As part of my trawl through the backwaters of the 18th Century, looking for overlooked heroes to include in my forthcoming book** with Pen and Sword on ‘forgotten’ Georgian Greats, I came across the name of Thomas Boulsover. “Who he?” I hear people ask. Well, he played his part in bringing high quality domestic ornaments within reach of ordinary households – he discovered a way to plate silver.
On 1 September 1760 the inveterate gossip Horace Walpole wrote a letter to his friend Mr Montagu:
As I went to Lord Strafford’s I passed through Sheffield, which is one of the foulest towns in England, in the most charming situation, where there are 22,000 inhabitants making knives and scissors. … One man there has discovered the art of plating copper with silver. I bought a pair of candlesticks for two guineas that are quite pretty.
What Walpole was referring to was the discovery by Thomas Bouslover of a method of fusing copper and silver to produce a material now known as ‘Old Sheffield plate’. Even then, eighteen years after the initial discovery of plated silver, the items made from the new material (in this case a pair of candlesticks) were considered ‘quite pretty’ – a reflection of the fact that design, decoration and form were important even if the candlesticks were retailing at a fraction of the cost of solid silver items.
Boulsover was born in 1705, and was apprenticed as a cutler in the parish of Ecclesfield (four miles to the north of Sheffield city centre) to Joseph Fletcher. He qualified in 1726 and married Hannah Dodworth two years later. The pair went on to have ten children, of whom only two reached adulthood. For twenty years Thomas Boulsover was busy making and repairing knives. But if Sheffield’s reputation was built on cutlery it was to receive a huge boost due to a discovery which Boulsover made in 1742/3. There are a number of stories, some no doubt apocryphal, about the curious accident which led to his discovery. One suggests that he was repairing a knife handle, made of silver, holding it in a vice while he applied heat to the silver. Unknown to him, a copper penny was wedged in the vice and, as his concentration wandered, he overheated the silver, causing the silver to fuse with the copper in the penny. However, realistically, this cannot have been the first time that the two metals had been fused. What was new was that Boulsover recognized something very particular about the way the two metals had joined – they were fused in such a way that the ’sandwich’ remained in the same proportions, even when beaten or rolled into a lesser thickness.
It was the fact that the copper and silver expanded in unison which was hugely significant. Boulsover started to experiment, noting that the silver melted at a lower temperature than copper. By placing a flat copper sheet under the silver as it was heated and liquified, the silver ran evenly over the copper, then fused with it. It could then be fed through a succession of rollers to make a finer and finer gauge of plated metal. And because copper cost a fraction of the cost of silver it meant that the metal was ideal for making items which looked like silver, which could be made into products traditionally made of silver, and which satisfied the growing demand of the public for decorative items which ‘wouldn’t break the bank’.
To begin with Boulsover kept the discovery to himself and decided to concentrate on making straight-forward items such as buttons. He needed capital to expand the business and approached a friend of the family called Strelley Pegge, and asked for a loan. It was granted and twelve months later Mr Pegge was surprised to find that Thomas Boulsover wished to pay back not just the interest on the loan but the entire capital. He apparently explained his success to Mr Pegge by pointing out that whereas he could sell his buttons for a guinea a dozen (21 shillings) the silver in those buttons cost a mere three shillings – and the cost of the copper was almost insignificant.
Button-making turned out to be a most profitable exercise and there is a story that ‘when he had been in business some time he sent the sweepings from the workshop floor, which he had taken great care of, to Mr. Read, a silver refiner, in Green Lane, and in a little time they sent him back £100 worth of silver — so much for the value of shop sweepings’. Certainly Boulsover missed a trick – he never patented the process, and therefore missed out on royalties.
Other cutlers in Sheffield could see the opportunities of developing their skills in working with metal, be it in pure silver or by using a cheaper silvery substitute. They diversified away from simply making blades. Craftsmen worked in both metals, silver and plate, and in time Sheffield silversmiths were able to petition Parliament for their own Assay Office in 1773. No longer did they have to wait while their products were sent down to London for assaying and return – they could sell direct to the general public, further helping establish the reputation of the city. The fact that the craftsmen could also make buttons, snuff boxes, and decorative fish slices out of a far cheaper metal did nothing to harm this reputation – it just brought the wares to a wider market.
The next development was the introduction in 1770 of a ‘double sandwich’ i.e. copper plated on both sides with silver. This still left the problem of a copper edge being visible when the metal was cut, but this was overcome, initially by rolling the edge to make a silvered ridge, and subsequently by applying silver wire along the length of the visible copper edge.
It was left to a colleague of Boulsover to develop further commercial possibilities of plated silver. His name was Joseph Hancock, and before long he was manufacturing a wide range of goods, starting with saucepans, then coffee pots, hot water jugs and moving on to candlesticks. He prospered and emerged as a Master Cutler from 1763 and was one of the thirty ‘guardians’ appointed to oversee the Sheffield Assay Office. When Hancock died in 1791 a local newspaper described him, most unfairly, as ‘the founder of the plated business in Sheffield, as he was the first person who commenced a manufactory of the goods.’ This was to completely overlook Boulsover’s involvement in silver plating, which gave a huge boost to the region’s economy. In time, more Sheffield plate was made in Birmingham than it was in Sheffield, largely thanks to Matthew Boulton making use of the fused material in his new factory at Soho.
Boulsover seems to have been happy to diversify into other areas where his experience of rolling, rather than hammering, metal could be put to good use. Up until then, wood-cutting saws were hammered from a single piece of steel, and setting the teeth was a difficult and inefficient process. Boulsover developed a system whereby the steel could be fed through rollers and also found a simple way for setting the teeth at an angle. Man-power was soon superseded by horse-power and then by water-power. To this end, Boulsover opened a mill on the stream below his house at Whiteley Wood, which he had bought from his original benefactor Strelley Pegge in 1757. As a result of his diversification he was being described in trade directories from 1774 onwards, not as a silver plater, but as ‘a manufacturer of saws, fenders, edge tools, Casted and Emory, from Sycamore Street’. By the end of the century there were two water-wheels and a steam engine powering the forge’s drop hammers at the industrial premises which Boulsover had started in the Porter Valley. It is thought that the forge ceased as a commercial enterprise around 1887.
Boulsover died at his Whiteley Wood home in September 1788 and was buried in St Paul’s Church Sheffield on 12 September. He never made a fortune from his discovery – but others did. The process remained popular until the production of nickel silver, otherwise known as German Silver, in around 1820. This used 60% copper, 20% nickel and 20% zinc – and its nickel content gave it a harder, silvery, appearance which made it more resistant to the copper showing through the top layer due to daily wear and tear. In turn, German silver was largely overtaken by electroplating, which came in during the 1840s. In a way they all proved one thing: there was a commercial appetite for objects which looked like silver, shone and sparkled like silver, but which were in fact made largely from base metals.
There are small memorials to Boulsover in Tudor Square in central Sheffield, and at Wire Mill Dam in the nearby Porter Valley. There is also a small Methodist Chapel still standing (actually it then became a cowshed and is now completely disused), in the grounds of Meadow Farm, adjacent to the site of the old steel-rolling premises. It had been erected by his two surviving daughters and bears the inscription: ‘This chapel was built by Mary Mitchell and Sarah Hutton in 1789 in memory of their father Thomas Boulsover, the inventor of Sheffield Plate (1705 – 1788).’ Fame has certainly been transient for poor Thomas Boulsover.
**Due out some time towards the end of 2020 – first there will be books on Piracy (due out this year) and on the story behind Robinson Crusoe (due next April).