Historian Dr Kate Croft has been talking about the women behind Watt – his two wives.

The inventor and engineer was married to Margaret (“Peggy”) Miller from 1764 until her death in 1773. In 1776 he married Ann MacGregor. Ann’s relationship with Watt continued until his death in 1819.

While much has been written about Watt’s partnerships with men, his domestic life and his marital partnerships have received less attention. Both wives were hugely supportive of Watt and his work. Kate says: “I think putting women back into the picture is certainly something that is long overdue.”

Listen to an interview here . .  . .

Dr Kate Croft, researching the history of the wives of James Watt.
Dr Kate Croft, researching the history of the wives of James Watt.

Dr Croft said: “Peggy emerges as a very calm lady. She’s sort of described as having a very sweet disposition, who was able to – I think – bring a little bit of sunshine into James Watt’s life. He was quite a melancholy person, but she seemed to enliven his spirits.

“She was very supportive of his steam engine schemes, and certainly when his away from home at Kinneil (central Scotland), and as a surveyor. She looked after the business, she worked in the shop that they had at Trongate (Glasgow). And she was also very aware, I think, of the need for secrecy about these developments. So … Peggy emerges as somebody who has great faith in her husband; who offers him emotional support, practical support in the business. And also, he’s very aware of the importance of the developments that he’s working on the intellectual property side of things.

“And this is continued after Peggy dies. She dies and delivering a stillborn son in 1773. And Watt is devastated. They were very much love match. He writes very effective letters to her during the course of their marriage.”

Watt – then a father of two children – moves to Birmingham and goes into partnership with Matthew Boulton.

Dr Croft continued: “In 1776, he goes back up to Glasgow and he marries Ann McGregor, and who is in some ways quite similar to Peggy – in stuff like that she’s very supportive of him, and they’re also very affectionate letters written between and James Watt. She also gets involved in the business aspects. So she gets involved with correspondence around the the Soho enterprises. She offers emotional support, especially giving him, sort of, rallying him through his lower moments – when he’s melancholy gets a little bit much for him.”

She added: “I think both Peggy and Ann are incredibly important in offering very practical help to Watt, as well as what we understand wives of these men doing.

“Yes, they are running households, and they are providing love and companionship to James Watt – but they’re also involved in more practical ways in actually his endeavours: his business endeavours, his scientific and technical endeavours. So I think they’re importance needs to be remembered – especially as we are now thinking about James Watt and his legacy.”

Kate Croft spoke to us after a presentation during a conference on Watt at the University of Birmingham. She is a freelance lecturer and researcher based in the West Midlands.  Her research interests focus on the women associated with the eighteenth-century Lunar Society, of which James Watt was a member. Since completing her PhD on Thomas Day, Kate has continued her research on gender and the Lunar Society and is currently a research associate at the University of Birmingham. She has co-edited The Power to Change the World: James Watt (1736-1819) A Life in 50 Objects (History West Midlands, 2019) with Malcolm Dick.