There are many notable families from Northumberland, with its rich industrial heritage. One of the most influential and wealthiest of those dynasties is almost unknown today. The Watts family of Blyth and Cowpen were incredibly rich and influential in the Victorian era, with businesses including mining and shipping. They once owned the largest fleet of tea clippers on the South China route, Watts, Watts and Co. and Watts, Milburn and Co. shipping, most of the Rhonda Valley coalfield (Wattstown and Wattsville were built by and named after them). They had a large fleet of colliers taking coals to London and other destinations and also owned the British Steamship company. They traded around the globe, even to Australia and beyond. They had fabulous wealth, yet started from humble beginnings. I’ve researched this family for several years and been surprised at how little is known about them. I will up-load a series of biographies of several members but if anyone has any more information regarding them, it will be gratefully received. Apologies for the length and sometimes difficult going, but I’ve tried to attribute everything should anyone else be interested in this family.


Edmund Hannay Watts jnr

This member of the Watts family had a meteoric rise to fame and fortune. He nearly failed to make adulthood; when he was a few weeks old, a chimney blew down at the family home of Cowpen Farm, and broke over the cot in which he was sleeping. Amazingly, he was unhurt.

In the 1841 census he was aged 10 and lived with his parents at Cowpen Farm, South Blyth. His father is listed as being a farmer. The family was:

Edmund Hannay Watts 35 Farmer

Sarah 30

Mary Hannay 12

Edmund 10

Edward Adshead 8

Sarah 5

Tom 4

Alice 1

He was born in Blyth and went to school in Bedlington. At the age of 15, in 1845, he was apprenticed to Bolderman, Borries and Co, Newcastle, coal and corn merchants and shipbrokers. He served his apprenticeship for 6 years and returned to Blyth in 1851, where he set out on his own as a shipbroker and ship owner. He was continuing the family business, his father and grandfather before him both being deeply involved in the shipping industry.

The next mention of him is in the various trade directories of Northumberland in the 1850’s. Although only 25, in 1855 he was the Consul for Sweden and Norway. He was also listed also a shipbroker and insurance agent.

In 1855, Edmund Hannay Watts married Fanny Ward Shadforth, born in Yorkshire. In 1841, Fanny W Shadforth is listed as living with her mother and siblings. The 1841 census return shows the following living at Cowpen Hall:

Matilda D Shadforth 35

Mary 15

Sarah 15

Thomas 10

Esther 10

Fanny 5

John 4

Matilda 4

Matilda is shown as being ‘of independent means’. Her husband, Fenwick John Shadforth died in 1839.

Fanny also appears to be related to Gilbert Ward of Earsdon, who was the Medical Officer for the Port of Blyth and who is listed as a surgeon in the various censuses. The name Ward crops up on a number of other occasions, specifically Albert Bird Ward, who was Edmund’s partner in Watts, Ward and Co. later in the century. The maiden name of Matilda Shadforth, mother of Fanny, was Matilda Dixon Bird.

Various other census returns show members of the Watts family staying with members of the Ward family and vice versa. There is an obvious close connection between these families, perhaps not surprisingly. Blyth and Cowpen at that time was not a particularly prosperous or fashionable area and there would have been few families of the affluence of the Watts, Wards, Birds and Shadforths.

By 1851, Edmund was serving his apprenticeship in Newcastle and is found in the census of that year residing at East Parade in Newcastle upon Tyne:

Relart Fleet abt 1823  Northd, Newcastle Lodger  Westgate  Northumberland  

Gorge Morison abt 1817  Scarbro, Yorkshire, England Head  Westgate  Northumberland  

Mary Morison abt 1817  Scarbro, Yorkshire, England Wife  Westgate  Northumberland  

Edmund Watts abt 1831  Northd, Blyth Lodger  Westgate  Northumberland

His occupation was a shipbroker.


In 1856, Edmund Hannay Watts joined forces with William Milburn to form Watts, Milburn and Co., a major shipping line of the day. The following is written about them:

In 1856 he (Milburn) extended his operations to deep sea voyages out of the North East of England gradually introducing the larger sailing ships Eastern Queen and Equinox on a service to the West Indies and the Hindustan to India and China where she loaded her inbound tea cargoes. He met up Edmund H. Watts in 1857 and founded the firm of Watts, Milburn & Co. of Newcastle with Watts as the senior partner. The new company expanded its operations to include voyages to the Black Sea calling at ports such as Odessa in the Ukraine and Trabzon in Turkey and topping up at Constantinople (Istanbul) for the homeward voyage. Being under sail only the ships had to be towed by a steam tug through the Bosphorus from the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea. 

In 1867 Watts, Milburn & Co. ordered four clipper-stemmed, barque-rigged steamships for deployment on the China tea run. Being faster than sail, steamships were able to bring home the first crops and attract prime market prices and this, together with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 brought about the final demise of the tea clipper. The ships, delivered on a semi-annual basis, were the Canton, the Hong Kong, the Nankin and the Singapore and with their arrival London gradually became the main port with cargoes being handled by loading agents but supervised by one of the partners right up to the point of sailing. As the tea trade was seasonal the need for out of season cargoes saw the ships extending their operations as far as Australia and New Zealand.

 The composite tea clipper Taunton was delivered in 1868 and when the Suez Canal opened in November 1869 the Watts, Milburn steamship Otterburn was one of the first ships to complete the southbound transit during a voyage from the UK to Calcutta. In the same year William Milburn formed the Hamburg-Brasilianische D.G in partnership with August Bolten of Hamburg. Destined to become one of the world’s foremost shipping ogranisations the first three steamships were supplied by Milburn with the Criterion making the company’s first sailing on 15th June 1869.

 During the following year the ‘lovely Lutterworth’, William Milburn’s last sailing ship, joined the fleet. In 1871 the Hamburg venture formed the Hamburg-Sud Amerikanischen Dampschiffarts Gesellschaft – the Hamburg-South America Line- in which Milburn had 225 shares. By 1914 the Hamburg-South America Line was the largest operator in the south Atlantic.

 In 1872 Edmund Watts formed a new concern, Watts, Ward & Co. for the purpose of becoming colliery owners and eventually built up an independent fleet of 22 steamships. 

 Three large steamships were built in 1874, which despite their names, Whampoa, St Osyth and Hankow, signified a determined entry into the Australian market with regular sailings from London to Australia via Cape Town, which were completed in 42 days. The first sailing by the St. Osyth on the 31st October to Melbourne was on charter to Anderson, Anderson & Co. with a cargo for the Orient Line of Packets. After that the three ships were chartered to John Flint’s Colonial Line for triangular voyages, the first sailing being made by the Whampoa on 24th December 1874. The ships would carry a general cargo on the outward leg to Australia then proceed to China in ballast where they would load tea for the homeward run. This arrangement lasted for almost six years and, in effect, the Watts, Milburn vessels were established on the Australian run some years before Milburn introduced vessels in his own right.

 In 1877 Watts, Milburn began to sell off their ships and in 1879 the partnership split into two. William Milburn opened his own registered office in London placing his two sons, William Milburn junior and Charles in charge and a further son John, later to become Sir John, was given the task of running the Newcastle office. With the proceeds of ship sails both William Milburn and Edmund Watts started new careers; Milburn forming a new company Wm. Milburn & Co.


The 1861 census shows the following:

Jane Carnaby abt 1834 Stannington, Northumberland, England Servant Earsdon Northumberland  

 Elizabeth Simpson abt 1839 Sheriff Hill, Durham, England Servant Earsdon  Northumberland  

 Arthur Wellesley Watts abt 1860 Blyth, Northumberland, England Son Earsdon Northumberland  

Edmund H Watts abt 1831 Cowpen, Northumberland, England Head Earsdon Northumberland  

Fanny Ward Watts abt 1834 Over Dinsdale, Yorkshire, England Wife Earsdon Northumberland  

Fenwick Shadforth Watts abt 1859 Blyth, Northumberland, England Son Earsdon Northumberland  


He is described as a shipbroker, rope and sail maker, living at Bath Row, Blyth. He employed 12 men, 6 apprentices and 6 boys. The 2 servants were nursery maids. The census is on a non standard sheet. It appears to be a fairly affluent area, given the occupations of the neighbors as clerks, shop owners, etc.  

In 1869 he opened a branch in London and joined with Albert Bird Ward, although keeping the same company name. This is another occurrence of the name Ward and he is the son of the Gilbert Ward seen in the 1881 census above. He appears on the 1851 census as so.


The 1871 census shows the following. Note the name has been misspelt:

Mary A Beron abt 1844  Northumberland, England Servant  Chiswick  Middlesex  

Elizabeth Gehgbthy abt 1842  Haltwhistle, Durham, England Servant  Chiswick  Middlesex  

Jane Gibson abt 1827  Newcastle, Northumberland, England Widow  Chiswick  Middlesex  

Sarah Sarle abt 1840  Taunton, Somerset, England Visitor  Chiswick  Middlesex  

Albert E Walts abt 1866  Blyth, Northumberland, England Son  Chiswick  Middlesex  

Augustus N Walts abt 1869  Blyth, Northumberland, England Daughter  Chiswick  Middlesex  

Edgar Walts abt 1864  Blyth, Northumberland, England Son  Chiswick  Middlesex  

Edmund H Walts abt 1827  Blyth, Northumberland, England Head  Chiswick  Middlesex  

Emily P Walts abt 1870  Chiswick, Middlesex, England Daughter  Chiswick  Middlesex  

Fanny S Walts abt 1868  Blyth, Northumberland, England Daughter  Chiswick  Middlesex  

Fanny W Walts abt 1834  Dunstable, Yorkshire, England Wife  Chiswick  Middlesex  

Frank Walts abt 1865  Blyth, Northumberland, England Son  Chiswick  Middlesex  

Elizabeth Ward abt 1842  North Shields, Northumberland, England Visitor  Chiswick  Middlesex  

Isabelle M Ward abt 1846  Blyth, Northumberland, England Visitor  Chiswick  Middlesex  

William M Ward abt 1834  Blyth, Northumberland, England Visitor  Chiswick


His first wife, Fanny, died in 1878 in Brentford and in 1882 he married Martha Roberts, daughter of Joseph Roberts of Jamaica. Further details of Martha are elusive.


The 1881 census shows the family living at Devonhurst, The Avenue, Chiswick, in the parish of Christ Church, Turnham Green, Middlesex.

Edmund snr is listed as a ship owner. Sons Fenwick, Henry and Edgar are shown as shipbrokers.

Edmund WATTS   Head   W   Male   50   Blythe, Northumberland, England   Coal & Ship owner    

Fenwick S. WATTS   Son   U   Male   22   Blythe, Northumberland, England   Ship Broker    

Henry WATTS   Son   U   Male   19   Blythe, Northumberland, England   Ship Broker    

Edgar WATTS   Son   U   Male   17   Blythe, Northumberland, England   Ship Broker    

Frank WATTS   Son   U   Male   16   Blythe, Northumberland, England   Solicitor (Articled Clerk)    

Emily WATTS   Daughter   U   Female   10   Turnham Gn, Middlesex, England   Scholar    

Hugh WATTS   Son   U   Male   9   Turnham Gn, Middlesex, England   Scholar    

Jane GILVIN   Servant   W   Female   52   Newcastle, Northumberland, England   Housekeeper    

Abigail HOLMAN   Servant   U   Female   36   Newcastle, Northumberland, England   Cook    

Helen BARKER   Servant   U   Female   30   Deal, Kent, England   Kitchen Maid    

Rose MACRIEKETT   Servant   U   Female   34   Northampton, England   Laundry Maid    

Elizabeth DAVIDSON   Servant   U   Female   29   Ovington, Northumberland, England   Upper Housemaid    

Elizabeth PIERSON   Servant   U   Female   16   Ware, Hertford, England   Under Housemaid    

James COWLEY   Servant   U   Male   19   Castle Thorp, Buckingham, England   Butler


In 1884 he became a Justice for the Peace (magistrate) in Monmouthshire, Wales.

Edmund remained in partnership with Ward until 1894, when James Williams became involved and the company then became Watts, Williams and Co., with offices in Cardiff, Newport, Paris, Marseilles, Nantes, Barcelona, Valencia, Genoa, Turn and Savona. The name Watts, Watts and Co was used for the offices in Newcastle, Blyth and London. James Williams was the husband of Fanny Shadforth Watts.

Britain S.S. Co (Watts, Watts & Co) started trading on Tyneside in the 18th century under the name Watts, Milburn & Co, mostly in the coal trade and later moved to London. In 1872 the company became Watts, Ward & Co and in 1884 the Britain S.S. Co was formed, the ships being named after London suburbs. In 1896 Mr Ward died and the company became Watts, Watts & Co. They operated a fleet of tramp steamers and traded all over the world. By the end of WWII only 6 ships had survived. Other ships were purchased or built to bring the fleet up to strength and continued trading. Edmund Watts died in 1962 and ships were gradually sold off until 1965 when the company joined the Seabridge Consortium and entered the bulk cargo trade. The last tramp steamers were sold in 1967 and in 1968 Bibby Line purchased the Britain S.S. Co. The management company of Watts, Watts & Co was sold to an insurance company. [Travels of the tramps by N. L. Middlemiss]


Edmund Hannay Watts, William Milburn and Edward Stout, trading as the London and South Wales Coal Company, purchased the Risca Mine in Wales in 1872. By then the workings extended far from the shaft and it was decided to sink new shafts. Work on the new pit started in 1875, and the Black Vein coal was finally met at a depth of 280 yards. Full production started in July 1878 and the old Blackvein shaft was used only for ventilation.

The new pit was actually in the parish of Mynyddislwyn and was eventually known as North Risca Colliery. A new town was built near this pit for the miners who were to work there, Newtown, and now part of Crosskeys. Wattsville grew to provide more housing. Just two years later, in July 1880, a gas explosion killed 120 men and boys, the entire night repairing shift. This followed the disastrous explosion and fire in the Prince of Wales colliery at Abercarn, a few miles up the Ebbw valley, in 1878, also working the black vein coal, when 256 men and boys were killed and the canal was eventually drained into the pit to put out the fire. The last explosion occurred on Sunday 15th January 1882, when 4 men were killed in the new pit. Although explosions made the headlines, many men were killed or maimed underground in frequent accidents involving falls of roof or coal, shaft accidents, etc. In 1892, United National Collieries Ltd was formed to take over the Risca, Abercarn and other collieries managed by Watts, Ward and Company.


The 1901 census shows:

Amelia A Burnand abt 1862  Clerkenwell, Middlesex, England Servant  Kensington  London 

Kate E Buthers abt 1880  Birmingham, Suffolk, England Servant  Kensington  London  

Emily Chadwick abt 1862  Leeds, Yorkshire, England Servant  Kensington  London  

Elizabeth I Davidson abt 1852  Covington, Northumberland, England Servant  Kensington  London  

Emma C Hodgson abt 1869  Blyth, Northumberland, England Governess  Kensington  London  

Jessie A Latham abt 1838  Jamaica Visitor  Kensington  London  

Louisa Mills abt 1883  Capel, Surrey, England Servant  Kensington  London  

Othilli Q Shehli abt 1857  Switzerland Servant  Kensington  London  

Edmund H Watts abt 1831  Blyth, Northumberland, England Head  Kensington  London  

Edna H Watts abt 1895  Newport, Monmouthshire, Wales Granddaughter  Kensington  London  

Irene H Watts abt 1891  Newport, Monmouthshire, Wales Granddaughter  Kensington  London  

Martha Watts abt 1844  Jamaica Wife  Kensington  London 


By 1895, Watts also owned a number of other mines in Wales and had the two villages named in his honour, Wattstown and Wattsville. He was chairman of the United National Collieries Ltd, which produced more than 1,000,000 tons of coal per annum. Other positions included chairman of the West of England Protecting and Indemnity Association and the British Steamship Co Ltd. He was a member of Lloyds register and on the board of a number of other insurance groups and businesses.  He was a liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Shipwrights, a member of the Iron and Steel Institute and a member of the Institute of Naval Architects. He had interests in blast furnaces in Middlesborough and Kentucky, USA.He is noted as having travelled to Egypt, USA, Canada, Mexico and the West Indies and was said to be at home in every country in Europe. He was also a staunch member of the Conservative party but up there is no record of him ever standing as an MP. He founded the Watts naval school in Norfolk in 1901 and died in 1902 at Hastings in Sussex.

His children were:

Fenwick Shadforth Watts. b 1859 (later knighted)

Arthur Wellesley Watts b 1857

Edmund Hannay Watts b 1857

Henry Watts b 1862

Edgar Watts b 1864

Frank Watts b 1865

Augustus Norris Watts b 1868

Fanny Shadforth Watts b 1869

Emily Pring Watts b 1871

Hugh Watts b 1872


Arthur Wellesley Watts attended the Mill Hill School in London, a famous school set up by non-conformist church leaders. He died in 1881, aged only 24.

Edmund Hannay Watts married Frances Lillian Price in 1888. They had two children, Irene Hannay Watts, who died in 1967 and Winifred Watts. Irene married Wilfred Trevor Leagh Becker in 1915. They had 5 children. Edmund died in 1894, aged 37.

Henry Watts married Maria Elizabeth Simkin, of Capetown, in 1887. She was the granddaughter of Commander John Simkin, RN.

Edgar Watts has been difficult to trace. Nothing is known about him other than he was listed as an executor to his fathers will in 1902.

Frank Watts became a solicitor and married Alice Constance Marshall, who was born in Calcutta, India.

Emily Pring Watts married the Rev. William Munro Munro in 1898. She died in 1940, in Funchal, Madeira.

Hugh Watts married Annie Williams in 1898. He was closely involved in his father’s business and managed several collieries in Wales. He was a director of United National Collieries. He had two sons, Hugh Shadforth Watts and Edmund Hannay Watts, who died in 1965. Edmund’s obituary appeared in the Times of that year, with letters praising him being published, written by Manny Shinwell and the Earl of Haverford.

Augustus Norris Watts married Ida Janet Johnstone in 1898. He died in 1939 and Ida died in 1972, at the age of 100. They had no children.

Fanny Shadforth Watts married James Williams in 1892. James joined the family business of Watts, Williams and Co. They had two children, Fanny Shadforth Williams and Arthur Watts Williams. Fanny married Reginald Warren De La Rue and they had one son, Dion De la Rue, who became a prominent London barrister.  The de la Rues are the same family who still own the printing business today. Fanny died in 1937 and Reginald died in 1965. Arthur Watts Williams married Lettice Mabel Becker in 1916. He was a Royal Airforce Captain in the first war.