Category Archives: Guest Bloggers

Watt 2019: August

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.

Bill for medical attendance during 1819 [FN MS 3219/6/71]

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The Russian Mint Volumes

As the bicentenary of James Watt’s death in August 2019 steadily approaches, you will have noticed the number of events devoted to the antics of the renowned 18th century engineer, and his business partner and entrepreneur Matthew Boulton. But an important part of understanding the dynamic duo is to move away from the two great men and look closer at the hidden histories of Soho, which my research with West Midlands History Ltd. has aimed to do in its exploration of the workers behind the Boulton & Watt Co. engine business. Now as a volunteer for the Library of Birmingham Wolfson Centre, I’ve had the chance to explore another underrepresented area in Matthew Boulton’s business endeavours – the establishment of a new Mint in St Petersburg, Russia.

While much has been written of the Soho Mint in Handsworth, England, less attention has been devoted to the creation of a new St Petersburg Mint in collaboration between Boulton and the Russian government. To celebrate the completion of the catalogue for the Russian Mint Volumes (available to view under these reference numbers: MS 3782/13/107, MS 3782/13/108 and MS 3782/13/109), I thought I would delve into what might be uncovered in this hidden part of the Matthew Boulton & Family Papers [MS 3782], and what research value it may hold.

The material is found within the Correspondence and Papers of Matthew Robinson Boulton [MS 3782/13], and divided into three distinct volumes: official correspondence; estimates, proposals, contracts, and legal documents; and the workmen’s correspondence, correspondence with Zaccheus Walker Jr., and miscellanies.

In 1773, Boulton joined forces with the silversmiths of Birmingham and Sheffield to petition Parliament for the establishment of Assay Offices in their respective cities, and just one month later an Act was passed for the right to assay silver. By 1775 Boulton was again able to successfully lobby for an Act to extend Watt’s steam engine patent until 1800. His sway over Parliament had not faded by 1799, when it was realised that an Act of Parliament would be necessary for the right to export the necessary materials to construct a new Mint in St Petersburg.

But the fight for an Act was not without opposition. A group of merchants and manufacturers who called themselves the ‘Birmingham Memorialists’ met repeatedly in The Shakespeare to discuss the actions of Boulton, eventually resolving unanimously that any agreement to the exportation of tools and machinery for the Russian Mint, would be ‘injurious to this place’ [MS 3782/13/108/86]. Despite a counter-petition signed by over 45 Birmingham manufacturers, the Act still passed on 12 July 1799, and an official address to the manufacturers of hardware was issued to dismiss their complaints [MS 3782/13/108/89b; MS 3782/13/108/127; MS 3782/13/108/79].

From left to right: An Act to enable Matthew Boulton, Engineer, to export the Machinery necessary for erecting a Mint in the Dominions of His Imperial Majesty, the Emporer of all the Russias, 12 July 1799 [MS 3782/13/108/80]; Copy of The Merchants of Birmingham Memorial to His Majesty’s Principal Secretaries of State, 20 June 1800 [MS 3782/13/108/89b].

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Moseley Road Baths to the Rescue

Pool 2 at Moseley Road Baths. (c) MRB OIC.

Moseley Road Baths was opened in 1907 with 2 pools and 46 individual bathing cubicles, known as ‘slipper baths.’ Although only one pool is still open for swimming, this stunning Grade II* listed building, full of stained glass, glazed bricks and cast iron has been at the heart of the Balsall Heath community for nearly 112 years.

There’s something about Moseley Road Baths which draws people in, I have been involved for around three years, first as a student writing a Conservation Plan for the building, then as a campaigner in the Action Group, and now as a trustee of Moseley Road Baths CIO. After a very successful Crowdfunder campaign, in April of 2018 MRB CIO took over the swimming operation and since then we have had a whirlwind 15 months learning how to run a historic swimming pool! Continue reading

Watt 2019: July

Aston Hall, the seat of James Watt [MS 3219/9/5/2/39]

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.

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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. Continue reading

The Cottage of Content

Henry Parr, the first landlord of the Cottage of Content, Sheepcote Lane, was an active supporter of reformist causes. Following the execution of Louis XVI in January 1792 and the French declaration of War with Britain in the February, any public expressions of support for democratic principles or expressions of concerns of the effects of the war on trade were met with both popular loyalist and Government hostility. In May 1794 James Watt observed that :

‘there are King’s messengers in Birmingham, who have taken up on Parr, who kept a reforming club 1 at his house, and on one or two others. The soldiers were ordered under arms to prevent tumult.’ 2

Birmingham’s reformers are said to have enjoyed a ‘revival of support’ in 1795 and1797.3 Their last incarnation, The Birmingham United Corresponding Society,4 was deemed by loyalist elements to be a ‘Jacobin’ organisation.

At their last recorded meeting, fifteen members gathered at Henry Parr’s Cottage of Content on August 3, 1797 with John Binns,5 a London delegate who had been recently arrested, tried at Warwick and acquitted, present. They were spied upon and disturbed by a gang of drunken loyalists from the nearby White Horse in Friday Street. The rights and wrongs of the meeting and its opponents were debated in a public exchange of letters.6

Concerns, even in the reformist movements, over the increasing authoritarianism and militarism displayed by the French Revolutionary state made any radical cause, especially one opposed to war with France, extremely unpopular. Despite the Society’s claim following John Binns trial that they were ‘daily increasing in numbers’, there is no record of their survival after 1797.7

From left to right: Kempson 180810 , E. Robins 182011, J. Piggot-Smith 1824 – 1825 12 .

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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]

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