James Watt 2019: October

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.

‘A Chasseur of Chamois’ : Gregory Watt’s excursion to the Alps in 1801.

This blog gives some further information about Gregory Watt, the son of James Watt and Ann McGregor (1777 – 1804). For an introduction to him, see the May 2019 James Watt 2019 blog.

In 1801, Gregory spent some time in Scotland examining the geology and he decided to request permission to travel to Europe to continue his mineralogical investigations.

Watercolour of Mount Eiger in Gregory Watt’s 1801 travel journal [MS 3219/7/35]

On 1 August 1801, Gregory sailed from Yarmouth in the Express Packet Captain Dell, for Cuxhaven and a year of travel in Europe. He wrote to James Watt from Cuxhaven on 5 August, 1801:

I sailed the day after I wrote to Mother and we have reached here in four days & a half, 36 hours of which were absolutely calm. 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 3219/7/50/14]

From there, he journeyed on to Hamburg, where he wrote again to his father on 7 August 1801.

To proceed from here in any direction a carriage is necessary unless a man will submit to the miseries of the post waggon and the price of carriages like every thing in Hamburg is enormous. Luckily a Birmingham man going to the Brunswick fair has very politely promised to take me to Brunswick in his carriage and I have gratefully accepted the offer. This very civil gentleman is named Getley — of the house of Harrison, Fidgeon and Getley. [merchants, of Birmingham]

[MS 3219/7/50/15]

Gregory wrote again from Brunswick five days later on 12 August 1801, [MS 3219/7/50/16] and described Hamburg and the journey. He commented on the lack of a marked track, and the bogs, which were only traversable ‘in the Russian mode’, with trees laid across them.

He commented:

It is almost inconceivable that the prodigious tide of British commerce should for so many years have flowed into the continent thro’ so perilous a pass.

In Brunswick, he noted the elegant villas and gardens:

The Duke’s palace is extensive and the apartments of state magnificent. One Hall entirely lined with admirable scalioli [a form of plaster that mimics marble] made by an artist of the town. But the Boast of Brunswick is the gallery of 1600 pictures at Salthalen about 5 miles distant containing many of the Chef d’oeuvres of the Flemish artists and not a few pictures of great celebrity. The Elector’s library at Wolfenbuttel contains 200,000 volumes, 6000 of which are manuscripts many of them rare & 6000 bibles… With lively royal liberality the Duke allows all these to be open to any one and the books of the greatest value are allowed to be taken out of the library.

Accounts for travel, Gregory Watt’s travel journal [MS 3219/7/35]

By 19 August 1801, after nearly three weeks of travelling, Gregory had reached Frankfurt. Here he bought a silk handkerchief, Cicero’s ‘Epistles’, and a watch glass. [MS 3219/7/35 Travel Journal, 1801].  His letter of that date to his mother lamented the living conditions of the inhabitants of the villages, where there was a almost no separation between the living spaces of humans and animals, and the fleas and flies were a constant irritation. As was the smoke from the fire, since the houses had no chimneys.

The town of Cassel, on the other hand, had greater attractions:

The enormous sums which a late Landgrave expended with vast absurdity in conducting water to the top of a mountain, erecting there an immense preposterous building for a reservoir, with [a] high tower, on the summit of which he placed a colossal Hercules in Bronze 32 feet high, were principally drawn from the sale of his subjects. At the foot of the mountain is an immense Jet d’eau which they assert throws the water 200 feet high. I think half the height more probable. They show besides innumerable cascades, some good, most bad & which I fortunately went to see on Sunday, the only day on which the water works exhibit — a modern imitation of an old castle and a parcel of temples, Grottoes and Hermitages scattered thro’ an immense forest covering the side of a mountain, at the foot of which stands the beautiful Palace of the Landgrave looking towards these curiosities…

[MS 3219/7/50/17]

Gregory left the plain ‘now smiling with a luxuriant crop of corn’,  and proceeded to the mountains, via Basle, Zurich and Lucerne to Berne (‘from the platform of the cathedral a glorious view of the snow-topped Alps’ ), where he had a haircut, gave a charitable donation to a burned village, and bought a coat for the mountains and some shoes. On 2 September he journeyed to Thun where, for 200 livres, he hired a guide for a nine day excursion to the Alps. He wrote a long letter to his mother on 12 September 1801:

Up this valley [of Lauterbrunner] lay my route and certainly I never passed three leagues of more interesting country. The immense height of the precipices, the forests of Pine, the extremely picturesque form of the rocks present a delightful scene which on your arrival at Lauterbrunner is finely contrasted with the immense Jungfrau covered with snow, the stupendous height of the precipice from which the rivulet forming the famous fall of the Staubach [Staubbach] is precipitated & the green valley covered with houses each situated in a well enclosed field… when the morning sun shines on the Staubach its atmosphere of finely divided water forms a rainbow… At Lauterbrunner I met a Prussian with his wife and Brother-in-law…… who had made the tour of the Alps of Savoy… The Lady had prudently adopted the only costume that can enable a female to pass the mountains commodiously; pantaloons and a loose coat, and was able to ride astride pretty well for this is the only mode of equitation the Mountains will admit, for side saddles are perfectly unknown.

Gregory walked on to visit the glaciers between the Eiger and Middleberg. He described the view from Grindelwald:

The Assemblage of colossal Alps, horrible precipices of naked rocks piled one on the other, summits cloathed with glittering snow & the glaciers with their deep blue caverns and fissures contrasted with a verdant & luxuriant valley  covered with houses and Trees smiling beneath an unclouded sky and bounded on the other side by Mountains cloathed with dark forests of gloomy pine…

He reported that he had left Grindelwald before sunrise the next day as the temperature in the shade had been 80 degrees and the road over the Shiedich was 6,000 feet high. He found the ascent ‘pretty formidable’ and taxing on his breath, but:

…the glorious View repaid all the toil & I found ample refreshment in the excellent cream which is abundantly afforded in a small village of Wood houses where the peasants pass the summer…

He also noted that there were immense quantities of monkshood [aconite] growing on the side of the mountain and that this was a common plant at high altitudes. He described the spruce fir trees , ‘miserable pines, their branches cloathed with long white moss which hangs floating in the air..,’ the avalanches,and their accomodation at an abbey — ‘a building as large as Soho manufactory with Brook Row & the Engine Yard, and arranged in much the same manner.’ [MS 3219/7/50/19]

Sketch of Gregory Watt (?) on horseback, travel journal 1801 [MS 3219/7/35]

Gregory had accompanied the Prussian group to the Abbey of Engelberg, a climb of ten leagues [about 30 miles] which had taken 11 hours, the woman riding on a Swiss pony. It had rained heavily, so they were wet and tired when they arrived there. The weather did not improve for the next part of the journey to the top of the Suren. Apparently, even a Swiss horse could not manage that terrain so the Prussian woman was carried in a chair with poles at the side by four peasants. Two others carried the Prussians’ baggage. Gregory claimed to have only ‘a green bag which my guide carried to receive specimens [of minerals] which the uniformity of the country had prevented from being very ponderous….’.  It continued to rain heavily and incessantly until they reached the top of the Suren, where the rain turned to snow. Gregory wrote:

…when I cast my eyes on the road we had to descend I felt a sensation of dismay. The mist magnified its horrors and the abyss seemed bottomless. Down however we went, and rapidly, the ordinary track was foaming torrents at this moment thro’ which we waded. For six hours we continued to descend and above the last two in total darkness, for a night as black as pitch set in, and the rain became more violent. The chair and its apparatus had long been abandoned and our poor Lady was sometimes supported by two Peasants [,] sometimes carried on their Backs [,] and was nearly dead with cold and fatigue…

[MS 3219/7/50/19]

They eventually arrived in Altdorf covered in mud and soaking wet. They borrowed shirts, wrapped themselves in sheets and ate a ‘ voracious supper.’

The Prussians continued no further after that adventure, but Gregory and his guide continued up the Gothard some thirty miles to a Capuchin monastery, passing the Devils Bridge, ‘the sublime description of which in Luworrow’s gazetteer I dare say you remember.’  The monks spoke no French which reduced the means of communication to Latin, ‘ which the diversity of our pronunciation rendered rather unintelligible.’

The next morning Gregory continued to the summit of the Furca where he could see nothing but snow and the tops of the Alps. He and the guide descended to the glacier then climbed down over the Grimsel (‘terrible bare rocks without earth and vegetation’) and down to Gutanen, a distance of 11 leagues) [33 miles]. Gregory wrote that:

I have found my ability of mounting the alps daily increase & should soon attain the agility of a Chasseur of Chamois.

[MS 3219/7/50/19]

[William Wordsworth had used the phrase ‘chamois chaser’ in his ‘Descriptive sketches taken during a pedestrian tour among the alps’, in 1793].

Fiona Tait



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