Page last updated 8-8-2015
John Rogers Watkins was born in 1790, the son of Captain Giles Watkins, a sea captain engaged in the coastal trade and his wife Judy Rogers. In 1810 John Rogers Watkins was registered as a Free waterman. His wife Mary [nee Palmer] bore him two sons, John, born in 1816 and William, born in 1819. There was also a daughter Maryann born in 1826. To put these events into historical context the Battle of Waterloo had been fought only the year before son John was born! John Rogers purchased his first tug in 1833, taking his by then 14 year old son William into the venture with him. The other son John was a mariner, with sea experience and would later command the Watkins owned sailing vessel Royal Exchange and the tug John Bull, amongst others.
In 1841 John Rogers Watkins and his  family were living in East Lane, Bermondsey. This was situated between Jamaica Road and the River Thames, and in later years would have been almost in the shadow of the vast Chambers Wharf complex. The census shows many folk living in the area to be engaged in activities connected with the river trades. Indeed, about a quarter of a mile further upriver another early tug owner, Daniel Barker, operated from Horselydown, a narrow street leading from Tooley Street down to the river near Butlers Wharf. It would later run alongside the southern approach of the yet to be built Tower Bridge.
A move across the River to Shadwell followed at a later date and the towing business was operated by John Rogers and William from the family home. This area at the time was the home of many businessmen connected with the river and shipping and the local church, St. Pauls, Shadwell, was widely known as the ‘Sea Captains Church’. In 1848 an office was established in Savage Gardens, near the Tower of London. John Watkins Jnr was living around this time at Honduras Terrace, Commercial Road.
William married Emma Glascott at Stepney in March 1848. The 1851 census records William and Emma being at 4, Beach Cottages, Hastings, along with Emma's sister Sara. In 1856 William had taken a 21 year lease on 3, Cold Harbour, Blackwall from the widow of a lighterman and coal merchant, one Samuel Granger. Emma was to die suddenly on 1st May 1857 and her death was recorded at Poplar.  William probably moved from this address about 1862 to Bow. It is on record that 3 Cold Harbour had been sold to the East and West  India Dock Company in 1861 for use as a Dockmasters residence until about 1890. .  
John jnr had married Elizabeth, and in 1851 is recorded as living at 3 Canning Street, Birkenhead. Most sources state that it was in 1853 that he had departed to Liverpool, to set up a towing business on the Mersey, operating from Strand Street. It is known that John Rogers Watkins sailing vessels traded between London and Liverpool quite regularly so he may have been living there in connection with this trade before trying to set up the tug business. The towing business was not a great success however and  in 1857 the sailing ship operation had been curtailed so he gave up and returned to London in 1859, later running the Watkins operation at Gravesend for John Rogers and William, where the tug captains reported to his house, first at 19 Harmer Street and later 35 The Grove for their orders. John and Elizabeth  had two sons, Alfred born 1845, who was to join the Watkins organization in 1876 in an engineering supervising capacity until retirement in 1895, and James, born 1846, who set up his own shipbroking business in the City of London. By 1854 the Watkins office had moved to Lime Street Chambers, Fenchurch Street, and moved yet again in 1865 to 20, London Street.
In March 1858 William married his second wife, Annette Roome, the daughter of a retired RN captain and shipowner, the Roome family living at one time in Tredegar Square, Bow. She was  fifteen years his junior. In 1871 the couple were living at Clarendon Terrace, Bow Road, Bow, [Very near the old Bow, North London Railway Station] with daughter Annette, born 1860, sons William [1862], John Stewart [1863][John’s second name, Stewart, was an acknowledgement of the friendship and business relationship with John Stewart, the engine builder]. Phillip [1864], and two more daughters Cicely [Emily]  [1866] and Ellice [Ellen] [1867].
Another son, Harry, was born 7th December  1870.  Although entered as Harry in the 1871 census, it would appear he was actually baptised Percival Roger Watkins on 8th March 1871 at St Marys, Bow. Unfortunately he died in the first quarter of 1871.
Another daughter, Josephine, was born at Bow in 1873 and also lived at this address.
Between 1873 and 1876 the family moved across the river to Fairfield House, Eltham Road, Lee Green. Another daughter, Sylvia, was born at Lee in 1876. This must have been a very select area at this time, being not far from the fringes of Blackheath. The new home must have been fairly substantial, the 1881 census showing William, Annette, their eight children, an Amelia M. Roome, who was recorded as a sister-in-law, and was Annettes sister, a cook, a parlourmaid, a housemaid and a nurse, at the residence. Perhaps we should ponder a moment as to the possible reason for this move. William was of course by now a well established businessman of nearly fifty years standing. No doubt the move reflected his status and he may well have wanted to move away from what was now a very heavily industrialized and malodorous East London. Also the area had become the centre for many chemical factories with their inherent dangers. Fifty years on the Brunner Mond munitions plant in nearby Silvertown was to erupt in a spectacular explosion, showering debris and human body parts right across the river into East Greenwich. Was there also here an acknowledgement that the nucleus of the towing industry was by now moving rapidly down river? The new house was situated conveniently within a mile of Lee railway station where a westbound train could be caught to London Bridge station, a walk over the bridge taking William into the heart of the shipping industry and to his office, which in 1875 had relocated to 75 Mark Lane, where it was to remain for over fifty years. Similarly an eastbound train could be caught to Gravesend, where brother John lived, and operated as agent, but was to die in August 1878.
The five daughters appear to have taken no active part in the business, but all three sons were to be connected with it.

Sylvia Watkins, the youngest child, born at Lee in 1876 was to study both Cello and Piano and finished in the top three of her year at the Royal College of Music. In 1901 she married George Heyer at the church of St Peter, Eltham. A daughter, born in Wimbledon in 1902 would later become famous as historical novelist Georgette Heyer.
Daughter Annette married farmer Herbert Searle Whitmore in December 1889 at The Strand, London. They afterwards lived at Withyham, Groombridge, East Grinstead.
Ellice, sometimes referred to as Ellen, died at Bexhill 2-1-1938 and her funeral took place 7-1-1938 at Hither Green Cemetery. She had previously lived at Crockham Hill, Edenbridge, Kent and is believed not to have married.
The eldest son William, born at Blackwall in 1862,  had previously been put to work under the guidance of his shipbroker cousin James, to learn that side of the business. He had then voyaged around the world before joining the company in 1883. He became known as ‘Master Willy’, working mainly at the Blackwall yard under the eye of Alfred Watkins. Sadly he was to die on 7th February  1913, aged 52, after a chill contracted whilst overseeing repairs to the Hibernia in the Bristol Channel, developed into pneumonia. It was stated that an attack of typhoid fever twenty years earlier had also weakened his constitution. His funeral took place at Highgate Cemetery on 10th February 1913 at 2.30pm, his last address recorded as The Red Cottage, Pinner, Middlesex.
John Stewart Watkins, born Bow 2-12-1862, also did not immediately join the company. He previously worked in the wholesale seed business, and also had an interest in a small farm near Staplehurst. He was a member of the Vintners Company and a Liveryman of the City of London.  He joined the company in 1891, taking up residence in Nelson House, 3 Cold Harbour,  Blackwall, where he had previously lived briefly as a child. In 1891 he married Florence Maude Kirton at Lewisham and in 1901 was living in Vanbrugh Hill, Greenwich. In 1890 William Watkins Snr had suffered an unspecified accident and gone into semi-retirement, so this could well have been the reason for son John Stewart coming into the organization. During WW1 he was appointed  Commercial adviser to the Government on tugs. He became Managing Director of William Watkins Ltd in 1933. John Stewart Watkins died on 21-4-1942 his address recorded as Loddendon Manor, Staplehurst, Kent.
Phillip Watkins, born Bow in 1864 had joined the company in 1881 as a clerk. He worked in the office until 1887 when his health collapsed and he left to pursue other work.  In 1901, whilst still living at Lee, he was listed as the 'manager of a guano factory!. He returned in 1913 however to oversee the engineering side of things with his nephew John Rogers Watkins II [the son of John Stewart Watkins] following the death of ‘Master Willy’. Philip died on 8-8-1939 survived by his wife Ada Elizabeth, his address given as College Rd, Bromley, Kent. His funeral took place at 1500hrs 11-8-1939 at Streatham Crematorium, London SW.
The whole family were still living at Lee in 1891, with the exception of daughter Annette, who married in 1889. Amelia Roome was still present as also was Elizabeth Watkins, the widow of William’s brother John. There were also a cook and three maids.

James Watkins, born in 1846, the son of John Watkins Jnr and William Watkins nephew,  also seemed to have built up a substantial business over the years.  In 1861, aged 15, he was living in the family home at 19 Harmer Street, Gravesend and described as a clerk in a tug agents office. In 1871, still living with his family at 35, The Grove, Gravesend he was apparently now a lighterman, employing ten men and two boys. Towards the end of 1872 he married Sarah Fletcher, born 1847, the daughter of a Gravesend Coal Merchant. About 1874 he moved to Kingston Surrey and was by now a shipowner employing 80 men and also a lighterman employing 10 men. The 1891 census recorded him living at 34, St John's Park, Greenwich, with wife Sarah, son Herbert and daughters Mabel, Isabel and Nora and occupied as a shipbroker. It would appear that on 11-11-1893 he was declared bankrupt. 

William Watkins Snr. was to die on the 8th March 1900 aged 81, his death being recorded at Lewisham.  His funeral took place at Lee Cemetery at 3.00pm on the 12th March 1900 with no flowers by request. Following his death  his wife Annette, who was to survive until December 1914, appears to have held the major share holding but the company was managed for her by sons William Watkins II and John Stewart Watkins. Thus in 1900 an era ended but the family were to have a directing interest in the various companies for another 73 years.
I am indebted to Gillian Everett in Australia for sending me the information regarding Sylvia Watkins and her daughter Georgette Heyer.