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Handsworth (St. Mary the Virgin)

HANDSWORTH (St. Mary the Virgin), a parish, in the union of West Bromwich, S. division of the hundred of Offlow and of the county of Stafford, 2½ miles (N. W.) from Birmingham; containing 6138 inhabitants. This place, called in the Domesday survey, and in Dugdale, Hornesworde, Hornesworth, and Hanneworth, formed part of the extensive estates and barony conferred by the Conqueror on his follower, William Fitz Ausculf, whose principal seat was Dudley Castle. The parish comprises 7594 acres, of which about 375 are uninclosed; the soil is in general light and gravelly, the surface pleasingly undulated, and the river Tame flows through the lower lands, separating the townships of Handsworth and Perry-Bar. Hamstead Hall, the present manor-house, is delightfully situated on the south bank of the river; the estate belonged to the Wyrley family from the time of Henry II., and the manor from the middle of the reign of Charles II., till the year 1819, when the proprietor, Wyrley Birch, Esq., transferring his residence to the county of Norfolk, sold his property at Handsworth to the Earl of Dartmouth, to whose seat at Sandwell it is immediately adjacent. On the opposite bank of the Tame, towards the west, is Perry Hall, an ancient moated mansion with a park and extensive lands, which have belonged to the Gough family since the year 1669, together with a moiety of the manor, of which they have now acquired the whole. Between the old Walsall and the Aston roads is Heathfield, the residence of the late James Watt, who purchased and nearly rebuilt it in 1790–1; the house is embosomed in trees, chiefly of his own planting, and formed an appropriate retirement for the declining years of a man whose memory will ever be cherished by the friends of science and the arts. There are also various excellent villas scattered through the parish, belonging to professional men, merchants, and manufacturers engaged in, or who have retired from, the trades of Birmingham and the neighbouring iron-works in this part of the county. The village, and the most populous portions of the parish, are situated on the roads to Wolverhampton and Walsall, and consist of ranges of neat and well-built houses. Petty-sessions for the division are held every Saturday, at the New inn. The Grand Junction canal passes through the township of Perry-Bar.

On entering the parish from Birmingham by the Wolverhampton road, is the demesne of Soho, the seat of M. P. W. Boulton, Esq., whose well-wooded and pleasingly-watered grounds skirt the road on the left; and in a valley to the south, is the celebrated manufactory of the same name. These grounds, previously a barren heath, with a small public-house at the summit, and a feeble mill for laminating metals, worked by a waterwheel, below, were purchased in 1762, by Mr. Matthew Boulton, then of Birmingham, where he had for some years carried on the manufacture of articles in steel. In 1764–5, Mr. Boulton built the present manufactory, at that time unequalled in magnitude, and in architectural taste, by any similar establishment; and entering into partnership with Mr. Fothergill, he devoted his attention to perfecting the processes of making all kinds of articles in steel, and introduced those of or-molu, plated and wrought silver, at the same time rendering his works a seminary for artists in drawing and modelling; while his partner was employed in opening a mercantile correspondence throughout Europe. The manufacture of astronomical clocks for some years was carried on at Soho; and the art of copying pictures in oil colours, called Polygraphic, was invented and pursued here under the direction of Mr. Francis Eginton, to whom it was subsequently resigned, and who became celebrated for his paintings on glass. Mr. Boulton soon after, through the medium of Dr. Small, became acquainted with Mr. Watt, civil engineer, of Glasgow, who in 1764 had invented "a method of saving steam and fuel in fire-engines," for which in 1769 he obtained a patent, the greater share in which he made over to Dr. Roebuck: this latter gentleman, however, in 1773–4 agreed to transfer his interest in the concern to Mr. Boulton, with whose assistance Mr. Watt, in 1775, procured an act of parliament, prolonging the term of the patent for 25 years; and at this time commenced the parnership of Boulton and Watt, and the manufacture of steam-engines at Soho.

In 1776, comparative trials were made between the first steam-engines constructed on Mr. Watt's principle at Soho, and at Bedworth, in Warwickshire, and the best atmospheric engines on Newcomen's plan; from which it appeared that, by the former a saving of three-fourths of the fuel was effected. This result soon became known in Cornwall, where the working of the mines by the old steam-engines was attended with so great an expense as to occasion the discontinuance of many of them, and to endanger the permanent working of the whole; several of the new engines were consequently erected there, which fully realised the expectations held out, and not only restored into operation the mines that had been discontinued, but also prompted to the opening of others. Mr. Watt, by successive inventions, secured by patents in the years 1781–2–4 and 5, rendered the steam-engine applicable to all kinds of millwork, and brought it to a degree of perfection which formed a new era in the history of our manufactures, and led to their vast improvement and subsequent extension, multiplying our national resources at a period when much needed. Greater facilities for the manufacture of steam-engines at Soho, in order to supply the increasing demand, were obtained on the admission of the sons of the proprietors into the firm, by the erection of additional works called the Soho Foundry, on the banks of the Birmingham canal, at Smethwick, in the years 1795–6 and 7. Mr. Watt had, in 1780, invented a process for copying letters; and the manufacture of machines for that purpose was carried on here, in partnership with Mr. Boulton and Mr. Kier, under the firm of James Watt and Co.

Mr. Boulton's attention had long been directed to the improvement of the coin of the realm, for which he erected a mint here in 1788, with superior coiningpresses, partly resembling those of the mint at Paris, but with great additions, striking the coin in collars so as to make it perfectly round, and so constructed as to feed themselves, each producing from 60 to 80 per minute with the attendance only of a boy, and deriving their moving power from a steam-engine. Coinages were undertaken at Soho, for Messrs. Monneron, of Paris, for the East India Company, for Sierra Leone, and Bermuda; and a complete recoinage was made for government, of the copper coin, for the supply of Great Britain, in 1797 and 1798, and again in 1806 and 1807. The execution of these coins was greatly admired at the time, and their intrinsic merit has now been confirmed by their durability. Various fine medals, also, of our most celebrated naval and other officers, and of the leading events of the French war, were engraved and struck here; and on the occasion of the brilliant victory off Trafalgar, on the 21st of October, 1805, Mr. Boulton, with the approval of government, presented every officer and man engaged in that action with a medal of Lord Nelson, having on the reverse a representation of the battle, with the words of that hero's memorable signal, "England expects every man to do his duty." So great, indeed, was the improvement in the coin, and so excellent were the principles upon which the coinage was conducted, that an end was put to the counterfeits for which the neighbourhood of Birmingham had been so notorious, and with them to the frequent capital punishment of the unfortunate artists. In executing the machinery of his mint, Mr. Boulton was assisted by Mr. John Southern, then at the head of the drawing-office of Boulton and Watt, and afterwards a partner with their sons; by Mr. James Lawson, an engineer brought up in their establishment, and who, in 1807, was appointed superintendent of machinery at the British mint; and by Mr. Peter Ewart, previously an apprentice under the late Mr. John Rennie, and for whom, subsequently, the office of chief engineer and inspector of machinery to the admiralty was created. The first earl of Liverpool, sensible of the advantages of Mr. Boulton's improvements of the coinage, instigated the removal of the British mint from the Tower, where it had been carried on from remote ages, in a space too confined for the increasing demands of the country, and the erection of the present mint, on the site of the old victualling-office, Tower-hill; in which measure he was assisted by Sir Joseph Banks. The plan of the new establishment, as far as regarded the distribution of the buildings connected with the mechanical department, was arranged by Mr. Boulton; and the requisite coining machinery and steam-engines were executed at Soho, and erected under his direction. Mints for Russia and Denmark were also planned, and the machinery prepared, at Soho, under Mr. Boulton's superintendence; and at a later period, mints for Calcutta and Bombay, the former, perhaps, the largest mechanical establishment in the world, were planned, detailed drawings made, the coining machinery and moving power executed, and the agents of the East India Company instructed here, under the able direction of his son and successor, Mr. Matthew Robinson Boulton. The application of coal-gas to the purpose of affording an economical light, was the invention of the late Mr. Murdoch, who had been for many years the principal mechanical agent of Boulton and Watt in Cornwall, and who was afterwards connected with their sons in the Soho foundry; the first apparatus was constructed there under his direction, and the first public exhibition of it was made in a splendid illumination of the Soho manufactory, in celebration of the peace in 1802. The Soho Plate Company, established in 1764, employ about 80 hands in the manufacture of silver and plated ware, and parabolic and other reflectors for lamps, lighthouses, &c.

The living is a rectory, valued in the king's books at £13. 9. 2., and in the gift of the Rev. John Peel: the tithes have been commuted for a rent-charge of £1391. 5.; there is a glebe-house, and the glebe contains 94 acres. The church, an ancient and handsome structure in the decorated and later English styles, was enlarged a few years since by subscription, towards which the Incorporated Society contributed £500 in consideration of securing 500 free sittings. It contains a few old monuments to the Stanfords and Wyrleys, lords of the manor, to the Goughs, and to Mrs. M. A. Sacheverel, and others. In the chancel is a bust of Matthew Boulton, Esq., the founder of Soho, who died in 1809, at the age of 81, and is buried here: it was executed by Flaxman, who studied the rudiments of his art at Soho, and felt gratified in being employed to commemorate his early patron; and the inscription was written by the late Matthew Robinson Boulton, who died in 1842, and whose remains, together with those of his wife and sister, are deposited in the same vault. In an adjoining chapel is a statue of James Watt, who died in 1819, in his 84th year, and is interred in the vault beneath; it is an excellent likeness, full of expressive character, and is considered as the masterpiece of his friend, the late Sir Francis Chantrey. This chapel was erected by the present Mr. Watt, who obtained a faculty for the ground in 1822: the interior is of Roche-Abbey stone, in the early English style, with a painted window exhibiting heraldic mechanical emblems, intermixed with the thistle and other ornaments; and the exterior harmonizes in style with the Wyrley chapel, in the opposite angle of the east end of the church, now belonging to the Earl of Dartmouth. In the chancel is likewise a fine bust, by Chantrey, of Mr. Murdoch, who died here, at an advanced age, in 1839; and in the south wall of the nave are monuments, with busts by Hollins, of Nathaniel Gooding Clarke, Esq., one of his Majesty's justices for Wales, and Mr. Joseph Grice; also mural tablets, by the same artist, to the two late rectors, the Rev. Thomas Lane Freer and the Rev. James Hargreaves. A church, to which a district has been assigned, was erected at Perry-Bar in 1833, at the sole expense of Mr. Gough. See Perry-Bar. Another dedicated to St. James, was erected in 1839, at a cost of £3000, on an elevated site given by Mr. John Crockett, near the Wolverhampton road, in the south-western part of the parish; it is a neat structure in the early English style, with a square embattled tower, and contains 1000 sittings, of which 700 are free. The living is endowed with £40 per annum out of the tithes of the parish, and the whole net income of the incumbent amounts to £150; patron, the Rector. There is a place of worship for Independents in the village. Numerous benefactions have been left to the poor.

Transcribed from A Topographical Dictionary of England, by Samuel Lewis, seventh edition, published 1858.