archive Services is the most significant collection in the world related to the industrial revolution. The story of the Mint is just one of the unique stories within the collection and when the new Library of Birmingham opens in 2013 the general public will have much greater access to stories such as these.”

Birmingham Library and Archives Services holds over 180 volumes and 25 boxes of papers and correspondence relating to the mint, including drawings of the mints and mint machinery, day books, wages books, inventories, operational records, accounts, and even a list of what the Mint Boys were given to eat. The records take up over 300 metres of shelving.

The Boulton and Watt Collection as a whole is the most significant collection related to the industrial revolution in the world. In total it comprises around 29,000 engine drawings, about 550 volumes of letters, books, order and account books, and upwards of 20,000 letters received from customers, dating from the formation of their company in 1774 to its closure in the 1890's. This archive and the associated James Watt Papers and Matthew Boulton Papers comprise an unparalleled resource for economic and scientific historians of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Staff at Birmingham Central Library are currently preparing to move the collections from their current home to the new Library of Birmingham building, due to open in 2013. When the new Library opens there will be greater access to the Library's vast collections, both in the Library and online.


For further information please contact Sarah Watson or Matt Railton at Colman Getty on 020 7631 2666 or on /

Notes to editors

About the Library of Birmingham

The Library of Birmingham will be a major new cultural destination, rewriting the book for 21st century public libraries. It opens in 2013.

The Library of Birmingham will provide a showcase for the city's internationally important collections of archives, photography and rare books. New facilities including state-of-the-art gallery space will open up public access to the collections for the first time. It will also be home to a BFI Mediatheque, providing free access to the National Film Archive. Other facilities will include a new flexible studio theatre, an outdoor amphitheatre and other informal performance spaces, a recording studio, and dedicated spaces for children and teenagers. By harnessing new technology, everyone from Birmingham to Beijing, Bangalore and beyond will be able to access the Library of Birmingham's world-class resources. More than three million visitors are expected each year, and millions more online.

Described by its architect Francine Houben as a 'people's palace', the Library of Birmingham will be highly accessible and family-friendly. It will deliver excellent services through collaboration between the library, The REP, partners and communities. It will provide a dynamic mix of events, activities and performance together with outstanding resources, exhibitions and access to expert help for learning, information and culture. As a centre of excellence for literacy, research, study, skills development, entrepreneurship, creative expression, health information and much more, the Library of Birmingham will change people's lives.

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