James Watson, Victorian Waterworks Engineer 1844-1919
The History and Heritage Group, which meets once a month, was treated to a talk by Chris Hossack about ‘The Life and Times of a Victorian Waterworks Engineer 1844-1919’. The presentation described a talented and sought after man, James Watson, who was also Chris Hossack’s great grandfather.
James Watson learnt his skill while being apprenticed to a Mr John Johnstone in Douglas, and then went on to start his own business in Lanark. At a time when there was much progress in the transportation of clean water to residents, Watson oversaw some crucial developments as part of great expansion plans.
Watson’s move to Dundee, where he was Chief Engineering Assistant to Mr Mackison, came at a time when the city suffered poor sanitation and disease. Cholera was rife as drinking water was often contaminated with human-waste. James Watson’s appointment as engineer by Dundee Water Commissioners lay the platform from which he oversaw the successful construction of the Clatto reservoir. Whilst residing in Dundee, he was one of the first to be informed of the Tay bridge disaster, which occurred on Sunday December 28th 1879. A section of the bridge had come apart and fallen in the river, along with the passenger train travelling across it. There were around 200 casualties, and the horror of the event is felt through a poignant entry from James Watson’s diary. Watson’s words, “Many an anxious and sorrowful heart in Dundee that night. Never such a catastrophe has happened “ depict the sorrow and gloom that must have descended over the town.
On January 13th, 1891, Watson was appointed Waterworks Engineer for the City of Bradford, where he continued to oversee the development of reservoirs and aqueducts to ensure adequate fresh water supplies to the city. His diary records and highlights some of his successes; “my own Bradford Works: Angram Reservoir, Nidderdale Railway, and other supply reservoirs”.
He served as consultant to other schemes and provided counsel to water companies including the Derwent Valley Scheme, which supplies Leicester. Upon his application for a similar position in London, Watson received a considerable pay rise in an effort to keep him in Bradford.
James Watson’s personal life was also very eventful; his first wife bore him many children, some of which suffered infant mortality. He grieved the loss of his first wife while still in Dundee, after which he married her sister, to the disapproval of some. While in Bradford, his second wife died, after having borne him more children. This was followed by the sad news of his son’s death at 25 years old by Typhoid.
Watson continued to serve as consultant to many schemes as his knowledge and skills were valued worldwide. In the 31st of December 1904, he wrote in his diary, “During the year I have acted for Salford, Birmingham, Leeds, Huddersfield, London, Otley, Sheffield, Edinburgh, Stirling, Arbroath, Lanark, Falkirk, Calcutta and Jerusalem”. His dedication to his work earned him international recognition and he remained in his profession, which he loved, until the end of his days.
James Watson died on Saturday 19th March 1919, and was buried in Dundee where he had worked as waterworks engineer for 28 years. We are surrounded by and remain reliant on his many achievements. He was a hard-working man and instrumental figure in the development of water and transportation infrastructure in Great Britain and beyond.