James Watt’s statue will be reinstalled after being reviewed during Black Lives Matter protests in Birmingham, but will the addition of a plaque explaining the "dark side" of the inventor and links his to slavery.
Watt produced steam engines in Birmingham which powered the Industrial Revolution, and he was honoured alongside colleagues Matthew Boulton and William Murdoch with a gilded statue in the city known locally as “the golden boys”.
Despite the monument being in storage, Birmingham City Council identified it as at “possible risk” due to Watt’s family connections to the slave trade in a review of statues drafted following Black Lives Matter protests.
Watt’s gilded statue will be taken out of storage and reinstated in the city centre, but it will be given a plaque explaining the “dark side to the story of the Watt family”.
The dossier of “at risk” statutes compiled by the council during BLM protests states: “Watt’s family and Watt himself were not only complicit in the slave trade, they participated directly and benefited extensively from the profits that slavery generated.”
The so-called 'Golden Boys of Birmingham' statue, showing Boulton, Watt and Murdoch
Credit: Alamy Stock Photo
It adds: “His father paid for Watt’s education; an element of his father’s income was from colonial trade.”
The document seen by The Telegraph also notes on ‘the golden boys’ that: “Both Boulton and Watt sold steam trains for slave plantations in the Caribbean. Murdock, as an employee, framed by association.”
The statue of Watt, Boulton, and Murdoch was originally placed in storage in 2017 during works on the Metro system, and has remained in storage while works continue on the refurbishment of Centenary Square.
When reinstalled, the statue of the three men will be contextualised with information “which the Council requested in order to provide information for a new information plaque”, as well as online background on the documented links to slavery.
This will use a specific piece of academic research on "James Watt and his links to slavery" commissioned by the Birmingham Museums Trust.
Born in Scotland, Watt developed a steam engine which improved on earlier designs by being cheaper and more efficient, providing a readily available source of power for manufacturers in the Industrial Revolution.
In 1775, he went into business with Boulton, and the Boulton & Watt firm was established to make and sell these engines.
The company itself has come under scrutiny regarding its capital investors, some of whom had links to the slave trade. Research suggests that while Boulton and Watt also sold engines to the Caribbean, they may have believed this reduced the need for slave labour.
The statue of the two men and their colleague Murdock may not be the last to be reinterpreted by Birmingham City Council. It is understood the local authority is seeking to “engage in a wider conversation with residents and the public about heritage, injustice, inequality and multicultural citizenry".
“This will include a review of the appropriateness of local monuments and statues on public land and council property.
“The Council will also ensure that other plaques accompanying our monuments properly and fully explain their historical context where appropriate.”