MS 3219/4/277

On 1 July 2017 Canada celebrated the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation, when Canada became a self- governing dominion within the British Empire.    

Archives and Collections, Library of Birmingham, holds records relating to Canada which are much older, to be found, perhaps surprisingly, in the papers of James Watt and Family (MS 3219).

Aside from the fact that Boulton & Watt provided steam engines for boats of the Hudson Bay Company, there are records more personal to Watt, those of his brother-in-law by marriage, Captain John Marr, military surveyor (d. 1787). He had married Agnes (Nancy)  Millar, sister of his first wife Margaret (Peggy).  Marr was also the son of Watt’s mathematics teacher in Greenock and accompanied Watt to London in 1769, as he was going to train as a naval instructor when Watt was seeking training in mathematical instrument making.

John Marr had served in Canada from 1761. A memorial (petition)to the principal officers of His Majesty’s Ordnance requesting an increased allowance, 20 April 1768, gives details of Marr’s career in Canada to that date [MS 3219/4/275/2]. Marr obviously returned to Scotland some time after that and married. He and Nancy sailed to New York in 1774. A letter from John and Nancy to Betty Millar, another sister, (Glasgow) dated 15 November 1774 informs her that they arrived on 21 October. Nancy had apparently suffered a miscarriage in September, but had recovered. They were laying in stores of vegetables and stocking up for the winter. Nancy wrote that there was only salt fish and rum to be had there. They would not be able to receive mail until they reached Canada. Marr had sent fish to James Watt in Glasgow and he would get caulkers [spikes] for Nancy’s feet to stop her falling on the ice.

The British were at war with France over Canadian territory. The Watt Papers include a wonderful parchment roll with a survey of Fort St. John, on the Richelieu river, Quebec, and surrounding landscape, drawn by Marr, dated 1777 [MS 3219/4/277]. There are also letter books with copies of correspondence requesting tools and building and fortification supplies from merchants at Montreal and Ticonderoga in 1777 [MS 3219/4/274/3]. These and diaries and reports provide a fascinating and detailed glimpse into army life at that time.

Marr was captured in 1775 by the French at the surrender of St. John’s in November 1775, kept as a prisoner of war and released in December 1776. Nancy had joined him when he was taken prisoner. He wrote to Betty Miller in Glasgow, from New York, 17 December 1776 :

‘ After thirteen months imprisonment since the reduction of St. John’s, I am at last Exchanged, and having brought your Sister with me to this place, I must own, that among her other good Qualities she is perfectly adapted to be a Soldier’s Wife. She makes nothing of be[ing] hurled 200 miles on a Cake of Ice in the Middle of Winter and being carted twice as far in the heat of summer & the Month of December, through very rough Mountainous Roads. Thank God we are both in perfect health and Nancy looks twenty years younger than she did when she gave me her Hand at Croy….’                   [MS 3219/4/280/3]

Among papers concerning army business in Quebec is a list of 29 plans delivered by Marr, Commanding Engineer in Canada, to his successor, Captain Twiss , with an apology for their condition through use in war! Marr and Nancy returned to London in November 1779. In a letter to James Watt, after Nancy had fallen ill, John Marr wrote:

‘But from her scolding me as I began to write, I hope all Danger is past. However I protest before God & Man, that I should look upon the loss of her as the greatest Misfortune; for I assure you I never found a long Day in her Company, nor any real happiness when Absent.’                                   [MS 3219/4/280/6]

A couple of other mentions of Canada can be found where Watt receives grafts of Canadian apple trees either for Heathfield ‘s orchard or his plantations in Radnorshire.

On 23 December 1807, James Dunlop (Glasgow) wrote to Watt that he had arranged despatch of apple trees from Canada by the ship Everetta and he was departing for Montreal. [MS3219/4/23/45]

There is also a letter from Thomas Willis (London) to James Watt jr. (Soho), 28 Dec, 1796, sending seeds and shoes as a gift.

‘Dear Sir

I sent a little Box last Saturday Eve by the Coach, carriage paid, containing a few things from Hudsons bay. viz Roggins [watertight containers made of birch bark] which the Natives put their fruit into, a Pinch for their Shot & some Seeds, the Seeds I received from thence I have divided in to three equal parts, One for Sir Joseph Banks, one for the Apothecaries’ Garden at Chelsea & the other for yourself. I have no further directions of what they are, than what is written on each parcel. I am very sorry I had not something more worthy your acceptance, you may depend whenever I have, that I shall not be unmindful of your generous favour conferred on [me]

There is also a pair of Shoes for keeping the Snow out. [MS 3219/6/2/W/345]

James Watt jr. had sent him some terra ponderosa or aerated barytes. It would be interesting to know if he ever used the shoes!


Fiona Tait


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