James Watt – 1736


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Matthew Boulton and James Watt formed a partnership in 1773 after Boulton took a share in Watts engine as settlement of a debt.  Today they are honoured for their work in superior coinage with them both featuring on the new £50 banknote. 

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Below is an excerpt from The Quarterly Review Volume 104 published in 1858 – featuring James Watt.

James Watt – 1736

James WattJames Watt was born at Greenock on the Clyde, on the 19th of January, 1736. His parents were of the middle class honest, ‘God-fearing’ people, with a character for probity which had descended to them from their ‘forbears,’ and was the proudest inheritance of the family. James Watt was thus emphatically well-born. His grandfather was a teacher of navigation and mathematics in the village of Cartsdyke, now part of Greenock, and dignified himself with the name of ‘Professor.’ But as Cartsdyke was as yet only a humble collection of thatched hovels, and the shipping of the Clyde was confined principally to fishing-boats, the probability is, that his lessons in navigation were of a very humble order.

He was, however, a dignitary of the place, being Bailie of the Barony as well as one of the parish elders. His son, James Watt, the father of the engineer, settled at Greenock as a carpenter and builder. Greenock was then little better than a fishing village, consisting of a single row of thatched cottages lying parallel with the sandy beach of the Frith of Clyde. The beautiful shore, broken by the long narrow sea lochs running far away among the Argyleshire hills, and now fringed with villages, villas, and mansions, was then as lonely as Glencoe; and the waters of the Frith, now daily plashed by the paddles of almost innumerable Clyde steamers, were as yet undisturbed save by the passing of an occasional Highland coble.

The prosperity of Greenock was greatly promoted by Sir John Shaw, the feudal superior, who succeeded in obtaining from the British Parliament, what the Scottish Parliament previous to the Union had refused, the privilege of constructing a harbour. Ships began after 1740 to frequent the pier, and then Mr. Watt added ship carpentering and dealing in ships’ stores to his other pursuits. He himself held shares in ships, and engaged in several foreign mercantile ventures, some of which turned out ill, and involved him in embarrassments. A great deal of miscellaneous work was executed on his premises – household furniture and ship’s carpentry – chairs and tables, figureheads and capstans, blocks, pumps, gun-carriages, and dead-eyes. The first crane erected on the Greenock pier, for the convenience of the Virginia tobacco ships, was supplied from his stores. He even undertook to repair ships’ compasses, as well as the commoner sort of nautical instruments then in use. These multifarious occupations were the result of the smallness of the place, while the business of a single calling was yet too limited to yield a competence. That Mr. Watt was a man of repute in his locality is shown by his having been elected one of the trustees to manage the funds of the borough in 1741, when Sir John Shaw divested himself of his feudal rights, and made them over to the inhabitants. Mr. Watt subsequently held office as town-treasurer, and as bailie or magistrate.

Agnes Muirhead, the bailie’s wife, and the mother of James Watt, was long remembered in the place as an intelligent woman, bountifully gifted with graces of person as well as of mind and heart. She was of a somewhat dignified appearance; and it was said that she affected a superior style of living to her neighbours.

Excerpt from The Quarterly Review Volume 104 published in 1858.


Further Reading and External Links

BBC News – New £50 banknote – featuring Matthew Boulton and James Watt