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 Adventures of James Watt jr.
I went to an excellent talk this morning (29/6/2019) at the Library of Birmingham by two young scholars who have been investigating the lives of two of James Watt’s children, Margaret (Peggy) Watt, his daughter by his first wife of the same name, and Gregory Watt, his son by his second wife Ann Watt, from diaries, correspondence etc. We were reminded that family relationships rarely run smoothly and that Watt’s life was punctuated by bereavement. Of his five children by his first wife, two survived, two died in infancy, and one was stillborn, when she died in childbirth. His daughter by her who survived infancy also died in childbirth and her sons also died as young men. His daughter and his son by his second wife both died of consumption, one aged 15 and one aged 27. The only one of his children who survived him was James Watt jr.
Watt jr. himself died on 2 June 1848, aged 79, at Aston Hall, his residence since 1819. This property, he rented, but he also owned another house, an altered and improved farmhouse, at Doldowlod, Radnorshire, part of Watt’s Welsh estates. He resided there while dealing with the management of the Welsh properties.
There is no separate biography of James Watt jr. [an opportunity here!], but there is information about him in the various biographies of his father, for example by J.P. Muirhead, R.L. Hills, and, this year, a new one by David P. Miller.
This blog has three less common stories about James Watt jr. discovered from the Watt Family Papers [MS 3219].
In 1791 James Watt jr. had joined Thomas and Richard Walker, textile merchants in Manchester, as their European agent, being in France in 1792 and then proceeding to Naples and Leghorn (Livorno). When he came back to England in 1794, he entered the engine production business at Soho and was largely responsible for the creation of the Soho Foundry in 1795.
Watt jr. brought with him from Italy a servant about 15 years old called Salvatore Biaggio (or Viaggio). In a letter from Ann Watt to Gregory Watt, 24 March 1794, she describes Salvatore thus:
…he is a very clever boy though he could not speak any English when he came it is wonderful how much he has learnt and how well he does the work in the house. He is learning to write and read. Jessy gives him his writing lessons and I give him his English.
Unfortunately, by 1798, his behaviour had become ‘difficult’ and Ann Watt found him impertinent. She told Gregory on 19 March 1798 that,
James has taken him to the foundry. He first thought of making him a carpenter but now he thinks of making him a moulder. I am afraid he has not correctness enough for that he was grown so extremely insolent none durst speak to him and he would only do what he liked. James thought it better he should go to a trade or go home….I was afraid of him before he left the house.
Salvatore, however, absconded from the foundry with another worker and went to London. In 1806 James Lawson tracked him down working at Dickson’s, under the name of ‘Sam Bonus’. He had been there three years, and had a wife and two children. [MS 3219/6/2/L/46-47]
There are a few letters from Rosa Biaggio in Rome, Salvatore’s mother, in Italian, probably asking for news of him. They would welcome a translation! [MS 3219/6/2/B/94-97]
In 1814 Salvatore was still in contact with Watt jr., receiving help finding a position. Watt jr. replied to his father, who was in London, on 4 July 1814:
Mr Lawson undertook to inform Salvator that on his return to town he would endeavour to procure him the place in question. The principal difficulty lies with Mr Rennie, who objects to parting with him until he has another man to supply his present place.
Watt jr. visited the Welsh and Wyeside estates much more frequently than his father, reporting back to James Watt on tree planting activities, local tenants and politics etc. Watt also had a land agent there, James Crummer, who dealt with most of the business and often sent presents of game or cheese to the Watts. The roads in that area seem to have been very poorly maintained, and on one of his visits, James Watt jr. came to grief in Welsh mud. On 3 April 1813, Watt jr. wrote to his father from Doldowlod:
To the cautions in travelling suggested by your late accident, I beg to add another furnished by my own experience on my return hither. Never cross Llandegley Ross [Rhos -this is about 12 miles East of Doldowlod] alone at dusk, in the month of March, or you stand a good chance of being engulphed in some treacherous quagmire, as I, at least my horse, was on Monday, at a distance of some two or three miles from any human help. He sunk suddenly up to his belly and I to my boot tops in disengaging myself, when after an ineffectual attempt to extricate my miserable companion, I judged it the wisest course to trace my steps to a Mr Evans’ house at the entry of the Ross, where I was fortunate enough to procure the assistance of four men with ropes, Lanthorns &c by help of which, after much labour, we got him out of his perilous situation where he had remained fast and quiet, not a whit the worse, and led him to Llandegley, where we took up our quarters for the night. So much for the pleasures of Welch travelling!
In autumn 1805, James Watt jr. and his friend John Furnell Tuffen were visiting the Lake District. Watt jr. wrote to his father on 3 October 1805:
We saw Grasmere in great perfection and had one tolerable day at Keswick in recompense for several bad ones which kept us within doors. Our time however passed pleasantly enough in the society of the poets Wordsworth & Southey, who are both pleasant, well informed men & I consider their acquaintance a valuable acquisition. Was twice up Helvellyn in one day and both times sent “bootless & weatherbeaten back.” More fortunate upon the Old Man at Coniston and really had a glorious mountain prospect.
When Watt jr. died, his executor James Patrick Muirhead must have written to friends and acquaintances to inform them. William Wordsworth replied to Muirhead on 9 June 1848:
Be assured that I am sensible of your kindness in communicating the intelligence of the decease of Mr Watt, my Friend, for so I may call him though we had not personally had much intercourse. Of one day passed in his company, I have a most lively remembrance. We climb[ed] Helvellyn together nearly to its summit, when a cloud overspread the mountain’s top and barred our further progress. We descended almost to the valley, when observing that the veil had disappeared we mounted again and came as near to summit, when as dense a cloud disappointed us again, so that after waiting some time we returned with our wish ungratified as before. Mr Watt was at Paris during the earlier part of the French Revolution. I was in that Country for nearly a year and a half of the same period, but I was only a spectator, while Mr Watt took an active part in that great event and had a conflict with Robespierre of which no doubt you must have heard. But I must conclude, begging you to believe me sir,
Your much oblig’d
Royal Mount, near Ambleside
The French Revolution? Well, that’s another story….
See here for details of Watt 2019 events in July.