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date: 26 February 2021

Watkins, Sir Taskerfree

(1918–2007)
  • Malcolm Pill

Sir Tasker Watkins (1918–2007)

by unknown photographer, 1971

© PA Photos

Watkins, Sir Tasker (1918–2007), judge, was born on 18 November 1918 at 9 Station Terrace, Nelson, Glamorgan, the son of Bertram Watkins, engine fitter, and his wife, Jane, née Phillips. He was educated at Pontypridd grammar school until his parents, like many of that generation living in the valleys of south Wales, went to England to seek work. They moved to Dagenham, Essex, and he completed his education in Romford. Before the outbreak of the Second World War he worked for export agents and, when war broke out, was being trained as a commercial attaché and was about to travel to Brazil.

Watkins joined the Duke of Cornwall's light infantry on 16 October 1939 and, after attending an officer cadet training unit, was commissioned into the Welch regiment as a second lieutenant in 1941. On 17 May that year, at the parish church in Dagenham, he married (Margaret) Eirwen Evans, daughter of John Rees Evans, driver. They had a son and a daughter. Meanwhile, while the force for the liberation of Europe was being trained, he attended the Advanced Handling and Fieldcraft School near Llanberis, Caernarvonshire, and remained there as an instructor. He landed in Normandy a week after D-day in June 1944 and served with the 1st/5th battalion of the Welch regiment. He took part in the harsh battles in Normandy and was awarded the Victoria Cross for his conduct during desperate fighting near Bafour on 16 August, in the course of the crucial battles around Falaise. The citation read:

Lieutenant Watkins's company had to cross open cornfields in which booby traps had been set. It was not yet dusk and the company soon came under heavy machine-gun fire from posts in the corn and farther back, and also fire from an 88 mm gun; many casualties were caused and the advance was slowed up.Lieutenant Watkins, the only officer left, placed himself at the head of his men and under short range fire charged two posts in succession, personally killing or wounding the occupants with his Sten gun. On reaching his objective he found an anti-tank gun manned by a German soldier; his Sten gun jammed, so he threw it in the German's face and shot him with his pistol before he had time to recover.Lieutenant Watkins's company now had only some 30 men left and was counter-attacked by 50 enemy infantry. Lieutenant Watkins directed the fire of his men and then led a bayonet charge, which resulted in the almost complete destruction of the enemy.It was now dusk and orders were given for the battalion to withdraw. These orders were not received by Lieutenant Watkins's company as the wireless set had been destroyed. They now found themselves alone and surrounded in depleted numbers and in failing light. Lieutenant Watkins decided to rejoin his battalion by passing round the flank of the enemy position through which he had advanced but while passing through the cornfields once more, he was challenged by an enemy post at close range. He ordered his men to scatter and himself charged the post with a Bren gun and silenced it. He then led the remnants of his company back to battalion headquarters.His superb gallantry and total disregard for his own safety during an extremely difficult period were responsible for saving the lives of his men, and had a decisive influence on the course of the battle.

London Gazette, 31 Oct 1944

Within ten days units of the British Second Army were on the banks of the River Seine and the American Third Army had entered Paris.

Only very rarely did Watkins speak of the events of 16 August 1944, either in public or in private. A contemporary newspaper report records him as saying only 'The boys were wonderful. They were Welsh' (Western Mail, 9 May 1945). In 1955 he was persuaded to speak on Radio Wales about the Welsh soldier in Normandy. Referring to his battalion's engagements, including Bafour, he said:

A good memory is a fine thing but for those who were there it should not be too good. It should be good enough, however, to recall the great comradeship we enjoyed and which we shall never experience again.

P. Hannan, Wales on the Wireless, 1988, 112

Interviewed in 2001 he was a little more forthcoming:

You must believe me when I say it was just another day in the life of a soldier. I did what needed doing to help colleagues and friends, just as others looked out for me during the fighting that summer … I didn't wake up the next day a better or braver person, just different. I'd seen more killing and death in 24 hours—indeed been part of that terrible process—than is right for anybody. From that point onwards I have tried to take a more caring view of my fellow human beings, and that, of course, always includes your opponent, whether it be in war, sport or just life generally.

Daily Telegraph, 8 Nov 2001

The outlook revealed by those statements, and the courage that underlay them, guided Watkins throughout his life. At a service in Westminster Abbey on 25 June 2006 to mark the 150th anniversary of the inauguration of the Victoria Cross, and attended by eight of the twelve surviving holders of the award, Watkins, accurately described in a press report as 'a diminutive figure and an eminent judge', read the lesson. 'We are just the ones fortunate enough to be recognised in this way and who are still here', he added when interviewed (Daily Telegraph, 27 June 2006).

In the summer of 1944 the battalion, with the 53rd (Welsh) division, continued with the advance into Belgium and the Netherlands. Watkins was promoted captain, and then acting major. His active service ended when he was badly wounded during the seven-day battle in late October 1944 to liberate the Dutch city of 's-Hertogenbosch. The task had been assigned to the division, an operation later described by the army commander as 'brilliant'. During treatment for his wounds amputation of a leg had been contemplated but the determination of Watkins, reflected in the conduct of those treating him, prevented it. After his evacuation the award of the Victoria Cross was announced and he was decorated by George VI on 8 March 1945.

After his demobilization in 1946 Watkins's main home for the rest of his life was in Llandaff, Cardiff. He joined the Middle Temple, and studied at home near the cathedral close with periods of reflection in the war-damaged cathedral, which was his parish church. He was called to the bar in June 1948. Not only did he develop a large and wide-ranging practice in Cardiff and on the Wales and Chester circuit, he was prominent in transforming the Cardiff bar into a body of practitioners capable of dealing with growing legal requirements in Wales, including public inquiries as well as substantial civil and criminal work.

On taking silk in 1965 Watkins joined chambers in London but his links with Wales remained strong. He appeared, as deputy to the attorney-general, as counsel to the tribunal at the Aberfan disaster inquiry in 1966. The disaster had occurred only a few miles from his birthplace. His practice included major criminal trials in Wales and important civil cases and inquiries including litigation involving the coal industry, a major employer in Wales during his time at the bar, and medical issues. He was a brilliant advocate, whether before judge, jury, or inquiry inspector. He never failed to secure and to retain the ear of the court, sensitive to the needs of the case as it developed. While he was forceful in his advocacy his innate courtesy and dignity never diminished.

Having been circuit treasurer for many years, Watkins was leader of the Wales and Chester circuit from 1970 until his appointment to the High Court bench (with the customary knighthood) in 1971, first in the newly created Family Division and then, from 1974, in the Queen's Bench Division. He had been recorder successively of Merthyr Tudful (1968–70) and Swansea (1970–71). As circuit leader he played an important role in saving the Wales and Chester circuit from the original conclusion of the Beeching Commission in 1970 that south Wales should be incorporated into the western circuit and north Wales into the northern circuit. The implications for Welsh life of its retention were far-reaching. He was a presiding judge on the circuit from 1975 until his promotion to the Court of Appeal, and appointment to the privy council, in 1980.

In 1983 the lord chief justice, Lord Lane, appointed Watkins the first senior presiding judge for England and Wales, with the object of relieving the chief justice of some of the heavy and growing administrative burden on him. In his role as senior presiding judge Watkins was constant in his encouragement of and support for all levels of the judiciary and maintained an optimism that was readily communicated to others. They were a formidable team: Watkins's range of qualities linked with the high intellect and clarity of mind of Geoffrey Lane, together with the fortitude and sense of public duty they shared.

Lane appointed Watkins deputy chief justice in 1988. In that role he was robust in maintaining the status and role of the judiciary in the face of growing pressures and tensions, inevitable at times, between the executive and the judiciary, and in supporting judicial independence in a complex modern society. He recognized the importance to constitutional arrangements of maintaining the status of the High Court judge. The fieldcraft that had taken him and his men through Normandy served the judiciary and the nation well. He was steadfast in his support of Lane, including the lord chief justice's last difficult period in office (when Lane was immoderately criticized after the release of the Birmingham six, whose convictions he had failed to overturn at an earlier appeal). He supported equally Lord Taylor of Gosforth, who succeeded Lane in 1992 and retained Watkins as deputy chief justice until his retirement in 1993. He was appointed GBE in 1990.

Watkins was the founder chairman of the Judicial Studies Board (1979–80) and organized the growing crown office jurisdiction, which later became the Administrative Court. As leader of a working party he introduced procedures designed to speed up and control the cost of criminal trials. He conducted his own cases courteously and perceptively, with a gift for producing an apt remark to deflate at a stroke the pompous or over-enthusiastic. With Lane he encouraged, in his judgments, a simplified approach to the conduct of criminal trials, summing-up, and sentencing. In both criminal and civil cases he achieved incremental developments of the law to meet modern needs. His judgments troubled the House of Lords only rarely.

Watkins held a range of public offices in Wales. From 1947 to 1968 he was president of the British Legion, Wales, and he was chairman of the mental health appeal tribunal, Welsh region, from 1960 to 1971. He was appointed deputy lieutenant of the county of Glamorgan in 1956. From 1987 to 1998 he was president of the University of Wales college of medicine, conducting council meetings with characteristic flair. He was awarded doctorates by the University of Wales and Glamorgan University and, in 1992, an honorary fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons. In later years he was chairman of the Glamorgan committee of the Army Benevolent Fund, which achieved a remarkable fund-raising record.

Rugby union football was an important part of Watkins's life. He had a long association with the Glamorgan Wanderers club, first as a player and official and, from 1968 until his death, as president. On his retirement from the bench in 1993 he was elected president of the Welsh Rugby Union, an office he held for eleven years. He oversaw and guided, though he did not fully welcome, the transition from an amateur to a professional game. In Wales the strength of the game in local communities, and the loyalties associated with that, made the transition difficult. The period of his presidency was not a vintage one for a national team coming to terms with the professional game but he maintained the morale of players and officials throughout. As one captain, Colin Charvis, put it: 'During good times and bad, he was always there with some words of inspiration for myself and the team' (South Wales Argus, 9 Sept 2007). His speeches, at post-match dinners as on other occasions, were notable for their warmth and good humour. From its inception in 1975 until his death he was chairman of the trustees of the Welsh Rugby Union Charitable Trust, formed to assist injured players.

Watkins's range of activities and achievements gave him a unique position in the life of Wales in the latter part of the twentieth century. That was further marked towards the end of his life by his appointment as honorary life vice-patron of the Welsh Rugby Union (a position created especially for him), freeman of the city of Cardiff, and a knight of the order of St John. For all his companionability and ability to communicate with and lead people of every outlook, he was an intensely private person with a strong inner and family life, based on a simple Christian faith. He died on 9 September 2007 at the University Hospital of Wales, Cardiff, and was survived by his wife, Eirwen, and his daughter, Mair. His son, Rhodri, died in 1982. Memorial services were held on 1 December 2007 simultaneously in Llandaff Cathedral and St John's Cathedral, 's-Hertogenbosch. A statue commemorating his life and achievements was unveiled at the entrance to the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, in the presence of the lord chief justice, Lord Judge, the first minister for Wales, Rhodri Morgan, and many other dignitaries, on 15 November 2009.

Sources

  • LondG (31 Oct 1944)
  • South Wales Argus (9 Sept 2007)
  • The Times (10 Sept 2007)
  • Daily Telegraph (10 Sept 2007)
  • The Independent (10 Sept 2007)
  • Western Morning News (10 Sept 2007)
  • W. A. Williams, Heart of a dragon (2008)
  • WW (2007)
  • personal knowledge (2011)
  • private information (2011)
  • b. cert.
  • m. cert.
  • d. cert.

Likenesses

Wealth at Death

£580,203: probate, 10 March 2008, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

J. Burke, A general [later edns A genealogical] and heraldic dictionary of the peerage and baronetage of the United Kingdom [later edns the British empire] (1829–)
London Gazette
(1849–)