James Watt 2019: January

2019 marks the bicentenary of the death of James Watt, improver of the steam engine and partner of Matthew Boulton in the engine businesses at Soho, Handsworth. There will be many events commemorating this during the year, in Birmingham and Scotland, and information about these can be found on the James Watt 2019 website.

To help celebrate the richness of the archive of the James Watt and Family Papers [MS 3219], held in Archives and Collections, Library of Birmingham, there will be a monthly blog on a Watt related subject.


James Watt was born in Greenock on 19 January 1736 to James Watt senior (1698-1782) and Agnes Muirhead (c. 1701-1753). He was their fourth child, but the three before him had all died before the age of two years.

‘A view of Greenock 1768’ lithographed for the Watt Club 1856 by Schenk & McFarlane, Edinburgh, from the original by Robert Paul, Academy Glasgow, 1768, in ‘Memorials of James Watt by George Williamson, 1856’ [MS 3004/6].
Some correspondence relating to James Watt’s mother and father survives, and the following is from a letter to his mother, Agnes, from her mother, also Agnes Muirhead, written 2 April 1730, giving advice on how to cope with the difficulties of breast feeding. Her son Robert had been born on 13 February 1730.

Dear Nanie,

I Recived yours [letter] with the goose last Week for which I Return you many thanks and your letter by Mrs Fork yesterday forenoon and another last night[.] I am sorry to hear that your breast has turned so bad, I consulted with Mrs Muirhead & your Grand Mother and they know nothing so proper as bathing it with Strong master as hott as ye can endure and dip a flannel Cloth in it[.] If this dos not doe try a little Green Cornmill and Green wormwood fryed with a little Sweet oyl and layd to the breast[.] If none of those things doe I recommend the plaister to you of which you gott a Coppy[,] but least you may have lost it[,] I send you another Coppy of it as follows[:]

Take half a pint of ale[,] a Spoonfull of Sweet oyl[,] a ounce of Castile Soap[,] one handfull of Sage[,] half ounce bees wax[,] two Spoonfulls of white wine venigar[,] a little deers Grease[,] a little red lead[,] a spoonfull of flour[.] boyl it haff an hour[.]  I have sent the deers Grease along with the letter least ye should gett none of it with you[.] You know how to apply this plaister your Self and the Child may easilysuck [.] don’t wear your Stays too much Till once you get either a pair fitter for you or your breasts be better for you have certainly got cold with them which has stopped some of the vessels. Cause it suck your breast as much as possible and shake often. As for the Nipples if the skin be of[f] them Gett walnut oyl or a little fine Candle grease or the dripping of pork I know nothing better[.] If they be hacked Gett the Balsom of Peru and stroke it in the hacks with a feather……..

……….from your affectionate Mother, Agnes Muirhead.

[MS 3219/3/124/10]

Unfortunately, we don’t know if she tried this, or if it worked! Robert died aged two and a half months.

Portraits of James Watt’s parents, James Watt and Agnes Muirhead, artists unknown, from oil paintings in possession of the Watt family in ‘James Watt and the Steam Engine’ by H. W. Dickenson & R. Jenkins.

Reading the “Inventor[y] of Cloth[e]s that belonged to Mrs Watt” [MS 3219/3/124/62] compiled after her death on 23 January 1753, helps to conjure up at least a partial picture of her – and one far from dull.

She owned a blue riding coat and skirt and a scarlet cloak and cape; 2 wigs, sun caps, several gowns (blue damask, red damask, straw coloured silk, black bombazine, striped poplin and “chink calegow”[calico?]); several petticoats (blue silk, green silk, white quilted, white dimity); a hoop, stays, bedgowns, morning caps, aprons (checked, lawn, flowered cambric), handkerchiefs, ruffles, gloves (cotton, silk, worsted, and new French gloves), ribbons, buttons, fans and a pair of silver buckles.

Watt junior described his father’s constitution as delicate, and suggested that he studied much at home:

He received the rudiments of his education in the public schools of his native town, but from the extreme delicacy of his constitution was with difficulty enabled to attend the classes, and owed much of his acquirements to his studious habits at home.

[MS 3219/6/220 ‘Memoir of James Watt’]

In an account book and inventory of the Town of Greenock [MS 3219/3/57], dated 1756, there are various objects listed in Mr Mar’s schoolhouse which would doubtless have attracted Watt’s attention if they were there when he had attended school. These included maps, mathematical instruments, a frame for electricity and a protracting board, a mahogany box with 2 pair of McNeal’s patent globes, a large brass quadrant, 2 brass telescopes and a box with 2 prism glasses.

Extract from the accounts of the town of Greenock, 1756 [MS 3219/3/57]
Watt junior wrote to John Rennie, after Watt’s death:

It is my intention to devote all my spare time to the collecting and arranging materials for a history of my father, as soon as I can set about it. From his different Mem[orandum]s and Letters I expect to be able to make out everything very completely from the year 1770 and tolerably well from the year 1760 about which time he settled in Glasgow…But I am at present extremely deficient in information relative to the period between his leaving school and his establishing himself at Glasgow, during which period the foundation of all his great acquirements in literature, science and arts must have been laid & his genius for mechanical invention have developed itself. [sic]…. I have not yet found his early papers…

[MS 3219/6/1065/3/8b James Watt jr. to John Rennie 14 October 1819]

Being at pains to correct information published by Playfair, which Watt junior considered incorrect, he continued that:

…the state of his [father’s] health was such as rendered it very improbable that he would have been put out to any trade after leaving school.

[MS 3219/6/1065/3/8b James Watt jr. to John Rennie 14 October 1819]

Also, that he,

…acquired his first knowledge of mathematics and engineering from his Grandfather’s and Uncle’s books & manuscripts. His father…no doubt encouraged his studies.

[MS 3219/6/1065/3/8c   James Watt jr. to John Rennie 21 October 1819]

Watt had apparently told Watt junior that he would have become a surgeon if he could have withstood the sight of the sufferings of patients and also said:

I have never yet read a book, or conversed with a companion, without gaining information, instruction or amusement.

[J. P. Muirhead, The Life of James Watt (1858) pp. 23-24]

Watt himself wrote to the Russian ambassador on 7 August 1771, declining the invitation to work in Russia:

I am a person of no great learning but I have had from my infancy a propensity to mechanics & Chemistry, and have tried many experiments in both these sciences. What little knowledge I have is the fruit of these experiments.

[Royal Society London, James Watt Papers, PH 13, No. 71]

Once Watt did settle in Glasgow, after his mother’s death in 1753, perhaps staying with his uncle, Robert Muirhead, then correspondence between father and son begins and sheds some light on Watt’s activities, mostly carrying out transactions for his father’s business, before he sets off to London in June 1755 for a year, to learn the skills of mathematical instrument making from John Morgan [MS 3219/3/92-94].

His cousin, Robert Muirhead, recalled in a letter to Watt jr. dated 13 October 1819:

I know that when I was young he used to work in my Father’s shop in the Gorballs for his own amusement & at making or contriving some mathematical or mechanical articles having seen him there often in his shirt sleeves & his appearance at that work & undress had the effect of making me copy him as far as in my power, having procured a hand plane, chisels, saw etc. and always in my shirt sleeves which I then considered absolutely necessary.

[MS 3219/6/105/5/6]

Sir Francis Jeffrey wrote in his “Character of Mr Watt” after Watt’s death:

Perhaps no individual in his age possessed so much and such varied and exact information, – had read so much, or remembered what he had read so accurately and well. He had infinite quickness of apprehension, a prodigious memory, and a certain rectifying and methodising power of understanding which extracted something precious out of all that was presented to it. His stores of miscellaneous knowledge were immense…….his conversation was at all times rich and instructive.

[MS 3219/6/105/9/2]

Birmingham is very fortunate to look after the papers of this man and his family.

Fiona Tait


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