How to get ahead in business the Boulton & Watt way (Matt Edgar)


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A tale of green sand and subterfuge involving one of the biggest names of the Industrial Revolution

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  • Hello. I'm Matt Edgar and I love Holbeck's amazing history of innovation. I want to tell you a story of green sand and subterfuge, of an attempt to derail the career of one of Leeds’ business pioneers.
  • It all happens about 200 yards and 200 years away from this very room. Our hero is Matthew Murray, a Geordie engineer whose start-up makes engines for the textile mills of northern England.
  • Murray is competing with the more established business of Boulton, Watt and Sons in Birmingham. James Watt Senior is a Scot who made important improvements to the steam engine. But the villain of this piece is his son, also called James.
  • By his mid-20s, Watt Junior had already been mixed up in the French Revolution. Now he’s going to write the playbook of dirty tricks in business. And Murray's foundry right here in Holbeck is his target.
  • How would you react if your business was threatened by a new competitor? Would you bury your head in the sand? Would you try to improve your products? Or would you see what you could learn from the newcomer?
  • Boulton, Watt and Sons do the latter. Boulton and Watt's records tell how two of their staff, Abraham Story and William Murdock, come to stay with Matthew Murray here in Holbeck.
  • “ They were admitted into every part of Murray’s maufactory & spent two evenings with him and by virtue of a plentiful dose of ale succeeded in extracting from him the arcana and myseteries of his superior performances.”
  • The visitors assure Murray that they'd happily share their secrets if he’s ever in Birmingham. “I did go to Soho,” Murray says, “and was refused admittance...” Can you hear the betrayal?
  • Boulton and Watt understand that people are your biggest asset. So when a couple of their staff come to work for Murray, Watt Junior himself leads a mission to lure them back with an offer of increased pay. And threats of prosecution.
  • But having contracted one of them back, Watt is in no hurry to get him back to Birmingham. He writes home: “He is to remain with Murray as long as we may direct and to make application to try his hand at the green sand.”
  • “ Steal with pride” they say. Watt writes that the other defector: “may leave his letters in his working clothes” and would to ascertain whether they are worth taking.” There wasn’t.
  • But perhaps the most audacious tactic employed by Watt in his feud with Murray is his venture into real estate. Why?
  • As Watt openly puts it in a letter to Matthew Boulton, he’s looking to see “whether we could purchase anything under their very nose that might materially annoy them & eventually benefit ourselves. ”
  • Boulton & Watt buy a 1.5 acre plot next to Murray’s works which slows their expansion. But another site – a malthouse overlooking Murray’s yard itself – eludes them because the widow who owns it asks too high a price.
  • If you can’t innovate, litigate – Murray has patented a number of improvements to steam engines. Boulton & Watt challenge these, claiming that some are not original. Murray maintains they are but cannot match Watt’s legal firepower.
  • Instead Murray keeps his focus on his customers: “But the World I believe cares very little about Messrs. Boulton and Watt stealing my Inventions, or my stealing theirs;" he says, "what people want of us are good engines…”
  • What happens next? Well, in the long run both businesses prosper. Murray goes on to provide the engine for the World’s first commercially successful steam railway, at Middleton Colliery, near Leeds.
  • Matthew Murray dies in 1826, and is buried fittingly under a cast irom obelisk at St Matthew’s Church. His firm outlives him, going on until 1843. A plaque in Holbeck calls him “the father of Leeds engineering”.
  • Boulton and Watt lasted 120 years, making steam engines until 1895. Curiously James Watt Senior, not Murray, is commemorated by a statue in Leeds’ City Square. This does not seem altogether fair.
  • Want to know more? The letters and advertisement are published in full in “Matthew Murray: Pioneer Engineer,” available on or in book form from Tee Publishing.
  • How to get ahead in business the Boulton & Watt way (Matt Edgar)

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