Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Watson, James (1799-1874)
WATSON, JAMES (1799–1874), radical publisher, was born at Malton, Yorkshire, on 21 Sept. 1799. His father died when he was barely a year old. His mother, ‘a Sunday school teacher,’ taught him to read and write. About 1811 she returned to domestic service in the family of a clergyman who had paid for James's schooling for a few quarters. The boy became under-gardener, stable-help, and house-servant, and acquired a strong taste for reading over the kitchen fire in winter evenings. About 1817 the parson's household was broken up, and Watson accompanied his mother to Leeds, where he became a warehouseman. Two years later he was converted to freethought and radicalism by public readings from Cobbett and Richard Carlile [q. v.] For the next few years he took an active part in disseminating advanced literature and in getting up a subscription on behalf of Carlile. The latter being sentenced in 1821 to three years' imprisonment for blasphemy, Watson went up to London in September 1822 to serve as a volunteer assistant in his Water Lane bookshop. In January 1823 Carlile's wife, having completed her term of imprisonment, took a new shop at 201 Strand, whither Watson removed, still in the capacity of salesman. The occupation was a perilous one, and, despite all the precautions taken, salesman after salesman was arrested. This fate overtook Watson at the end of February 1823. He was charged with ‘maliciously’ selling a copy of Palmer's ‘Principles of Nature’ to a police agent, and, having made an eloquent speech in his own defence, was sent to Coldbath Fields prison for a year. There he read Hume, Gibbon, and Mosheim's ‘Ecclesiastical History,’ and was strongly confirmed in his anti-christian and republican opinions. During 1825 he learned the art of a compositor, and was employed in printing Carlile's ‘Republican,’ and for some time in conducting his business. In the intervals of work he suffered privation, and in 1826 was struck down by cholera. Upon his recovery he became a convert to the co-operative schemes of Robert Owen, and in 1828 he was storekeeper of the ‘First Co-operative Trading Association’ in London in Red Lion Square. In 1831 he set up as a printer and publisher, and next year was arrested and narrowly escaped imprisonment for organising a procession and a feast on the day the government had ordained ‘a general fast’ on account of the ravages of the cholera. In February 1833 he was summoned at Bow Street for selling Hetherington's ‘Poor Man's Guardian,’ and was sentenced to six months' imprisonment at Clerkenwell. His championship of the right to free expression of opinion had won him admirers, and one of these, Julian Hibbert, upon his death in January 1834, left him 450 guineas, with which sum Watson promptly enlarged his printing plant. He made a bold start by printing the life and works of Tom Paine, and these volumes were followed by Mirabaud's ‘System of Nature’ and Volney's ‘Ruins.’ Later he printed Byron's ‘Cain’ and ‘Vision of Judgment,’ Shelley's ‘Queen Mab’ and ‘Masque of Anarchy,’ and Clark on the ‘Miracles of Christ.’ All these were printed, corrected, folded, and sewed by Watson himself, and issued at one shilling or less per volume. His shop near Bunhill Fields (whence he removed first to the City Road, and in 1843 to 5 Paul's Alley) was well known to all the leading radicals of the day, and he had ‘pleasant and informing words for all who sought his wares.’ He married on 3 June 1834, and two months later was arrested and imprisoned for six months for having circulated Hetherington's unstamped paper, the ironically entitled ‘Conservative.’ He had a little earlier come under the observation of the government as a leader in the great meeting of trade unions (in April) in favour of the action of the Dorchester labourers [see Wakley, Thomas]. He bore imprisonment with resignation; ‘I love privacy’ he wrote to his wife. This was his last imprisonment, though he continued without intermission to issue books upon the government ‘Index.’
In June 1837 he was on the committee appointed to draw up the necessary bills embodying the chartist demands. But he was opposed to the unwise violence exhibited by the agitators, and, on the other hand, to the overtures made to whig partisans whom he consistently denounced for their selfishness. He remained constant in devotion to chartist ‘principles’—‘the charter, the whole charter, and nothing but the charter’—and he was bitterly adverse to ‘peddling away the people's birthright for any mess of cornlaw pottage.’ In 1848 he was one of the conveners of the first public meeting to congratulate the French upon the revolution of that year. In the year previous he had given his adherence to the ‘Peoples' International League’ founded by Mazzini, of whom he was an admiring friend and correspondent.
A frugal, severe, and self-denying liver, a thin, haggard, thoughtful man, with an intellectual face and a grave yet gentle manner, Watson was an uncommon type of English tradesman. He lost considerably over his publishing, his object being profitable reading for uneducated people rather than personal gain. At the same time he cared for the correctness and decent appearance of his books, even the cheapest. ‘They were his children, he had none other.’ An unstamped and absolutely free press became the practical object of his later years.
About 1870 anxiety about the health of his wife, Eleanor Byerley, induced a serious decline of his own powers. He died at Burns College, Hamilton Road, Lower Norwood, on 29 Nov. 1874, and was buried in Norwood cemetery, where a grey granite obelisk erected by friends commemorates his ‘brave efforts to secure the rights of free speech.’ Among his comrades in the most active period of his life were Henry Hetherington [q. v.], William Lovett [q. v.], Thomas Wakley [q. v.], Thomas Slingsby Duncombe [q. v.], and Mr. Thomas Cooper.
A photographic portrait is prefixed to the appreciative ‘Memoir’ by W. J. Linton.[James Watson: a Memoir, by W. J. Linton, privately printed, 1880; Linton's Memories, 1898, passim; A Report of the Trial of James Watson at the Clerkenwell Sessions House, 24 April 1823; Wallas's Life of Francis Place, 1888, pp. 272, 291, 365; Wheeler's Biogr. Dict. of Freethinkers, 1889, pp. 330–1; Stanton's Reforms and Reformers; Gammage's Hist. of Chartism; Holyoake's Life of R. Carlile, 1848, and Sixty Years of an Agitator's Life, ii. 161, 266.]