Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Watson, Richard (1737-1816)

WATSON, RICHARD (1737–1816), bishop of Llandaff, younger son of Thomas Watson (1672–1753), was born in August 1737 (baptised 25 Sept.) at Heversham, Westmoreland, where his father, a clergyman, was master (1698–1737) of the grammar school. Among his father's pupils was Ephraim Chambers [q. v.] Watson got his schooling at Heversham; not from his father, who had resigned before his birth. On 3 Nov. 1754 he was admitted a sizar of Trinity College, Cambridge; 300l. left him by his father, provided for his education. The ‘blue worsted stockings and coarse mottled coat’ in which he came up were long a tradition at Cambridge. He early made a good impression by a clever criticism of an argument in Clarke on the ‘Attributes,’ and gained a scholarship on 2 May 1757, a year before the usual time, winning the special favour of the master, Robert Smith (1689–1768) [q. v.] He graduated B.A. in January 1759 as second wrangler. His examination entitled him to the first place, but ‘the talk about’ the injustice done him proved ‘more service than if’ he ‘had been made senior wrangler.’ On 1 Oct. 1760 he was elected fellow. In 1762 he proceeded M.A., was made moderator (10 Oct.) with John Jebb [q. v.], and helped William Paley [q. v.] at a pinch by suggesting the insertion of a ‘non’ in his proposed thesis, ‘Æternitas pœnarum contradicit divinis attributis.’

On the death of John Hadley [q. v.] in 1764 Watson was unanimously elected professor of chemistry by the senate on 19 Nov. His own statement is that he knew nothing of chemistry, ‘had never read a syllable on the subject, nor seen a single experiment;’ but he was ‘tired with mathematics and natural philosophy,’ and wanted ‘to try’ his ‘strength in a new pursuit.’ He sent to Paris for ‘an operator’ (Hoffman), ‘buried’ himself in his laboratory, and in fourteen months (during which he had shattered his workshop by an explosion) began a course of chemical lectures which were largely attended. At first awkward as an experimenter, he soon attained dexterity, and his annual courses of chemistry lectures attracted crowded audiences. He printed, but did not publish, his ‘Institutionum Chemicarum … Pars Metallurgica,’ Cambridge, 1768, 8vo (reprinted in Chemical Essays, vol. ii.), as a text-book for part of his course, and a contribution to the work of giving ‘a scientific form’ to chemistry. His ingenious memoir, ‘Experiments and Observations on various phænomena attending the solutions of salts,’ brought him a unanimous election (2 Feb. 1769) as fellow of the Royal Society, and was translated from the ‘Transactions’ (lx. 325) into French. In June and July 1772 he discovered that a thermometer gave a higher indication when the bulb was painted with Indian ink. This seems the origin of the black-bulb thermometer. The introduction of platinum, wrongly ascribed to him, belongs to William Brownrigg [q. v.]

The chemistry chair was unendowed, and the university provided nothing but a lecture-room. Through the interest of his college friend, John Luther, with Charles Watson-Wentworth, second marquis of Rockingham [q. v.], and his own persistence with Newcastle, Watson obtained from the crown (July 1766) a stipend of 100l. during his tenure of the chair, refusing to have it settled on him for life. Besides chemistry he studied anatomy and practised dissection.

The death (5 Oct. 1771) of Thomas Rutherforth [q. v.] left vacant the regius chair of divinity, which ‘had long been the secret object’ of Watson's ambition. He was, however, not qualified for candidature, having no degree in divinity. ‘By hard travelling and some adroitness’ he obtained the king's mandate, and was created D.D. on 14 Oct., the day before the examination of the candidates. He was unanimously elected (31 Oct.), and entered upon office on 14 Nov. The rectory of Somersham, Huntingdonshire, went with the chair.

At the end of the year he printed ‘an essay,’ already in the press, ‘On the Subjects of Chemistry and their general divisions,’ 1771, 8vo, followed by his ‘Plan of Chemical Lectures,’ 1771, 8vo, intending these as taking leave of the science. His ‘Essay’ was described in the ‘Journal Encyclopédique’ as indebted to D'Holbach's ‘Système de la Nature’ (1770), a work which Watson had never seen. For some years he kept his resolution to abandon chemistry; but in 1781 he published a first volume of ‘Chemical Essays,’ followed at intervals by four others. The first two volumes were translated into German by F. A. Gallisch, Leipzig, 1782, 8vo. In the preface to the fourth volume (9 Feb. 1786), he announces that he had ‘destroyed all’ his ‘chemical manuscripts,’ intimating that this was ‘a sacrifice to other people's notions’ of the proper occupation of a dignitary of the church. The ‘Chemical Essays’ reached a seventh edition in 1800. The most notable essays are (1) On ‘the Degrees of Heat at which Water … Boils’ (1781), describing an experiment on the boiling of water in a closed flask nearly free from air, which has become classical; (2) ‘On Pit-coal’ (1781), suggesting the condensing of the volatile products from coke-ovens, an operation which has recently become of great industrial importance; (3) on ‘the smelting of Lead Ore’ (1782), suggesting the condensation of lead fume, and of the sulphurous acid produced in the roasting of sulphide ores; (4) ‘On Zinc’ (1786). In 1787 government consulted him about improvements in gunpowder; his advice is said to have resulted in a saving of 100,000l. a year.

On entering upon the duties of the divinity chair, Watson frankly admits that he ‘knew as much of divinity as could reasonably be expected of a man whose course of studies had been directed to, and whose time had been fully occupied in, other pursuits.’ Neglecting systematic and historical theology, he devoted himself to biblical studies, recognising no authority but the New Testament. His professorship connected him officially with the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel; he refused to contribute to it, believing its agents ‘more zealous in proselytising dissenters to episcopacy than in converting heathens to christianity’ (Letter to Maseres, 11 Oct. 1777). To the agitation for relief of the clergy from subscription, promoted by Francis Blackburne (1705–1787) [q. v.] and Francis Stone [q. v.], he did not give his name. He printed, however, ‘A Letter … by a Christian Whig’ (1772, 8vo), demurring to the expediency of exacting any subscription beyond a declaration of belief in the scriptures, and placed a copy in the hands of every member of the House of Commons on 5 Feb. 1772, the day before the debate on the clerical petition. ‘A Second Letter … by a Christian Whig’ (1772, 8vo), dealing with the subscription at graduation, was inscribed to Sir George Savile [q. v.], the advocate of the clerical petition, whom Watson did not personally know. The two letters were not acknowledged as his till 1815. Apart from expediency, he defended the right of every church to require uniformity of doctrinal profession, in ‘A Brief State of the Principles of Church Authority’ (1773, 8vo, anon.). This he repeated as a charge at Llandaff in June 1813. He felt more confidence in his views when he found they were those of Benjamin Hoadly (1676–1761) [q. v.]

At the end of 1773 he was presented to ‘a sinecure rectory’ in the diocese of St. Asaph, which he exchanged early in 1774 for a prebend at Ely, owing both pieces of preferment to the good offices of Augustus Henry Fitzroy, third duke of Grafton [q. v.], then chancellor of the university. His university sermon on 29 May 1776, on ‘The Principles of the Revolution Vindicated’ (Cambridge, 1776, 4to; several editions), gave lasting offence at court, and interfered, Watson thought, with his just promotion. John Dunning (afterwards first Baron Ashburton) [q. v.] said ‘it contained just such treason as ought to be preached once a month at St. James's.’ Several pamphlets appeared in reply. Watson was told the sermon prevented his appointment as provost of Trinity College, Dublin, but this is chronologically impossible [see Hely-Hutchinson, John}, (1724–1794)].

Later in the year he published his ‘Apology for Christianity … letters … to Edward Gibbon’ (1776, 12mo), the result of ‘a month's work in the long vacation,’ undertaken to meet the challenge of Sir Robert Graham (1744–1836) [q. v.] He sent Gibbon a copy before publication; courteous letters (2 and 4 Nov.) passed between them, and in Gibbon's ‘Vindication’ (January 1779) Watson is mentioned with marked respect, as ‘the most candid of adversaries.’ As a popular antidote to Gibbon's fifteenth chapter, the ‘Apology’ was widely welcomed, and has been constantly reprinted.

On 18 Oct. 1779 he was collated archdeacon of Ely, by his bishop, Edmund Keene [q. v.], and in August Keene gave him the rectory of Northwold, Norfolk (Cole's manuscript Athenæ Cantabr. Add. MS. 5883, p. 171). In February 1781 Charles Manners, fourth duke of Rutland [q. v.], who had been his pupil, and whose party he had aided in the Cambridgeshire election of 1780, presented him to the valuable rectory of Knaptoft, Leicestershire. He then resigned Northwold. A fever which attacked him in 1781 was attended with complications which left his health permanently impaired. In July 1782 the see of Llandaff was vacant by the translation of Shute Barrington [q. v.] Grafton and Rutland made interest with William Petty (then Lord Shelburne, afterwards first Marquis of Lansdowne) [q. v.], and Watson was appointed. He was consecrated on 20 Oct. 1782. Owing to the meagreness of the revenues of the see, he was allowed to retain his other preferments (except the archdeaconry); he reckoned his whole emoluments at 2,200l. a year.

He at once drew up proposals for a redistribution of church revenues, with a view to equalising episcopal and improving parochial incomes. The scheme was printed (November 1782), and, against Shelburne's advice, published as ‘A Letter to Archbishop Cornwallis on the Church Revenues’ (1783, 4to). Except Beilby Porteus [q. v.], no bishop acknowledged its receipt. Richard Cumberland (1732–1811) [q. v.], who had written before against Watson, attacked the ‘Letter,’ as did others; William Cooke (1711–1797) [q. v.] was one of the few who approved the plan. Watson returned to the subject in a speech (30 May) in the House of Lords.

To promote biblical study, Watson edited ‘A Collection of Theological Tracts’ (Cambridge, 1785, 6 vols. 8vo; 2nd edit. 1791), with a dedication to the queen. Of the twenty-four works here reprinted, some of the most important are by dissenting divines, George Benson [q. v.], Samuel Chandler, Nathaniel Lardner [q. v.], and John Taylor (1694–1761) [q. v.] On the death of his friend Luther (11 Jan. 1786) he came in for an estate which realised 20,500l. After an illness and a visit to Bath, under medical advice he appointed (26 May 1787) Thomas Kipling [q. v.] as his deputy in the divinity chair, and took leave of the university.

In 1788 he joined his old schoolfellow William Preston (d. 1789), then bishop of Ferns and Leighlin, in restoring the Heversham schoolhouse, inscribing it to the memories of its founder and his father. Fixing his residence in Westmoreland, first at Dallam Tower, then at Calgarth Park, where he built a house (1789), he devoted himself to extensive plantations and improvement of waste lands. The Society of Arts awarded him a premium for his paper on waste lands (published in Hunter's Georgical Essays, 1805, vol. v.). Another paper (published in 1808) obtained the year before the gold medal of the board of agriculture. Wordsworth sneered at his ‘vegetable manufactory.’ He was often in London, and visited his diocese triennially, but frankly records his various efforts to obtain translation to a better. His ‘Considerations on the Expediency of Revising the Liturgy and Articles’ (1790, 8vo) was anonymous, but acknowledged in 1815.

By far the most popular of his writings was his ‘Apology for the Bible … Letters … to Thomas Paine’ (1796, 12mo). This is usually described as an answer to Paine's ‘Age of Reason’ (1794), which Watson had not seen. It is directed against Paine's ‘Second Part’ (1795), and especially against Paine's treatment of scripture, which Watson thought unworthy of his powers. The ‘Apology’ was eagerly read in America as well as in this country. In addition to very numerous reprints it has been abridged (1820, 8vo) by Francis Wrangham [q. v.], and translated into French (1829, 12mo) by Louis Theodore Ventouillac. Posthumous fragments of Paine's ‘Answer’ were published in New York (1810–24), and in part reprinted in London in 1837.

In his ‘Address to the People of Great Britain’ (1798, 8vo, 20 Jan.) Watson urged that the progress of events had rendered the vigorous prosecution of the war inevitable, and approved Pitt's imposition of the income-tax. The ‘Address’ went through fourteen editions, besides pirated reprints, and was widely distributed by the government. ‘A Reply’ (1798) by Gilbert Wakefield [q. v.] led to Wakefield's trial and imprisonment. Watson, who had exchanged courteous notes with Wakefield, affirms that he ‘took some pains to prevent this prosecution.’ He took no notice of the taunt that he had changed his principles, and followed up the topic of the ‘Address’ in a charge (June 1798) to his clergy. His speech in the lords (11 April 1799), advocating the union with Ireland, was attacked by Benjamin Flower [q. v.], who was fined and imprisoned for a breach of privilege. Watson had not seen the attack, and was on his way to Calgarth when the house took action.

While occupied in political and economic questions, Watson kept in view the interests of practical religion. To Wilberforce, whom he supported in his efforts against the slave trade, he communicated (1 April 1800) a scheme for twenty new churches in London with free sittings. When Freylinghausen's ‘Abstract … of the Christian Religion’ (1804, 8vo) was issued at the queen's order, with Bishop Porteus as editor, he wrote to Grafton (23 Oct.), ‘I have not my religion to learn from a Lutheran divine.’ He published in 1804 a tract in favour of Roman catholic emancipation, and wrote (27 March 1805) to remove the scruples of a lady about marrying into the Greek church. The defence of revealed religion was his frequent topic both in the pulpit and through the press.

In 1805 Sir Walter Scott was his guest at Calgarth. Rawnsley affirms that cockfighting was merrily pursued there by the bishop's sons. In October 1809 Watson had a slight paralytic attack, followed in April 1810 by another, which crippled his right hand. Despairing of completing a projected series of theological essays, in 1811 he ‘treated’ his ‘divinity as’ he ‘twenty-five years ago treated’ his ‘chemical papers.’ After October 1813 his health rapidly declined. He died at Calgarth Park on 4 July 1816, and was buried in Windermere church, where is a tablet to his memory. His portrait, by George Romney [q. v.], was engraved by William Thomas Fry [q. v.]; the cock of the hat and the pose of the figure give a military air to his refined and resolute countenance. Another portrait painted by Reynolds belongs to the family (Cat. Guelph Exhib. No. 186). He married at Lancaster (21 Dec. 1773) Dorothy (d. 11 April 1831, aged 81), eldest daughter of Edward Wilson of Dallam Tower, Westmoreland, and had six children. His son Richard was LL.B. (1813) of Trinity College, Cambridge, and prebendary of Llandaff (1813) and Wells (1815).

Watson's versatility and power of application were alike remarkable. What he did he did well, up to a certain point, and then turned to something else. His scientific work was sound and ingenious, if not brilliant, and careful and clear in its exposition of current views. He never turned to history, though he accepted membership (1807) in the 'Massachusetts Historical Society.' He was an admirable letter-writer, courtly, pointed, and cautious. Besides the works above mentioned he published:

  1. 'Visitation Articles for the Diocese of Llandaff,' 1784, 4to.
  2. 'Sermons … and Tracts,' 1788, 8vo (chiefly reprints).
  3. 'Thoughts on the intended Invasion,' 1803, 8vo.
  4. 'Miscellaneous Tracts,' 1815, 2 vols. 8vo (includes sermons, charges, political and economic tracts, chiefly reprints).

He contributed to the 'Philosophical Transactions' and to the 'Transactions' of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, of which he was elected an honorary member on 18 Dec. 1782; these papers are included in the 'Chemical Essays.'

[Anecdotes of the Life … written by himself … revised in 1814, published by his son Richard, 1817 (portrait), 2nd edit. 1818, 2 vols., and criticised in A Critical Examination, 1818 (partly reprinted from the Courier), and in the Quarterly Review, October 1817, Edinburgh Review, June 1818; London Review, October 1782, p. 277; British Public Characters, 1798, p. 251; [Mathias's] Pursuits of Literature, 1798, p. 181; cf. Mathias's Heroic Epistle, 1780; Wakefield's Memoirs, 1804, i. 356, 509, ii. 118; Meadley's Memoirs of Paley, 1809, p. 18; Thomson's Hist. of the Royal Soc. 1812; Nichols's Lit. Anecd. 1814 viii. 140, 1815 ix. 686; Biographical Dict. of Living Authors, 1816, p. 375; Gent. Mag. September 1816, p. 274; Annals of Philosophy (Thomson), April 1817, p. 257; Annual Biogr. 1817; Beloe's Sexagenarian, 1817, i. 59; Wordsworth's Description of the Lakes, 1820, p. 73; Rutt's Memoirs of Priestley, 1832, ii. 372; Le Neve's Fasti Eccles. Anglic. (Hardy), 1854, i. 197, 353, ii. 256, 268; Romilly's Graduati Cantabr. 1856; Atkinson's Worthies of Westmoreland, 1856, i. 185; De Quincey's Literary Reminiscences (Masson), ii. 195; Percy's Metallurgy, passim; Hunt's Religious Thought in England, 1873, iii. 351; Fitzjames Stephen's Horse Sabbaticæ, 1892, iii. 208; Rawnsley's Literary Associations of the English Lakes, 1894, ii. 75; Paine's Writings (Conway), 1896, iv. 258; extract from parish register of Heversham, per the Rev. T. M. Gilbert; information from the university registry, Cambridge, per C. S. Kenny, LL.D.; minutes of Manchester Literary and Philosophical Soc.; information respecting Watson's chemical work kindly furnished by P. J. Hartog, esq.]

A. G.