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A LOST LANDSCAPE - Matthew Boulton’s Gardens at Soho

Phillada Ballard, Val Loggie and Shena Mason
Published by Phillimore Co Ltd July 2009 £16.99

Review by Philip Aubury NDH MIHort.

When you see Soho House today, boxed in on all sides by the urban sprawl of Birmingham, it is hard to imagine it set in over 200 acres of garden, parkland and farm. ‘A Lost Landscape, Matthew Boulton’s Gardens at Soho’ is a fascinating read. Brilliantly researched and engagingly written by Phillada Ballard, Val Loggie and Shena Mason, it takes readers through over 200 years of history and brings to life a very different place.

As a Brummie, a life long gardener and having a keen interest in history this is a perfect read but any reader will get drawn into this story of great endeavour. Just how did Matthew Boulton (1728 – 1809), one of Britain’s greatest industrialists, manage to start with a few acres of leased land and end up with a large elegant house, the largest manufactory in the world and all set in 200 acres of garden and parkland?

The introduction by Shena Mason, ‘Matthew Boulton and Soho’ uses the quote “A chearfull pleasant Spot” sets the scene. But the area was far from pleasant being open heathland with poor soil in the parish of Handsworth with the Hockley brook and its pools to power his manufactories. Water power, especially in the summer, was unreliable so with his partner James Watt they developed steam power not only to power Matthew Boulton’s manufactories at Soho but to power the whole world.

As well as a great industrialist and a founder member of the Lunar Society, he was clearly an accomplished gardener. He took advice and inspiration from many great gardeners and gardens and always kept copious notes. The pools that provided the water for his manufactory and mint were skillfully incorporated into his landscaped parkland while the garden around his house screened it from the manufactories below, while leaving distant views. He was a plantsman, planting the white rosebay willow herb, which I have in my own garden, in the 1760s and also paying the then great sum of 7s6d for Rhododendron ponticum, which is now considered to be an invasive weed in parts of Britain.

In Chapter 1 Phillada Ballard takes the reader through the developments to 1794 of a relatively small area around the house and manufactories. She has drawn on a wealth of archival material to bring both the man and the garden to life. Chapter 2 begins in 1794. By this time Matthew Boulton is 67 years old, his manufactories bring visitors from all over the world to both learn and marvel at his achievements and he contemplates purchasing the freehold of Soho together with additional land. Buying the freehold was to prove a goldmine for his descendants but more immediately he was able to considerably expand his landscape. It is recorded that he used the pump from the Mint to water newly planted trees and even at the age of 67 was purchasing additional pipes to extend the range of the irrigation. In this day and age it gives an insight to the man himself that the cost of using the factory’s pump was charged to his private account!

Chapter 3 is altogether different. Val Loggie, as part of her PhD, had researched the sketches, drawings and paintings of John Phillp. He was a Cornish lad and his family tradition says he was Boulton’s illegitimate son, though there is no firm evidence for this. What is clear is that he was an accomplished artist and under Matthew Boulton’s patronage he provided both designs for use in the manufactories, architectural drawings for building development and many paintings and drawings of the landscape and buildings of the estate. Without the work of John Phillp, much of which is held by the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, it would be very hard to envisage just what a magnificent garden and landscape was created by this genius.

Matthew Boulton’s son, Matthew Robinson Boulton continued to live at Soho House with his wife and children for a further 40 years although he had also purchased the 3,000 acre Tew Park in Oxfordshire which they used seasonally for shooting and holidays. In Chapter 4 Phillada Ballard and Val Loggie recount how M.R. Boulton further developed the gardens at Soho and especially the planting of a new orchard and many new flowering plants. Matthew Boulton had opened his park to the public in 1802 with the manufactory and house illuminated with thousands of coloured lamps, which must have been a great spectacle. His son, likewise in June 1814, to celebrate the end of war with France, opened the grounds to the public where 50,000 people came and it was reported that “the park suffered less injury than he had reason to expect”.

The final chapter I found very sad for although there were attempts made for at least part of the estate to become a public park it was gradually sold off for industrial and housing development. Even before the manufactory was closed in 1849 leases were being granted for building houses. The pools enjoyed a brief period as pleasure lakes with boating but these too were drained and became railway sidings. The house itself, gradually encroached on by development on all sides was variously a vicarage, a girls’ school, a boarding house, a hotel and a hostel. Fortunately, in 1990 Soho House, with just 0.86 acres remaining of the once great estate, was transferred to the City of Birmingham Heritage development and has been fully restored as a monument to this great industrial entrepreneur.

Philip Aubury

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