Tag Archives: James Watt


Stukeley, William. Stonehenge, a temple restor’d to the British druids, 1740. London: Printed for W. Innys and R. Manby, at the West End of St. Paul’s, 1740. Widener Library, Harvard University.

A centenary to celebrate! Sir Cecil Chubb (1876 – 1934) and his wife Mary donated Stonehenge to the nation on 26 October 1918. The monument is now cared for by English Heritage and their excellent website illustrates the events, exhibitions and activities there are to mark the centenary.

Cecil Chubb was born at Shrewton, a few miles from Stonehenge, and became a barrister, Justice of the Peace, Chairman of Fisherton House, Salisbury (one of the largest private psychiatric hospitals in Europe during the 1920s), a racehorse owner and breeder of shorthorn cattle. He had purchased the monument for £6,600 at auction in 1915, from the Antrobus family, after their last male heir was killed during the First World War.

So what has this to do with Birmingham?

According to his son, William Withering jr., Dr. William Withering (1741-1799) of Edgbaston Hall, botanist, chemist, geologist and physician, had visited Stonehenge on his return from his second visit to Lisbon in 1794. His lung health was poor and he had hoped the warmer winter temperatures in Portugal would alleviate his illness. His return journey from Cornwall to Birmingham took in Devon, Dorset, the Isle of Wight and the Stonehenge monument. In the Memoir of his father’s life, Withering jr. writes:

Stonehenge was viewed with no ordinary interest. The mysterious origin, and surprising magnitude of the masses which constitute this edifice, not less than their peculiar arrangement, engaged more than a momentary attention. This monument had long been deemed by Dr Withering, to Great Britain, what the Pyramids are to Egypt, – the antiquarian wonder of the land.

Stukeley, William. Stonehenge, a temple restor’d to the British druids. London: Printed for W. Innys and R. Manby, at the West End of St. Paul’s, 1740. Widener Library, Harvard University.

On 3 January 1797, two of the trilithons at Stonehenge and their lintel – the stones of the inner horseshoe – collapsed. Dr William Withering, corresponded in detail with one James Norris of Nonsuch House, Wiltshire, asking, among other things, if there were any unusual lichens on the upper stones, ‘which have been out of the ordinary reach of man for so many thousand years’.  The third edition of Withering’s work titled ‘An Arrangement of British Plants’ had been published in 1796, so his curiosity in such matters is obvious. Norris attributed the collapse of the stones to a colony of rabbits burrowing in the area.  Withering went further in his interest in the stones:

William Withering to James Norris, 30 July 1797

On conversing with my friend Mr. Watt respecting the late downfall at Stonehenge, he thinks that the three stones might be replaced at an expense not exceeding one hundred pounds. His extensive practical knowledge as an engineer, and his great abilities, are probably not unknown to you. He proposes to employ workmen from Portland island, who are much in the practice of moving large masses of stone, and have the requisite implements. He supposes that the large stones were originally raised up an inclined plane, made of a bank of earth, and should it be necessary he would again raise them in the same way. If I lived in your part of the country I would endeavour to obtain a subscription for the purpose. Surely fifty or a hundred persons might be found to subscribe such a sum. You may rely on my mite towards its accomplishment. Should you ultimately not find an engineer to your mind, I would try to engage Mr. Warltire to undertake the execution of the work, with more particular directions from Mr. Watt.

This may refer to John Warltire (c. 1725 – 1810), an itinerant lecturer on natural philosophy and chemistry at this time.

Stukeley, William. Stonehenge, a temple restor’d to the British druids. London: Printed for W. Innys and R. Manby, at the West End of St. Paul’s, 1740. Widener Library, Harvard University.

Regrettably, it has not proved possible to find any correspondence between Withering and Watt at this period, so I have to assume that their conversation was indeed only verbal.

Those three stones were eventually re-erected in 1958.  By then the cost had risen to £8,500.

The Norris/Withering correspondence can be found in: The Miscellaneous Tracts of the late William Withering M.D. F.R.S. to which is prefixed a Memoir of his life, Character and Writings by William Withering jr. 2 vols. London. 1822.

I thank the late Chris Upton for his introduction to this Norris/Withering/Watt connection.

If you would like to find out more about William Withering, you can find the following in the Birmingham Collection in the Heritage Research Area on level 4 of the library:

The life and times of William Withering: his work, his legacy by Peter Sheldon (2004), ref 78.1

William Withering of Birmingham: M.D., F.R.S., F.L.S by T. Whitmore Peck [and] K. Douglas Wilkinson (1950), ref 78.1

Fiona Tait

All images from Stukeley, William. Stonehenge, a temple restor’d to the British druids. London : Printed for W. Innys and R. Manby, at the West End of St. Paul’s, 1740, held by Widener Library, Harvard University, are available at http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:FHCL:10937246



MS 3219/4/277

On 1 July 2017 Canada celebrated the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation, when Canada became a self- governing dominion within the British Empire.    

Archives and Collections, Library of Birmingham, holds records relating to Canada which are much older, to be found, perhaps surprisingly, in the papers of James Watt and Family (MS 3219).

Aside from the fact that Boulton & Watt provided steam engines for boats of the Hudson Bay Company, there are records more personal to Watt, those of his brother-in-law by marriage, Captain John Marr, military surveyor (d. 1787). He had married Agnes (Nancy)  Millar, sister of his first wife Margaret (Peggy).  Marr was also the son of Watt’s mathematics teacher in Greenock and accompanied Watt to London in 1769, as he was going to train as a naval instructor when Watt was seeking training in mathematical instrument making.

John Marr had served in Canada from 1761. A memorial (petition)to the principal officers of His Majesty’s Ordnance requesting an increased allowance, 20 April 1768, gives details of Marr’s career in Canada to that date [MS 3219/4/275/2]. Marr obviously returned to Scotland some time after that and married. He and Nancy sailed to New York in 1774. A letter from John and Nancy to Betty Millar, another sister, (Glasgow) dated 15 November 1774 informs her that they arrived on 21 October. Nancy had apparently suffered a miscarriage in September, but had recovered. They were laying in stores of vegetables and stocking up for the winter. Nancy wrote that there was only salt fish and rum to be had there. They would not be able to receive mail until they reached Canada. Marr had sent fish to James Watt in Glasgow and he would get caulkers [spikes] for Nancy’s feet to stop her falling on the ice.

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An invitation

At the recent Annual General Meeting of the Friends of Birmingham Archives and Heritage, it was announced that a small purchase had been made and donated to Archives & Collections, Library of Birmingham and this blog is to inform people about the item.

MS 4869 (Acc 2017/007)

It is an invitation ticket to an exhibition of paintings at Everitt and Hill, art dealers, on New Street, on 18 August [c.1860], (reference number MS 4869     Accession 2017/ 007). The invitation was to James Baldwin and the paintings he was invited to view were:

James Watt and his First Steam Engine by Lauder R.S.A.
Shakespeare and Milton by John Faed
The Wanderer’s Return by Henry O’Neill
Broken Vows by Philip Calderon

It was, of course, the first item which attracted the attention of the FoBAH Committee.

James Eckford Lauder RSA (1811-1869) was a notable mid-Victorian Scottish artist, famous for both portraits and historical pictures.

A younger brother of artist Robert Scott Lauder, he was born at Silvermills, Edinburgh, the fifth and youngest son of John Lauder of Silvermills (proprietor of the great tannery there) by his spouse Helen Tait. Under the guidance and encouragement of his elder brother Robert, he rapidly developed an early love of art.

He attended Edinburgh Academy from 1824 to 1828. He joined Robert in Italy in 1834, and remained there nearly four years. Upon his return to Edinburgh he became an annual contributor to the Exhibitions of the Royal Scottish Academy, and exhibited occasionally at the Royal Academy in London, where his works attracted much attention.

In 1839 he was elected an associate, and in 1846 became full member, of the Royal Scottish Academy. The painting of James Watt and the Steam Engine: the Dawn of the Nineteenth Century, 1855, is said to be one of his principal works.

The painting is now held in the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh. Continue reading

Half an hour in James Watt’s Workshop

25th August marks the date of the death of James Watt in 1819, aged 84, at Heathfield, his home in Handsworth. It seemed appropriate to mark this with a transcript of a visit to Watt’s workshop which has recently come to light. The workshop, now at the Science Museum in London, was re-displayed in 2011.

James Watt’s workshop at Heathfield, Handsworth, near Birmingham c. 1902 [MS 2724/2/B/4327]

The following description of a visit to James Watt’s Workshop in 1876 can be found in a volume of the Friends’ Essay Society. This organisation appears to have been formed about 1845. The earliest members were Mary and Sarah Lloyd, Thomas and Sarah Scott, John and William Heath, Elizabeth and A.J. Brady, Arthur Albright, Agatha Pearson (Secretary) A.M. Southall, Joseph Clark, William Nutter, Herbert Waldwick, H. Hargrave, G.B. Kenway. The Society was reorganised about 1852 and the earliest surviving essays are from that date. There are in all 16 volumes, stretching through until 1959. Essays are about 500-600 words each and on a variety of topics: travel, mountaineering, sailing, humorous or facetious subjects, religion, art, poetry, the history of the organisation, and include photographs, watercolours etc.

On 15 December 1876 an unknown author submitted this essay:

Half an hour in James Watt’s Workshop

In proximity, and yet sufficiently far away from the clamour of the hardware metropolis is Heathfield, surrounded by its acres of meadowland and shrubberies.

Here James Watt passed the last years of his useful life; his history is already penned, – the present is but a glance around the little spot in which he spent so many hours in correspondence and social intercourse with some of the brightest intellects of the day.

Here the “Lunar Society” met, including such men as Dr Priestley, Dr Withering, Mr Keir, Mr Galton, and his intelligent partner, Mr Boulton, to discuss philosophy, chemistry, and every branch of technical industry. Here the great engineer contrived and invented, adding thereby so much to the glory and honour of his country. Continue reading

James Watt Society in Japan

Poster for a James Watt Exhibition in Japan

Poster for the Tokyo Steam Engineering Exhibition in 1936 (MS 4243)

The influence of James Watt and the steam engine on Imperial Japan was aptly demonstrated at the 1936 Tokyo Steam Engineering Exhibition held under the joint auspices of the James Watt Society of Japan, the Tokyo Science Museum and the Japan Power Association. The date of the exhibition is significant in that it coincided with the bicentenary of Watt’s birth in 1736.

The exhibition itself included over two hundred and fifty objects and records on loan from foreign institutions including the old Birmingham Reference Library, home to the Archives of Soho. In gratitude, the President of the James Watt Society of Japan, Mr Hashimoto, sent a volume of bound exhibition photographs to the library. 

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