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.

The coal in which James traded was landed by ship at Hythe beach. James owned his own collier ship, the Shepherd,  which plied between Newcastle and Hythe. He was required by law to employ a coal meter, a council employee who weighed the coal as it was off-loaded, but refused to do so. Hythe Corporation made a great deal of fuss about this, but he was able to produce a certificate issued at the port of embarkation (1). Presumably this made the landing process more efficient.


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.

(1) Kent Archives Hy/JP1

A Tide in the Affairs of Men – Part One

The tide in the affairs of the men of Hythe in the seventeenth century was the real tide of the sea, to which their lives were inextricably bound. Its importance for the commercial life of the town, for fishing and trade, cannot be overstated, and the town’s status as one of the original Cinque Ports was a matter of great civic pride. But the sea was, conversely, the town’s enemy, threatening livelihoods by destroying the port, devastating the land and stealing lives.

Hythe haven had been silting up for at least the last hundred years. The English Channel acts as a funnel. As tides come in from the Atlantic, so they are ever-increasingly restricted as they reach the straits of Dover. Shingle and sand are carried eastwards, and attempts to build piers out into the sea to protect the harbour only create eddies in which the sea deposits its load, choking up the newly-built harbour yet again. The problem is compounded if at the same time there is a river bringing down silt, as was the case at Hythe.

By the end of the sixteenth century the haven was being cut out. Another attempt was made in 1615, and yet another in 1619, but by 1634 it was ‘stopped and swarmed up whereby no boat or other vessel can come in’.  Every man in the town was expected to contribute money or labour to another attempt to save it.

It was swarmed up again twenty years later. This time, a more businesslike approach was taken, and the corporation appointed a sub-committee set up to manage the process. The original haven may have been deemed beyond repair by this time and a new location chosen, as it is afterwards referred to as the ‘New Haven’.  A sluice was created, to pent up and then release the water from the freshwater streams draining into the sea. This surge would wash away the silt, in theory.  Sluice keepers were employed for ‘drawing up and letting down’ the gates.

This effort lasted twenty five years, until 1679, when a resolution was made by the corporation to cut it out again. Whether this actually happened is doubtful. Perhaps the time had come to accept the inevitable. A map of 1685 shows Hythe with a completely unbroken coastline and no sign of a haven at all.

By this time, the great dispute over Sir William’s wall was underway.

It started in 1683, when Sir William Honeywood, sometime jurat of Hythe had, against the corporation wishes, enclosed some land he owned near the stade.  This had the effect of diverting the tide, so that instead of flowing up the beach it ran into the town. Some houses were reported to have three feet of water in them. It also crossed a right of way from the town to the beach given to the town in 1629. It was still there in 1691, and the Cinque Ports confederation agreed to fund the town’s legal action against Sir William. This presumably failed, as aggrieved mention is made of it again six years later in a land transfer document, and it still stood for at least the first twenty years of the next century.

Sir William was a wealthy baronet, whose link to Hythe was that his family owned Sene farm, just up the hill from the town.  When a Hythe jurat, although then a very young man, he had insisted on always being given precedence over the mayor and other jurats, despite their seniority of age and service.  Their opinion of him may be gauged from the fact that they then twice rebuffed his efforts to become their representative in parliament. In the early 1680s he went to try his luck in Canterbury, where the corporation were swayed by his generous and frequent hospitality. Was the wall his revenge on Hythe? The evidence points that way.

Flooding, however, was nothing new, and seems to have been on the increase since the 1650s. The land between the town and the sea had, over the last few hundred years, been ‘inned’, or reclaimed from the sea which once covered it. After a few years, generally reckoned to be ten, it was considered fit to use as grazing land. However, it was completely flat and a good, sound sea wall was needed to keep the salt tides out. This proved problematic, as repairing the wall cost money that the corporation very often lacked. In 1660 two jurats did the work gratis and a couple of years later all the jurats were obliged to lend the corporation ten pounds each to pay for repairs. At this time the corporation owned much of the innings, and if they failed to keep out the floods would be liable to pay compensation to tenants, as they did when Thomas Little’s sheep were drowned in 1666. Ownership of the innings was proving too expensive, and in the 1650s and 1660s, the corporation started selling off large chunks of it, notably to Julius Deedes, one of their own jurats.