George Watkins (1904-1989)
By profession, George Watkins was a heating engineer, but it was his spare time activities which contributed so much to industrial history.
He toured Britain taking photographs and making notes concerning industrial installations, principally stationary steam engines. Thanks to the determined efforts of a small number of individuals and organisations, much of his information has been made widely available, in the form of the from Landmark Publishing Ltd., and other books from David & Charles and Moorland Publishing.
In the foreword to 'The Stationary Steam Engine', R. A. Buchanan describes George Watkins as a remarkable man, who came to his attention when setting up the Centre for the Study of the History of Technology at Bath University. Having learned about his expertise from various authorities on the history of technology, Dr Buchanan became acquainted with him, leading to his appointment as a research assistant at the Centre.
The books in the series 'Stationary Steam Engines of Great Britain' were edited by A. P. Woolrich, and include a Foreword which gives an excellent account of George Watkins' activities, from which the following information is largely drawn.
Mr Watkins' recording activities spanned from the 1930s to the late 1970s, when illness restricted his abilities to travel. In 1965, in recognition of the importance of his work, he was appointed as a research assistant at the Centre for the Study of the History of Technology at Bath University, where he was enabled to devote all his time to augmenting and classifying his collection. He was also in demand as a lecturer and author.
Following his death in February 1989 his collection was gifted to the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England, whose archive is in Swindon. Thousands of his photographs are reproduced in the 'Stationary Steam Engines of Great Britain' series. Some of the photographs provide the only record of products of the firms who made the engines and other machines. This machinery often displayed great ingenuity, superb workmanship, and was maintained in immaculate - or indeed deplorable - condition, and without G Watkins' records, the work of the designers and craftsmen would have disappeared into oblivion.
A P Woolrich describes some of the difficulties faced by Watkins in his efforts to obtain photographs. Initially he had to travel by train and bicycle, and later by motorcycle, and most of his photographs were taken with a tripod-mounted wooden plate camera. The engine houses were frequently dark, confined spaces, posing great difficulties with lighting and with siting the camera. Long exposures were necessary, but in some cases he got round the problem of photographing a working engine by uncovering the lens a number of times whenever the piston was passing through dead centre. He was also adept at 'painting with light' - overcoming inadequate lighting by illuminating areas in turn by a hand-held lamp.
G Watkins had an excellent insight into the art and skills of the designers, balcksmiths, patternmakers, moulders, machininsts, fitters, and others who produced the machines he photographed, and as a result of his comments accompanying the photographs, our attention is drawn to details which would usually have gone unnoticed.
GW tended to avoid railway locomotives and traction engines, as these were adequately recorded elsewhere. He did photograph many marine engines and watermills, as well as various industrial anachronisms.
Although a good number of stationary steam engines have been preserved, we will never again see them in the condition recorded by Watkins at some locations. Many engines, particularly in textile mills and waterworks, had every bright iron and brass surface polished to dazzling perfection, regardless of apparent inaccessibility!
Examples of his photographs, at low resolution, can be seen on the English Heritage 'Viewfinder' website. Example here.
A. P. Woolrich & Paul Stephens eds. of: George Middleton Watkins, 1904-1989, Vol 1 ..... (Steam Power, Vol 13, 1997 In fact published in 2002
pp 63-64 is an essay by Paul Stephens about George Watkins's earliest article:
Then follows the full texts of
Steam Engine Drainage of the Somerset Levels (It was written in 1936 and found in TS and was never published before this)
800 miles on an Autocycle, in "The Motor Cycle, July 20, 1939, pp 89-99. This was his earliest published article.
Large Steam Reciprocators, in "The Marine Engineer" (Steam Number) 1942,p 96 Wither Steam Reciprocator?, in "The Marine Engineer", October 1945, pp 513-518
The Brewery's Beam Engine, in "Albion Brewery Magazine" Vol 3, No 11, May 1952),pp 8-9 The Last Beam Pumping Engine, "Glenfield Gazette", Vol XXX December 1955, pp 24-7 Development of Power in the Textile Industry, in, The Steam Engineer, Vol XXIII, Np 272, May 1954, pp 308-312 The Nordberg Hoist at Hancock, Michigan, in "Engineers and Engines Magazine", February 1858,p 5
Books. In George Watkins’s lifetime he published:
- The Stationary Steam Engine. 1968
- The Textile Mill engine, 2 vol 1970-71
- Man and the Steam Engine. 1975
- The Industrial Archaeology of the Steam Engine. 1976 (the latter 2 books with Prof. Angus Buchanan The Steam Engine in Industry, 2 vol 1978-79
After his death were published.
- A. P. Woolrich. ed: George Watkins: Stationary Steam Engines of Great Britain, These were a reproduction of the CBA record cards and photographs, made under his supervision. They roughly cover c1930-1975.
- Vol 1, Yorkshire (2000), Vol 2, Scotland and Northern England (2000) Vols 3:1; 3:2, Lancashire (2001) Vol 4, Wales, Cheshire, & Shropshire (2002) Vol 5, The North Midlands (2002) Vol 6, The South Midlands (2003) Vol 7, The South and South West (2003) Vol 8, Greater London and the South East (2003) Vol 9, East Anglia & adjacent counties (2004) Vol 10, Marine Engines (and readers' notes, indexes to the series etc) (2005)
Then followed A. P. Woolrich, ed: George Watkins, Stationary Steam Engine Makers, the National Record, 2 vol, 2006 A. P. Woolrich, ed: George Watkins, Traction & other portable engines, 2007 There were no CBA cards for these, so reproductions from his MS notebooks were used instead. [This means nothing was published of his work on waterwheels, for which photographs and notebook entries exist]
Colin Bowden: The end of a revolution: The last days of Stationary Steam, 2008. The book records a survey of steam engines surviving in situ, begun in 1972. The book has a similar format to the Watkins CBA series and the photographs are the authors own
Sources of Information
- 'The Stationary Steam Engine' by George Watkins, David & Charles, 1968
- 'Stationary Steam Engines of Great Britain' Volumes 1 - 10 by George Watkins, edited by A. P. Woolrich, Landmark Publishing Ltd. Vol 1 published in 2000