My dearest Joe

Following the success of another creative writing workshop, one participant was inspired by references to WWI munitions factory workers in Women Workers  1915-1917  (L41.2):

MS 2682/4/2

Letter from a woman working in the Saltley munitions factory to her husband in the army in France.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             3 May 1917

My dearest Joe

I was relieved to get your letter last week and Florrie was so pleased to have the postcard you sent with it to wish her happy birthday, she took it to school for the teacher to translate the French words under the picture.

I am still working all day at the factory, and the crèche I told you about last time I wrote is working out well for the twins. They seem to like it there, well, being right next to the park it is great for them to be out in the fresh air on fine days.  My mum is now looking after my sister Kate’s three as well as our Sonny, Bill and Florrie after school, so she was pleased to let go of the lively 2-year-olds.  I get a reduction for a second child so pay 9/- a week, which I can manage with my wages and the allowance I get from the War Office.

Continue reading “My dearest Joe”

Watt 2019: November

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.

Statues, Busts and Fitting Tributes

Although the funeral of James Watt was a relatively simple affair, in accordance with his wishes, his son, James Watt Jr. worked tirelessly to ensure his father was remembered in a way he felt was appropriate for the magnitude of his father’s legacy. James Watt Jr. left behind large quantities of papers which show how much work he put into this project, including building the chapel at St Mary’s Handsworth to house Watt’s tomb, which was topped with a life sized marble statue by Francis Chantrey, for which he paid a total of £2804.6.0.

Drawing of monument by Richard Bridgens [MS 3219/6/100]

However, this was not the first likeness of Watt which Chantrey had created. He had in fact already created two busts, the first in 1815 and another a year later. James Watt Jr. had asked him to make these before the death of his father. Why two busts? James Watt Jr. was unhappy with the first attempt and had commissioned another, which he must have been pleased with. The 1815 bust was kept by Mr Muirhead, who was a friend of Watt. Chantrey would go on to create many more images of Watt over the following decades and Birmingham Archives & Collections contains hundreds of papers relating to these and other monuments in memory of James Watt which began to proliferate around the country and around the world. Investigating them all would be a truly enormous task, when one considers that one single letter contained a list of 76 Chantrey busts which James Watt Jr. was commissioning – some for private individuals who were friends of Watt’s such as Galton and Boulton, and others for organisations such as the Birmingham Canal Co. With that in mind, this blog is going to focus on just 5 of the monuments to Watt, all sculpted by Chantrey. Firstly, we will consider 3 monuments which were ordered privately by James Watt Jr. who wanted to ensure his father was remembered in institutions which he felt were key to his father’s life. In addition to the statue for the chapel in Handsworth, an almost identical one was presented to the University of Glasgow.

Interior of the First Hunterian Museum with statue of James Watt by William Stewart
[University of Glasgow]

Continue reading “Watt 2019: November”

Boulton, Watt and the Pirates

The British suffered most by the predations of American privateers. This image is from ‘A view of His Majesty’s Brigg, Observer, commanded by Lieutenant John Crymes (to whom this print is inscribed) engaging the American privateer ship Jack, John Ropes (commander), by night on the 29th of May 1782, off the harbour of Halifax, Nova Scotia”, Aquatint by Robert Dodd, 1784

Boulton and Watt appear to have had several forms of piracy to contend with.

Cornish copper and tin mines relied on coastal vessels to bring coal supplies from the coalfields of South Wales to fuel their steam powered pumping engines. The consequent high coal prices made Watt’s fuel efficient engines a welcome alternative to the old fuel hungry Newcomen engines. Boulton & Watt also used coastal vessels to deliver engine parts via Bristol.

Wheal Virgin mine, one of the nine copper mines amalgamated in 1780 to form the Great Consolidated Mines, eventually replaced their seven Newcomen engines with five by Boulton and Watt.

In January 1780, Logan Henderson, Boulton and Watt’s first technical assistant, writing from Redruth in Cornwall, reported to Matthew Boulton, in Soho, that they were experiencing some difficulties in the maritime delivery of essential supplies.

 ‘… The rage for privateering prevails so much that there are not men to be got to man the boats to and from Bristol. They are now packed up for want of hands, and among other things waited for these bellows for Wheal Virgin are of much consequence. There is no timber to be got but for one beam and none at all for the pumpwork – it is very doubtful there will be some difficulty of getting coals for engines. Every little boat that can swim is fitted out for privateer, the collector at Hilston and somebody else sent out two boats a few days ago, they have brought in two Dutch ships worth £90,000 they will clear above £20,000 to each of these gentlemen. …’  [MS3782/12/65/112, Logan Henderson to Matthew Boulton, 11 January 1781]

Continue reading “Boulton, Watt and the Pirates”

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]

Continue reading “Watt 2019: October”

George Hope Johnstone and the Headingley Birthday Book

From ‘Birmingham at the opening of the twentieth century: contemporary biographies’ ed.W.T.Pike [LW78 PIK]
George Hope Johnstone (1841 – 1909) was a prominent civic figure and well-known businessman in the City of Birmingham around the turn of the 19th/20th century.

In public life, Johnstone was a Justice of Peace for the county of Stafford, a City of Birmingham Councillor, Chairman of several Council committees and a member of the Committee of the General Hospital. In the jewellery trade he established and built up a successful business in gold and silver manufacturing. He was twice Chairman of the Birmingham Jewellers’ & Silversmiths’ Association as well as a Guardian of the Assay Office and a director of several other companies.

Aside from his civic and business activities, it was for his keen interest and involvement in the musical life of the city over many years that he also became particularly noted. This included positions as chairman of the Midland Institute School of Music; and as director of a choir which was reported at the time to be ‘… undoubtedly one of the best in Birmingham – that is to say, in the Midland Counties…’ (Handsworth Magazine, November 1896).

In 1879 Johnstone became actively involved with the Birmingham Triennial Music Festival (MS 1470) which itself had been founded nearly a century earlier to raise funds for the city’s new General Hospital (HC GH). Over the years, the Festival commissioned works by many notable composers including Mendelssohn, Sullivan, Bruch, Gounod and Dvorak to name a few.

1879 programme for the Birmingham Music Festival held at the Town Hall in to raise funds for the General Hospital [MS 1470/59/8]
Continue reading “George Hope Johnstone and the Headingley Birthday Book”

Watt 2019: September

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.

Ill health and some remedies in the Papers of James Watt & Family

I attended a very interesting and wide ranging conference at the end of August at the University of Birmingham titled ‘Reimagining James Watt’, to mark the bicentenary of his death. I gave a short presentation on the subject of ‘Ill health and some remedies in the Papers of James Watt and Family’. This blog will introduce some of the subjects I discovered in researching the subject.

Ill health was a constant concern, as it still is. Watt himself suffered from anxiety, asthma and severe headaches most of his life. His first wife and his older daughter both died after childbirth. His two younger children and his grandson all died of tuberculosis.

James McGrigor wrote to him in March 1781:

I am sorry to hear headachs still continue to trouble you but how can it be otherwise for you; you belabour that poor head of yours more in one hour than some of my acquaintances does in seven years.’

[MS 3219/4/92/2]

Perhaps because the friends and acquaintances of the Watt family included so many doctors and scientists, the correspondence is more likely to record symptoms of illness, to ask for advice and mention experiments with new treatments.

Watt took part in various innovative remedies such as the inhalation of gases, inventing and producing the equipment for Thomas Beddoes’ Pneumatic Institute in Bristol. Watt responded to reports of smoke pollution from his steam engines by inventing a smoke consuming apparatus, patented in 1785. [See correspondence with Thomas Percival  MS 3219/4/91/9].

Bissett’s Magnificent Directory 1808 [57767]
The letters show that health care often depended on herbal remedies or physical intervention (tooth extraction; amputation etc.); treatments involving blood letting; the use of leeches and blisters*; purging (often with calomel – mercurous oxide); and that diet, exercise and rest were also given due consideration. Opium was freely available and widely used, often in liquid form as laudanum, as a pain killer, to counteract fever, and as a sedative. The letters also illustrate the development of chemistry and the trial of new substances and treatments, especially for those conditions which were generally incurable, such as tuberculosis.

[*Medical blistering required application of a fine powder usually obtained from blister beetles (aka Spanish Fly). Another stimulant such as pepper, mustard seed, Verdigris was often added. These were mixed with plasters or something of the same consistency and spread on the surface of the skin to produce a blister. When the blister was fully raised it was sometimes opened to drain, thus supposedly draining inflammation, fever etc.]

Continue reading “Watt 2019: September”

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]
Continue reading “Watt 2019: August”