Memorials

Over the succeeding years both firms were spurred on by their rivalry. Both continued to compete for the business of the mill-owners of northern England, and both diversified into fitting out steam ships. The new frontier for steam was mobile – to take the massive, fixed steam engines that powered the mills and put them on wheels, replacing millennia-long reliance on horse-power for the transport of goods and people. Many tried. Richard Trevithick even demonstrated the principle on a track at a “steam circus” in London near the site of the modern-day Euston Station. But Fenton, Murray and Wood can claim the title of first commercially successful steam locomotive. Their engine was built in 1812, and named the Salamanca after a military victory of the same year. The Salamanca (pictured on the front cover of this book) and three other engines like it ran on a rack railway designed by John Blenkinsopp, at Middleton, near Leeds. They replaced horse power in the hauling of coal from the mine at Middleton, across Hunslet Moor to the outskirts of Leeds.

The older James Watt enjoyed a long retirement and died, aged 83, in 1819. Despite the important improvements he undoubtedly made to the steam engine, some also hold him responsible for holding back the development of the technology with his use of patents and his caution about engines running at high pressure. William Murdoch, for example, might have made greater strides were it not for Watt’s insistence on low pressure engines.

Matthew Murray’s letters paint a picture of a practical engineer eager to share his tips and tricks with his peers. When he died in 1826, aged 61, his workers cast an iron obelisk which still stands today in the grounds of St Matthew’s Church, Holbeck. There he is remembered alongside members of his family, including his wife, Mary, and a son, also called Matthew, who followed in his father’s footsteps as an engineer and died in Moscow at just 42. Many of Murray’s apprentices and workers went on to leading roles in other industrial enterprises. The successor firm of Fenton, Murray and Jackson survived until 1843.

James Junior lived in style at Aston Hall, Birmingham, where he died, unmarried, in 1848. His correspondence, now preserved in Birmingham, offers a rich insight into the parallel developments of technology and business through the critical years of the industrial revolution. However we view his business practices – and the onslaught against Murray seems just one of many – he was successful in translating his father’s genius into a multi-generational business empire. The firm of Boulton and Watt lasted 120 years, making steam engines until 1895 and ensuring that the name Watt would be forever associated with steam, invention and the industrial revolution.

Which brings us to a Sunday morning in February 1926. One hundred years and a day after Matthew Murray’s death, a delegation of worthies assembled at St. Matthew’s for a centenary church service. Alongside the Lord Mayor of Leeds were prominent engineers and trade unionists. The incumbent Rev. R. J. Wood preached a sermon on a text from the Book of Proverbs: “Seest thou a man diligent in his business? He shall stand before kings; he shall not stand before mean men.” Afterwards there were talks on the life of Murray, including one by the Leeds engineer E. Kilburn Scott who was to edit a centenary edition of Murray and Watt’s letters.

Kilburn Scott listed Murray’s many achievements in spinning, steam engines and boring machines (that is, machines for making holes in things). He gave a lurid account of Watt’s campaign of persecution. But there was one final injustice that Kilburn Scott felt especially keenly. In 1899 Leeds councillors had chosen statues to adorn their brand new City Square. As the centrepiece subject they picked Edward, the Black Prince, who despite having no personal connection with the city symbolised the virtues they hoped to uphold: democracy and chivalry. For supporting roles they chose three Leeds worthies: scientist Joseph Priestley, merchant John Harrison and clergyman Walter Hook. For the fourth plinth they picked a famous engineer: none other than Matthew Murray’s nemesis James Watt.

Surely, said Kilburn Scott, this could not have been a deliberate rebuff of a favourite son? If the city fathers had known then of the story of Watt’s subterfuge, it might be Murray, not Watt, gazing down on arriving passengers at the new City Station. As a newspaper letter-writer, W.J. Barker, put it at the time: “Matthew Murray, who with exceptional skill and high reputation, founded the locomotive industry in Leeds, lies in a neglected and half-forgotten grave in Holbeck Churchyard, while the memory of the man who became so jealous of him that his firm bought land next to Murray’s works with the object of preventing extensions, is commemorated in City Square.”

But the victors write the history, and James Watt Senior still stands on his plinth today.

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