At the heart of Greenock – on the west coast of Scotland – is a complex which celebrates James Watt, learning and local heritage.

This is the Watt Institution – a series of buildings housing the Watt Library, the Watt Hall and McLean Museum and Art Gallery. 

The buildings cover part of Union Street and Kelly Street in the town.

The Library was established first – to house a memorial statue of the great Greenock-born inventor James Watt and provide a new home for Greenock Library.

Watt’s son, James Watt Jnr, provided funds to help deliver the library building. There was also local fundraising.

Sir Edward Blore – the architect behind the Houses of Parliament in London – was enlisted to draw up designs.

The Watt Library initially opened in 1837. The campus was then extended with the help of another architect, Alexander Adamson, to create the adjoining Hall and Museum. The final section was opened in 1876.

In recent years the complex has undergone a £2 million refurbishment programme. It is due to re-open to the public on November 22, 2019.

The frontage of the Watt Library - part of the Watt Institution - following its refurbishment. This picture was taken in July 2019.
The frontage of the Watt Library – part of the Watt Institution – following its refurbishment. This picture was taken in July 2019. Picture courtesy of Inverclyde Council.

Earlier this year, we spoke to Lorraine Murray, the archivist at Inverclyde Archives – part of Inverclyde Council – about the complex.

Listen to the interview by clicking the link below.

Lorraine Murray from Inverclyde Council.
Lorraine Murray from Inverclyde Council.

“My name is Lorraine Murray. I’m the archivist for Inverclyde Archives, based at the Watt Institution in Greenock.

“I’m going to talk a little bit about the history of what’s known as the Watt Institution, which comprises of three separate buildings: the Watt Library, the Watt Hall, and the McLean Museum.

“The earliest of these three buildings was originally known as the Watt Library, occasionally referred to as the Watt Monument Library. This was actually the home given to a much earlier subscription library in Greenock, which was started in 1783. And apparently – from what I’ve heard – it’s earlier than Glasgow Library and Stirling Library. So it’s possibly the oldest, if not one of the oldest, subscription libraries in Scotland.

“The library collection didn’t have a permanent home for many, many years until a much later point and money was raised by public subscription and a generous donation from James Watt Junior, the son of James Watt, the inventor. And the idea was to find a permanent home for the Greenock Library, and somewhere to host a memorial statue to James Watt, in his birth town in Greenock.

This memorial to James Watt stands in the Watt Library, Greenock.
This marble memorial to James Watt stands in the Watt Library, Greenock. It was sculpted by Sir Francis Chantrey (1781-1841) and is a replica of the statue commissioned by James Watt Jnr for his father’s tomb at Handsworth Parish Church in Birmingham. © Inverclyde Libraries, McLean Museum and Inverclyde Archives. More here

“But this kind of started a bit earlier [before Watt’s death] – because in 1813 there was a formation of a gentleman’s club, which became known as the Watt Club. Now, these gentlemen were a mixture of businessmen, lawyers, all sorts of people like that – the sort of elite of Greenock and surrounding areas.

“And they used to meet in a place called the Watt Tavern, which was located at the foot of William Street, possibly at the corner of Dalrymple Street in Greenock.

“And the site of the James Watt Tavern is the site of the birthplace – the home where James Watt was born.

“Now, initially, they didn’t have a name for the club – it was quite an unofficial gentleman’s club.

“But, after the death of James Watt, they decided to give themselves the name of the Watt Club. They wanted to create rules and regulations and formalise the whole thing.

“And James Watt Jnr of Soho who was one of the honorary members and was involved in this with the idea and the impetus to memorialise his father in the town of his birth.

“There was a proposal in 1820 that some kind of memorial – whether it be a statue or something within the public domain – to remember James Watt.

“But it took some time and it wasn’t until 1826 that funds were raised by the Watt Club, and they commissioned Sir Francis Leggatt Chantrey to execute a marble statue.

“So James Watt Jnr offered funds for the building of a library to host the statue and to host a donated collection by his father … a scientific library.

“And before all of this happened – there had been public subscription, there had been money for that.

“By the time a suitable site was found in the west end of Greenock – which took up until 1835 – Sir Michael Shaw Stewart laid the foundation stone on the site. And two years later, in 1837, the Watt Institution opened. Only the central part of the building was opened, and it took probably in the region of 12 years for the rest of the building to be built.

“But what’s interesting about the building is that James Watt Jnr wanted the best sculptor of the time to create this monument to his father – and what he considered to be the best, if not one of the best, architects of the time. So the building was designed by Sir Edward Blore who’s also responsible for Westminster Abbey and for the Houses of Parliament.

“So it wasn’t just about memorialising his father – but it was doing it in a very kind of prominent way, using the best people of the time, in his opinion.

“By 1849, the building was complete. It took another couple of years for fundraising efforts to pay off the entire cost of the building.

“Then later on, the campus extended to include the Watt Lecture Hall, and the McLean Museum, and that was pretty much down to the kindness of one man: James McLean, who was the benefactor of the Hall and Museum. So two additional plots were given for the current site in Kelly Street and by 1875 James McLean, who was a timber merchant, offered funds for this to be done.

“The completion of building – which was designed by a different architect, someone by the name of Alexander Adamson – happened in 1876.

“Unfortunately, James McLean died the next year in 1877. And, as far as I understand it, he wasn’t actually able to make the trip to see the completed building.

“But thanks to the kindness of all these people we know have what’s known as the Watt Institution, which is the home of the McLean Museum, the home of the Watt Library and Inverclyde Archives.”

The McLean Museum and Art Gallery in Greenock - undergoing a revamp. It is being renamed The Watt Institution.
The McLean Museum and Art Gallery in Greenock has undergone a revamp in recent years. It will re-open to the public on November 22, 2019.

See a drawing of the interior of the Watt Library on