Watt 2019: April

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.

Reading with the Watt family

As I was gathering books to take to my reading group last week, I started to wonder what might exist in the Watt family papers to shed light on the reading habits of James Watt and family.

We can learn a little about the reading of the younger members of the Watt family, as the progress of their education was obviously of interest to their father. His sons wrote home often when they were away for instruction. As might be expected at that time, learning to read Latin and the classical authors was important.

James Watt jr. came to Birmingham in October 1775 when he was six and was sent to a school in Winson Green as a boarder. On 13 December 1779 he wrote to his father:

‘I hope my improvement in Latin will please you. I am reading Virgil and have gone through the Eclogues and the first Georgic…’ [MS 3219/4/8/5]

Watt jr. was soon sent abroad to learn French and German fluently to improve his skills for business. He stayed in Geneva for a year and in February 1785 he was reading a translation of Cox’s Travels into Russia; 2 volumes of a translation of Hawkesworth’s (?) account of several voyages around the world; books 4 and 5 of Simpson’s [Elements of] Geometry and Gravesande [Mathematical elements of natural philosophy]. [MS 3219/4/11/12]

‘The Annals of Philosophy or magazine of chemistry, mineralogy, mechanics, natural history, agriculture and the arts’ by Thomas Thomson, London
[Finding Number: MS 3219/4/329]
By mid March he had read the next two volumes of Simpson; the Elements of Physics by Mr Sigaud de Lafond; three volumes of Jan Struys’ Travels into Muscovy, Persia and the Indies and had started the Voyages of Jean-Baptiste Tavernier. [MS 3219/4/11/13]

In May he told his father: ‘I attribute this absence of mind to the Romances, anecdotes etc. which I have read at different times and for which I have always had the greatest passion, tho’ I fly them at present as much as I have formerly liked them……..as I am certain that they have done me a great deal of harm and also that they tend in some measure to corrupt the morals of young people tho’ I do not dispute but that they are useful to pass away an idle hour to those persons who have already attained a certain age & to those who have not any serious occupations.’ [MS 3219/4/11/16]

In 1788, now in Germany, Watt jr. asks for his Greek Lexicon to be sent, as he is now studying anatomy. He also tells his father that he has despatched to him ‘Anton upon the Slave’ [possibly Anton Wilhelm Amo, an African lecturer in Philosophy in Germany] and the first four tomes of Sprengel’s ‘Geschichte der Künste’. [MS 3219/4/12/19]

Bible. ‘Tes Kains Diatheke Apanta’; Novum Testamentum (Edinburgh)
[Finding Number: MS 3219/9/5/3/9]
We can find out much more about Gregory Watt’s education after he began as a student at Glasgow University in 1792 aged 15. A number of his books from the time have survived in the Watt papers, [MS 3219/79/5/3/1-22] including a couple awarded to him as Greek Prizes for his studies. These books include Rousseau, Aesop’s Fables, de la Fontaine, Rabelais, not forgetting the New Testament, in both Greek and Latin. Gregory also translated Euripedes’ Medea, wrote poetry and composed the draft of a novel in 1797, ‘ in imitation of Sterne, Castle of Otranto, & Sir Bertrand’ , which was never published. [MS 3219/7/16]

Draft of a novel by Gregory Watt, 1797.
[Finding Number: MS 3219/7/16]
He wrote to his father in May 1791 ‘I finished Virgil today & shall begin Horace directly. We have nearly finished the 3 volumes of [James] Bruce [Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile, 1790] in which…..Maragma Fasil, a Galla by birth….is defeated at the battle of Fagitta by Ras Micheal….(who ordered the eyes of 40 prisoners to be pulled out…).’ [MS 3219/4/9/7] Gruesome!

What of the women’s reading? This is harder to discover. We know that in 1775 Watt’s daughter Peggy (by his first wife), aged 8, was being taught to read, but not what. [MS 3219/4/77/9]

Watt himself tells us in a letter to Ann Watt from London on 11 November 1793 that he has bought a large book of the Cries of Venice [by Gaetano Zompini 1700-1778; drawings of the street traders and hawkers in Venice] for Jessy [his other daughter]. [MS 3219/4/270/11b]

Peggy’s daughter, Margaret, (Watt’s granddaughter) wrote to Watt in 1808 to keep him informed about her studies:

‘I have been very busy this winter with my education. French, Writing, Arithmetic, Geography, English Grammar and Drawing….also learning Perspective.’ For French, she mentions a book of plays and a French poem called ‘Le Malheur et la Pitie’ [by Jaques de Lille Abbe]. She also mentions reading Goldsmith’s History of England, Robertson’s History of Scotland, [George] Anson’s ‘Voyage’ [round the World, 1740-1744], and Sully’s Memoirs of Henry IV. She was then engaged in reading Paley’s Natural Theology, of which she was very fond. [MS 3219/4/23/66]

In January 1811, she tells Watt that she is reading aloud in French to improve her pronunciation [MS 3219/4/24/68] and in May 1811 she is reading Boileau’s works in French and Shakespeare’s plays in English. [MS 3219/4/24/74]

The process of buying a book was a little different in the 18th century. After acquiring the text, a bookbinder had to be engaged and the binding chosen to suit one’s library and purse. Then, of course it might be necessary to ask for work to be remedied, if there were issues of quality.

On 6 January 1806, Watt wrote to James Watt jr. (in London):

‘If you are ordering any books please order for me Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, 3 vols. Octavo – Lay of the Last Minstrel, & for Mr Crummer [Watt’s land agent in Wales] Forsyth on fruit trees, the octavo edition. All half bound Russia backs, and need not be marbled on edge & let them come down with your books….’       [MS 3219/6/1/275]

Letter. James Watt (Heathfield) to James Watt jr. [London]. [Finding Number: MS 3219/6/1/275]
James Watt jr.’s ‘Choice and Valuable’ Library, housed at Aston Hall where he lived from 1819 – 1848, was sold by Sotheby’s after his death. The sale of his ‘Many rare and ornamental works in the various departments of literature, science and the arts, the whole in beautiful condition, being in Morocco, Russia and other bindings’ took place from 23 April 1849 for ten days following (excluding Sunday). The books are listed in the Catalogue by size (quarto, octavo etc.), then in alphabetical order by author. They included many works relating to travel, history, art, architecture and antiquities in particular, in various languages. [L78.1 Watt]

Catalogue of the Library of James Watt
[L78.1 WAT]
It can’t be that common to appear in someone else’s novel during one’s lifetime. The most famous work of Sophy de la Roche (1730-1807), a prolific German novelist was ‘The History of Miss Sophy Sternheim’, published in 1771. This was the first novel in German written by a woman and was a mostly epistolary novel, morally instructive for young women.  ‘My upbringing has taught me that virtue and skilfulness are the only true happiness, and that doing good is the only true joy for a noble heart; but fate has proved this to me through experience’. A later work, Schattenrisse [Silhouettes], included an appearance by both James Watt and Matthew Boulton!

In a letter from Colonel G. de Trappe (Frankfurt) to James Watt (Paris; Hotel de Courlande), dated 17 October 1802, de Trappe writes:

‘Madame de la Roche cannot forget the satisfaction I procured her in bringing you to her house, indeed Sir, believe me, she understands how to value the honour of your acquaintance. I was told yesterday that lately when Her Royal Highness the Princess of Orange and Her Serene Highness the Dutchess [sic] of Courlande made her a visit, She told them that she had a very great joy in having made the acquaintance with the most ingenious Mr Watt, an honor [sic] to his nation and whose name and merits the British nation and their posterity will always remember with respect and gratitude. In returning to Madame de la Roche, her book Schattenrisse wherein she mentions your merits in such an honourable manner, I told her that you went yourself to the Book seller Mr Eslinger and bought it, as also Fanny & Julia……. ‘[MS 3219/4/44/70]

Sophy de la Roche herself wrote to James Watt on 4 March 1803, from Offenbach, near Frankfurt:

‘Much honoured Worthy Sir

Would your genius have read in my soul, the very moment I perused the obliging letter with which you honoured the Old Mother of Sophy Sternheim, be sure I remembered with blessing the hour I saw in my little abode Sir James Watt. The great benefactor of all Centuries to come – having proved the power of a mind – who truly and steadly aplyed his faculties for the improvement of Science and art = the more useful, for his fellow creatures – Physick and Mecanick will forever bless your name  – I was happy to behold you with a New Conviction that the very great man is a very good man to[o] – I admire you for the first- but I bless and love you for the second –‘ [MS 3219/4/45/58b]

Letter. Colonel De Trappe (Frankfort) and Madame Sophy de la Roche (Offenbach) to James Watt (Heathfield)
[Finding Number: MS 3219/4/45/58a-b]
All those letters are certainly informative!

Fiona Tait

Upcoming Watt 2019 events:

Visit to Smethwick Engine excavation site

  • Galton Valley Canal Museum (map)

Combine a visit to Galton Valley Pumping Station with a walk along the canal to the site of James Watt’s Smethwick Engine, now preserved at Thinktank.

In Search of James Watt

  • Mercure Wolverhampton Goldthorn Hotel (map)

In 1785 Chester Flour Mill installed a Watt engine and became the first steam driven flour mill. Hear about the mill and the 2002 archaeological excavations which exposed the engine house.

Watt’s Wanderings

  • Handsworth Leisure Centre (map)

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

Watt’s Wanderings

  • Handsworth Association of Schools (map)

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

Watt’s Wanderings

  • Soho House (map)

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

Watt 2019: Illuminating James Watt

  • Soho House (map)

Hear how James Watt’s pioneering work on improving steam engines led to a highly successful partnership with the industrialist and entrepreneur Matthew Boulton.

The men, women and children of Soho

  • Library of Birmingham (map)

Hundreds of people   worked for James Watt and Matthew Boulton. Hear about everyday workers’   experiences and relationships with their employers.

Watt Make and Take

  • Handsworth Library (map)

Be inspired by James Watt and his friends in the Lunar Society. Come and create your very own pastel drawing of the moon.

Watt 2019: Conservation Studio Tour

  • Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (map)

Come behind the scenes at Birmingham Museums Trust on a conservation studio tour. See objects being prepared for display in the James Watt Exhibition (July/ Oct; Library of Birmingham).

Crofton Beam Engines; James Watt celebration

  • Saturday, May 25, 2019 to
  • Crofton Pumping StationCrofton Marlborough, Wiltshire SN8 3DN (map)

Crofton Pumping Station in Wiltshire is celebrating James Watt the late May bank holiday weekend with a steam event and science fair and talks about James Watt (Sat 25 to Mon 27 May).

Watt 2019; Soho Steam Fair

  • Soho HouseSoho AvenueBirmingham, EnglandUnited Kingdom (map)

Soho Steam Day celebrates the great inventor and steam pioneer James Watt with model steam engines and miniature model railway.

Watt’s going on: Young People’s Holiday Programme

  • Tuesday, May 28, 2019 to
  • Soho HouseSoho Avenue Birmingham, England United Kingdom (map)

Arts, crafts, hands-on activities and inspiring speakers. Help create a film that tells the tale of James Watt’s life.

Kaleidoscope colours

  • Birmingham CathedralColmore Row Birmingham B3 2QB (map)

James Watt was the proud owner of a Brewster kaleidoscope. Be inspired by the Divine Beauty of the windows in Birmingham Cathedral and create your own colourful kaleidoscopic artwork.

Smethwick Engine Steaming Day

  • ThinktankMillennium Point, Curzon Street Birmingham B4 7XG (map)

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

Geology of the Lickey Hills; walking in the footsteps of James Watt and sons

    • Lickey Hills Visitor Centre, Warren Lane, Rednal Birmingham B45 8ER (map)

Geology was one of James Watt’s many interests and letters about the Lickey Hills are in the Watt archive. This walk will explore the geology of these much loved hills.




2 thoughts on “Watt 2019: April”

  1. Reblogged this on keithbracey and commented:
    It is the bicententenary of the death of Scottish and by association Birmingham engineering genius James Watt….here is an insight into Watt’s reading habits from the archives held at the Library of #Birmingham…..

Leave a comment here or send enquiries to archives.heritage@birmingham.gov.uk

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.