Half an hour in James Watt’s Workshop

25th August marks the date of the death of James Watt in 1819, aged 84, at Heathfield, his home in Handsworth. It seemed appropriate to mark this with a transcript of a visit to Watt’s workshop which has recently come to light. The workshop, now at the Science Museum in London, was re-displayed in 2011.

James Watt’s workshop at Heathfield, Handsworth, near Birmingham c. 1902 [MS 2724/2/B/4327]
The following description of a visit to James Watt’s Workshop in 1876 can be found in a volume of the Friends’ Essay Society. This organisation appears to have been formed about 1845. The earliest members were Mary and Sarah Lloyd, Thomas and Sarah Scott, John and William Heath, Elizabeth and A.J. Brady, Arthur Albright, Agatha Pearson (Secretary) A.M. Southall, Joseph Clark, William Nutter, Herbert Waldwick, H. Hargrave, G.B. Kenway. The Society was reorganised about 1852 and the earliest surviving essays are from that date. There are in all 16 volumes, stretching through until 1959. Essays are about 500-600 words each and on a variety of topics: travel, mountaineering, sailing, humorous or facetious subjects, religion, art, poetry, the history of the organisation, and include photographs, watercolours etc.

On 15 December 1876 an unknown author submitted this essay:

Half an hour in James Watt’s Workshop

In proximity, and yet sufficiently far away from the clamour of the hardware metropolis is Heathfield, surrounded by its acres of meadowland and shrubberies.

Here James Watt passed the last years of his useful life; his history is already penned, – the present is but a glance around the little spot in which he spent so many hours in correspondence and social intercourse with some of the brightest intellects of the day.

Here the “Lunar Society” met, including such men as Dr Priestley, Dr Withering, Mr Keir, Mr Galton, and his intelligent partner, Mr Boulton, to discuss philosophy, chemistry, and every branch of technical industry. Here the great engineer contrived and invented, adding thereby so much to the glory and honour of his country.

On the second story of the interesting old mansion we are brought to a door which introduces us to his workshop; this is a low-ceilinged room, perhaps 8 feet high, sloping off on one side and, say from 16 by 24 feet in area. It is rather crowded with the various relics spread about and the opposite side of the room has shelves running the whole length, filled with packages of all kinds. We are told that everything remains just as Watt left them when he died. It is – we confess – with some feeling of reverence that we stand for a moment to view the whole scene, and then give up our minds to a more detailed examination.

The workbench in James Watt's workshop [MS 3147/31/7]
The workbench in James Watt’s workshop
[MS 3147/31/7]
To our right on entering is a chest of drawers, and here – as if carelessly laid down – is the working dress of the great engineer. We take out the large leather apron stained and worn, a relic that Barn…….? Or Madam Tussaud would probably give a small fortune for.

To the left on entering is a small stove with the ashes in the grate just as he left them, a coal hod stands at the side in which is a remnant of coal with the tongs laid out; a frying pan rests on the ashes and on the back of the stove is a Dutch oven. Yes, the old man cooked his own dinner and most likely very scientifically too. It is said that he did not care to be disturbed when at his work, and just outside the door is a suggestive little shelf fixed to the balustrades, as much as to say:- “put it down, I will fetch it when I can spare time.”

Let us now glance along those shelves in front – crowded with innumerable packets, bottles, pots and boxes, all carefully marked or labelled; see here is a curious little box with a drawer at the bottom: in this, among a lot of other small packets is a card with cotton would round it and 3 or 4 needles stuck through. These are evidently his travelling etcaetera – [sic]

Just above is the old man’s pipe, and a tale hangs thereon. Someone left in charge a short time ago made this a present to one of our leading local antiquarians who pocketed it, but on his next visit brought it back and restored it to its place: all honor [sic] to the courage that prompted its return.

Further on the shelf is a small pot marked “snuff” and a paper parcel partly open of the same material has nearly lost all its fragrance.

There are also a number of busts in plaster of Paris. Afterwards in opening a drawer we learnt something of their history, written we think in Watt’s own handwriting, describing perhaps 40 or 50 busts; the size of each, the cost of the originals, and we suppose the price of copies, arranged in three columns.

Items from the workshop [MS 3147/31/7]
Items from the workshop
[MS 3147/31/7]
On the opposite side of the room is a nest of some 30 or 40 drawers – many of them filled with all kinds of tools, mostly in beautiful preservation. The first we open contains a number of parallel rulers, and the next some 8 or 9 thermometers, one a beautiful pocket thermometer enclosed in a long round box; these are all no doubt the work of his early Glasgow life. Here is a copper plate for a barometer and engraved on it “James Watt, Glasgow.” Another drawer is filled with graving tools. Here is one marked “fossils” but we can only discover specimens of various ores, a piece of talc and another of polished marble – probably specimens picked up in his travels; and among them – the nearest approach to “fossils” – a box containing the teeth and crumbling bones of some old soldier found on the battlefield of Leinster and dated 1160.

In another drawer are various sized lenses – coloured glass, and other material of this kind. In another, packets of powdered colours, one marked “best Prussian blue”; a stick of sulphur, a cake of Chinese Indian ink, a box containing arsenic etc. etc. Some of the powdered colours had been carelessly spilt.

We do feel a sort of reverent curiosity as we unfold packets, probably never unfolded since James Watt left them there, many of them beautifully finished little bits of mechanism, parts of still unfinished work.

Item from James Watt's workshop [MS 3147/31/7]
Item from James Watt’s workshop
[MS 3147/31/7]
Here is a roll that we carefully unfold. It is a letter from a London firm to James Watt speaking highly of his newly invented copying press, and saying that he will recommend it to his friends but complaining of the “coarse and thick grained” quality of the copying paper. With this is a sheet of the veritable paper on which is copied in James Watt’s own handwriting – we think – and evidently ironically; that this is a piece of the “coarse thick grained paper”, but which seems to answer its purpose very well. Close by our feet is the original copying press made by Watt, just like, and on the same principle as the ordinary presses we now use.

In the center [sic] of the room are two large machines for copying sculpture and medallions. The perfecting of this invention was the hobby of the last few years of his life. They are marvels of ingenuity, especially the one for copying all round figures. All the elevations and depressions of the sculpture are followed by the graving tool and so it produces a facsimile on the block being operated upon. A specimen of the work partly finished – a small bust cut out of wood – was still fixed into the machine with the graving tool.

'Crystals' from James Watt's workshop [MS 3147/31/7]
‘Crystals’ from James Watt’s workshop
[MS 3147/31/7]
During the process one part of the machinery has to rest on the head, and here is tied a handkerchief belonging to Watt, fastened on with his own hands in those memorable days now fading into the distant past & which we were told has never been untied since his decease.

In one corner of the room is his desk just as it was left, excepting that it was “By worms voracious eaten through and through” and we fear will soon fall into decay.

Numbers of letters – we noticed one in French – were lying about the room and in the drawers, some of which might very probably repay research, but the time is too short to examine or to do justice to a tithe of this laboratory of science; of art and of mechanism.

Just one more glance before leaving at a number of little wooded cubes and polygons said to have been made to amuse and instruct his little son Gregory who spent hours with his father in this room.

We must also relate an incident that was told us which shows how easily such treasures may be destroyed, if left in charge of ignorant people capable of the most ruthless vandalism in their anxiety to restore an object of priceless historical value.

The beautiful bust of Watt by Chantry was found by the present owner before taking possession of the property – in a tub in the kitchen on its back, the face undergoing a vigorous scrubbing by the domestics with soap and water.

You have now I doubt not listed to “Dryasdust” in his fumbling over relics of the past as long as patience will permit, but torn and dusty and wormeaten as many of these are, yet they are instinct with freshness and life when connected with the great mastermind who framed and gathered them together, speaking again as they do of the silent dead.

Ref: BA&C 661900 SF/2/1/1/18/9 [LF18.6] Friends’ Essay Society. Volume 9.

Fiona Tait



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