Watkin, Hugh R.

President of the DA 1918–19.


Published in Transactions, 1938.

HUGH ROBERT WATKIN, a younger brother of Mr. Arthur Watkin the Treasurer of the Association who died in 1936, was born in 1868, the son of the late Mr. John Watkin formerly of Leamington. He was sent to the Royal Masonic School. He had a successful business career in Russia, where he was the first Guild Merchant, and was permitted as such to trade in anything on the authority of the Russian Government and under the aegis of the British Consul at St. Petersburg. On retirement he lived for many years at Chelston Hall, Torquay, and soon became known as one of the most able antiquarians and historians of the West of England. He joined the Association in 1908, and in 1911 the Transactions contained his paper on the Parishes of Dartmouth and Kingswear. When he was chosen President in 1918, he made William Briwer the subject of an admirable address. Other works, some of which first appeared in The Journal of British Archaeology, and The Journal of the Torquay Natural History Society, were A Short Description of Torre Abbey (1909), Stuart and the Cary Family (1920), Historical Souvenir of Torquay (1920), The Priory and Nuns of St. Mary, Cornworthy (with Mr. E. Windeatt, 1920), The Manor of Tormohun (1922-26), Notes on Haccombe (1923), The Early History of Bradley Manor (1926), Berry Pomeroy Castle (1927), Compton Castle (1927), The Lost Chapel of St. Clare, Dartmouth (1929), Teignbridge (1930-31), and Thorre Abbey (1936). The last-named paper, being originally an address given in the grounds of Torre Abbey at the Association’s meeting in 1936, was published, with additions by the author, as a supplement to the Transactions of the Torquay Natural History Society, 1937. The present writer well remembers an incident in 1929, when Mr. Watkin was speaking to some members at the site of the Chapel of St. Clare, in Dartmouth, an identification of which he perhaps required some further proof. The tenant of the building, who was also present, handed the speaker a stone carving of an ecclesiastical building, which had been dug up on the spot a little while before. Mr. Watkin said that this might well have been held in the hand of a statue of the foundress, and considered it a coincidence that supported his theory.

His most important book is undoubtedly the monumental History of Totnes Priory and Medieval Town (1914-17), in recognition of which he received the freedom of that ancient borough. This was followed by the first volume of a History of Dartmouth (1935), covering the Pre-reformation period; the second of the three volumes was in an advanced state at the date of his death.

Mr. Watkin was the begetter of the Parochial History Section of the Association, his connexion with which is set out in some detail in the Ninth Report, and appears elsewhere in this volume. He also gave much time and service to the Place-name Section, and the Reichel Papers Committee.

Other kindred bodies claimed his attention, and he served as Chairman of the Council of the Devon and Cornwall Record Society, and as President of the Torquay Natural History Society. From 1920 to 1931 he was joint editor of Devon and Cornwall Notes and Queries.

In 1927 he left Torquay for Bovey Tracey, where at Hummersknott he built himself a house with the particular view of providing a fireproof shelter for his manuscripts and books. In 1935 he was honoured with the Great Gold Medal of the Institut Historique et Heraldique de France, in recognition of his work in history, archaeology, and science, and with special reference to his History of Totnes.

His health failed considerably after that year, and he made but slow and imperfect recovery from a grave operation in 1936. Courage and perseverance carried him through two more years of work, but he died on 16th November, 1937, at Hummersknott, leaving a widow to whom all who knew and loved her husband must give their deepest sympathy.

As a speaker he had a voice of great charm and balanced modulation; a mastery of his subject, for which notes were seldom consulted; and extreme self-control in debate. He was an accurate and cultivated scholar, a sensitive but long-suffering counsellor, a very faithful colleague, and the most courteous opponent of those with whom he found it impossible to concur.