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 last sad tribute…..
In 1840, William Wordsworth told J.P Muirhead whose biography of James Watt was published in 1858:
I look upon him [Watt] considering both the magnitude and the universality of his genius, as perhaps the most extraordinary man this country ever produced; he never sought display, but was content to work in that quietness and humility, both of spirit and outward circumstances in which alone all that is truly great and good was ever done.
Muirhead (1858) p. 381
James Watt died peacefully at his home, Heathfield, in Handsworth, on 25 August 1819, aged 83.
During his last illness, Watt had been treated by Dr Richard Barr (who submitted his bill for the whole of 1819 in the following year, MS 3219/6/71). The remedies prescribed for August 1819 were: Draughts, Pills, Diluted sulphuric acid, Sal volatile, and Ether. In July there had been Colocynth pills, Antimonial wine, Sulphuric acid, and Caoutchouc in washed ether, had been prescribed.
Those present at his death, Ann Watt, James Watt jr., and a few close friends, described his end as peaceful. Miss Amelia (Emily) Alston wrote a note in haste to M.R. Boulton:
In a very short time indeed all will be over. I have not said to anyone. Your own kind feeling will tell you what to do. Mr J Watt [James Watt jr.] bid me say that his father has spent the night without suffering in a perfectly unconscious state. Mrs Watt had some sleep. My dear Sir, Mr J Watt bid me this moment say how glad he will be to see you as soon as you can.
In his will Watt named his wife Ann and his son James jr. as his executors [Copy of will and codicil, FN MS 3219/6/88/2]. He left all his personal estate to his wife, his son and his two granddaughters (Margaret and Agnes Miller), along with various bequests to the General Hospital, his servants and a few other individuals. He also wrote:
Lastly I request my executors, that I may be interred in the most private manner without show or parade as soon as after my decease as may be proper.
For those readers who have not discovered the wonderful details of mourning customs to be found in bills and accounts for funerals, the Watt papers (and the Matthew Boulton Papers, MS 3782) provide much information for the early 19th century. They include the preparations and proceedings of the funeral; details of the coffin and its metal furnishings; the iron plates and the personal grave guards to prevent body snatching; mourning clothes and fabrics for servants and family – cotton, bombazine, crepe; the mourning rings, lockets and brooches: ‘3 fine gold chased lockets, enamelled centres, cypher W engraved’, ‘2 fine gold pearl brooches, cypher W engraved’, ‘1 jet brooch with hair plait and motto’; refreshments (biscuits, tea); carriages; and the names of those attending the funeral at 9am on 2 September 1819. The cost was just short of £750.
The Birmingham Chronicle of Thursday 9 September described it thus:
On Thursday last were interred at Handsworth the remains of the late James Watt Esq. of Heathfield. In conformity with the simplicity and retiredness of his character, and in accordance with his own wishes, his funeral was private, but highly respectful; his hearse having been followed to the grave by a numerous assemblage of his most attached friends, among whom were many Gentlemen, eminent in Science and Literature, from various and distant parts of the Island, all anxious to pay the last sad tribute of respect, friendship and affection to this great and excellent person.
Watt’s death, however, had an enduring afterlife. His son ensured that his father would be recognised for his achievements, in print and in physical appearance, with various busts made by the sculptor Francis Chantrey, and a statue commissioned for Westminster Abbey. He also commissioned an extension to St Mary’s Church, Handsworth, of a chapel, for another statue of his father by Chantrey to be placed there.
Watt jr. wrote an entry for his father in the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1824):
Watt, James [the improver of the steam engine crossed out] a Philosopher, mechanician and Civil Engineer, whose inventive talents, extensive knowledge of the sciences and the arts and practical application of them to the purposes of life, place him in the foremost rank of those illustrious men whose discoveries have influenced the state of Society and conferred distinction upon the age and country in which they lived.
And Birmingham is now the privileged custodian of all these wonderful records in the James Watt & Family Papers (MS 3219).
A detailed account of Matthew Boulton’s funeral in 1809 is provided by M. Dick in Chapter 16 of ‘Matthew Boulton: Enterprising Industrialist of the Enlightenment’ (2013) eds. S.Baggott, M.Dick and K Quickenden.
See here for details of upcoming Watt 2019 events.