The Startling History of Soho House

I created this blog largely to be about Birmingham and the surrounding areas with occasional forays outside of the midlands (see the last piece about Portsmouth). One would presume therefore that I have a something of a passion for the city and the region, which is true, and yet to my eternal shame it took me until the last day of Birmingham Heritage Week to actually get out of the house and go to one of the events they were holding. The event in question was an open day at Soho House in Handsworth, the home of the famed industrialist and entrepreneur Matthew Boulton. Perhaps even more shameful for someone who’s from Birmingham, I had never actually been to Handsworth before, a historic, colourful, vibrant and slightly ramshackle suburb only a mile and half from the city centre.

Walking from the Jewellery Quarter to Soho House I passed by rotting windowless factories next door to kebab shops that were within a stone’s throw from smart three-storey Edwardian houses. Emerging from the graffiti-ridden concrete underpass of the A41 merging into the Soho Road, two majestic Gurdwaras rise into the distance and my stomach growls passing a charming little wooden jerk chicken shack as I solemnly shake my head at never giving much of a thought to this part of town.

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Boulton lived at Soho House from 1766 until his death there in 1809 at the age of 80. It’s an elegant three-floor white Georgian building and was situated not too far from his main factory, a vast structure that has long been demolished. In fact half of Soho House has been demolished too but thankfully the areas of most significance are still intact (although as a snooker fan I do lament the loss of the Billiards Room).

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Whilst the house has been restored, on entering it has the musky smell of over 200 years of history and feels a world away from the bustling Soho Road just meters away. Each room is impeccably laid out and contains the sort of objects that one would expect to find at the home of a man of Boulton’s significance – fine paintings, chandeliers, a harp. The main attraction however is the dining room where the members of the vaunted Lunar Society met once a month to discuss philosophy and scientific advances that were being made at the time and the eclectic cast of characters it attracted is extraordinary. I pictured the ghosts of James Watt, Ben Franklin, Erasmus Darwin and other great thinkers of the day leaning back in their chairs around the grand mahogany table, pontificating on the myriad intellectual issues of the late 18th century. In that same room they even occasionally conducted electricity experiments although I imagined it being somewhat haphazard, a little inebriated fun late in the day with either revolutionary or catastrophic potential.

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It showed to me how well regarded Boulton was in his time for these giants of science, politics and industry to come up to Birmingham to pay him a visit and I felt a little humbled. I also started to grasp why his name has become synonymous with the city and why there are so many things named after him from roads to colleges and beyond.

The two figures who made the journey up to Handsworth that most greatly astonished me were Thomas Jefferson and Vice Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson. A volunteer guide, outfitted in the get-up of the day (a modest brown waistcoat and a comical grey wig among other garments), told me of the future third President of the USA and Founding Father’s journey to Soho. Jefferson was curious about the rapidly evolving manufacturing technologies being developed in Birmingham and wanted to put them into practice in his young country to grow the burgeoning economy. Nelson’s stay is documented in a record in the photo below and it still blows my mind that arguably the most famous figure in British military history wanted to spend a Tuesday night in Handsworth.

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Upstairs when I was poking around the bedrooms, another of the excellent volunteer guides wearing a gaudy blue dress and a white bonnet gave me some eye-opening insights into Boulton’s family life which I wasn’t expecting. Perhaps it was a custom of the day but I was quite surprised when I learnt that after his wife died Boulton then went on to marry her sister. Clearly he knew what he liked. She also explained to me that his children didn’t get on and that before he died he felt he had to craft a will that was absolutely water-tight so that his son Matthew Jr didn’t take the entire fortune and banish his sister Anne from the considerable riches of the Boulton empire.

Thankfully Boulton didn’t let personal drama get the way of his achievements and Soho House is worth a visit although it is only open on Wednesdays, Thursdays and the first Sunday of the month. In a city that is currently swamped in cranes and construction projects, it’s a fascinating look at how this growing metropolis first got jolted into the industrial revolution and beyond over 200 years ago.

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