Isaac Watts 1674 - 1748
A Short Profile
A prolific writer of hymns he is credited with perhaps seven hundred and fifty, amongst which ‘When I Survey the Wondrous Cross’, ‘Jesus Shall Reign’, ‘Joy to the World’ and ‘From all that Dwell Below the Skies’ are probably the most well known. Watts was born into a non-conformist family in Southampton, receiving a classical education learning Latin and Greek at King Edward VI school in Southampton and later the Dissenting Academy in Stoke Newington London, where he displayed a talent for poetry and rhyme at an early age. At the time entrance to Oxford or Cambridge universities or to positions in the civil service were restricted to Anglicans which explains his choice of further education. Much of Watts’ later life was spent around Stoke Newington as pastor of a large chapel in London where he also helped train preachers, holding rather ecumenical views for a non-conformist, his main interest was in education and scholarship. During a period of bad health he took work as a private tutor and became acquainted with the wealthy Hartopp and Abney families and subsequently spent thirty six years as part of the Abney household both in Stoke Newington and at their country retreat Theobalds in Hertfordshire. Knighted by William III in 1700 Sir Thomas Abney was at various times a governor of the Bank of England, Sheriff of London, Lord Mayor of London and quite an influential man of his time. Isaac Watts continued to live with his patron’s widow and her unmarried daughter Elizabeth after Sir Thomas’ death in 1721 and was awarded a Doctor of Divinity degree by Edinburgh University in 1728. The Elm Walk in Abney Park Stoke Newington (he died at Abney Hall in 1748) is said to be one of Watts’ favourite places and was the inspiration for much of his work. If we now fast forward to Victorian Manchester we find a rather mysterious Watts connection with a James Watts, whose family own a large textile wholesalers S & J Watts in Portland Street. James Watts is a successful businessman whose company’s turnover was said to be larger than the GDP of Spain. In the mid nineteenth century, he bought the Kinder Estate and lived at Upper House Hayfield Derbyshire, he later bought ‘The Grove’ a large house built by Alfred Orrell in Cheadle Cheshire on the site of an old print works, and according to his son, re-named it Abney Hall in honour of Sir Thomas Abney who had previously been such a hospitable patron to his family ancestor Dr Isaac Watts for so many years. James Watts’ grandson also James was the brother in law of Agatha Christie who is said to have been a frequent visitor to Upper House and Abney Hall and wrote some of her books there. The Abney Hall connection can’t be just a co-incidence can it? Whatever, the fact that many choirs are still singing ‘Morte Christe’ and his other hymns today is testament enough to the artistry of Isaac Watts and to the composers like Emrys Jones who set the words to music.