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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.