As “The Diaries of an RFC Officer” are arousing a gratifying amount of interest and as Motor Sport once covered mechanised sporting events in the air as well as on land and water, I thought that a little more reporting with an aeronautical flavour would not come amiss. So last year I drove in the comfort and fuel-stringency of a new FWD Opel Kadett to Cardiff, to investigate a very early Welsh-built aeroplane. There is controversy about when this machine, the Watkins monoplane, first flew. If it was airborne as early as some people think, this could be highly significant, because Mr. Watkins built his aeroplane before the first official flights by heavier-than-air machines had happened in England, and it might just be proved one day that his was the very first machine to fly in Britain. Be that as it may, or time unfolds, the story was sufficiently interesting to be investigated.
It seems that Mr. Charles Horace Watkins, a recluse of inventive nature, who was born in 1876, built his aeroplane in 1907, in his garage in Cardiff, up a lane where the Municipal Offices now spread. It is said that his reputation as a mechanic was so high that car-owners in those now far-away days would often leave their vehicles lined-up in the lane, for him to attend to as and when he could. He had invented such things as a non-dazzle headlamp, and when men began to attempt flight, this Welsh genius was quick to try his own hand at this new, exciting, and dangerous pursuit.
The aeroplane which evolved was nearly all Horace Watkins’ own work. It was a well-proportioned tractor monoplane with a thick wing-section, and a wide hunger-rubber-sprang undercarriage. Beside the contemporary Bleriot which was soon to make the news-headlines it was indeed a handsome little aeroplane, although said to be the heavier. Its creator cut his own propeller from a solid piece of wood and made most of the engine, which was a 3-cylinder, fan-shaped air-cooled power unit with automatic inlet valves above long-stemmed exhaust valves. The power output is quoted as 40 b.h.p. at 1,000 r.p.m. The remarkable thing was that not only was a simple bubble-in-tube bank-and-turn indicator fitted to this early aeroplane but that Watkins also had an air-speed indicator and had even provided hanging lead weights by which to judge his landing height, although as these weights were set well inboard they would not have helped much had a wing dropped on an approach. The single-seater monoplane has (and I now use the present tense, because fortunately the aeroplane still exists intact) a wing-span of 32 ft., the fuselage is 21 ft. 6 in. long, and the total weight is 400 lb.
I first heard of this Welsh aeroplane when a friend sent me a cutting from the South Wales Echo containing a letter from a Mr. Horace Faragher, who was defending his view that Mr. Watkins was flying his machine in 1908. This had been disputed, but without evidence, by other interested parties. So our first call was on Mr. Faragher, whom I discovered had been to Donington meetings before the war, including the Grand Prix won by Nuvolari, when he was living in Liverpool, and who chatted enthusiastically to us about pre-war motorcycle racing, at Pendine and elsewhere. He had met Mr. Watkins when he was washing his car outside his garage and they chanced to talk of flying. Shown into the Watkins’ garage, there was this pioneer aeroplane, slung up in the rafters, oil from its crankcase having long ago dripped onto the car underneath. The recluse became friendly and years later, when an RAF man, who was living in new Service houses that had been erected near-by, asked Mr. Faragher about the machine, he was taken to see it. The outcome was that, although at one time destined for the Welsh Museum, an RAF truck soon arrived and the aged monoplane was carefully loaded and taken to RAF St. Athan, where historic aeroplanes are restored and housed, a sort of overflow for the RAF Museum at Hendon.
Although Mr. Watkins was then 83, he insisted that his aeroplane be restored absolutely properly and, indeed, every morning an RAF car would collect him and take him to St. Athan, so that he could personally supervise its restoration. When the time came to find tyres for the wire wheels Dunlop supplied some motorcycle covers. The old gentleman would have none of it and he wasn’t appeased until beaded-edge tyres had been fitted. The ancient monoplane is still in the St. Athan Collection, although I must emphasise that this Museum is not open to the public and exhibits, which range from JAP-engined Flying Flea to Canberra bomber, can only be inspected if written permission has been obtained.
It seems that the Watkins machine was built at Mynachdy Farm. at Maedy, Cardiff, but that when its builder wanted to fly it he took it to another farm at Whitchurch, hoping to get away from the crowds that would inevitably collect to see this strange apparition. The story now goes that he first flew it in 1909 and in 1910 had done a cross-country, to Caerphilly and back, turtling at the mountain up which in later times speed hill-climbs took place, with Raymond Mays’ Brescia Bugatti shedding a wheel there in 1924, on what is now the main road. . . . The aeroplane is said to have been patented, as with others of Mr. Watkins’ engineering undertakings, and when he found it desirable to lengthen the nose of the machine, the alteration was duly incorporated in the patent. He named his aeroplane the “Red Robin” and this name, in Welsh, is on the tail to this day, together with the big “C.H.W.” The propeller is engraved with the same initials, and the date 1908. In later years, in his loft workshop, the old man repaired spectacle-frames for opticians, joining up breaks with no sign of any seam or weld, and rumour also associates him with experiments in nuclear power. . . . It is said that Mr. Watkins, who lived at Cathays Park and whose money came from a printing business, put up a shed at the Whitchurch farm, and that trains would halt on the adjacent line to watch his aeroplane in flight. I had hoped to visit the ground but am told it is now built over, although there are playing fields beside the railway line, which could mark the place. One wonders how the machine was transported the two-and-a-half miles from Cardiff to this farm (I have heard that small parts were conveyed there on a hand-cart) and especially whether this inventor person was associated with any interesting cars, before building his aeroplane?
The great significance of correctly-dating Watkins’ first flight can be appreciated when it is realised that the very first aeroplane flight in Britain was by the then-American citizen Cody, at Farnborough, on October 16th 1908, and that the first resident Englishman to fly an aeroplane in this country was J. T. C. Moore-Brabazon (later Lord Brabazon of Tara) at Leysdown on April 30th, 1909. Moreover, the first aeroplane flight of over a mile in Britain wasn’t accomplished until May 14th. 1909, by Cody. There has been much controversy over such “firsts”, and the short hop by A. V. Roe’s triplane at Brooklands on June 18th, 1908 was at one time in contention with Brabazon’s claim. (Even the exact dates are still confused; I have quoted those above from the Guinness book “Air Facts & Feats”.) So if Watkins flew in 1908, as some people believe, and The great significance of correctly-dating Watkins first flight can be appreciated when it is realised that the very first aeroplane flight in Britain was by the then-American citizen Cody, at Farnborough, on October 16th 1908, and that the first resident Englishman to fly an aeroplane in this country was J. T. C. Moore-Brabazon (later Lord Brabazon of Tara) at Leysdown on April 30th, 1909. Moreover, the first aeroplane flight of over a mile in Britain wasn’t accomplished until May 14th. 1909, by Cody. There has been much controversy over such “firsts”, and the short hop by A. V. Roe’s triplane at Brooklands on June 18th, 1908 was at one time in contention with Brabazon’s claim. (Even the exact dates are still confused; I have quoted those above from the Guinness book “Air Facts & Feats”.) So if Watkins flew in 1908, as some people believe, and did his out-and-back cross-country, of some nine miles, in 1909, two years after building his very workmanlike aeroplane, the Welshman would have beaten the English and American pilots to these epoch-making records!
Mr. Watkins died in 1976 and Mr. Faragher afterwards made an intensive search of his papers, hoping to find some proof of when he first flew. Although it became obvious that the aeroplane’s builder had a scientific knowledge of aerodynamics and knew exactly what he was trying to achieve, nothing positive emerged. It might have been expected that newspaper reports would have told of such a pioneering achievement. But it has to be remembered that Wales was a remote place, compared to London and the Home Counties in those days, and as Watkins was clearly a person who did not seek publicity, his efforts could have been overlooked. It might be that he first flew in 1908, for this was a year after his machine is definitely thought to have been completed, but did not consider that anything remarkable, until a cross-country flight had been achieved, and if that had not taken place until 1910 it has so be conceded that by then, such was the astonishing progress made, that long-distance flights were becoming almost commonplace.
One is not attempting to denigrate established aeronautical history. However, if anyone has anything to add about Mr. Watkins it would be interesting; and if you ask what this has to do with Motor Sport, what could be more sporting than taking up your own aeroplane, without any tuition, under the primitive conditions prevailing more than 70 years ago? — W.B.
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