Samuel Smiles.

Lives of Boulton and Watt. Principally from the original Soho mss online

. (page 8 of 46)
Online LibrarySamuel SmilesLives of Boulton and Watt. Principally from the original Soho mss → online text (page 8 of 46)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


importance than G-reenock. It had a pier, which
Greenock as yet had not ; and from this pier the first
Clyde ship which crossed the Atlantic sailed for Darien
in 1697. What little enterprise existed in the neigh-



CHAP. V. APPOINTED AN ELDER. 81

bourhood was identified with Cartsdyke rather than
with Greenock ; and hence Thomas Watt's preference
for it, in setting up there as a teacher. He, too, like his
sire, seems to have been a sturdy Covenanter ; for we
find him, in 1683, refusing to take the test in favour of
prelacy, and he was consequently proclaimed to be a
"disorderly schoolmaster officiating contrary to law."
He nevertheless continued the teaching of the mathe-
matics, in which he seems to have prospered, as, besides
marrying a wife, he shortly after bought the house and
garden which he occupied, and subsequently added to
his possessions a tenement in the neighbouring village
of Greenock.

From the nature of his calling, it is obvious that he
must have been a thoughtful and intelligent person ; l
and that he was a man of excellent character is clear
from the confidence he inspired in those who had the
best opportunities of knowing him. When William
and Mary were confirmed in their occupancy of the
British throne, shortly after the Revolution of 1688,
one of the first acts of Mr. Crawford, of Crawfordsburn,
the feudal superior, was to appoint Thomas Watt baillie
of the barony a position of local importance, involving
the direction of public affairs within the limits of his
jurisdiction.

A few years later, the Kirk Session of Greenock,
having found him " blameless in life and conversation,"
appointed him an Elder of the parish, when it became
part of his duty to overlook not only the religious
observances, but the manners and morals, of the little
community. Kirk Sessions did not then confine them-
selves to ecclesiastical affairs, but assumed the function
of magistrates, and almost exercised the powers of an



1 Among the few household articles
belonging to him which descended to
his son, and afterwards to his grand-



one of Sir Isaac Newton, and the
other of John Napier, the inventor of
Logarithms.



son the engineer, were two portraits,

G



82 GRAMMAR SCHOOL. CHAP. V.

inquisition. One of their most important duties was to
provide for the education of the rising generation, in
pursuance of the injunction of John Knox, "that no
father, of what estate or condition that ever he may be,
use his children at his own fantasie, especially in their
youthhead ; but all must be compelled to bring up their
children in learning and virtue," words which lie at
the root of much of Scotland's mental culture, as well
as, probably, of its material prosperity. In 1696
the Act was passed by the Scotch Parliament which is
usually regarded as the charter of the Scotch parish-
school system ; and in the following year the Kirk Ses-
sion of Greenock proceeded to make provision for the
establishment of their parish school, which continued
until the Town Council superseded it by the Grammar
School, at which James Watt, the future engineer, re-
ceived the best part of his school education.

After holding the offices of Presbytery Elder and
Kirk Treasurer for some time, Thomas Watt craved
leave to retire into private life. He was seventy years
old, and felt infirmities growing upon him. The plea
was acknowledged, and the request granted ; and on his
retirement from office the Kirk Session recorded on
their minutes that Thomas Watt had been found " dili-
gent and faithful in the management of his trust." He
died at the age of 92, and was buried in the old kirk-
yard of Greenock, where his tombstone is still to be
seen. He is there described as " Professor of Mathe-
matics in Crawfordsdyk." Not far from his grave lie,
"mouldering in silent dust," the remains of Burns' s
Highland Mary, who died while on a visit to a relative
at Greenock.

Two sons survived the " Professor," John and James,
who were well settled in life when the old man died.
John, the elder, was trained by his father in mathe-
matics and surveying ; for some time officiating under
him as clerk to the barony of Cartsdyke, and afterwards



CHAP. V. WATT'S FATHER. 83

removing to Glasgow, where he began business on his
own account. In the year that his father died (1734)
he made the first survey of the river Clyde ; but he
died shortly after, and the map was published by his
nephew. James, the engineer's father, was bound ap-
prentice to a carpenter and shipwright at Cartsdyke,
and on the expiry of his term he set up business for
himself in the same line at Greenock.

About the beginning of the last century, Greenock,
now one of the busiest ports in the kingdom, was but a
little fishing-village, consisting of a single row of
thatched cottages lying parallel with the sandy beach of
the Frith of Clyde, in what was then known as " Sir
John's little bay." Sir John Shaw was the superior, or
lord of the manor, his mansion standing on a height
overlooking the tow^n, 1 and commanding an extensive
view of the Clyde, from Roseneath to Dumbarton.
Across the water lay the beautiful north shore, broken
by the long narrow sea-lochs running far away among
the Argyleshire hills. Their waters, now plashed by
the paddles of innumerable Clyde steamers, were then
only disturbed by the passing of an occasional Highland
coble ; whilst their shores, now fringed with villages,
villas, and mansions, were as lonely as Glencoe.

Greenock was in a great measure isolated from other
towns by impassable roads. The only route to Gree-
nock, on the west, lay along the beach, and when strong
winds raised a high tide the communication was en-
tirely cut off. Greenock was separated from Cartsdyke,
on the east, by the Ling Burn, which was crossed by a
plank, afterwards supplanted by an old ship's rudder ;
and it was about the middle of the century before a



The mansion house of the Shaws
is now principally occupied as ma-



principally
ffices. Tin



norial offices. The fine old garden
and pleasure-grounds have been pre-
sented by Sir John Shaw to the



for ever. It is now called " The
Watt Park," and a more beautiful
spot (bating the smoke of the busy
town below) is scarcely to be found
in Britain.



people of Greenock as a public park I

G 2



84



P1UM1TIVE STATE OF GREENOCK.



CHAP. V.



bridge was built across the stream. The other provi-
sions of the place for public service and convenience
were of a like rude and primitive character : thus,
GTreenock could not boast of a public clock until about
the middle of the last century, when a town clock was
mounted in a wooden steeple. Till then, a dial, still
standing, marked the hours when the sun shone, and a
bell hung upon a triangle summoned the people to kirk
and market. Besides the kirk, however, there was
another public building the Black Hole, or prison,
which, like the other houses in the place, was covered
with thatch. Before the prison were placed the "jougs,"
as a terror to evil-doers, as well as a few old pieces of
cannon, taken from one of the ships of the Spanish
Armada wrecked near Pencores Castle. The Black
Hole, the jougs, and the cannon were thought necessary
precautions against the occasional visits to which the
place was subject from the hungry Highlandmen on
the opposite shores of the firth. 1

The prosperity of G-reenock dates from the year 1707,
shortly after the Union with England. The British
Parliament then granted what the Scottish Parliament
had refused the privilege of constructing a harbour.
Before that time there was no pier, only a rude
landing-stage which Sir John Shaw had provided for
his barge in the " Little Bay ;" but the fishermen's



1 In 1715 the Greenock and Carts-
dyke men kept strict watch and
ward for eighty days against a threat-
ened visit of Rob Hoy and his caterans.
The conduct of these unruly neigh-
bours continued to cause apprehen-
sions amongst the townspeople until
a much later period, especially during
fair time, then the great event of the
year. The fair was the occasion of
the annual gathering of the people
from the neighbouring country to
buy and to sell. Highlandmen came
from the opposite shores and from
the lochs down the Clyde, men caring
little for Lowland law, but duly im-



pressed by a display of force. Their
boats were drawn up on the beach
with their prows to the High Street,
the north side of which at that time
lay open to the sea. The Highland
folk lived and slept on board, each
boat having a plank or gangway
between it and the shore. On the
first day of the fair Sir John Shaw,
the feudal superior, convened the
local dignitaries, the deacons and the
trades, and after drinking the King's
health and throwing the glasses
amongst the populace, they formed
in procession and perambulated the
town.



CHAP. Y. GREENOCK'S IMPROVEMENT. 85

boats and other small craft frequenting the place were
beached in the usual primitive way. Yessels of burden
requiring to load or unload their cargoes did so at the
pier at Cartsdyke above referred to. When the neces-
sary powers were granted to make a harbour at G-ree-
nock, the inhabitants proceeded to tax themselves to
provide the necessary means, paying a shilling and
fourpence for every sack of malt brewed into ale within
the barony ; ale, not whisky, being then the popular
drink of Scotland. The devotion of the townspeople to
their " yill caups " must have been considerable, as the
harbour was finished and opened in 1710, and in thirty
years the principal debt was paid off.

In course of time Grreenock was made a custom-
house port, and its trade rapidly increased. The first
solitary vessel, freighted with Glasgow merchandise
for the American colonies, sailed from the new har-
bour in 1719 ; and now the custom-house dues col-
lected there amount to more than six times the whole
revenue of Scotland in the time of the Stuarts.

Here James Watt, son of the Cartsdyke teacher of
mathematics, and father of the engineer, began business
about the year 1730. His occupation was of a very
miscellaneous character, and embraced most branches of
carpentry. He was a house wright, shipwright, car-
penter, and undertaker, as well as a builder and con-
tractor, having in the course of his life enlarged the
western front of Sir John Shaw's mansion-house, and
designed and built the Town-hall and Council-chambers.
To these various occupations Mr. Watt added that of a
general merchant. He supplied the ships frequenting
the port with articles of merchandise as well as with
ships ? stores. He also engaged in foreign mercantile
ventures, and held shares in several ships.

Three months after the death of his father, to a share
of whose property he succeeded, Mr. Watt purchased a
house on the Mid-Quay Head, at the lower end of



86



WATT'S MOTHFJI.



CHAP. V.



William-street, with a piece of ground belonging to it,
which extended to the beach. On this piece of ground
stood Watt's carpenter's shop, in which a great deal of
miscellaneous work was executed household furniture
and ships' fittings, chairs, tables, coffins, and capstans, as
well as the ordinary sorts of joinery ; while from his
stores he was ready to supply blocks, pumps, gun-car-
riages, dead-eyes, and other articles used on board ship.
He was ready to " touch " ships' compasses, and to adjust
and repair nautical instruments generally ; while on an
emergency he could make a crane for harbour uses
the first in G-reenock having been executed in his shops,
and erected on the pier for the convenience of the Vir-
ginia tobacco-ships beginning to frequent the harbour.
These multifarious occupations were necessitated by
the smallness of the place, the business of a single
calling being as yet too limited to yield a competency
to an enterprising man, or sufficient scope for his
powers.

Being a person of substance and respectability, Mr.
Watt was elected by his fellow townsmen to fill various
public offices, such as trustee for the burgh fund, town
councillor, treasurer, and afterwards baillie or chief
magistrate. He also added to his comfort as well as to
his dignity by marrying a wife of character, Agnes
Muirhead, a woman esteemed by her neighbours for her
graces of person, as well as of mind and heart. She is
said to have been not less distinguished for her sound
sense and good manners than for her cheerful temper
and excellent housewifery. 1 Such was the mother of



1 Some of her neighbours thought
her stately and unbending, and that
she affected a superior style of living.
In the ' Memorials of Watt,' by the
late George Williamson, Esq., Gree-
nock, are to be found many curious
and interesting details as to the Watt
family; collected partly from tradi-
tion and partly from local records.



Of Mrs. Watt's " superior style of
living," compared with the custom of
the period, the following anecdote is
given : " One of the author's in-
formants on such points, a venerable
lady in her eightieth year, was wont
to spwik of the worthy baillie's wife
with much characteristic interest and
animation. As illustrative of the



CHAP. V.



WATT'S BIRTHPLACE.



87



James Watt. Three of her five children died in child-
hood ; John, her fifth son, perished at sea when on a
voyage to America in one of his father's ships; and
James, the fourth of the family, remained her only sur-
viving child. He was born in the house which stood at
the corner between the present Dairy m pie-street and
William-street, since taken down and replaced by the
building- now known as the " James Watt Tavern."




JAME3 WATT TAVERN, GKKEJMUCK
[By R P. Leitch]



From his earliest years James Watt was of an ex-
tremely fragile constitution, requiring the tenderest
nurture. Struggling as it were for life all through his
childhood, he acquired an almost feminine delicacy and
sensitiveness, which made him shrink from the rough
play of robust children ; and hence, during his early
years, his education was entirely conducted at home.
His mother taught him reading, and his father a little
writing and arithmetic. His mother, to amuse him,



internal economy of the family, the
old lady related an occasion on which
she had spent an evening, when a
girl, at Mrs. Watt's house, and re-
membered expressing with much
naivetl to her mother on returning
home, her childish surprise that
* Mrs. Watt had two lighted candles



on the table.' Among these and
other reminiscences of her youth, our
venerable informant described James
Watt's mother, in her expressive
Doric, as 'a braw, braw woman
none now to be seen like her.' " p.
128-9.



88 WATT'S EAELY YEARS. CHAP. V.

encouraged him to draw with a pencil on paper, or with
chalk upon the floor ; and his father supplied him with
a few tools from the carpenter's shop, which he soon
learnt to handle with expertness. In such occupations
he found the best resource against ennui. He took his
toys to pieces, and out of the parts ingeniously con-
structed new ones. The mechanical dexterity which he
thus cultivated even as a child was probably in a great
measure the foundation upon which he built the specu-
lations to which he owes his glory ; nor, without his
early mechanical training, is there reason to believe that
he would afterwards become the improver and almost
the creator of the steam-engine.

The invalid thus passed his early years almost entirely
in the society of his mother, whose gentle nature, strong
good sense, and unobtrusive piety, exercised a most
beneficial influence in the formation of his character.
Nor were his parents without their reward ; for as the
boy grew up to manhood he repaid their anxious care
with obedience, respect, and affection. Mrs. Watt was
in after life accustomed to say that the loss of her only
daughter, which she had felt so severely, had been fully
made up to her by the dutiful attentions of her son.

Spending his life indoors, without exercise, his nervous
system became preternaturally sensitive. He was subject
to violent sick headaches, which confined him to his
room for weeks together ; and it almost seems a marvel
that, under such circumstances, he should have survived
his boyhood. It is in such cases as his that indications
of precocity are generally observed ; and parents would
be less gratified at their display if they knew that they
are usually the symptoms of disease. Several remark-
able instances of this precocity are related of Watt. On
one occasion, when he was bending over the hearth with
a piece of chalk in his hand, a friend of his father said,
" You ought to send that boy to a public school, and not
allow him to trifle away his time at home." " Look how



CHAP. V. REPROVED BY HIS AUNT. 89

my child is occupied," said the father, " before you con-
demn him." Though only six years old, it is said he
was found trying to solve a problem in geometry.

On another occasion he was reproved by Mrs. Muir-
head, his aunt, for his indolence at the tea-table. " James
Watt," said the worthy lady, " I never saw such an idle
boy as you are : take a book or employ yourself usefully ;
for the last hour you have not spoken one word, but
taken off the lid of that kettle and put it on again,
holding now a cup and now a silver spoon over the steam,
watching how it rises from the spout, catching and
counting the drops it falls into." In the view of M.
Arago, the little James before the tea-kettle becomes
a the great engineer, preparing the discoveries which
were soon to immortalize him." In our opinion the
judgment of the aunt was the truest. There is no reason
to suppose that the mind of the boy was occupied with
philosophical theories on the condensation of steam,
which he compassed with so much difficulty in his
maturer years. This is more probably an, afterthought
borrowed from his subsequent discoveries. Nothing is
commoner than for children to be amused with such
phenomena, in the same way that they will form air-
bubbles in a cup of tea, and watch them sailing over the
surface till they burst. The probability is that little
James was quite as idle as he seemed.

When he was at length sent to Mr. M' Adam's com-
mercial school, the change caused him many trials and
much suffering. He found himself completely out of
place in the midst of the boisterous juvenile republic.
Against the tyranny of the elders he was helpless ; their
wild play was most distasteful to him ; he could not join
in their sports, nor roam with them along the beach,
nor shy stones into the water, nor take part in their
hazardous exploits in the harbour. Accordingly they
showered upon him contemptuous epithets ; and the
school being composed of both sexes, the girls joined in



90



VISIT TO GLASGOW.



('HAP. V.



the laugh. He shone as little in the class as in the
playground. He did not possess that parrot power of
learning and confidence in self necessary to achieve
distinction at school ; and he was even considered dull
and backward for his age. 1 His want of progress
may, however, in some measure be accounted for by his
almost continual ailments, which sometimes kept him
for weeks together at home. It was not until he reached
the age of about thirteen or fourteen, when he was put
into the mathematical class, that his powers appeared to
develop themselves, and from that time he made rapid
progress.

When not quite fourteen, he was taken by his mother
for change of air to Glasgow, then a quiet place without
a single long chimney, somewhat resembling a rural
market-town of the present day. He was left in charge
of a relation, and his mother returned to Greenock. But
he proved so wakeful during the visit, and so disposed
to indulge in that habit of storytelling, which even Sir
Walter Scott could afterwards admire in him, that Mr.
Watt was very soon written to by his friend, and en-
treated to return to Glasgow and take home, his son.
" I cannot stand the excitement he keeps me in," said
Mrs. Campbell ; "I am worn out for want of sleep.
Every evening, before retiring to rest, he contrives to
engage me in conversation, then begins some striking
tale, and whether humorous or pathetic, the interest is
so overpowering, that the family all listen to him with
breathless attention, and hour after hour strikes un-



1 The truth in regard to young
Watt's first years in the public school
is, that, owing doubtless to infirm
health, to the suffering and depres-
sion which affected his whole powers,
he was prevented for a considerable
time displaying even a very ordi-
nary and moderate aptitude for the
common routine of school lessons ;
and during those years he was re-
garded by his schoolmasters as slow



and inapt. Although to some minds
facts of such a nature may be con-
ceived to mar the romance of a great
man's history, yet, seeing they rest
on authenticity which cannot be im-
pugned, there appears no reasonable
ground on which it may be thought
that they ought to be passed over
as if they had not existed, or were
altogether unfounded. Williamson's
' Memorials of Watt,' p. 130.



CHAP. V. BOYISH INGENUITY. 01

heeded." He was taken back to Greenock accordingly,
and, when well enough, was sent to the Grammar School
of the town, then kept by Mr. Eobert Arrol. Under
him, Watt made fair progress in the rudiments of Latin
and Greek ; but he was still more successful in the study
of mathematics, which he prosecuted under Mr. John
Marr. It was only when he entered on this branch of
learning that he discovered his strength, and he very
soon took the lead in his class.

When at home the boy continued to spend much of
his time in drawing, or in cutting or carving with his
penknife, or in watching the carpenters at work in
his father's shop, sometimes trying his own hand at
making little articles with the tools which lay about. In
this he displayed a degree of dexterity which seemed so
remarkable that the journeymen were accustomed to say
of him that " little Jamie had gotten a fortune at his
fingers' ends." Even when he had grown old he would
recall to mind the pleasure as well as the profit which
he had derived from working in his shirt -sleeves
in his father's shop. He was, in fact, educating him-
self in the most effectual manner in his own way ;
learning to use his hands dexterously; familiarising
himself with the art of handling tools ; and acquiring a
degree of expertness in working with them in wood
and metal, which eventually proved of the greatest
value to him. At the same time he was training
himself in habits of application, industry, and inven-
tion. Most of his spare time was thus devoted to me-
chanical adaptations of his own contrivance. A small
forge was erected for him, and a bench fitted up for his
special use ; and there he constructed many ingenious
little objects, such as miniature cranes, pulleys, pumps,
and capstans. Out of a large silver coin he fabricated
a punch-ladle, which is still preserved. But the kind
of work which most attracted him was the repairing of
ships' compasses, quadrants, and nautical instruments,



92



WATT'S HOME EDUCATION.



CHAP. V.



in executing which he exhibited so much neatness, dex-
terity, and accuracy, that it eventually led to his selec-
tion of the business he determined to follow, that of a
mathematical instrument maker.

The boy at the same time prosecuted his education at
\school; his improving health enabling him to derive
more advantage from the instructions of his masters
thaXin the earlier part of his career. Not the least in-
fluentral part of his training, as regarded the formation
of his character, consisted, as already observed, in the
example and conversation of his parents at home. His
frequent illnesses brought him more directly and conti-
nuously under their influence than is the case with most
boys of his age ; and reading became one of his chief
sources of recreation and enjoyment. His father's library-
shelf contained well-thumbed volumes of Boston, Bunyan,
and ' The Cloud of Witnesses,' with Henry the Rymer's
' Life of Wallace,' and other old ballads, tattered by fre-
quent use. These he devoured greedily, and re-read
until he had most of them by heart. His father would
also recount to him the sufferings of the Covenanters,
the moors and mosses which lay towards the south of
Greenock having been among their retreats during the
times of the persecution. Then there were the local and
traditionary stories of the neighbourhood, such as the
exploits of the Greenock men under Sir John Shaw, at
Worcester, in 165 1, 1 together with much of that .un-



Online LibrarySamuel SmilesLives of Boulton and Watt. Principally from the original Soho mss → online text (page 8 of 46)