The mid-1790s would not seem an auspicious time to start a new business. The ripples of the French Revolution spread far and wide into English politics, economy and daily life. Britain was at war on the Continent and increasingly repressive at home. The war brought with it economic depression and human suffering, depicted grimly in the writings of Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and the art of William Blake. And yet Matthew Murray saw an opportunity. Beside his own employer John Marshall’s mills, others had sprung up, and all demanded iron castings, machinery and engines. The time was ripe to move from fixing machinery on-site for a single mill to supplying equipment and specialist skills to many.
Murray established his own engineering shop in Holbeck in 1795. Marshall’s former partner James Fenton provided much of the capital while David Wood oversaw the construction of machinery. It was a small start but the move put them on collision course with Boulton and Watt.
James Junior was already well-versed in defending his company’s interests. Each summer he trawled industrial districts looking for steam engines that infringed Watt patents. And by 1799, Matthew Murray was providing sufficient competition to attract the attentions of Boulton, Watt and Sons in the form of a visit to Leeds from Watt’s trusted lieutenant William Murdoch and factory foreman Abraham Storey.
Both sides give an account of the visit, which seems to have been quite cordial. Murray had Storey and Murdoch to dinner twice, and showed off the castings achieved in his foundry. He must have considered it an honour to entertain two so well-known names in the steam engine business. Murdoch is sometimes spoken of as a co-inventor with Watt and made important contributions to chemistry and gas lighting.
Later Murray recalled: “Mr. Storey, Manager of their Foundry, and Mr. Murdoch, Superintendent of the Workmen at Soho, some time back visited our Works at Leeds, and from their assuring us of Messrs. Boulton, Watt & Co.’s friendly disposition were admitted into every part of the Manufactory by Mr. Wood and myself ; they were permitted to take Patterns and Specimens of our Workmanship…” It seems quite in character for Murray, eager to share, to please, maybe even to show off.
Matthew Boulton paints a more colourful picture in a letter to Watt Junior: “Murdoch & Abraham are now returned from their excursion highly delighted and full of panegyricks upon Murray’s excellent work. They were admitted into every part of Murray’s manufactory & spent two evenings with him and by virtue of a plentiful dose of ale succeeded in extracting from him the arcana and mysteries of his superior performances.” How much ale did it take to loosen Murray’s tongue? How much flattery? Did he wake the next morning regretting his openness? Or was he pleased to be on good terms with a firm he’d be proud to consider his equal?
Other Boulton and Watt letters confirm how Murdoch and Storey put into practice many of the things they learned. Murray had presented Murdoch with a sample of his forge work which Boulton described as “the most beautiful and perfect piece of work I ever beheld.” Boulton realised he was out-classed, but refused to be put off. Instead he used it to motivate the Soho forge workers: “The emulation of our men as been awakened and they now vie with each other in adopting the tools and improvements suggested by Murdock.”
Further down the “production line” in the fitting department, there had also been improvements prompted by Murdoch’s visit to Leeds: “the difficulty of making endless screws is nearly overcome and a method is now under trial which if it succeeds will enable us to make them very expeditiously.” But success proved more elusive in another area, one where Murray was known to excel. Boulton writes: “No improvement, however, in the foundry work – Abraham full of excuses.”
As so often in business, it was operations that made the difference. Murdoch and Storey had not witnessed any great improvement to the steam engine, no scientific breakthrough in its operation, but Murray had shown them how to make their engines faster, cheaper, of better quality, and with less waste.
Murray certainly believed, as Boulton’s letter confirms, that his work was the inspiration for improvements in Birmingham. Looking back some years later he wrote: “… we know that upon their return to Soho many of our Improvements were immediately adopted, and the engines made after that by them were in part constructed on our Plans.” And in his measured, honest way, this does not appear to trouble Murray too much. We know he was often eager to share his expertise, to feel a part of a wider community of makers and engineers.
But there was, for Murray, a sting in the tail, some pride before the fall. He expected reciprocity, which Boulton and Watt failed to deliver. He goes on: “Mr. Murdoch, upon taking his leave of us, expressed a wish that as they and we were certainly the best Engine Makers in the Kingdom, we should always be upon good terms, and that if ever I should go to Soho, they would be very glad to show me all their Works.” This, Murray seems to assume would be normal business practice. His presumption is to openness and sharing for the good of the nascent trade as a whole. Only on the return visit to Birmingham does Murray discover that Boulton and Watt did things differently. “I did go to Soho,” he writes, “and was refused admittance into their Manufactory of Steam Engines.”
Murray’s son-in-law Joseph Ogdin later recounted the story of the ill-fated visit to Soho, in mannered terms that would be at home in a Jane Austen novel: “On his way home from London Mr. Murray called at Birmingham for the purpose of looking over the Soho Works, and enjoying a treat in examining the tools of Mr. Watt’s establishment. He was received politely, together with Mrs. Murray who accompanied him, and both were invited to dine. Mr. Murdock, however, hoped they would excuse him in declining to show him the works, as their rule was not to show them to any persons in the trade. It need hardly be added that Mr. Murray was greatly affronted, and at once declined the offered dinner.”
Boulton, Watt and Sons had gained Murray’s know-how, but lost his goodwill.