Tag Archives: Industrial Revolution

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness

It’s been a fine autumn so far for all of us, what with having a new building with its lovely roof gardens (shown here with local celebrity Alys Fowler) and we’re heading back into our collections to inspire us in our gardening endeavours.

Pomona Britannica - George Brookshaw (AF096/1817)

Pomona Britannica – George Brookshaw (AF096/1817)

These lovely illustrations come from the wonderfully illustrated book “Pomona Britannica” by Birmingham-born artist George Brookshaw (1751-1823).    Brookshaw was from an artistic family – his brother Richard became a noted engraver.  For a time George was apprenticed to the japanner Samuel Troughton but eventually George set up in business as a cabinet maker in London and sold painted furniture to the great and the good of London high society, including supplying a commode to the Prince of Wales.

Pomona Britannica - George Brookshaw (AF096/1817)

Pomona Britannica – George Brookshaw (AF096/1817)

Brookshaw’s furniture was the very last word in regency style and they graced the interior’s of the best homes. You can see examples of his work at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Many of his designs were inspired by the artist Angelica Kauffman who was also popular with Matthew Boulton and members of the Lunar Society.

In the  mid 1790’s Brookshaw disappeared from public view, only to re-emerge ten years later with the publication of Pomona Britannica in 1804, dedicated to his erstwhile patron the Prince of Wales. There is speculation that there was some sort of scandal associated with him perhaps linked to his marriage which broke down some time during this period.  Whilst his botanical drawings were widely praised, he never again achieved the heights of success that he had with his furniture.

Rachel MacGregor


Ladies – Don’t Look on Page 25!

James Watt Centenary Commemoration

James Watt Centenary Commemoration, September 1919 [LF 78.1 WAT]

I thought I would share this experience because it made me smile and reminded me why I enjoy working with the Archives so much. In Digitisation and Outreach, we make digital copies of material for many reasons; this item was copied for an article which will appear in the Birmingham Post Newspaper on the Archives of Soho. The item is a programme of celebrations from a scrapbook compiled to reflect the 1919 James Watt Centenary Commemoration. As I was editing the image, the sentence at the bottom caught my eye – and as a ‘Lady’ I was hooked and immediately turned to page 25!

What I found was this advertisement for Madame Lilly: James Watt Centenary Commemoration

The 1900s saw a revival of spiritualism and a growing interest in paranormal studies which would have been heightened by fin de siècle anxieties as the century closed, this in turn led to the renaissance of palmistry.  Fortune telling and mysticism was a common type of entertainment in the drawing rooms of the rich and across wider society along with featuring in many novels of the time.


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James Watt Society in Japan

Poster for a James Watt Exhibition in Japan

Poster for the Tokyo Steam Engineering Exhibition in 1936 (MS 4243)

The influence of James Watt and the steam engine on Imperial Japan was aptly demonstrated at the 1936 Tokyo Steam Engineering Exhibition held under the joint auspices of the James Watt Society of Japan, the Tokyo Science Museum and the Japan Power Association. The date of the exhibition is significant in that it coincided with the bicentenary of Watt’s birth in 1736.

The exhibition itself included over two hundred and fifty objects and records on loan from foreign institutions including the old Birmingham Reference Library, home to the Archives of Soho. In gratitude, the President of the James Watt Society of Japan, Mr Hashimoto, sent a volume of bound exhibition photographs to the library. 

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Giant Puffball

Sketch of puffball from the archive of Boulton and Watt

Sketch of puffball from the archive of Boulton and Watt (Ref: MS 3147/4/4)

The serendipity of finding the unexpected in a document is always a pleasure. Recently a researcher came upon a wonderful drawing of a giant mushroom ‘found in Mr Watt’s field, Soho and sent to James Lawson Esq. F.R.S.’ The mushroom, probably a puffball, measured 10 by 13 inches and weighed 6 lb 1 oz.

It was found on folio 267 of Soho Memoranda (Blotting Book No. 1), circa 1786-1803. This large book is almost entirely composed of entries by John Southern, with only a few by James Watt. It contains a wealth of rough notes, ideas, calculations and tables, mostly for engines and machinery to be made for customers. It also contains general thoughts on engine production, experiments on wood and iron, coal prices, weights and measures, accounts of agreements, reports on factories and other engines, thoughts on a boat engine, and so on.   Continue reading

Gas Light Revolution

An image of the gas plant installed by Boulton and Watt

A gas plant installed by Boulton & Watt at Philips & Lee in Salford in 1805. The gas holders is on the left, with the coal oven on the right. (Ref: B&W Archives MS3147-5-804-5-7)

Leslie Tomory is a postdoctoral fellow at McGill University in Montreal. His book, Progressive Enlightenment: the Origins of the Gaslight Industry, 1780–1820, is being published by MIT Press in 2012 and has kindly contributed this story.

During the Industrial Revolution, a new form of lighting was introduced that notably exceeded the illuminating power of the candles and oil lamps then in use: gas lighting. This form of lighting relied on gas produced from coal which was heated in an enclosed oven.

Remarkably, gas lighting was invented simultaneously in many places throughout Europe between 1775 and 1795, including in Cornwall by William Murdoch, an employee of Boulton & Watt. Other inventors include Philippe Lebon in Paris, and Alessandro Volta in Italy and Jan-Pieter Minckelers in Belgium. Continue reading