NOSTALGIA: The life of Richard Watson, a great Westmerian

The Westmorland Gazette: Richard Watson in a portrait by Peter Romney Richard Watson in a portrait by Peter Romney

In the first of a two-part series, Dr Kent Brooks recounts the life of Richard Watson, Bishop of Llandaff, a great Westmerian.

Portraits of worthies gazed down on generations of boys at Heversham Grammar School: one of these was Richard Watson.

Most boys had no idea who he was and I hope to rectify this.

Richard Watson, born at Heversham in 1737, was descended from statesmen – Lakeland farmers, who owned their own land and were fiercely independent.

However, his father, formerly headmaster of Heversham Grammar School, was quite poor. Perhaps Richard was endowed with his independent way of thinking from his father, in spite of the fact that he died while Richard was still young.

Richard went to Heversham Grammar School, ultimately getting a scholarship to Trinity College Cambridge. These scholarships had been endowed by Edward Wilson of Dallam Tower in 1652.

At Cambridge the young Richard shone, especially at mathematics.

He was strongly under the influence of Edmund Law, later Bishop of Carlisle, but also the progeny of a statesmen from Askam in Westmorland.

His career in the university progressed through several posts to that of junior dean, being also ordained, a necessity for a university career at that time.

Interestingly, he also turned down several lucrative posts, thereby offending Lord Newcastle, then both Chancellor of the University and Prime Minister. He was not to follow the standard ecclesiastical path.

In 1764 Watson was appointed to the chair of chemistry. Although he knew nothing of chemistry at the time, this was not seen as a disadvantage! He did, however, later deliver a series of popular lectures, write a book on the subject and was elected to the Royal Society.

When the Regius Professor of Divinity died in 1771, a post appeared that Watson had set his sights on. By dint of hard lobbying and ruthlessness he succeeded in drumming up the necessary aristocratic support and was elected.

This was worth £300 a year, and, although Watson again knew little about the subject of Divinity, he managed to produce six volumes of highly popular ‘Theological Tracts’ four years later.

In 1773 he married Dorothy Wilson, the eldest daughter of Edward Wilson of Dallam, descendent of the Wilson who had endowed his scholarship.

This is a token of the considerable success Watson had achieved by this time as it was very unusual for gentry such as the Wilsons to marry their daughter into the family of their tenants. The marriage was, nevertheless, a great success, producing nine children.

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