top of page

The Watsons


Rotherhithe dock

In June 1750, at the age of fifteen, Christopher Watson became an apprentice to John Headlam, a shipwright in Newcastle upon Tyne who, in 1726, had opened the first shipyard in Stockton. Six years later, seemingly before he had finished his apprenticeship, Christopher married Rebecca Mather and, soon afterwards, joined the navy as a wheelwright. He probably never went back to the North-East again as he spent his naval career based at Greenwich and Plymouth before returning to London where he died. He had been born in Staindrop, a village in Durham between Bishop Auckland and Barnard Castle, the fifth of eight children. His parents,  Christopher and Hilton Watson, appear to have moved south soon after Christopher and Rebecca had left as Christopher Sr's will was proved in London by Hilton in 1768. Wheelwrights tended to pass their skills on to their children, so it is likely that Christopher Sr was also a shipwright or carpenter; but unfortunately his will gives no information at all except for Hilton's name, to whom he left everything, and I can find no reference to her after that.


For nearly twenty years Christopher was a wheelwright on board a ship, rather than at a naval base. His and Becky's (Note 1) first two children were baptised in Greenwich and Chatham, but the next six were all baptised in Stoke Damerel, Devon, about as far from Durham as it was possible to get. They must both have felt a long way from home, although no doubt there were other naval families originally from the Newcastle area. Christopher appears on the musters for HMS Cornwall from at least 1764 to 1770 but, in 1771, he was seconded to HMS Somerset which was being repaired in Blackstakes, the repair yard at Gravesend, from where he wrote a report for the Somerset's captain, Edward Hughes, on the state of the shipwright's base. It is not clear that Christopher ever sailed with Captain Hughes - an impressive man who later became a knight and admiral - but the relationship must have been a good one as Christopher baptised a son in 1773 as Edward Hughes Watson which seems an strong endorsement.

By August 1774 Christopher had served sixteen years in the navy and petitioned for a superannuation which was, presumably, successful. For at least the next three years he was on board HMS Barfleur, where his apprentice on board the ship was his son, Robert Mather. In 1769 the navy had reduced the age a wheelwright's apprentice needed to be to fourteen (it had been sixteen only a few years earlier), but Robert appears to have been only about nine or ten (Note 2). This must have been an informal arrangement as Robert was later apprentice to a John Jagoe; but it was very young to experience war, as the ship did in the Leeward Islands during the American War of Independence.


At some stage after that Christopher stopped serving on ships and probably left the navy. Rebecca died in 1785 and Christopher was described in her burial entry as a shipwright of 'Rotherhith St' where he was still living in 1790 (Note 3). Looking after small children as a widowed shipwright proved impossible, so in 1787 he had petitioned Greenwich Hospital School to allow his son James Mather, an eleven year old, to join; a naval career would follow. In 1789, however, he re-married a widow named Elizabeth Jane Webb, and one of the witnesses was Sir Edward Manley Pryce. Perhaps Christopher had now risen up in the world enough to attract a knight to his marriage, but Sir Edward was shortly to die in poverty, so his presence might not count for much. Christopher and Elizabeth had one child, Ralph Edward John, baptised in 1793 when they were living in Chigwell St.


In his will, written in 1806 and proved two years later, Christopher only mentioned his sons Christopher and Ralph, together with his son-in-law, Robert Pratt, who became his executor. We know that at least one other son, Thomas, was a successful shipwright nearby; and his wife was clearly living. Why they (and possibly others) were missed out isn't known. Almost immediately after his death Elizabeth petitioned the navy for charity, and was awarded a pension of £25 a year, provided her income from elsewhere wasn't over double that. She also petitioned Greenwich Hospital School to allow their son Ralph to join so he, too, became a naval shipwright.


The floating dock at Rotherhithe

So far nothing in his career was anything out of the ordinary. The big question, though, is whether this Christopher Watson was the same man who built two of the ships who sailed to Australia in the First Fleet <ref> The Berwick was later bought by the navy and renamed HMS Sirius before leading the First Fleet in 1787; HMS Prince of Wales was also in the fleet. Both had been built by CW.</ref> and who also built the first ever floating dry dock (Note 4). The evidence that he is is quite strong.


We know that the Christopher Watson who built the ships was a partner of James Mather, a successful businessman and whaler. James Mather owned some of the ships that were in the First Fleet and, in 1787, there was a trial at the Old Bailey where 'Thomas Gardner and Thomas Samuel were indicted for stealing, on the 27th of January last, one iron stancheon, value 2 s. one iron axle-tree, value 2 s. and two iron plates, value 7 s. the property of James Mather and Christopher Watson'. This James Mather almost definitely married Becky (Mather) Watson's sister, Ann; was the executor for Becky's brother, Thomas Mather, when he died in 1767 (see above); and took on three of my Christopher Watson's sons as apprentices. The chance of two Christopher Watsons having such a close connection seems very remote. In addition, we know that the shipbuilder had a yard in Rotherhithe (Note 5); and 'our' Christopher was described as 'of Rotherhithe' on two occasions: a 1790 directory and his wife's burial in 1789 (see above). The main evidence against these two being the same man is the will referred to earlier: apart from the £50 left to his youngest child, Ralph, there is no suggestion that he was a successful shipbuilder.



1. Her brother Thomas' will of 1767 refers to her as Becky Watson of Plymouth

2. Robert was baptised in 1768 but naval records show him as being 22 in 1787

3. Wakefield's directory for 1790

4. A floating dry dock was installed at Rotherhithe by CW, a 'shipbuilder and wharfinger' who was successfully prosecuted at the Kingston Assizes in 1786 for obstructing the Thames

5. There are at least two CW's paying rent in roughly the right area of London, one being a sugar manufacturer; but it is possible to separate them

bottom of page