People were not the only scarce resource in the engine trade. There was also the matter of land. Murray had set up his business in Holbeck on property prized for its proximity to his customers and as a hub on Britain’s canal network, the transport super-highway of the 1790s. To the West, the Leeds and Liverpool canal, which terminated in the nearby canal basin, gave Fenton, Murray and Wood ready access to the industrial wonder of the world that was Manchester, to its satellite Lancastrian towns, and then on to the port of Liverpool. To the East, the Aire and Calder Navigation linked them to the North Sea. In later years paddle ships would be brought up to the canal basin to be fitted with steam engines, and Murray even took orders for engines to run on the Mississippi. Real-estate that had been open farmland a generation earlier was now prime with development potential.
So when Watt saw the growing prosperity and order book of Fenton, Murray and Wood, he devised another plan to stop the upstart Leeds engine-makers in their tracks. In his own forthright words to Matthew Boulton: “I have been surveying the environs of this rival establishment & making enquiries respecting the property & tenure of the neighbouring lands, with a view to seeing whether we could purchase anything under their very nose that might materially annoy them & eventually benefit ourselves.”
Watt seems to have had a number of potential annoyances in mind. For one thing, Murray’s business was growing, as evidenced by the work in progress on the Round Foundry. The land for this had come from Murray’s old employer John Marshall, who owned other freeholds in the area. By snapping up adjacent sites and occupying them like so many squares on a chess board, Boulton and Watt could hem the competitor in, and prevent him expanding the works contiguously. The inconvenience of having to move components across split sites would surely hurt the Holbeck firm’s efficiency. Even if Murray was able to buy other adjacent plots, he might have to pay a higher price in recognition of the artificial scarcity that Watt was engineering. And if Watt ever came to sell he’d be able to name his price.
Watt also had a mind to set up his own shop in Leeds to service the growing customer base in and around the city, but also it seems to indulge his now visceral dislike of the local competition. As he wrote to Boulton, “The only way to harass them seems to be by destroying the basis of their ill-gotten fame and setting up a competition that will diminish their orders. All our friends here are of the opinion that there is sufficient opening here for another works…” He considered partnering with other local engineers but found none of them of sufficient quality. If Boulton, Watt and Sons were to expand in Leeds they would do so in their own right.
But the prize plot on James Watt Junior’s real-estate shopping list had something else going for it. It jutted directly into Fenton, Murray and Wood’s site, allowing its occupant a clear view of the main yard. As Watt put it: “There is a Malthouse which projects into their premises, which they have in vain attempted to purchase at a modest rate. It is in the possession of a Widow, who is aware that it would be of some advantage to them & therefore asks a high price. This would enable us to overlook their whole Yard & holding it we might dictate our own terms.”
In this part at least, he was unsuccessful. It seems the widow was as wise to Watt’s intentions as she was to Murray’s and refused to sell at an economic price. Another plot near the canal was also too expensive. But Watt was prepared to pay up to £1500 for an acre and a half of land next to Murray’s works and instructed a local solicitor named Upton to do the deal. This sum, for comparison’s sake, was a little more than the price of one 15 horse-power engine at the time.