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Book of the Month

May 2009

 Papers relating to the families of
Muirhead and Watt

Various locations: 16th to 19th centuries
MS Gen 1354

This month we feature a collection of papers connected with the life of the Scottish scientist and engineer James Watt (1736-1819). His development of steam engines had a profound effect on methods of manufacturing and transport in the late 18th and early 19th centuries and after his death his son James Watt jnr (1769-1848) was concerned to record his father's achievements. To this end, he enlisted the help of James Patrick Muirhead (1813-1898) who published a number of works, culminating in the Life of James Watt with Selections from his Correspondence (1858).

Letter addressed to James Watt jnr by J P Muirhead, 11 November 1834.
The note at the top, in Watt's handwriting, demonstrates his usual practice
of noting the sender's name, date of letter and brief summary of the contents, in this case "Offers me a visit at Christmas"
MS Gen 1354/265

MS Gen 1354 includes over 900 letters exchanged between Watt jnr and Muirhead, written in the period 1834-1847. They first met while Muirhead was studying in Oxford; their families were related through Watt's grandmother, Agnes Muirhead (1703-1755). In a letter to Charles Hampden Turner, Watt wrote "This will introduce you to my friend and cousin Jas Patrick Muirhead, a Scotch Barrister..."1

An example of the copies kept by James Watt jnr of his outgoing letters.
This is addressed to Muirhead and dated 3 April 1836. MS Gen 1354/273
The Life was a revised and abbreviated version of Muirhead's three-volume work, The Origin and Progress of The Mechanical Inventions of James Watt... (1854). A late 20th century assessment of the biography suggests that, not withstanding Watt's engineering genius, Muirhead's work was not wholly accurate or objective. Nevertheless, it remains a valuable resource and subsequent scholars "...have not matched his research nor attained the quality of his style."2

Title page of Muirhead's 1854 publication which included
an extensive biography of Watt
Sp Coll q536
Muirhead's research was wide-ranging; he had access to Watt's papers, was in regular contact with his son and made enquiries, by letter and in person, to those who had known him or could speak authoritatively about his achievements. They included the French physicist, François Arago (1786-1853) who, as secretary of the Académie Royale des Sciences, had produced a complimentary Historical Eloge of James Watt in 1834. Muirhead published a translated version in 1839 and many of his letters to Watt jnr around this date refer to the preparation of it. The collection also includes a few letters from Arago in 1847, following Muirhead's publication of Correspondence on the Discovery of Water (1846) regarding the rival claims of Watt and Henry Cavendish over the discovery of the composition of water.3

 Letter from François Arago addressed to Muirhead, at the house of
James Watt [Jnr], Aston Hall, near Birmingham, January 1847
(MS Gen 1354/139)

Letterhead: letter from François Arago to J P Muirhead, 25 January 1847
(MS Gen 1354/139)

Letter from William Fleming to J P Muirhead, 9 November 1853
MS Gen 1354/85

Portrait of James Watt, drawn and
engraved by Edward Finden (1791-1857)
from the bust by Sir Francis Chantrey
(Sp Coll q536)
Muirhead's other sources included the University of Glasgow, who had employed James Watt at the start of his career, as a mathematical instrument maker from 1756 to 1764. In 1848, William Fleming, Professor of Oriental Languages, sent on a letter he had received from the Registrar of Births, regarding the Watt family history. A few years later he also made enquiries " reference to the Portrait of James Watt which is in the Hunterian Museum [at the University of Glasgow]."4

Watt was the subject of many portraits, statues and busts. Muirhead listed the principal ones at the end of the introductory memoir to The Origin and Progress (1854). They included five full-length statues by Sir Francis Leggatt Chantrey (1781-1841), one of which was placed in Glasgow College (also referred to by Fleming in his letter to Muirhead). Both the statue and portrait remain in the Hunterian collections today.


Chantrey also executed a bust of Watt which "...exemplified for contemporaries his ability to capture the mind of the sitter."5 This was the source for "The most pleasing pencil drawing of Mr Watt ... one that was made not from the life, but from Chantrey's bust, by an artist, Mr. Edward Finden" and was "...of all the engravings of his father, that by which the late Mr Watt wished that his image should be conveyed to posterity."6 Consequently, it was used in Muirhead's successive publications about Watt, beginning with the Eloge. A letter from Muirhead to Watt of 27 August 1839 refers to the difficulty of acquiring it in time for publication.7


Obtaining an engraving was just one of the difficulties and delays encountered during the publishing process. There are numerous references to the publisher John Murray (1808-1892) in Muirhead's letters to Watt and there is also a sequence of papers relating to the printing and sales of Muirhead's publications.8  However, despite the preoccupations of researching, writing and publishing, the letters between Muirhead and Watt are also concerned with contemporary events, family relations and domestic matters. These include Muirhead's dispatch of various samples of oatmeal from Scotland, apparently at the request of Watt's cook. They must have been favourably received as he wrote a short time later to say that he was sending larger quantities of all three kinds by steamer.9

A letter of 13 July 1837 is of particular interest as it describes Muirhead's train journey from Birmingham to Liverpool, only a week after the opening of the Grand Junction Railway which made the journey possible for the first time: "...notwithstanding your expressed fears, we have reached Liverpool alive... The stoppages for water ... amounted to 27 minutes. My sisters, after the first mile, enjoyed it much: and greatly marvelled to see 'How towns, heaths, acres took to flight, How bridges thundered as we pass'd!"10

Details of the journey time between Birmingham and Liverpool by train, July 1837
MS Gen 1354/278
It is not clear if Watt's reservations about the train journey to Liverpool were based on the operation of the (steam) train itself, the railway track or some other matter. Arguably, he had made more adventurous journeys himself, albeit forty years before. Within the collection is a journal titled 'Voyage in Sicily 1793'. A note on the cover by Muirhead states that he found it among the papers of Miss E S Wilkinson (a relative of James Watt jnr) after her death.

It begins with some notes on Sicilian coins, weights and measures. The entries are concerned with his impressions of places visited, including historical details, buildings, flora and fauna and agriculture. There are one or two sketches, including a diagram of a 'machine for beating the cotton'.

MS Gen 1354/22

Extract from MS Gen 1354/22. A 'machine for beating the cotton'.

Another part of the journal records his 'Journey to Paris' beginning on 3 March 1792. Although this was a particularly volatile year in French history, most of the entries are concerned with where he lodged and ate, along with detailed notes on sightseeing and observations on local industry. However, on 15 March he "Went to the Chapel Royal at the Tuileries to see the King and Queen [Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette] & afterwards went into the drawing room to see them pass. This was the day after the news of the death of Leopold [Leopold II, Holy Roman Emperor and Archduke of Austria] arrived & all the Court was in mourning." According to other sources, Watt jnr witnessed the massacres of 10 August 1792 and was denounced in the Commons as a traitor because of his activities in Paris, including addressing the Club des Jacobins.11 Muirhead even quotes a claim that he prevented a duel between Danton and Robespierre, two major figures in the revolution.12 Curiously, the journal records this period as rather uneventful, dismissing most of the summer in a few lines: "I remained at Paris during the months of July, August and Sept being confined to my room with a scarlet fever during the greatest part of the time."

Extracts from MS Gen 1354/22

This collection was originally described as 'Papers pertaining to the family of Muirhead, originally of Lauchop'. Evidently, J P Muirhead's papers relating to Watt were collected together with other family papers (the earliest described as a marriage contract from 1579) before being presented to the University of Glasgow by his great-grandson. They include an interesting sequence of letters from J P Muirhead's father to his wife. Lockhart Muirhead (d 1824) was the University's librarian from 1795 and also regius professor of natural history from 1807. Two years earlier he had been entrusted with the transfer of anatomical and pathological preparations, coins, books and manuscripts and botanical, geological and other materials from London to Glasgow. These collections had been bequeathed by William Hunter (1718-1783) to the university, along with money towards building a museum to house them.

Extracts from the minutes of Faculty of Glasgow College in the University of Glasgow,
3 November 1795. Appointment of Lockhart Muirhead as Librarian

MS Gen 1354/16
Muirhead took his task seriously, although the scale of it and the long hours seemed to take their toll:

" days have been devoted to inventories & catalogues..."
"I am now at p.111 of the lists of books, at Lord knows where among the monkeys & bats..."13

Eventually, the collections arrived safely in Glasgow and the university's Hunterian museum opened in 1807. There were problems with the heating system, however, and the University turned to its former employee; in the museum records there is a letter from James Watt, by then a famous and respected engineer, concerning the operation of the stove.14 Watt died a few years later but the University received a permanent reminder of him in the shape of Chantrey's statue, itself the subject of a painting, later in the 19th century. The statue's inscription reads "This statue of James Watt ... is presented by his son to the University of Glasgow in gratitude for the encouragement afforded by its professors to the scientific pursuits of his father's early life."15

The interior of the First Hunterian Museum with the Statue of James Watt,
painted by William Stewart (1823-1906)
(Hunterian Museum & Art Gallery, University of Glasgow. Museum No: 44095)

The following have been useful in creating this article:

Arago, François." Encyclopædia Britannica Online.

Keppie, L J F, William Hunter and the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow 1807-2007 (Edinburgh: 2007) Sp Coll Hunterian Add. q109

Eric H. Robinson, 'Watt, James (1769-1848)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004
     [, accessed 1 May 2009]

Timothy Stevens, 'Chantrey, Sir Francis Leggatt (1781-1841)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004; online
    edn, Jan 2008 [, accessed 1 May 2009]

B. M. Sturt, 'Muirhead, James Patrick (1813-1898)', rev. Richard L. Hills, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [, accessed 1 May 2009]

Biography of James Watt from The University of Glasgow Story

References cited in text

1. MS Gen 1354/288
2. B. M. Sturt, 'Muirhead, James Patrick (1813-1898)', rev. Richard L. Hills, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004   
   [, accessed 1 May 2009]
3. Ibid
4. MS Gen 1354/85
5. Timothy Stevens, 'Chantrey, Sir Francis Leggatt (1781-1841)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004; online
    edn, Jan 2008 [, accessed 1 May 2009]
6. Muirhead, James Patrick, The origin and progress of the mechanical inventions of James Watt illustrated by his correspondence with
     his friends and the specification of his patents
(London: 1854) p. cclxxix-cclxxx
7. MS Gen 1354/298]
8. MS Gen 1354/1199-1268
9. MS Gen 1354/555 and /558
10. MS Gen 1354/278
11. Eric H. Robinson, 'Watt, James (1769-1848)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004
     [, accessed 1 May 2009]
12. Muirhead, Op Cit p. cclxi
13. MS Gen 1354/46 and /47
14. MR 47/6
15. Online catalogue entry for GLAHA 44337. Accessed via Search the Hunterian Collections 

Return to main Special Collections Exhibition Page
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Sarah Hepworth May 2009