Watt 2019: May

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.

Glimpses into the life of Gregory Watt (1777-1804)

Hand coloured plate by the artist, Peter Fabris in Campi Phlegraei, Volcanoes of the 2 Sicilies vol. 2 by Sir William Hamilton, British Envoy to the Spanish Court in Naples

Gregory Watt was the son of James Watt and Ann McGrigor, born in Birmingham in 1777. He is generally described as an extremely able scholar and was sent to university at Glasgow where he excelled in Latin and Greek and also studied mathematics and chemistry. He developed a serious interest in geology, following an interest of both his father’s and his older brother’s, James Watt jr. He was prone to fevers and respiratory troubles and regrettably, died of tuberculosis on 16 October 1804, aged 27.

Notes by Gregory Watt on Mineralogy 1799 – 1802 [MS 3219/7/30 p.40]
There is not always much information on the play activities of children in the past, but Samuel Galton’s daughter, Mary Anne, remembered her ‘friendship’ with Gregory and his sister, Jessy, when the Watt family were still living at Harper’s Hill House (in the Jewellery Quarter), c. 1788. She paints a quite different picture of him:

The son, about thirteen, named Gregory, was a youth of very precocious talents … but his high estimate of himself made him at this period anything but a pleasant, though often an informing companion. His sister Jenny he held, as he did all girls, in supreme contempt; and of this I, both a girl and his sister’s frequent companion was a large partaker. Nor did he trouble himself to conceal his feelings. … Gregory’s salutation to his sister and me often was, “Girls are insufferable bores; I wonder what use they are in creation; no woman ever yet had sense to tune a harpsichord”; yet notwithstanding this, he was very glad to get our help in his amusements.

Gregory Watt’s diary,1791 [MS 637]
In one particular part of a very pleasant garden behind the house was a clay pit, where he would send us to dig out the clay, and then get us to help him in making models of fortifications. I had read at my grandfather’s the volume of Rapin’s History of England, containing the wars of King William in the Low Countries, in which the plans of all the fortifications are given. These, at Gregory’s desire, I was to trace on silver paper, and numerous were the fortresses we formed from them, in various beds of the garden, to the gardener’s great annoyance.

Extract from Gregory Watt’s diary,1791, about the Birmingham Riots [MS 637]
I loved to have explained to me the bastion, the ravelin, the redoubt, the citadel, the curtain, and various other things, on which Gregory watt used to descant, as I thought, very learnedly; and nothing pleased me more than when, in two opposite beds, he had raised one fortification on Coehorn’s system, and the other on Vauban’s , and then entered into their comparative merits. After we had helped him for two or three hours and were quite fatigued with such hard work, he would turn round, meaning to be very gracious, and say, “Well, though women are fools, they might perhaps be of some use, if they were always directed by men.” And on one occasion he tuned to me and said, “Do you realise that the only use of women is to do the will of men?” I answered, “And one other use, I think, is to have that patience with men, which they never would have with each other!”

[Christiana C. Hankin Ed., Life of Mary Anne SchimmelPenninck (1778-1856), Longman & Co., London, 1858]

Extract from Gregory Watt’s diary,1791, with details of his school life [MS 637]
Fascinating to think of the battles of the War of Spanish Succession being constructed in a garden in Birmingham. One would hope that with a mother as sensible and competent as Ann Watt, Gregory would soon grow out of his chauvinist prejudices.

In 1801/1802, hoping to improve his heath, Gregory left Birmingham for both warmth and purer air, for an extended visit to Italy and to the Alps.

In a letter written from Rome to James Watt at Soho on 27 May 1802, he described his ascent of Vesuvius in great detail:

… a little before daylight began to mount the cone — I cannot say that I found this operation difficult – We reached the top which was all in clouds & had to wait some time before the interior of the crater became wholly visible – Our rascally guide refused to take us down the crater – led us to several impracticable places and took us about half way down in one part that terminated in a precipice in hopes of fatiguing us so as to render us willing to abandon the enterprize – Intreaties failing we had recourse to threats and at length the villain promised to try to find a way tho’ it was going to certain death. The way found was a slope of rubbish from the lip of the crater to the bottom down which you descend in perfect ease and security sinking up to the knees at each step.

Hand coloured plate by the artist, Peter Fabris in Campi Phlegraei, Volcanoes of the 2 Sicilies vol. 1 by Sir William Hamilton, British Envoy to the Spanish Court in Naples

When down – the whole bottom of the crater is covered with scoria which seems to have been arrested in a state of ebulition for it is heaved in parts into monticules and depressed in others into pretty profound basins. This crust presents the usual minor irregularities of a current of lava and is divided by circular chasms that are concentric to one of the basins. There is little or no smell of sulphur and from several fumaroles escapes a vapour slightly hepatic that forms silicious stalactites – the sides of the crater are formed of alternate beds of lava and ashes – To descend was easy – but to mount was rendered prodigiously fatiguing by the looseness of the ground tho’ we had descended at the lowest point where the crater is not I think much more than two hundred feet deep. Out however we got, made the tour of the brim & descended into the arca de Cavallo as the valley between Vesuvius and the Somma is called – Following the course of the Somma which is perpendicular on the side near Vesuvius we observed the ancient Lavas of which it is composed abounding in large Leucites – Here the same alteration of lava and ashes appear and indicate the successive overflowing erruptions [sic] of which it is the result and it also exhibits the phaenomenon of perpendicular veins of Lava intersecting the strata. This Dolomicu well explained by supposing the crater to have cracked & there cracks filled by a subsequent overflow of Lava -….

[MS 3219/7/51/28]

Hand coloured plate by the artist, Peter Fabris in Campi Phlegraei, Volcanoes of the 2 Sicilies vol. 2 by Sir William Hamilton, British Envoy to the Spanish Court in Naples

It all sounds rather precarious!

Just to prove that women of that time undertook this expedition too, Frances Chalmers, writing c. 1818 to John Howard Galton, who had recently arrived in Naples from Sicily, on his tour of Europe,  gave a description of an equally precarious visit to Vesuvius:

We have latterly displayed astonishing energy in the important duty of visiting the wonders and beauties of the surrounding country. On Saturday the 31st March John and I ascended Vesuvius accompanied by Mrs Currham, her Abigail and Harben. We were most fortunate in the day in all aspects. Clear and bright and neither hot nor cold – having left our mules, John and I with our sticks in hand commenced the ascent and ere 40 minutes had well elapsed were surprised to find ourselves arrived at the old crater, the summit of the ascent. We were quickly followed by the nimble Harben and having waited for the arrival and restoration of the remaining stragglers, set off to make the tour.

Hand coloured plate by the artist, Peter Fabris in Campi Phlegraei, Volcanoes of the 2 Sicilies vol. 2 by Sir William Hamilton, British Envoy to the Spanish Court in Naples

Passing over what you exactly describe as the Mer de Lava and underneath the present mouth, we reached the highest point – Having remained here some time observing the beauty of the view and almost counting the bits of stones as they issued from the smoke, a sudden rumbling louder than any we had heard preceded a tremendous burst – stones and lumps of lava appearing in the air the size of a good octavo volume were thrown up to the height of several hundred feet and fell on all sides of us, rolling down the sides of the rock on which we stood. I never saw anything to equal the beauty of the colours of the sulphurs – from the opposite side, the wall of rock on which we had been before standing, appeared of the most brilliant green and the red [hit ?] stones falling on this just as the sun was disappearing had a most splendid effect.

[MS 3101/C/D/10/26/1]

Fiona Tait

My thanks are due to John Townley for drawing my attention to the description of Gregory in Mary Anne Schimmelpenninck’s autobiography.

See here for details of Watt 2019 events throughout June. 





3 thoughts on “Watt 2019: May”

  1. What a wonderful description of visits to Versuvius. I’ve been up twice, but it’s a well-worn path these days. I wouldn’t have dreamed of going down into the crater, that really was dangerous.

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