Watt 2019: March

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.

The Watt Family and the Sea

The relatives of James Watt had strong connections with the sea. Both his grandfather Thomas (1639 or 1642-1734) and his uncle, John senior (1694-1737), were teachers of navigation and mathematics in Crawfordsdyke, Ayr, and Glasgow, Scotland.

An agreement was made between John Watt senior and one Samuel McGun, on 12 May 1715 for teaching him navigation skills. The document lists twenty subjects including: to find the prime or golden number for any year; to find the moon’s age; to find the leap year and when any of the fixed stars come on the meridian; to keep a plain reckoning; to work a mercator’s journal; to find how many miles sailing on any point of the compass makes a degree of latitude; to find how many miles sailing directly east or west in any latitude makes a degree of longitude; to work middle latitude sailing; to find the variation of the compass.

For this, John Watt was to receive, a fee, paper, a pair of gloves, and a new hat when McGun first became master. [MS 3219/2/10]

John Watt moved to Glasgow in 1719. He was also a land surveyor and his best known survey was one of the Firth of Clyde, made about 1734, and published, with additions and alterations, by his brother and nephews in 1759.

Like his younger brother, James Watt of Greenock, Watt’s father, he owned shares in various ships and cargoes. These included the ship Greenock, which sailed to Norway, carrying out tobacco and returning with timber. John Watt and partners commissioned the ship Thetis, to be built in Philadelphia. It sailed to Madeira and Antigua, where it took on a cargo of sugar, setting off for Scotland the end of August, 1733 but it did not arrive and was believed lost at sea. The account book for the Thetis, 1731-1733, gives details of the cargo to be sent to Philadelphia, which was mostly linen cloth, thread, buttons and bibles. [MS 3219/2/5] An entry in a day book for 16 June 1735 shows payments to the widows of the sailors of the ship. [MS 3219/2/4]

James Watt of Greenock (1698-1782), the father of James Watt, may first have been apprenticed to a builder and shipwright in Crawfordsdyke. He moved to Greenock about 1729, when he married Agnes Muirhead and was merchant, builder, ship’s chandler and shipwright, as well as partner in shipping for North Carolina.

The ships’ account books [MS 3219/3/1/3] give details of voyages, cargoes and sailors. MS 3219/3/28 begins with a list of the price of goods at Christianland, Norway, and an ink sketch of a small horse head to be made as a figurehead for a ship. It also gives details of a voyage to Orkney and a journey back to Stirling from Sutherland by sea.

The account books for the town of Greenock [MS 3219/3/1/9] where he was on the town council, include details for cellar rents, anchorage accounts, work and repairs on harbours and quays. In 1765, there is a list of ships in the harbour at Greenock and a list of 37 foreign ships, ranging from 74 to 280 tons and hailing from Amsterdam, Belfast, Bremen, Christiansand, Danzig, Dublin, Hamburg, Rockall, Rotterdam etc. paying anchorage dues, 1760 1761.

Lists of cargoes show that salt and timber were major items, also sugar, rum and potatoes.  [MS 3219/3/124/59] shows that James Watt of Greenock owned shares in 12 ships between 1749 and 1750 and cargoes from Boston and Cadiz included sugar, cotton, wine, logwood, coals, lime, meal, oats, peas, barley, bread, walnut tree staves, oak, pitch & tar, Delftwork, and snuff.

A letter of 25 April 1740 in that volume from Watt to Hugh Vaus [MS 3219/3/84] mentions a scheme for trying whale fishing, tried again in 1751. Watt and others, through Aeneas Mackay in Boston, organised four ships for whale fishing. A letter of 26 September 1751 [in MS 3219/3/88] gives details of an agreement, pay and shares in the whale for the harpooners, to be recruited from Nantucket. They were to get a monthly salary and a quarter of all that was caught and afterwards a proportionate share from boiling the blubber and cleaning the whalebone.

John Watt jr. (1739-1763) was James Watt’s younger brother. With his father’s help, he began to train as a merchant. Accounts survive for the building of a new ship, The Fortune, at Leith in 1759 – 1760, by John Tod, carpenter, for six partners including James Watt of Greenock and John Watt jr. If you want to know how many yards of spun yarn were used for the different sails and how much they cost, there is a detailed bill from the Edinburgh Ropery Company which will tell you. The boat was finished by May, 1760, and there was a ‘launching entertainment’ which cost 17s. [MS 3219/ 5/7/5/26].

Watt jr. made three voyages between Glasgow and Bristol from 1761-1762 and kept accounts of the items purchased in Bristol for Glasgow customers. These included: Apothecary’s ware, barometers, barrels of pitch and barley, block tin, Bristol beer, broadcloth, bullets, bunting, cartridge paper, cider, corks, Crown window glass, decanters, elm boards, flour, gilt toys, gingerbread, glass balls, Gloucester cheeses, guns, hampers, hardware and tools, hemp sacks, hoops, Hotwell water, ironmongery, ivory teeth,  lampblack, linseed oil, locks, nails, nutmeg graters, paint, pudding pans, red and white lead, silk handkerchiefs, speaking trumpets, tin ware, turpentine, vinegar, watch glasses, white boiling peas, wine glasses, writing slates, York hams, etc. Even a tombstone, and a chimney sconce [MS 3219/5/7/4].

An entry in the journal for 1 March 1762, [MS 3219/5/3] records that the Fortune was sold for £324, nearly twice what it had cost 2 years earlier. Watt jr. sailed to America to gain more mercantile experience but sadly, he was drowned at sea in the Bahamas in October 1762.

James Watt of Greenock was much grieved by the death of his son. He wrote an obituary praising him and an ‘Odde On a sea loss’ which ends like this:

Great & un repairable is the Loss to the frinds of thee Dead and how Lamentable is the Misforton that the Cost of the Baran [barren] Island of Abbaco Should be the buiring [burying] place of ye Experenced the Generous and brave and put ane Ende to great Scames [schemes] and Cover in Darkness mutch Learning and Knoledge.

[MS 3219/3/125]

Ship travel was inevitably altered by the introduction of steam engines and James Watt and James Watt jr. were certainly abreast of new developments to enable steamboat travel. There are papers about Robert Fulton’s designs, James Rumsey’s, and William Symington’s in the Boulton & Watt business records. [MS 3147]

The firm of Boulton & Watt was taken into the production of boat engines by the younger generation, particularly James Watt jr.  Engines were provided for about a hundred and fifty of the Steam Packet boats, the Danube steamers, and Royal Navy vessels between 1797 and 1871. There are engine drawings, order books and correspondence about these in MS 3147. In 1816, Watt jr. and Boulton jr. bought a steamship called the Caledonia in which to try out their engines. Built by John & Charles Wood of Port Glasgow in 1815, the Caledonia was moved to the Thames in 1816, where she plied between London and Margate. James Watt jr. had new engines fitted and improvements made, and sailed it across the Channel and up and down the River Rhine in 1817, from Rotterdam to Coblenz, keeping a detailed diary of the voyage, the amount of coal used, landmarks etc. This was the first steamboat to sail on the Rhine [MS 3219/6/47, 48]. No fewer than eight of Watt jr.’s notebooks contain notes and drawings of steamboat trials, engines, boilers and experiments.

With sea voyages, of course, comes sea sickness.

James Watt jr. was sent to Europe in 1784 to finish his education and begin his training in business. He was 15 when he went to France, accompanied on the journey to Paris by Count Andreani, who had visited Soho. His letter of 23 November 1784 told his father of their arrival in Calais:

We left Dover this morning about 5 o’clock and arrived here by 10, the wind being due North, the sea was very turbulent, and my stomach not much better, for I was very sick at intervals during the whole voyage, as was also the Count Andreani….

[MS 3219/4/11/3]

On 5 August 1801, when Gregory Watt, Watt’s younger son, born 1777, sailed from Yarmouth in the Express Packet Captain Dell, for Cuxhaven and a year of travel in Europe, he wrote to James Watt:

At present we have a very brisk gale and are within two or three miles of the Harbour. By keeping very close in my cabin & rigid abstinence I have suffered something less from sickness than I expected — the vessel rocks — my head swims…

[MS 3219/7/50]

When Watt himself went to France in 1802, he wrote to James Watt jr. on 2 September 1802 that ‘Mr Herries’ Diaculum placet [against sea sickness] [was] found tolerably efficient’. [MS 3219/6/1/176].

Let us finish on a more poetic note.

In 1798, Gregory was in Cornwall and he wrote to his mother, Ann Watt, on 10 April, about a visit he had made to the Lizard Point:

Last week I went to the lizard point — saw the soapy rock [? serpentine] and all the curiosities of the place. The wind was high and had been quite a storm during the night and a most tremendous swell broke upon the rocks rising an immense height in immense columns of foam and filling the little bays & indentures with froth which was every now and then caught up by the wind & whorled high over the tops of the clifts like ten thousand air balloons glittering with beautiful Prismatic colours.

[MS 3219/7/49/12]

Fiona Tait

Images from MS 3219 James Watt and Family Papers and MS 3147 Boulton and Watt Collection

Upcoming Watt 2019 events:

Watt inventions

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  • The Lighthouse Young People’s centre (map)

Be inspired by James Watt’s ingenuity and create your very own work of genius. Who knows, maybe your inventions will end up changing the world too!

A visit to the Assay Office Silver Collection

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  • Assay Office (map)

James Watt was one of the first Wardens of the Birmingham Assay Office, established in 1773. To celebrate Watt 2019 the Assay Office is opening the doors to its important private collections.

James Watt; powering canals and industry

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  • Library of Birmingham (map)

This talk will look at James Watt’s early engines which were used to pump water out of mines and up canals, focus will be on the Smethwick Engine and Birmingham Canal System.

Smethwick Engine Steaming Day

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  • Thinktank (map)

The Smethwick engine is the oldest steam engine in the world.
See it in action.

Casting Creations

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  • The Coffin Works Museum (map)

Take inspiration from the plaster pictures created by engineer and inventor James Watt and make your own plaster portrait.

Watt’s Wanderings

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  • St Mary’s Church (map)

Get your walking shoes on and explore Handsworth, the place where James Watt came to make his mark on the world!

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