The Life and Times of Sir Brook Watson

Shark attacks, espionage, and the Bank of England? Learn about the varied life of merchant, politician, and Deputy Governor of the Bank of England, Sir Brook Watson.
Published on 19 November 2021

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Alice Beagley, Museum officer

When you think of the Bank of England, you don’t often think about shark attacks. But perhaps that’s because we’ve yet to introduce you to Sir Brook Watson (1730-1807), merchant, politician, and Deputy Governor of the Bank of England.

Born in Plymouth, Devon in 1730, Watson worked on his uncle’s merchant ship from the age of 14, trading between Massachusetts and the West Indies. While the ship was in Havana, Cuba, Watson went swimming in the harbour and was attacked by a shark. He was rescued by his crew-mates, but was so badly injured that his right leg had to be amputated. 

Incredibly, Watson survived not only the shark-attack and nearly drowning, but also receiving emergency surgery on a ship in the 1700s! For the rest of his life, he walked with the aid of a wooden leg.

Emboldened, perhaps, by surviving the shark attack, Watson went on to have a career as a merchant and army official during times of great political change. In 1772 he was one of the founding members of Lloyds of London, and conducted business between the United Kingdom and Revolutionary America. In 1775, however, he was accused of spying for the British, making for a speedy return to London.

Dighton, Robert, “Brook Watson”, hand-coloured print, 1803, Bank of England Museum. Reference number: 0270 (ii)

This full length portrait of Sir Brook Watson shows Watson as a smartly dressed individual in a double breasted coat, round hat, and glasses. His attire, combined with his small, plaited pigtail, is reminiscent of his military career.

The hand-coloured print was made in 1803 by printmaker and portrait painter Robert Dighton. Dighton gained significant fame as a satirical caricaturist in London, making prints of officers, politicians, and actors around the city. In the years following his caricature of Watson, however, Dighton was caught stealing rare prints from the British Museum, including etchings by Rembrandt van Rijn and Albrecht Durer. He wasn’t legally prosecuted for his theft, but his career in London was over. 

Unlike some images of Brook Watson, Dighton’s caricature clearly shows Watson’s wooden leg. Watson also walks with the aid of a cane. The image is one of the few that we have in our collections depicting a person with disability – and one that is not only visible, but celebrated by Watson himself.

In fact, when Watson was made baronet in 1803, he even designed a coat of arms which depicts his amputated leg! The severed leg features prominently on the shield, as well as Neptune with a trident, who symbolises protection at sea. Watson’s Latin motto, Scuto Divino, means ‘under God’s protection.’ 

Copley, John Singleton, “Watson and the Shark”, oil on canvas, 1778, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Watson’s coat of arms wasn’t the first time he publicly celebrated the attack – in 1778 he commissioned American artist John Singleton Copley to paint the attack in the style of a history painting. Watson saw the attack as a moment of personal salvation, and wanted to immortalize it. The painting, Watson and the Shark, is now one of the highlights of the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.

Watson went on to become a prominent figure in the City of London. He became a Member of Parliament for the City of London in 1784, and was appointed as Lord Mayor in 1796. He also served as a Director of the Bank of England from 1784, and eventually as a Deputy Governor from 1806 until his death the following year.

Today, although Watson is remembered for his contributions to the City, he is most famous as the subject of Copley’s painting, Watson and the Shark. He’s the only (known...?) Bank of England official to have experienced shark attacks, espionage and revolution – none of which are mean feats by any stretch.

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