Portrait of James Watt in pencil and chalk, possibly drawn by Gregory Watt.  MS 3219/8/4  Reproduced with the permission of the Library of Birmingham.

Portrait of James Watt in pencil and chalk, possibly drawn by Gregory Watt.

MS 3219/8/4

Reproduced with the permission of the Library of Birmingham.

This presentation, given at the James Watt Symposium at the University of Birmingham in July 2016, introduced the audience to the provenance and arrangement of the papers, held at Archives and Collections, Library of Birmingham (MS 3219).

It aimed to illustrate the different types of records in this collection and the different members of Watt’s family for whom records have survived from his grandfather Thomas (d.1734) to his youngest son, Gregory (1777-1804).

Watt’s father, James Watt of Greenock (1698-1782) was a merchant, builder and ship’s chandler with interests in the American shipping trade. He also served as a member of the Town Council of Greenock for over twenty years and there are a number of account books and papers for the town, especially regarding shipping.

Watt’s own papers include financial records of his business with John Craig in Glasgow from 1757 as mathematical and musical instrument maker; accounts, surveys, reports and drawings illustrating his career as surveyor, especially for the Monkland Canal (1769); correspondence and notebooks which show his early experiments in chemical and steam engineering; and extensive correspondence with family, friends and others which gives a richly detailed picture of life and science at the time.

There is a lot of information about (ill) health and medicine as many of Watt’s friends were medical doctors. Watt’s own health was not robust and both of his children, Jessy and Gregory, by his second wife Ann, suffered from tuberculosis and died young. This includes correspondence about the Pneumatic Institute set up by Thomas Beddoes in Bristol, for which Boulton & Watt manufactured the breathing apparatus.

In 1801, having retired from the steam engine business, Watt purchased his first estate in Wales and he continued to buy adjoining farms in Radnorshire and Breconshire near the river Wye. Although he rarely visited, and never lived there (that role was taken up by James Watt jr.) he invested particularly in planting trees and orchards in considerable quantities, and there is much regular correspondence with James Crummer, his land agent from which much can be learned about estate management, forestry, local tenants, taxes, travel, local foodstuffs etc.

James Watt jr. (1769-1848) left correspondence, especially from his father, giving information about his training in business skills in France and Germany; some records of his time as foreign agent in Italy for a textile firm in Manchester; notebooks recording the progress of his first paddle steamer on a journey down the Rhine in 1817; notebooks about flower and fruit planting at Aston Hall where he lived from 1819; and records of his activities to promote the reputation of his father in print and stone with statues and a memorial chapel.

Gregory Watt, an excellent scholar was particularly interested in geology and among his letters, travel notebooks and drawings left an early geological map of Italy and a published paper on basalt.

Some of the unexpected finds in the Watt papers were also illustrated, for example a long roll with a survey of the Fort of St John, Quebec, 1777, by John Marr, military surveyor and relative by marriage.

Fiona Tait


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Fiona Tait