By Ellie Jones, Cathedral Archivist
Some monuments and ledger stones in the Cathedral have lengthy inscriptions, declaring the virtues and life stories of the people they commemorate. Others are more modest, such as one in the South Nave aisle floor whose inscription reads simply: G.W. Octr 1804. Ӕ 27.
G.W. was Gregory Watt (1777-1804), the son of the Scottish chemist, engineer, and manufacturer James Watt (famous for his improvements to the Newcomen steam engine) and his second wife Ann McGrigor.
Gregory Watt had been, by all accounts, a talented engineer and chemist, a great speaker – skilled in Latin and Greek – as well as a popular, liberal, and generous character. His friend and fellow student at university in Glasgow, the Scottish Romantic poet Thomas Campbell, described him as “a splendid stripling – literally the most beautiful youth I ever saw”.
After finishing university Watt joined his father and elder brother, James, in running the Soho Foundry in Birmingham. Unfortunately he was already struggling with the effects of tuberculosis, and after a while he was sent to live in the milder climate of Penzance in the hope that it would help. Whilst there he lodged with Humphry Davy (chemist, early pioneer of electricity, and inventor of the Davy lamp), and his mother. Watt and Davy soon bonded over a shared love of chemistry, and became great friends.
Watt’s respiratory condition worsened, and his brother took over the foundry work, enabling him to travel to Europe for his health. Whilst in Paris in 1801/2 he met and travelled with the Scottish-American geologist William Maclure, and developed a keen interest in geology. Some of his work on the properties of basalt was published by the prestigious Royal Society of London. Despite his failing health, he continued to work on his own experiments – as well as assisting his father – whenever he could.
Sadly, the improvements he felt from his time in Europe were temporary. In his last months he returned to the south of England, spending time in Clifton, Bath and then Sidmouth. He felt that the sea air was making his symptoms worse and moved to his aunt’s house in Exeter, where he died a few days later, on 16th October 1804, at the age of 27.
At their meeting on the 27th October 1804, the Dean & Chapter granted permission “for the interment of George [sic] Watt Esq. in the Body of the Church”. His father wrote to his business partner Matthew Boulton that “the remains of poor Gregory were deposited in a decent, though private manner, in the north aisle of the Cathedral here, near the transept… I mean to erect a tablet to his memory on the adjoining wall; but his virtues and merits will be best recorded in the breasts of his friends”.