James Watts: Becoming Respectable

James Watts,  the third son of James Watts senior, acquired most of his father’s arable and grazing lands after the latter’s death. He did not, though,  inherit it. His father’s will was rigorously fair. All his children, male or female, were to inherit an equal share of the rest of his estate. If James wanted the land, he was to be given first option to buy it at a price agreed by the executors and the profits then divided between all the children. When James senior made his will, in 1826, he had two sons older than James, but presumably saw in this third son the potential to make the most of the land and the business acumen to acquire the money needed.

James was born in 1806 and baptised in St Leonard’s church, Hythe, on 11 May that year. He was not entirely a chip off the old block. His father and brother were both active members of the local Conservative Club and outspoken members of Hythe Town council. James however, did not become a councillor until 1842, though he was, of course, a Conservative. In fact it seems that he left Hythe after his marriage for a while and lived in London, where his first two children were born in September 1837 and 1838. He was back in Hythe for the birth of the third child in 1839.

James was undoubtedly respectable. He did not spend fourteen hours a day in the saddle, or throw extravagant banquets like his father; nor get himself violently ejected from the council chamber or become bankrupt like his brother Edward. He became a coal merchant and grazier, and did his civic duty. He was mayor of Hythe no fewer than eleven times, none of which excited much comment in the local press beyond the platitudes of conventional congratulations.  His obituaries are bland. He was ‘competent’; ‘clear and straightforward;’ ‘able and impartial’. He carried on as president of the Hythe Annual Benefit Society, founded by his father, which supported sick townsmen unable to work, and bailed out his brother when he was in dire financial straits. He seems to have been, in short, a ‘safe pair of hands’, the sort of man absolutely necessary to the smooth running of local government.

He had married Charlotte Mount, the daughter of an Aldington grazier, on 6 April 1835. They had seven children, all of whom grew to adulthood. The girls were educated at home by a governess and Charlotte had a nurse for the youngest.  The boys were sent away to school.  But in March 1869, tragedy struck the family.

Their eldest daughter Ellen was also the epitome of small town respectability. She visited the poor; she deputised at St Leonard’s church when the regular organist could not play; she accompanied vocalists at concerts and sometimes sang herself; and she taught in Sunday School. That March day, when she was twenty-nine years old, she went out at about 10am to visit the sick. Crossing the Green, she borrowed a pencil from a carter’s boy, wrote in her notebook then continued across the town to Green Lane, which runs parallel to the canal. She walked further along its banks for a while, then just beyond a bend, drowned herself in four feet of water.

 

                          The quiet stretch of the Royal Military Canal where Ellen Watts ended her life. 

Her body was found by a bargeman soon afterwards. Her family and friends were at a loss to explain why she had taken her own life. She had seemed happy the evening before, they said. The inquest jury brought in the inevitable verdict that she had committed suicide while of unsound mind. Her notebook was found on the canal bank, under a tree, together with her umbrella.  The note she had written with the borrowed pencil was her farewell to her family and was read in court:

Oh, forgive me dear Mama and Papa and all the dear ones. I have tried so hard to do my duty, but I cannot. I feel I am not like other people; everyone looks so good. But God will not leave you comfortless. Oh, how I have loved you all, dear ones.

James had a vault hastily constructed in St Leonard’s churchyard,  cut into the side of the hill, and after her funeral, which was attended by hundreds of people, Ellen’s coffin was placed in it. The vicar’s wife, Mrs Sangar, placed a wreath of white flowers on it, before the vault was sealed.

                           The badly weathered stone closure on the Watts vault in St Leonard’s Churchyard

Ellen had been the third child of Hannah and James Watts. Her oldest brother, another James, became a clerk to his uncle Edward Watts, but seems never to have qualified as a solicitor himself and later worked on the London Stock Exchange. He lived in Surrey but played first class cricket for Kent between 1855 and 1860 (as a Gentleman, of course).  The next brother, born the year before Ellen, Edward,  became a clerk in the War Office and also lived in Surrey. After Ellen came Bertha, who married Dr John Hackney, a GP with a practice in Hythe High Street. Then came Georgiana, who rather less respectably married a man who was a travelling salesman for Burtons Ales. He died young and she returned as a widow to Hythe. The next sister, Mary Amelia married Commander Arthur Mansell RN: they are both buried in St Leonard’s churchyard. Finally, the youngest, Duncan, became a solicitor and went, like his brothers, to live in Surrey.

James died suddenly in 1872. He had undergone an operation in London for an undisclosed complaint but quickly – perhaps too quickly – returned to Hythe to attend a Town Council meeting which was discussing a controversy in which he was embroiled. It was too much for him and he died a few days later. He was buried in the vault he had built for Ellen. Charlotte outlived him by seventeen years and joined him there in 1889.

After her death, her surviving children gave to St Leonard’s Church a parcel of land at the end of Stade Street, where the family home had stood,  to provide for the building of St Michael’s Church, a so-called iron church.   At this time Hythe was developing fast; hundreds of houses were built on the south side of the Royal Military Canal near to Stade Street, to which working class families were attracted because of their modest rents. The Church wanted to provide for these people and, for a time, ‘mission type’ services were held in the nearby National School.  Once the Watts family had donated the site, a former vicar, the Reverend F.T. Scott, offered to pay for the building and an appeal for funds to furnish the church met with a good response.

See the source image                                               St Michael’s Church, Hythe, the ‘Tin Tabernacle’ 

The  flat pack church was ordered and erected within months and furnished with a wooden altar and pews, gas lighting and a coke stove for the winter months.  It was consecrated as St Michael’s church on 19 September 1893 and has since been sympathetically restored and is a real landmark in the town. Unlike their decaying gravestones, it is a living memorial to the presence of the Watts family in Hythe.

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James Watts senior: a self-made man

 

An impressive obelisk and a vault set into the hillside, the last resting places of two brothers who dominated Hythe civic life in the mid years of the nineteenth century.  The passing visitor peering at the graves would be none the wiser, however, as the weather (or aggressive cleaning) has erased all but the merest trace of their names.

They were James and Edward Watts, the sons of another James Watts.

James Watts senior was born in 1778. He was the son of James Watts and Mary nee Goddard who came from New Romney. He was baptised in St Leonard’s church in Hythe on 12 July 1778. His parents were, according to his obituary, far from rich.  He had a younger brother, Edward.  Aged just twenty, he married Hannah Holmes, again in St Leonard’s church on 30 October 1798. By his early twenties was starting out on his business and political career. He first became licensee of the Red Lion public house, which was at the centre of the livestock market in Hythe and a good place for making contacts. He started to accrue land and livestock himself and set up a coal and seed business.

He handed over the licence of the Red Lion to his brother (who held it until his death in 1826) and before he was thirty, he had gone into  business with a John Dray, running a hoy service round the coast from Hythe to London (often quicker than travelling by the dreadful roads, and heavy goods could be carried, too).

The hoy was very soon joined by another, but disaster struck only weeks later when during a gale the ‘Swan’ was dismasted and the captain killed.  Despite this, the business thrived and in 1810, James was doing well enough to buy John Dray’s share of the business.

He capitalised on the increased military activity in the area resulting from the building of the Martello towers and the Military Canal and won contracts to supply the army with forage and provisions. Reportedly, in 1814 his transactions with these contracts alone exceeded £100,000 – about £3.5 million today. By the time he made his will in 1826, he was a wealthy man, with a house and grounds in Stade Street, Marrowbone Hall, and thousands of acres of grazing land on the Romney Marsh. Increasingly his name was linked with those of Finnis, Mackeson and Tritton, the families who formed Hythe’s plutocracy.

 

See the source image

The Red Lion in Hythe, one of the first business ventures of James watt senior. It has changed little over the years.

See the source image                            Two of the Hythe Martello Towers. They were built in the early nineteenth century as part of the coastal fortifications designed to deal with a potential French invasion

He took a great interest in local affairs. For many years he was quarter-master of the Elham troop of Yeomanry Cavalry (which dovetailed nicely with his business interests); he became a Town Councillor and was a staunch Conservative  though that was a word he disliked, preferring the old-fashioned ‘Tory’; and eventually he became Mayor of Hythe in 1843, dying during his third consecutive year in office. The position of Mayor could only be held by the comparatively wealthy, as a great deal of hospitality was expected of the incumbent at his own expense, and James Watts was noted for the liberality of his entertainments. He was liberal with his charity, too. The Christmas before his death he gave ‘upwards of forty score pounds of beef and several tons of coals’ to the poor of Hythe,

He was an enthusiastic fox hunter and member of the East Kent meet, and would reportedly often spend fourteen hours a day in the saddle, either hunting or visiting his lands.

He and his wife had nine children born almost yearly after their marriage. The eldest son, John, died aged thirty-two in 1832. His younger sister Sarah, the eldest daughter, married the widowed Robert Tassell, a paper manufacturer and farmer of West Malling in 1835, but died just two years later. Her daughter, Frances, had died two months before that.

The next child, another daughter, died aged eight in 1811. James and Edward, followed. Then there was a daughter, Anne, who died in her twenties; another, Harriet, who married John Taylor of Sene (or Sceene or Scene) farm near Hythe and became eventually the mother-in-law of Arthur Randall Davis; and two sons called William, born in 1811 and 1812 who died aged only a few months.

Hannah Watts died on 1 July 1845 and James only four days later, apparently of an ulcerated stomach.

His funeral was a grand affair. The shops in Hythe closed, the pews in St Leonard’s Church were draped in black and the great and good of the town all attended. The MP, Sir William Deedes, sent his carriage. He was buried in the churchyard, but the stone which must surely have marked his last resting place has either disappeared or become wholly illegible.