More about the Watkins monoplane

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I was somewhat surprised, but delighted, to see the article on the Watkins Robin Goch (“Red Robin”) monoplane in the February Motor Sport. Whilst serving at RAF St. Athan in 1975 this little aeroplane intrigued me, standing in the company of some very well-known aircraft, many of which are now in the Hendon Battle-of-Britain Museum. I found that the RAF had very little information on it and much of this was conflicting, so I started to research wider, but with only limited success. Watkins obviously was never on very good terms with the Press, possibly due to their failing, originally, to report his early activities. After he died in December 1976 the South Wales Echo published a somewhat derisory “obituary” entitled “Did he fly or was it pie in the sky?”. My countering letter to that paper drew a number of supporters of Watkins but regrettably they all repeated Watkins’ own claims and no new evidence came forward until the Mr. Farragher, mentioned in your article, contacted me and passed to me, on behalf of the RAF, a box of papers he had salvaged from Mr. Watkins’ old home. From scraps of evidence in that box, and checking them against independent sources. I have pieced together a fairly complete history of Horace Watkins’ aeronautical activities. 

I am fully satisfied that the aircraft flew and pretty confident of two other facts. First, that all his technical claims were justified. Secondly, that his dating was most unreliable. This may have been deliberate, as I even found, from the Public Records Office, that he quoted his date of birth incorrectly. It was this matter of dating that caused problems when his early activities were being investigated by the Royal Aeronautical Society in the late 1950s. Watkins showed these gentlemen his scrapbook of Press-cuttings, including coverage of his meeting with Gustav Hamel when the latter was thrilling Cardiff crowds with exhibitions of looping-the-loop. Watkins had the cuttings dated as March, 1910 but the meeting actually occurred in March, 1914! I have not been able to trace the origin of two other cuttings but his quoted origins are also incorrect. The Royal Aeronautical Society turned its back on him, and his offer to give the aircraft to the National Museum of Wales went sour over an argument as to how to display it. He tried to substantiate his claims but he found to his cost that he appeared to have outlived all his known contemporary eye-witnesses. 

A chance meeting between an RAF officer, Flying-Officer Baker, and Mr. Watkins in 1962 resulted in the monoplane being moved to RAF St. Athan. There it was restored by Mr. Watkins, assisted by a couple of NCOs, and went on show with much publicity at that Station’s annual “Battle of Britain” Open Day. In 1964 RAF St. Athan celebrated the 50th Anniversary of the RFC with a pageant, at which the now-77-year-old (not 85) Horace Watkins was given star treatment. The University of Wales Air Squadron named its Acrobatic Trophy after him and he revelled in this late-found publicity. As a result he was satisfied that his aeroplane would be respectfully cared for by RAF St. Athan and would remain in Wales. And so there it stays. . . . 

In 1904 the South Wales Motor Company of Cardiff agreed to take the 17-year-old Horace Watkins on at 8/- week and train him for three years without charge. This enclosed photo. of Watkins (above) and friends on a French-built Gladiator is believed to have been taken in 1907. In another photo Watkins is wearing the same outfit while standing beside his half-built and engineless aircraft. This leads me to believe that his claim that he started work on the machine around 1907 or ’08 is correct. Other photos show that the machine, as it now stands, has been greatly modified from its original form. Three different undercarriages were fitted, as well as three different propellers. The tailplane was also repositioned and the engine modified. But most importantly, the original warping wings were replaced by rigid structures with ailerons and a much more efficient wing-section. None of the early photos show this later wing, and I believe the original wing would have not sustained the aeroplane in flight, but that he might have achieved some short hops with it like that, and hence his 1909 “first-flight” claim. After all, the Wright Brothers first flight in 1903 was of only 100 yards! 

Horace Watkins was a keen photographer and several of his surviving photos were taken by friends. However, not one shows the aeroplane other than very static. Did anyone take any photographs of it in flight? The Press certainly don’t appear to have done so. Two eye-witnesses, traced in the 1960s, dated flights they saw as 1911. So I finally concluded that his real cross-country flights probably occurred after the rigid wing was fitted, around 1911 to 1913.

Horace Watkins was a keen member of the Cardiff Motor Club. His scrapbook shows him with the different motorcycles and in May 1913 he recorded the fastest time in a Rhubina, Cardiff, Hill Climb on a 3½ h.p. Primus. He also buiIt his own sports car, as the photo shows. [The car appears to be a normal AV Monocar! — Ed.] This Photo of it is particularly interesting because in the background is the shed at Mynachdy Farm, near Pontcanna Park, Cardiff, where he built the Robin Goch Monoplane. It also shows several Gnome Rotary aero-engines, on test stands. The exact date of this photo has not been established, but the arm-engines might be related to his work at A. V. Roe in Manchester around 1914 or, more likely, when later working for Peter Hooker Limited. He also claimed he built the engine and chassis for the SS car shown at Olympia in 1916. [Another mystery, because there was no Motor Show in 1916 and no SS car until 1931, apart from a very obscure London one of 1900— Ed.] By 1918 he was working with Gnome Rhone Engines and then joined the Experimental Engine Department of Air-Co at Hendon, where his work included an 800 h.p. 16-cylinder “X” type air-cooled engine. When this company was bought out in June, 1920 he lost his job and appears to have returned to his home in Cardiff to work and to continue to experiment on a variety of subjects, from radio to a primitive lazer. His patents included sparking-plugs, a submarine detection device, a strap-making machine and a number of other devices. None of them appear to have come to anything. He did not patent his Robin Goch Monoplane but he did patent a monstrosity of an aircraft with a flexible propeller-shaft in 1916 — again without result. Between the wars he worked, primarily as a jobbing engineer, and was well respected around Cardiff. But he just did not have the business acumen to exploit his brilliant engineering skills. Watkins claimed that he was the first person to fly by night over Wales. I have no reason to doubt that claim, especially as the aeroplane is fitted with a range of fascinating night-flying devices. But I feel that his real claim to fame should have been that he was the first man to fly an aeroplane over Britain, having designed and built both it and its engine. He would only then be comparable with the Wright Brothers. — Wing-Commander D. H. Hughes, CEng, MRAeS, RAF. 

Postscript: Some further photographs have come from Wing-Commander Hughes which suggest that C. H. Watkins may have built his own cyclecar in 1914, although if he did so, this closely resembled an AV Monocar. The additional photographs also throw more light on the mysterious “S-S” car, of which Watkins said he built the engine and chassis for the 1916 Olympia Show. This is quite clearly a six-cylinder 30 h.p. Sheffield-Simplex and as its rear number plate carries the letters SS — SS presumably for publicity purposes — it might well have been intended for a Motor Show, even if there was no Show in 1916. Why it should have been made at Hendon and not at Tinsley, near Sheffield, I do not know. — W.B.