Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Watts, John (1818-1887)

WATTS, JOHN (1818–1887), educational and social reformer, son of James Watts, ribbon weaver, was born at Coventry, Warwickshire, on 24 March 1818. At five years of age he suffered partial paralysis of his left side, and was unable on that account to follow a manual employment. After leaving the ordinary elementary school, he became a member of the local mechanics' institution, where from the age of thirteen to twenty he acted as assistant secretary and librarian, and it was there that much of his self-education was accomplished. After that he went into trade, but, having adopted communistic principles, soon became a lecturer in furtherance of Robert Owen's views, and visited many towns, meanwhile reading hard, and in Scotland attending lectures at the Andersonian University. Finally in July 1841 he took up his residence in Manchester, where for three years he conducted a boys' school in the Hall of Science, and held many public discussions in the district on Owen's system of society. In 1844 he had come to the conclusion that Owen's ideal community was impracticable and many of its adherents self-seeking, and he went into business again; but public life still claimed a large amount of his attention. At this time (18 July 1844) he obtained from the university of Giessen the degree of Ph.D. In 1845 he took part in a movement which led to the establishment of three public parks in Manchester and Salford, and in 1847 joined, and afterwards became the leading advocate of, the Lancashire (subsequently called the National) Public School Association, for the provision of free, secular, and rate-supported schools, of which organisation Samuel Lucas (1811–1865) [q. v.] was chairman. He also joined the society for promoting the repeal of the 'taxes on knowledge,' and materially assisted the efforts to that end in parliament of Milner Gibson, Cobden, and Ayrton, framing many of the puzzling questions, and collecting most of the specimen cases which so nonplussed the chancellor of the exchequer. In 1850 he induced Sir John Potter, then mayor of Manchester, to form a committee for the establishment of a free library under the provisions of Ewart's act, which was then passing through parliament, the novel feature in his suggestion being that it should be a free lending library. Watts acted as one of the secretaries of the committee, whose labours ended in the opening of the Manchester free library, a sum of nearly 13,000l. having been raised by public subscription. In 1853 he was a promoter of the People's Provident Assurance Society, and went to London, returning in 1857 to be local manager in Manchester. This company was afterwards known as the 'European,' and, by numerous amalgamations with unsound companies and departing from the lines originally laid down, it came to a disastrous end. During an illness brought about by this failure he resolved to profit by his bitter experience, and wrote the first draft of a bill which was introduced into parliament and became the Life Assurance Act of 1870, which among other precautionary measures forbade the transfer or amalgamation of insurance companies without judicial authority. The Education Aid Society of Manchester received great assistance from him, as did also the educational section of the social science congress of 1866. As a result of that conference a special committee was appointed, on whose behalf he prepared the draft of Henry Austin Bruce's education bill of 1868. He was an active member of the Manchester school board from its constitution in 1870 to his death, and secretary to the Owens College extension committee, which raised about a quarter of a million sterling for the erection and equipment of a new collegiate building, and for the further endowment of the college. He was intimately associated with the co-operative movement, and for a time was a principal contributor to the 'Co-operative News.' He was also chairman of the councils of the Union of Lancashire and Cheshire Institutes, the Manchester Technical School, the Royal Botanical and Horticultural Society of Manchester, and the local provident dispensaries (which were founded on his suggestion and largely by his aid), secretary of the Manchester Reform Club, a governor of the Manchester grammar school, and president of the Manchester Statistical Society, besides being on the committees of other public institutions. During the cotton famine occasioned by the American war, he sat as a member of the famous central relief committee, whose operations he recorded in a volume entitled 'The Facts of the Cotton Famine,' published in 1866. In addition to this volume be published 'The Catechism of Wages and Capital,' 1867, and a large number of pamphlets, chiefly on economic subjects, as trade-unions, strikes, co-operation, and education. He was a contributor to several of the leading periodicals, and a most effective newspaper correspondent, especially on educational and economic subjects. His influence with the working classes was always very great, and his conciliatory advice was often found to be of the utmost value in trade disputes.

He died at Old Trafford, Manchester, on 7 Feb. 1887, and was buried in the parish church of Bowdon, Cheshire. He married Catherine Shaw in October 1844, and left four children, three having died in his lifetime. His eldest son is Mr. W. H. S. Watts, district registrar in Manchester of the high court of justice. His daughter, Caroline Emma, married Dr. T. E. Thorpe, F.R.S., chief government analyst.

In 1885 a marble bust of Watts, executed by J. W. Swinnerton, was subscribed for and placed in the Manchester Reform Club. He had previously, in 1867, been the recipient of 3,600l., raised by subscription, as a mark of the esteem in which he was held.

[Bee-Hive, 14 Aug. 1875, with portrait; Manchester Guardian, 6 Feb. 1887; Thompson's Owens College; information from W. H. S. Watts, esq.; personal knowledge.]

C. W. S.