Boulton, Watt and St Paul’s Chapel. Folklore or Reality?

Printed guides to Central Birmingham, and the Jewellery Quarter in particular, are likely to show St Paul’s church as a place to visit, and are likely to add “Boulton and Watt worshipped here” and may even add “for a time”. This latter point intrigued me because it suggested a timescale yet the only information I had connecting Boulton and Watt with St Paul’s came from within the church itself and had no timescale with it.

In the church there are two small metallic looking plaques. One, fixed to a choir stall, carries the words “Matthew Boulton occupied pew number 23 which was located near here” and the other, fixed to a pew in the baptistery, reads “James Watt pioneer of steam power occupied pew number 100 which was located near here.” There is neither a pew number 23 nor a pew number100 in the church, so no one can sit exactly where Boulton or Watt sat, which is a pity as they could have been a great attraction.

St Paul’s chapel was the second of two chapels, the other being St Mary’s, built under an Act of Parliament of 1772 with funds raised by public subscription. St Paul’s was consecrated in 1779 as a chapel of ease to St Martin’s, the parish church of Birmingham. It had a minister rather than a vicar and an area of St Martin’s parish allotted to it. With a subscription for sittings you got a “Certificate of Assignment” of the particular sittings assigned to you or of a pew for a large subscription. Under the Act a subscription of at least £30 made you a trustee and almost certainly you were allotted a pew. The freehold of the pews was vested in the minister, so what you got was, in effect, a perpetual leasehold, with the rents, determined by the churchwardens, constituting the minister’s income.

A search of St Paul’s records in Birmingham Archives and Heritage (BAH) yielded only two Certificates of Assignment, one for Wm Waight for the 5th and 6th sittings in pew No38 in 1791, and the other for John Matchett for pew No 43 in the North gallery in 1798. Nothing was found for Boulton nor Watt. No lists of assignments of pews or of sittings have been found. What have been found are the names of the trustees for the initial building and founding of St Paul’s, those who subscribed at least £30 and furthermore took responsibility for the whole cost of the venture. The indenture is dated shortly after the consecration in 1779 and 45 men of the Town are named, a wonderful cross section of toymakers, merchants, buttonmakers, grocer, surgeon, and others. There is no mention of Boulton nor Watt. Interestingly, one member of the Lunar Society, Dr Small, did subscribe for sittings earlier at St Mary’s.

An alternative source to the church records could be the writings or correspondence of Boulton and Watt themselves, and the published work of some past and contemporary historians. I have not researched the correspondence but have used the views of some historians.

There were two parts to the local governance of the Town of Birmingham. One was the system of parochial governance of St Martin’s, the parish church. This system was run by the Principal Inhabitants, who determined, amongst other things, the rates for all households, being the money necessary for the overseeing of the poor and for highways and repairs to the churches. “Principal” was defined as those paying more than a particular value of the rates. The other part was a manorial system of bailiffs and constables with specific responsibilities.

Dealing first with Matthew Boulton, there is a document in BAH which shows that in 1760 he was participating in the parochial governance of the Town, The Town book of St Martin’s and St Philip’s records the minutes of a meeting of “the Principal Inhabitants of the Town” held on 8th January when approval was given for a new clock and chimes at St Martin’s. There were eight people present, including Mathew Boulton. It is important to refer to it because so far it is the only evidence I have that he was involved in local governance. It is of further importance in understanding the consequences for Boulton when he moved in 1766 to Soho, in St Mary’s parish in Handsworth, Staffordshire. When he moved to Soho Boulton was no longer classed as an Inhabitant of Birmingham.

He would have ceased paying his parish rates to St Martin’s and he could not now attend Town meetings of St Martin’s, nor could there be a chance of an appointment under the manorial governance system of Birmingham. This latter point is revealed starkly in the 5th edition of Hutton’s book on the History of Birmingham where there is shown all the manorial appointments of local worthies to the posts of High Bailiff, Low Bailiff and Constable each year for a period from 1732 to 1818, and there is no mention whatsoever of Boulton.

Furthermore, although there are still views expressed to the contrary, he was not appointed a Street Commissioner of Birmingham. He was not in the list of 50 people appointed in 1769, nor in the additional 29 people appointed in 1773. A copy of the original Act in BAH confirms the first part. He was not appointed because he was not an Inhabitant, the prime requirement for an appointment. Boulton was now an Inhabitant of Handsworth, in Staffordshire, with the parish church of St Mary’s, to which he was doubtless paying his rates. He was, much later, in 1794, appointed High Sherriff of Staffordshire. With no influence over the governance of Birmingham it is not at all surprising that he turned to what may now be described as the private sector of Birmingham where, for example, he did become very involved in the affairs of the Hospital, the Theatre, and also in musical events and doubtless many more private and charitable ventures.

Historian Peter Jones has written “…In 1775 or 1776 Boulton reported (to Watt) that he had launched a chapel subscription for his Soho workforce, and with a significant sum already raised announced ‘we will begin our temple and dedicate it to one god, for thou shalt have no other’. Yet there is scant evidence of a building even having been erected”. It did not take long for Boulton to abandon the idea, and this seems to be regarded as typical of Boulton’s behaviour, namely to have a rather radical idea and then abandon it soon after. But there may just be more to it than that. It was in 1772 that the Act for two chapels was passed and by August 1774 one, St Mary’s, had been consecrated. Subscription books for the other, St Paul’s, had been opened in 1772 but there had been no further public announcement, even by the end of 1775. It is highly likely that around this time there were doubts about whether the new chapel would ever be built. If Boulton was really concerned about a place of worship for his workforce he could have had similar doubts, but it would have been difficult for him to intervene. His alternative could have been to decide, as he did, that he would build one. If it was to be of the Church of England that would have involved St Mary’s parish and an Act of Parliament. In that case no wonder it was dropped.

In 1947 Ettlinger and Holloway published an article on St Paul’s in the Architectural Review which included the following:- “ Since Boulton had subscribed in March 1776 £600 for a chapel at Soho-where no chapel was built at the time- and afterwards became a prominent parishioner at St Paul’s, it is possible that the so called chapel was St Paul’s.” I have not yet been able to find the particular reference to March 1776, but I do find it difficult to believe that he was referring to the funding of St Paul’s. A donation of £600 would have made him a trustee and he certainly was not that.

In the event, Boulton’s announcement may have made an impact after all, because on March 14th 1776 the trustees for St Paul’s announced in Aris’s Gazette that at a meeting held that day, “ was resolved to begin St Paul’s as soon as a sufficient Sum shall be subscribed for that Purpose..”.

A further mention of St Paul’s comes in Shena Mason’s book about Anne, Boulton’s daughter, entitled “The Hardware Man’s Daughter”. She reports how Anne, with guests at Soho House, did her best to entertain them. “Among the sights Anne took them to see was the altar window in St Paul’s Church. The window, a painting on glass by her father’s former employee Francis Eginton, after an original by Benjamin West, depicts the conversion of St Paul. Patty (Fothergill) thought it not as good as one she had seen at Oxford”. The year was 1793 and if the Boulton’s were active or had been active in the life of St Paul’s it is just possible that the account would have read rather differently, such as they were visiting their church, rather than visiting just for the window.

Again, there appears to be an agreed view that Boulton distanced himself from conventional religion and yet there are reports that he once wrote that he was doing something “ …instead of going to church”, so perhaps he did go to church occasionally, or his family took him to church. And where? No problem, just round the corner so to speak. St Mary’s, close by, was his parish church, and where he paid his parish rates.

There is one record of a subscription from Boulton involving St Paul’s. It was a donation of 5gns by Boulton towards the cost of Francis Eginton’s enamelled window in St Paul’s, referred to above. The cost was some 400gns and at the time of its unveiling in 1791 only 200gns had been subscribed, and this led to Eginton making a public appeal. Eginton had been an important employee and partner of Boulton’s, to put it simply.

Did Boulton worship at St Paul’s? He would not have been eligible to attend the Town meeting to discuss submitting the bill to parliament for two new churches. A remarkable 91 men turned up, but no Boulton, a fact confirmed in the record of the minutes of that meeting. There is a good record of the Annual Vestry Meetings of St Paul’s that appointed the two churchwardens and sidesmen for each year, and Boulton is never recorded as being there, which is not surprising as he could not have voted at such a meeting as he was not an Inhabitant.

Could Boulton, and his family, be there, knowing, and everyone else knowing, he had not paid the parish rates? For me, I think not. And there is perhaps another reason for him not going. St Paul’s was Charles Colmore’s chapel. As he had given the land and some cash, he was the Patron, and he held the Advowson. If the Church of England had had a Saint Charles the chapel would have been named St Charles. As a general rule one distinguished gentleman does not get involved in, nor interfere with, another distinguished gentleman’s project in any way.

The rule still holds good today. It would have needed a very close relationship indeed for that to happen. In this case that certainly did not exist. A few years earlier there had been a major dispute between Boulton and Colmore over Colmore’s insistence on an extension of the Birmingham canal to New Hall. Although Boulton kept in the background there was no doubt who was leading the objectors. Colmore eventually took his case to parliament and won the day. They are said to have got over it, but the relationship could never have been warm. For this and the other reasons I just cannot see Boulton attending Colmore’s chapel.
For me, the notion of Boulton worshipping at St Paul’s is folklore.

James Watt arrived in Birmingham with his new wife in 1776 and after a short spell living in New Hall Walk, rented to them by George Holloway, Colmore’s land agent, they moved to Regent’s Place on Harper’s Hill in March 1777, very close to the plot for St Paul’s chapel, the land for which had been staked out by then. Just over two years later St Paul’s was consecrated, and it was his parish church. If there was ever a good period to acquire a pew in a Birmingham church this was it. In those two years the trustees of St Paul’s were making strenuous efforts to get subscribers. £30 and he would have become a trustee and got a pew. But it was not to be then, and there is no record, other than the plaque in the church, that he ever had one. He lived at Regent’s Place until 1790 when he moved to a house he had had designed for him by Samuel Wyatt. It was in St Mary’s parish in Handsworth, so he too after moving would have ceased to be an Inhabitant of Birmingham.

One of his biographers wrote that it was difficult to say anything about Watt’s religious beliefs. Certainly when he was in Glasgow he conformed to the Presbyterian form of worship (In his belongings was found a ticket dated 1766 for a pew in a kirk in Glasgow). Peter Jones writes that “… on moving to Birmingham all formal connections with Presbyterianism were severed”.

Boulton and Watt supplied and erected a number of steam engines in Cornwall for the mining industry and this necessitated their frequent and lengthy visits to Cornwall. Sheena Mason records in her book that Annie, Watt’s wife, had written from Cornwall to Mrs Boulton that “..poor mr Watt is turned Ana Baptist and duely attends their meetings, he is indeed and goes to Chapel most devoutly”. Ana Baptist this week, Church of England next week? Peter Jones writes “Yet once back in Birmingham his detached and normally unemotional attitude towards religion gained the upper hand once more”. “Detached” is the important word here.
Apparently it used to be said in St Paul’s that Watt attended the church… “but not very often”. No records of church attendance for St Paul’s have been found.
For me, with Watt as with Boulton—-Folklore.

John Sawkill 2014

The quoted writings of Prof P M Jones are from his book “ Industrial Enlightenment” Manchester University Press. Paperback Edition 2013.

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