Wednesday, 26 September 2018

George Watkins, last Crimean veteran


PO (1) George Watkins: an Introduction.

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Otago Witness, 11/8/1915.

A CRIMEAN VETERAN VISITS "THE BOYS” IN CAMP

Visitors to the Tahuna Park camp today included Veteran George Watkins, who resides in North-east Valley. First Class Petty Officer Watkins (to give his proper rank) is the proud wearer of three war medals. One is the Pegu medal, earned while just  an ordinary seaman on HM S Cleopatra, another is the Crimea medal, 1855 with Sebastopol, Inkerman, and Balaclava clasps gained when the wearer was first class PO on H.M.S. Diamond; the third is the Turkish war medal, 1855. Mr Watkins is said to be the oldest veteran in Otago and quite hale and hearty. He took a keen interest in camp work as exemplified at Tahuna park to-day, and is proud of the fact that he is he is a member of the National Reserve. As was only natural, the members of the Expeditionary Forces, from the commissioned officers to the rank and file, took a kindly interest in the veteran, who looks as if he has many more years of life ahead of him.  -Evening Star, 26/8/1914.


ANOTHER CRIMEA VETERAN
BEGAN FIGHTING IN 1849, A DUNEDIN CITIZEN SINCE '65. 
The other morning a ‘Star' representative called to see Mr George Watkins, a Crimean veteran of eighty-nine, who lives in Leith street. The interview was by appointment, because Mr Watkins is often out: he likes to go for a walk every day, and does so unless the weather is unduly bad. 
’WAY BACK IN ’49. This active old gentleman — active in mind as well as in body — had an interesting story to tell; and the story began away back in 1849, when he was a lad on H.M.S. Cleopatra, on the China and Indian station. A sailor seventy-three years ago, and still hale and hearty! It says a good deal for these old-fashioned constitutions. And the man-o’-warsman’s life was pretty strenuous in those days. Young Watkins started his fighting career right away, as he went with an expedition to Borneo to recapture a schooner which had been taken from Sir Richard Cobden’s brother by the natives. And a lively time they had of it. The natives, safely hidden in the thick jungle, gave the Cleopatra, and the other fighting ships (units of the East India Company’s navy) a warm reception, and twenty-seven Britishers fell victims to spears thrown by these invisible warriors before the job was completed. But they recovered tho schooner. During the three weeks occupied by the expedition the rain never ceased. 
LIVELY TIMES AT SEA. Back to China, and information was received that the brig Lily had been captured by Chinese junks. So to work once more. A party went out in a small naval paddle boat called the Fury and released the Lily. They then sunk, burnt, or ran ashore ninety junks, using shrapnel and other shells. Not a man from the junks was saved. Back to India, then to Rangoon, and more fighting. 
In ’53 Petty Officer Watkins was sent out to the Mediterranean in H.M.S. Diamond. One of the incidents which remain in his memory concerns the attempt to capture three Russian ships which were said to be in the Gulf of Venice. But these ships, all bigger than the Diamond, escaped in the night and got to Lagosta. “We were going to cut them out." said Mr Watkins, " but a large number of Austrian soldiers came down to the shores and stopped us. Then it was agreed that, if we went away the ships would be sent out within forty-eight hours. We went out but after the allotted time returned and found the Russians dismantled. Our captain was very wild over it," 
THE CRIMEA. Next in the busy round of events came Sebastopol. The Diamond embarked troops at Turkish ports for Balaklava. “Those troops were landed,’’ Mr Watkins went, on, “ and we pulled all the guns up to Sebastopol, where we built batteries. We were told we would bo ashore only forty-eight hours or so, and took but one extra flannel with us. We were there eighteen months till Sebastopol was taken. But we got all the clothing we wanted, especially boots, off the dead Russians. Food was not too plentiful, though, there were plenty of orchards and vineyards about. We had no cooks. We cooked our own grub — when we could get any. In the main it consisted of salt meat, pork, biscuits, and now and again a small quantity of bread. We saw plenty of fighting, and experienced lots of hardships, but we were young, and most of us pulled through. Back to the boat, which had been lying battened down at Balaklava, and we knocked about the Mediterranean till '57, and then home.” 
RACE FOR THE V.C. Another incident of '54 concerned the late Field-marshal Sir Evelyn Wood. This was opposite Malakoff, and a live shell came into the battery. The two youngsters — Wood and Watkins — ran for it, and Wood got there first and threw it out just before it burst. It was for this act that Wood got the V.C. 
FIGHTING STOCK. Mr Watkins comes of fighting stock. His father was a Waterloo man and six of his seven brothers served in the Navy, As a reward for services, which included the battles and hardships mentioned above, he receives from his grateful country a pension of one shilling per day! And this only within the past ten years. An effort was made on his behalf to have this pension increased, but the Admiralty, while expressing their appreciation of his efforts on behalf of the Empire, could not see their way to make it more because he had not been wounded. This is an example of official red tape which brings a smile to the face of the happy old gentleman who was once Petty Officer George Watkins. 
Mr Watkins, with pardonable pride, displayed his medals. These were: Pegu Medal, 1851. Crimea. Medal, 1854, with clasps for Sebastopol, Inkerman and Balaclava. Turkish Medal, 1855. 
AN OLD IDENTITY. In addition to claim for distinction on the ground of his connection with famous wars of so long ago, Mr Watkins’s history is intensely interesting from a local point of view. For, he tells you, he has been a resident of the north end of Dunedin since the early sixties; not only that, but as a builders' laborer he helped to erect most of the most prominent buildings in the city, including the Bank of New Zealand, the Town Hall, the Union Bank, the A.M.P. Buildings, Butterworth Bros.’ warehouse, Grand and Excelsior Hotels, Nimmo and Blair’s. Mackerras and Hazlett’s, and Onslow House. He met with an accident while working on the A.M.P. Building, and “got smashed about a bit,” but got all right again. He put up the flag pole on the Town Hall, and twice ascended Knox Church steeple. 
Mr Watkins tells of his arrival in New Zealand in ’62. Prior to this, by the way, and after he left the Navy, he joined the service of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and was twice at the famous bay. He then came out to Adelaide, where he acted for some time as cox in a pilot boat. New Zealand next attracted him. and he signed on at a shilling a month on the schooner Louisa. They had a rough passage, and it took them fifteen or sixteen days to reach Port Chalmers. Moreover, the skipper, who was "not quite himself ” at the time, forgot to order tucker to be put aboard. But when the crew went- below to adjust the cargo, which had been shifted by the gales, they found amongst it some foodstuffs that were quickly annexed. The longboat was washed overboard early on the trip, and the galley followed a little later. 
Port Chalmers was eventually reached, and the crew was paid off. It was the day after Hartley and Riley brought down their first gold. Young Watkins went to the goldfields with a number of others. There were no roads to Cromwell in those days, only tracks. “But we didn't mind walking,”’ says he “not like the young people nowadays, who, if they want to go two blocks, take a tram.” After two or three years on the fields, George Watkins returned to Dunedin, and has been here ever since.  -Evening Star, 8/5/1922.
PO (1) George Watkins, earlier life.

CASUALTIES

George Watkins, a labourer, employed at the building which is being erected for the Australian Mutual Provident Society in Dowling street, had two or three of his ribs fractured through falling from a scaffolding yesterday afternoon. He was removed to the hospital for treatment.  -Otago Witness, 16/9/1887.

THE SEACLIFF ENQUIRY (excerpt)
George Cramp, a laborer, examined by Mr Gore, deposed that he was working at the Seacliff building for fifteen or sixteen months, and helped to put in a portion of the concrete. Metal and cement were mixed on boards after being measured in boxes. It was then wheeled in a barrow, shot into the trenches, and levelled there. The stone packing was put from 7in to 6in apart, and kept well from the edges. He had had a good deal of experience in concrete work, and from what he knew of the Asylum he should say that the concrete put into the foundations there was good. 
George Watkins, a laborer, who was engaged in the same work as the last witness, gave similar evidence, with the exception that he said that sand was added to the concrete. The concrete was very good, and Mr Brindley was always present at the mixing-board or at the trench. The concrete was generally put into the trenches without boards on either side, and the boulders were thoroughly cleaned with the hose.  -Evening Star, 18/2/1888.
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Mr George Watkins and grandson. Otago Witness, 25/6/1902.
DEATHS
WATKINS.—On August 6, at her residence, 32 Calton Terrace, Opoho, Robina, the beloved wife of George Watkins in her seventy-second year. “At rest.’’  -Otago Witness, 9/8/1911.

FRIDAY, 2nd FEBRUARY, 
At half-past 12. 
At Rooms, Dowling street. 
CITY AND SUBURBAN PROPERTIES FOR ABSOLUTE SALE.
To Speculators and Investors. 
JAMES SAMSON & CO. have been favoured with instructions to sell by auction, at their Rooms, Dowling street, the following PROPERTIES, which must be sold: 
LOT I.—in account of Mr George Watkins: His Freehold Section Nos. 110 and 111, fronting Calton terrace and Evans street, North-East Valley, just at the top and facing down Mechanic street. Can never be built out. Two good Freehold Sections, together with 3-roomed Verandah Dwelling, washhouse (boiler), glasshouse; splendid garden, plenty of fruit trees; fowlhouse and run; nice view. Will be sacrificed to highest bidder. Well worth inspection.  -Otago Daily Times, 1/2/1912.

Mr George Watkins, who died in Dunedin this week, aged 96 years. had for a very long period been a well-known figure in the city. He had a splendid record as a Crimean War veteran and as a perticularly versatile pioneer in Otago.
He was born in Brompton, Kent,  and when a young man joined the regular forces.  He aw service on HMS Cleopatra in Chine and Borneo, and took part in the Rangoon War.
Durin gthe Crimean War he was on HMS Diamond. In 1864 Mr Watkins settled in Otago and until two years of his death had enjoyed remarkably good health. He maintained a keen interest in all matters social, political, municipal and martial. He was happy, contented and full of energy. It i interesting to note that he shook hands with the present King when, as Duke of York, he visited New Zealand, and also with the Prince of Wales in recent years.  -NZ Herald, 10/9/1928.

PERSONAL
A tribute to the memory of Mr George Watkins, the Crimean War veteran, who passed away in Dunedin last Thursday, was paid by the executive of the Dunedin Returned Soldiers Association last evening, the members standing in silence. -Otago Daily Times, 12/9/1928.
Northern Cemetery, Dunedin.

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