James Watson

James Watson (1799) Biography

James Watson was born in Malton, Yorkshire on 21st September, 1799. His father died soon after he was born and James was educated at home by his mother. At the was at the age of twelve James was apprenticed to a field worker for whom he did odd jobs.

In 1818 Watson moved to Leeds where he found work as a warehouseman. He joined a group of men in Leeds who met weekly to read and discuss the writings of radicals such as Tom Paine and Richard Carlile. The group made contact with Carlile and agreed to distribute his Republican newspaper in Leeds.

At the age of twenty-three Watson moved to London where he worked as a shopkeeper for Carlile. The work was very dangerous as Carlile was committed to publishing and selling radical publications that challenged the Six Acts imposed by Lord Sidmouth in 1819. James Watson also became involved with other publishers such as William Hone and Henry Hetherington in the struggle against the stamp duties on newspapers and pamphlets.

Watson was arrested in the spring of 1823 for selling Elihu Palmer's Principles of Nature. He was tried and convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to one year in Cold Bath Fields prison. While in prison Watson spent his time reading books. As he said later, "endeavouring to make the best use of the opportunity for study and investigation."

After leaving prison in April 1824 James Watson was employed by Richard Carlile who taught him the skills of the compositor and printer. After nearly dying of cholera in 1826 he was employed as a printer by the radical publisher, Julian Hibbert.

In 1827 Watson became a strong supporter of Robert Owen and his co-operative theories. From April 1828 to December 1829 he worked as an agent for Robert Owen's Co-operative Trading Association. This was followed by a period as a Owenite missionary. This involved him travelling the country holding meetings and giving speeches on the merits of co-operation.

In May 1830, Watson opened a publishing business in Finsbury. Over the next few years he published the work of Tom Paine, Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Watson also joined with Henry Hetherington and John Cleave in their campaign against stamp duties.

In 1832 Watson began publishing the unstamped newspaper, the Working Man's Friend. The publication of this radical newspaper resulted in him being imprisoned from February to July 1833. He also endured a further period in prison (August 1834 to January 1835) for selling Henry Hetherington's Poor Man's Guardian.

Watson was also active in the National Union of the Working Classes and in 1834 played a prominent role in the campaign against the punishment of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. Watson was a founder member of the London Working Men's Association and in 1837 joined with William Lovett, Henry Hetherington, Francis Place and John Cleave to draft the first People's Charter. Like the other original members of the movement, Watson was a moral force Chartist and he bitterly attacked the activities of the physical force Chartists such Feargus O'Connor and George Rayner Stephens.

In the 1840s Watson campaigned against Britain's harsh laws on blasphemy. In 1846 he joined forces with George Jacob Holyoake to publish the anti-Christian journal, The Reasoner. Watson was a successful publisher and in 1854 he sold his business to Holyoake and retired to Norwood.

James Watson died on 29th November, 1874.

Primary Sources

(1) James Watson attacked the 1832 Reform Act in the Working Man's Friend (27th April, 1833)

The whole thing is from beginning to end humbuggery of the worst description. One thing self-evident is that there is not the slightest pretense to make an attempt at relieving the suffering millions from any part of their burden.

(2) James Watson continued to edit the Working Man's Friend from his prison cell. One article entitled 'A Voice from the Bastille' was published on 23rd February, 1833.

I am happy that I can aid those admirable men, both living and dead, who by their pens or their tongues have aided the great cause of human liberty and universal happiness.

(3) James Watson, Working Man's Friend (2nd March, 1833)

I shall come forth from my prison-house with increased knowledge, and a more deadly hatred to the public robbers who despoil and misgovern my country. The accused Stamp Laws must be entirely abolished. We will yield to no half-measures, we will have the press free and unshackled from all fiscal extortions; or we will never cease to war with its injustice.