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Watkins, Henry Georgelocked

  • Ann Savours

Henry George Watkins (1907–1932)

by Lafayette, 1932

Watkins, Henry George (1907–1932), Arctic explorer, was born in London, probably in Eaton Square, on 29 January 1907, the eldest child and elder son among the three children of Colonel Henry George Watkins, Coldstream Guards (1880–1935), and his first wife, Jennie Helen (d. 1928), daughter of Colonel Bolton Monsell of Ireland and his English wife, Mary Ogle. Known from childhood as Gino, he was educated as a day boy in London until the age of nine, when he became a boarder at Elstree Lodge preparatory school in Bexhill, Sussex. In 1920 he went to Lancing College, where Quintin Riley, later a member of Watkins's expeditions, was also a pupil. Throughout the First World War his father was fighting in France. During holidays in the Lake District, the Swiss Alps, and the Austrian Tyrol, mainly with his father after the war, Watkins acquired a great love of climbing and the outdoor life, including skiing. He had already learned to shoot in the Officers' Training Corps at school.

In October 1925 Gino went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, and immediately applied to join the Cambridge air squadron, of which he became the first recruit. His studies at Cambridge were interrupted by his explorations, and though he passed examinations in engineering (1926), geology (1927), and scientific aspects of polar exploration (1930), he never took a degree. While in Cambridge he attended a course of lectures, 'Man in the polar regions', by Raymond Edward Priestley. James Mann Wordie, who was then a tutor at St John's College, promised to take him in 1927 to Greenland. Watkins read widely about polar exploration and began to train for 1927.

It was the postponement of this venture which made Watkins an organizer and leader of Arctic expeditions. He chose to explore Edge Island (Edgøya), part of what is now Svalbard, during the summer vacation of 1927, with a party of eight—six contemporaries and two much older men—transported from Tromsø in the sealer Heimen, of 72 tons. Despite bad weather they mapped the island and studied its geology, botany, and wildlife. He showed his powers of leadership and an ability to organize, with the help of good advice and support from Wordie and from the Royal Geographical Society. Although just under age, he was made a fellow of the society and was awarded its Cuthbert Peek grant.

Labrador next claimed Watkins's attention, because of the boundary dispute between Canada and Newfoundland (not at that time part of the dominion). Having been asked to make a summary of the reasons for the dispute, he read widely and found that parts of Labrador had never been mapped. In the summer of 1928 Watkins led a small party by canoe up the Hamilton and Kenamu rivers. During the winter of 1928–9 the Snegamook Lake was reached by dog sledge, Gino's being 'the first blue eyes to see it' (Scott, Gino Watkins, 123). Later in the winter the upper and lower falls on the Unknown River were located and the area mapped.

The British Arctic air route expedition of 1930–31 was Watkins's crowning achievement. Its aim was to monitor weather conditions on the east coast of Greenland and on the ice sheet, to make a number of traverses and flights over the ice sheet, as well as to survey part of the mountainous coast. These were meant as preliminaries to the establishment of an air route from England to Winnipeg via Iceland, Greenland, Baffin Island, and Hudson Bay. With this in mind, Watkins joined the Royal Air Force reserve, gaining a pilot's licence. He divided his time between London and Cambridge (where he was still an undergraduate) while organizing the expedition. This involved choosing its members, buying dogs and two aircraft, chartering a vessel, fund-raising, attending committees, and making up satisfying yet lightweight rations, plus much correspondence. He chose thirteen men with an average age of twenty-five to form the expedition. They sailed from the Thames in Shackleton's old ship, Quest, and established a base not far from Angmagssalik (now Ammassalik). The aims of the expedition were largely achieved. In addition, an open boat journey of 600 miles was made by Watkins and two companions round the south coast of Greenland to Julianehaab (now Qaqortoq), relying for food on hunting seals from kayaks, a new element in Arctic exploration. The expedition's success was acknowledged by the award to Watkins of the Hans Egede medal in Copenhagen and the founder's medal from the Royal Geographical Society in London. In addition, the polar medal was awarded to its members, the first for Arctic service for nearly sixty years. Few could believe, on first acquaintance, that this exquisitely dressed, rather slight and diffident young man, who always carried a rolled umbrella, and who wholeheartedly enjoyed the London season with his fiancée, Margaret Graham, family, and friends, could have been its leader.

At the age of twenty-four Watkins had become an international figure. He next endeavoured to raise funds for an expedition to cross the Antarctic. However, in the depths of a great economic depression, 'private finance was more surely frozen than the ice of the Antarctic' (Scott, Gino Watkins, 280). Watkins therefore returned in 1932 with three companions to east Greenland to continue the work of the British Arctic air route expedition. For this he had raised £800 (in contrast to the £13,000 for the previous venture), mainly contributed by Pan-American Airways. He planned to hunt seals from kayaks to feed the party, supplementing these with fish and birds. On 20 August 1932 he went hunting alone in his kayak to the dangerous north arm of Lake Fjord (now Tugtilik Fjord). Some hours later two of his companions found the boat upside-down in the water, its paddle floating nearby. They carried the empty kayak back to the base, scarcely believing that he could be dead.

Watkins's body was never found. In the words of his biographer:

Gino Watkins had gone from the world in the full pride of his youth and self-sufficiency; gone cleanly out leaving no relic of mortality; leaving only the memory of a vivid life and a bright inspiration … it was right that none should see him dead.

Scott, Gino Watkins, 310

Watkins's memory has been kept green since the establishment in 1933 of the Gino Watkins Memorial Fund, whose principal function is to award grants to small well-organized Arctic expeditions. His kayak came to the Royal Geographical Society. According to the Arctic Pilot (vol. 2), a monument to Watkins stands on the shores of Tugtilik Fjord.


  • J. M. Scott, Gino Watkins (1935)
  • J. M. Scott, The land that God gave Cain (1933)
  • F. Spencer Chapman, Northern lights (1934)
  • F. Spencer Chapman, Watkins' last expedition (1934)
  • J. M. Scott and others, ‘Henry George Watkins’, GJ, 80 (1932), 273–80, pl.
  • M. Lindsay, Those Greenland days (1932)
  • J. Ridgway, Gino Watkins (1974)
  • F. Debenham, ‘Men of the kayak’, In the Arctic (1997), 24–43
  • ‘The Eskimo kayak’, Polar Record, 7 (Jan 1934), 52–62
  • J. M. Wordie, ‘The Polar medal’, Polar Record, 5 (Jan 1933), 57–61, plate
  • J. J. Thomson and others, ‘The Watkins memorial fund’, Polar Record, 5 (Jan 1933), 67
  • F. Debenham, ‘The Gino Watkins memorial fund’, Polar Record, 6 (July 1933), 70


  • priv. coll.
  • RGS, corresp.
  • Scott Polar RI, records of British Arctic air route expedition


  • Scott Polar RI, ‘Northern lights’, 38 mins., 16 mm., sound, black and white. 1932 [British Arctic air route expedition, 1930–31]


  • Lafayette, photograph, 1932, NPG [see illus.]
  • K. G., pencil drawing, repro. in Polar Record (1933), frontispiece
  • C. Thomas, bas-relief, Scott Polar RI
  • H. G. Watkins, oils (after photograph), repro. in Scott, Gino Watkins, frontispiece; priv. coll.
  • photograph (Leaving for Angmagssalik in the Gertrude Rask, 14 July 1932), repro. in Scott and others, ‘Henry George Watkins’, facing p. 273
  • plaque, Dumbleton parish church, Worcestershire

Wealth at Death

£978 19s. 4d.: administration, 13 March 1933, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]
Geographical Journal
Trinity College, Cambridge