Denis Watkins, RIP

Within a year of the passing of Jim Gill, we have lost another great expert and advocate of hub gears – Denis Watkins. I learned this morning that he died a few days ago, in his 95th year.

I first met Denis in 1983, when the late John Pinkerton brought us together. Denis wanted to write a design history of Sturmey-Archer gears and had amassed a lot of background material for this purpose. With John Pinkerton’s assistance, I had recently produced the second edition of my book  The Moulton Bicycle, which was quite technically advanced for a niche publication in those days. I ended up writing the Sturmey-Archer book and adding considerably to the research, while Denis took an active role throughout the writing process, contributing his own research and experience, advising and providing constructive criticism. I made many journeys from the Thames Valley to Denis’s home in Castle Bromwich, near Birmingham, during the four years it took to produce and publish the book. Without Denis, the book would not have been written.

It, too, was ground-breaking in a small way. Apart from maintenance manuals, no book had been produced solely on the design of epicyclic bicycle gears for about 80 years. Since the book was published, interest in hub gears has grown considerably, as the constantly expanding range now available shows. Whilst not claiming that this is entirely a direct result of the book, I think that Denis’s project was definitely a catalyst.

Also, in a brave experimental move by John Pinkerton, the book was published in softback and hardback editions. This, too, was groundbreaking, and confirmed John Pinkerton’s theory that people would be prepared to pay more for a better quality product. Against all received wisdom, the expensive hardback version rapidly sold out, even though it was about a third dearer than the paperback.

Denis, who was Welsh by birth, built up a huge collection of hub gears, mostly made by Sturmey-Archer. His aim was to have two of each model ever produced, with a view to displaying them all – one example of each as a complete unit, another in ‘exploded’ form. A suitable space for such a display was not found and the collection stayed neatly housed in polythene boxes, until eventually it was donated to Sturmey-Archer. I believe it is now at their European headquarters in the Netherlands.

Denis and his wife Ruby were keen cyclists and toured extensively in their younger years, including with their children. In later life, Denis used a Brompton folding bicycle, which enabled him to continue to take part in local rides with starting points easily accessible by car from his Castle Bromwich home. (Ruby, I seem to recall, preferred her Dawes Kingpin.) Denis was a frequent contributor of short articles to a local cyclists’ newsletter and it is hoped that these articles may be published on the web in due course.

A few years ago, Denis and Ruby moved to a residential home in Olton, Solihull – not too far from Castle Bromwich, where they had spent most of their married life. It was there that Denis passed away. We send our deepest condolences to Ruby and the family.

Tony Hadland