Category Archives: Guest Bloggers

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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Turner’s Brass House, Coleshill Street

We know that by 1750 the site  on the corner of Coleshill Street and Leek Street was occupied by ‘Turner’s Brass House.’1

In 1753 it can be seen  to the right of St Bartholomew’s chapel on the East Prospect of Birmingham.2

Samuel Bradford’s Plan of Birmingham 1750

Samuel Buck and Nathaniel Buck. East prospect of Birmingham, 1753.

 In 1754 it was visited by Reinhold Angerstein, who noted:

The brass-works … belongs to Mr Turner and consists of nine furnaces with three built together in each of three separate buildings. The furnaces are heated with mineral coal, of which 15 tons is used for each furnace, and melting lasting ten hours. Each furnace holds nine pots, 14 inches high and nine inches diameter at the top. Each pot is charged with 41 pounds of copper and 50 pounds of calamine. Mixed with [char]coal. Duiring charging I observed that a handful of coal and calamine was first placed on the bottom of the pot, then came the mixture, which was packed in tightly, followed by about a pound of copper in small pieces, and finally again coal and calamine without copper, covering the top. This procedure was said to lengthen the life of the pot both at the top and the bottom. The result of one charge was 75 pounds of brass, with a value of £4.10s per cwt. The calamine comes from Derbyshire,… , but the copper is brought from Wales. The foremans wages were 14 shillings and those of the labourers 9 shillings per week. There are six workers for the nine furnaces and casting takes place twice every 24 hours. The yearly production amounts to 300 tons. The price of the copper is 12d per pound and of the brass 10d per pound. 3 Continue reading

Watt 2019: March

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 Watt Family and the Sea

The relatives of James Watt had strong connections with the sea. Both his grandfather Thomas (1639 or 1642-1734) and his uncle, John senior (1694-1737), were teachers of navigation and mathematics in Crawfordsdyke, Ayr, and Glasgow, Scotland.

An agreement was made between John Watt senior and one Samuel McGun, on 12 May 1715 for teaching him navigation skills. The document lists twenty subjects including: to find the prime or golden number for any year; to find the moon’s age; to find the leap year and when any of the fixed stars come on the meridian; to keep a plain reckoning; to work a mercator’s journal; to find how many miles sailing on any point of the compass makes a degree of latitude; to find how many miles sailing directly east or west in any latitude makes a degree of longitude; to work middle latitude sailing; to find the variation of the compass.

For this, John Watt was to receive, a fee, paper, a pair of gloves, and a new hat when McGun first became master. [MS 3219/2/10]

John Watt moved to Glasgow in 1719. He was also a land surveyor and his best known survey was one of the Firth of Clyde, made about 1734, and published, with additions and alterations, by his brother and nephews in 1759.

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Pete James: Birmingham’s Mr Photography

Pete James and Jim Ranahan on their last day together at the Library of Birmingham, September 2015. Copyright: the Estate of Pete James

Pete James was an accomplished photographic historian and Head of Photographs at the Library of Birmingham (formerly the Central Library) until 2015.  Pete sadly died in March 2018, but his legacy continues:

Through Pete James’ work, the photographic collections became part of the very pulse of the Library of Birmingham

Professor Elizabeth Edwards [1]

Pete arrived in Birmingham in 1984 to study ‘The History of Art and Design’.  He was guided to Birmingham Central Library, where he discovered a fantastic array of photographic collections.  After gaining an M.A. from Birmingham Polytechnic (now Birmingham City University) Pete chose to follow a career in photography and fortunately for us all, Pete decided to stay in Birmingham.  He immersed himself in the City’s photographic culture, not least with the photography magazine ‘TEN.8’, published in Birmingham through the 1980s and early 1990s.  This grounding in contemporary campaigning and documentary photography provided Pete with invaluable experience for his later success as a photographic curator, where he would champion emerging and established photographers alike.

However, Pete’s passion for historic studies remained and he formed the ‘Birmingham Photographic Heritage Project’ to enable him to pursue research begun during his M.A.  Pete returned to the Central Library’s collections, initially focusing on the survey photographers William Jerome Harrison and Sir Benjamin Stone.  As his understanding of the collections increased, Pete realised just how significant they were for the history of photography, locally and nationally.  He also realised that this significance was masked by their dispersal across library departments and that researchers less tenacious than he, would not uncover their riches.  Pete successfully demonstrated to Patricia Coleman, City Librarian, the potential for raising their profile and research applications and he was appointed as the Central Library’s first specialist photographic researcher.

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Watt 2019: February

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.

Electricity and the portable kitchen….

James Watt had already made friends with a number of men with enquiring minds when working in Glasgow, some years before he came to Birmingham and met up with the ingenious ideas of the Lunar Society.

Dr James Lind (1736-1812), physician (MD Edinburgh 1768) was one of those early Scottish friends and there are a number of letters between them. These illustrate Lind’s inventiveness, technical expertise at devising equipment, and his bonhomie.

He made a voyage to Iceland with Sir Joseph Banks in 1772, was created a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1777 and settled at Windsor when appointed physician in the royal household. He had his own private printing press. He knew Shelley at Eton and appears as ‘the old hermit’ in Shelley’s ‘Laon and Cynthia’.

This letter to Watt is dated on the docket 1765, when Watt had established, with John Craig, a shop in Glasgow selling mathematical and musical instruments.

Lind had brought a ‘perspective machine’ from India in the early 1760s, but it was made from brass which rendered it too heavy to be useful for surveying work. Watt developed a lighter model which would fold up into a walking stick, and a box, which could be put in a greatcoat pocket. He also developed a means of batch production. The machines were being sold by late 1764.

Lind’s ‘Electrical machine’ [Ref. MS 3219/4/56/1]

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James Watt 2019: January

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.

January

James Watt was born in Greenock on 19 January 1736 to James Watt senior (1698-1782) and Agnes Muirhead (c. 1701-1753). He was their fourth child, but the three before him had all died before the age of two years.

‘A view of Greenock 1768’ lithographed for the Watt Club 1856 by Schenk & McFarlane, Edinburgh, from the original by Robert Paul, Academy Glasgow, 1768, in ‘Memorials of James Watt by George Williamson, 1856’ [MS 3004/6].

Some correspondence relating to James Watt’s mother and father survives, and the following is from a letter to his mother, Agnes, from her mother, also Agnes Muirhead, written 2 April 1730, giving advice on how to cope with the difficulties of breast feeding. Her son Robert had been born on 13 February 1730.

Dear Nanie,

I Recived yours [letter] with the goose last Week for which I Return you many thanks and your letter by Mrs Fork yesterday forenoon and another last night[.] I am sorry to hear that your breast has turned so bad, I consulted with Mrs Muirhead & your Grand Mother and they know nothing so proper as bathing it with Strong master as hott as ye can endure and dip a flannel Cloth in it[.] If this dos not doe try a little Green Cornmill and Green wormwood fryed with a little Sweet oyl and layd to the breast[.] If none of those things doe I recommend the plaister to you of which you gott a Coppy[,] but least you may have lost it[,] I send you another Coppy of it as follows[:]

Take half a pint of ale[,] a Spoonfull of Sweet oyl[,] a ounce of Castile Soap[,] one handfull of Sage[,] half ounce bees wax[,] two Spoonfulls of white wine venigar[,] a little deers Grease[,] a little red lead[,] a spoonfull of flour[.] boyl it haff an hour[.]  I have sent the deers Grease along with the letter least ye should gett none of it with you[.] You know how to apply this plaister your Self and the Child may easilysuck [.] don’t wear your Stays too much Till once you get either a pair fitter for you or your breasts be better for you have certainly got cold with them which has stopped some of the vessels. Cause it suck your breast as much as possible and shake often. As for the Nipples if the skin be of[f] them Gett walnut oyl or a little fine Candle grease or the dripping of pork I know nothing better[.] If they be hacked Gett the Balsom of Peru and stroke it in the hacks with a feather……..

……….from your affectionate Mother, Agnes Muirhead.

[MS 3219/3/124/10]

Unfortunately, we don’t know if she tried this, or if it worked! Robert died aged two and a half months. Continue reading