Whatever the outcome of this first exchange, the upstart continued to grow his business undeterred. In the years between 1798 and 1802 Murray began to win orders in competition with Boulton and Watt. He could deliver the same horse-power and fuel-efficiency in engines sold and installed at prices hundreds of pounds below those of the Birmingham firm.
Engines became increasingly specialised for different jobs, each with particular characteristics that tested Murray’s ingenuity. The increase in volume and variety of production demanded a new kind of building. As the 19th Century dawned, he commenced the construction of a grand new purpose-designed engine works in Holbeck the like of which had not been seen before. The circular building, rising up four storeys was known as the Round Foundry. He also commissioned a comfortable new home for himself and his family close to the works.
At the very time that Watt’s key intellectual property was entering the public domain, Murray sought patent protection for some of his own improvements. But Murray was claiming credit for innovative techniques that the Watts thought to be their own. In the past they had vigorously protected their interests and were prepared to do the same again.
In the Summer of 1802, James Watt Junior visited Leeds. His first stop was to call on Benjamin Gott, a pioneer of woolen manufacture at the massive Armley Mills and a leading customer of Boulton and Watt engines. Watt’s first letter to his partner relayed the impression that Gott gave him: “It is generally believed that Murray & Co. are making a great deal of Money & that the new works they are constructing from their profits, as also a superb house which Murray is building for himself.”
Gott reported on the three partners in the Holbeck engine business. He “speaks well” of James Fenton, the financial backer behind the enterprise and has David Wood down as “the steady man of business who directs the works.” As for Matthew Murray: “He passes him for a great scoundrel but a very able mechanic & Gott says he has got great credit for his last patent, no one doubting that the Inventions are exclusively his own.”
In another letter, Watt Junior described the new Round Foundry that was under construction in Holbeck: “Fame has not outdone the magnitude of Murray’s new Edifice, it is a rotundo of about 100 feet in diameter with a magnificent Entrance. The Engine is to stand in the middle and the lower rooms to serve as deposits for Engines & other finished goods. The Upper rooms to be for fitting. It is an excellent building & will not look amiss. It is up to the top of the 2nd storey.”
We can imagine the sense of urgency that Watt and his partners now felt. In just a few years this competitor had sprung up from nothing, was taking credit for innovations, raking in money, and now constructing, from the profits, a purpose-built facility.
The “superb house” under construction nearby also told visitors that Murray had arrived. The journeyman who had walked penniless to Leeds just 13 years earlier was now in a position to build a handsome middle-class home. The house – later surrounded by a triangle of railway tracks and demolished in the 1950s – was the first in the city to be heated by steam. Officially it was called “Holbeck Lodge” but the locals nicknamed it “Steam Hall”. Murray could, one imagines, have afforded one of the exclusive new townhouses that were springing up in Leeds’ “West End” around Park Lane. (His daughter and son-in-law later settled there.) Instead he preferred to live near his shop, in Holbeck where many of his staff also lodged. His choice made him conspicuous in the community, but also a target for those who opposed the changes he was driving through the textile trade. On one later occasion Luddite rioters would gather outside Steam Hall and were dispersed by his wife firing a pistol from an upstairs window.