Our story really begins in 1853, when renowned bookseller, James Watt (b.1809) moves with his wife, Elizabeth Pollock (b.1811) and some of their 5 children, from Edinburgh to a suburb of Denton Holme, here in Carlisle.
In a family who seemingly had many business heads among them, the eldest of the Watt brothers, Alexander Pollock Watt (b.1837), though not here in Carlisle, kickstarted perhaps the largest Watt business venture, when he formed quite the name for himself in the literary world as an ‘executor & agent’.
Founding the world’s first literary agency which operated long into the 21st century & went on to represent a Nobel Prize winner, 4 booker prize winners & several Whitbread prize winners.
A P Watt & CO. is recorded to have worked with clients such as Winston Churchill, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling and W B Yeats to name only a few!
Meanwhile his brothers, John (b.1839) & James (b.1852) Watt, were forming a partnership & what would go on to be another long-lasting business of their own, right here on the streets of our city in Cumbria…
1865 brings us the beginning of ‘John & J.W. Watt’ – grocers & tea merchants – established by Watt brothers, John & James, which finds its home at 2 Market Place on Glover’s Row, which stood between The Crown and Mitre hotel & the town hall near the Market Cross in Carlisle City centre. This is where some of our earliest, unique, blend recipes were created, recipes that have been passed down for over a century and remain closely guarded secrets within the business to this day!
An article is published in The Carlisle Express on 3 August 1872, page5, which mentions proposed alterations to the original Watt’s shop, which could not be carried out due to a ‘revolting WC’ !!
It is also this year that is rumoured to be the birth of our much loved & long standing High Continental recipe! Legend has it that this particular roast was discovered by accident when one of Watt’s roasters (who will have been manually turning the roaster drum by hand in these days!) took his eye off the ball a little too long when roasting a much loved Brazilian bean. The result was an almost charred high roast with a notably strong flavour. The happy accident then proved a firm favourite amongst Cumbrian farmers, whom Watt supplied with High Continental to keep them awake the long nights and early starts during lambing time and has been such a popular coffee with John Watt & Son customers ever since, so much so, we continue to roast to the original recipe to this day!
City minutes on 29 October 1885 show that as their business grows, the Watts were accepted as tenants of premises in The Green Market (which we believe to be a few doors down at Glovers Row) at the rent of £100PA. Here, according to further city minutes, the brothers were permitted a new signboard to advertise their shop but were not given permission to use the gable end of their property for advertising purposes!
Upon demolition of Glovers Row in order to increase the size of the market place and remove a ‘narrow & hazardous’ entrance to Castle Street, John Watt secured premises at 11 Bank St. for his growing grocers, coffee roasters & tea merchants shop, which is where he made the change from ‘John & J.W. Watt’ to ‘John Watt & Son’ and where we still operate our bustling cafe today at The Cafe on Bank St..
In these days, rent was paid for, not with money, but with 6 cases of dog meat as requested by the solicitors; ‘Bright, Brown & Strong’ who occupied the offices above!
Founder, John Watt dies at the age of 77 years old, leaving the business in the capable hands of his son Henry J Watt (b. 1878) who would not only go on to grow the business for the next 28 years, but also continue his fathers relationship with the Presbyterian Chruch on Fisher St. as well as forming a long association with Carlisle Golf Club, of which he became a captain & 6 time champion amongst many other golfing achievements!
Henry places an advert for coffee in the April of 1939 in local newspaper, The Cumberland News, for the ‘choicest’ coffee beans, including; Costa Rica, Kenya & Mysore which are all beans we still roast at John Watt & Son today!
Henry Watt dies at his home, Naworth House, (Northumberland Rd, Calrisle), leaving the business to his widow Sarah, who partnered up with prominent Carlisle City Councillor, Fred Hodgson, who was already a respected grocer in the city who would go on to occupy 11 Bank St. into the late 1950’s.
Fred brings the coffee roasting side of the business into the 20th century with a brand new ‘Uno Gas Heated Roaster’!
Uno gas roasters were ‘open flame’ roasters that had small gas nozzles located in the centre of the drum, rather than underneath it like in older styles of roaster which allowed for a much more concentrated roast as there was nothing between the open flames and raw green beans.
This very roaster was used right up until we made the move to Blackfriar’s St and is responsible for the famous smell of freshly roasted coffee across the streets of our city! If you pay a visit to The Cafe on Bank St. today & and take a peek through their side window, you can still catch a glimpse of this beautiful piece of historical machinery in all it’s glory alongside a display of traditional burlap coffee sacks & some beautiful, retro tiles in their original condition!
The business was taken on by new custodians Ashley Kendall and his son Ashley Kendall Jr. who would continue to grow & develop the business over the latter half of the 20th century & into the millennium over the next 40 years.
As times change, we see the rise of self-service supermarkets & shopping centres resulting sadly in the demise of traditional, independent grocers, and so Ashley gets to work coming up with a solution to keep John Watt & Son afloat into the latter years of the 20th century…
Development to transform The Lanes shopping centre into what we know it as today inspired Ashley to put forward plans to adapt by developing the shop to include a cafe! A place where customers could not only come to find quality, local produce but to also sit, relax & enjoy samples of the coffee & tea they could then buy to take home with them – which is exactly what we strive for still to this day!
Carol & Cumbrian born Peter Johnston become the new custodians of John Watt & Son, with a passion to help it survive another 150 years and with their daughter Naomi, remain the directors & proud owners of the business today.
After continuing to uphold a life-long reputation of quality & reliability in the local area, John Watt & Son form a partnership with another of Carlisle’s oldest institutions, Carlisle Castle, taking on operation of the cafe at Cumbria’s Museum of Military Life.
Increased success with the wholesale side of the business & higher retail demand sees our trusty Uno hand roaster struggling to keep up with the orders flying in, prompting a new chapter for John Watt & Son with a new premises, The Roastery on Blackfriars St.! The Roastery opens in July, becoming the beating heart of John Watt & Son, complete with a 15kg Toper roaster that’s put to work daily to meet high demand. Alongside, a small cafe space opens too, to allow customers to take in the wonderful smell of fresh beans being roasted, watch the process and chat to our roasting team, all whilst enjoying a signature cup of JW coffee or tea!
September 2019 sees a new partnership form for John Watt & Son with a teaming up with local institution Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery. Tullie House has long been one of Cumbria’s finest visitor attractions, housing considerable collections of art, human history & natural sciences. It not only boasts a wide variety of exhibitions & events, but beautiful gardens, Jacobean architecture and of course a wonderful cafe which we are proud to be a part of. A partnership with such a vibrant institution within our city allows the company to showcase not only the famous coffee roasts & selection of loose-leaf teas, but also a passion for providing fresh, locally sourced dishes from quality suppliers throughout the menu.
As the Covid-19 pandemic hits the UK, the business, like so many others, sees lockdown closures across its various sites.
During this time, our team pulled together in attempt to keep spirits up & worked hard to ensure customers could continue to enjoy the pick-me-up of a good brew & the taste of John Watt & Son from the comfort of their own homes.
Coffee & Tea Clubs & retail delivery success since the pandemic leads The Roastery team to further adapt to keep up with demand & we swap out our cafe space to create more room for a smooth, slick operation; roasting fresh coffee, hand-packing orders & posting them off to our wonderful customers all around the world!
2021 saw the formation of en exciting catering partnership between John Watt & Son and local, professional football club Carlisle United.
To mark the occasion, head roaster Haydn created a special new blend packed with fruity flavour & a delicious smoky aroma. Taking its name from the football ground, Brunton Park, which has been home to Carlisle United for over 100 years since 1909, this new coffee set out not just to be a new & unique dark roast, but, as well, a matchday offering for all the fans who attend the games & a coffee that needed enough kick to retain its flavour when brewed pre-match.
A dark & silky coffee, The Brunton Blend is the perfect solution to a cold afternoon at the pitch side or as a general pick-me-up when you feel like you need a bit of a boost!
Cakes & Ale, the much loved hideaway cafe within the walls of a fine Georgian house, housing one of the country’s largest (& arguably most magical!) independent bookshops, becomes the newest addition to the John Watt & Son family.
Tucked away in the depths of Bookends & Bookcase bookshop in the historic quarter of Carlisle, Cakes & Ale is a firm local favourite for many with an idyllic secret garden, homemade cakes, local ales, a warm & friendly atmosphere & of course our classic brews & blends. As another business in Carlisle surrounded by such rich histories, we couldn’t turn down the opportunity to be a part of a community that provides a such a platform for local history, with regular events & talks, keeping the old tales of our city very much alive!
John Watt & Son sees a ‘brand re-fresh’, a process that took us right back to our roots for inspiration and challenged us to express what we’re really all about here at John Watt & Son.
As our rich history is something we’re incredibly proud of here, we wanted to make sure we could try & bring our humble beginnings back to life when starting to think about our packaging. We began looking for inspiration by taking it right back to the start, revisiting our roots as a traditional grocers shop back in 1865 and thinking about the kind of colours, lettering and handmade touches this could bring to our new-look.
It also inspired us to create our first ever piece of original, official merchandise with The JW Mug!