Bob Watkins

Bob Watkins

I was born in Whitby, Wirral, Cheshire, on 17th August 1926. My father was a manager of a shop and my mother was a schoolteacher but she finished teaching when she had children. Initially I went to school in Ellesmere Port but my father died when I was 8 years old and we went back to a place called Mancot in Flintshire, Wales, where my mother’s family came from. We were all Welsh Presbyterians. I used to attend the Presbyterian Church in Wales and I continued going to this church until I was about 25 because this was the done thing in the village of Mancot. I used to go to church more out of custom, or as a social event, than from a real sense of purpose. My family had a special relationship with this church in that my grandfather had given, for example, the whole of the pulpit to the church as a gift.

My first job was as a packer. I next went into a steelworks during the War where I was working on instruments in the laboratory, looking after the temperature of calders and such like. I was a practical person then, and still am.

In November 1944, at the age of 18, I joined the Royal Navy as a serviceman. Because it was towards the end of the War, boats were being de-commissioned so I was mainly land-based. As soon as I had finished my training, I was put in as a Devonport rating in Devonport and I was about to get a draft when the War stopped in 1945. I was drafted out to Ceylon and on my way there the Japanese gave in, so I missed all the fighting.

After the War finished, I went back to Wales and worked for steelworks again and then for Courtaulds. Up to that time I hadn’t been very well educated for I had left school when I was about 14 or 15. The politician R.A.B. Butler made it possible for further education by a day release system. He was a director of Courtaulds and that is how I received further education and got an HNC in Applied Physics. Meeting so many people in the Navy helped further my education also because in the village where I had worked before, it was a very closed sort of area and I wasn’t very aware of what was going on around me.

I finally left the church scene when I was about 28 for by now I had got a job in Cambridge and had left home. I woke up to the idea that there were other things in life besides village life, for I was working in a factory that made scientific instruments and I was exposed to a lot of graduates and I had become part of that scene. I enjoyed the life at Cambridge, working in this factory, very much indeed and they were some of the best times of my life.

When I was in Cambridge I was a Methodist and I used to attend a marvellous youth club with my friends there. Then I went to Scotland and to the equivalent of Methodist or Presbyterian up there, but I found the people to be such stick-in-the-mud sorts that I never went to church again!

I returned to London and met Margaret. We were married and within a year she went on a Philosophy course, which she found very interesting. The course was run by an Ian Avenall and his wife. At this stage I had not heard of the Bahá’í Faith but, funnily enough, years later after my mother had died, I found in her Bible an article from the Manchester Guardian newspaper which started off by saying: “From the Bahá’ís in Wilmette to the Mormons in South America, there is a new spirit developing” and I wondered how it was that my mother had saved this article and put it in her Bible, and it had been in our house all that time.

I started attending the Philosophy Course which Margaret had attended and then Margaret became interested in the Bahá’í Faith through Earl Cameron. I resisted the Bahá’í Faith at this stage because, having just been through this course, I felt emptied of all past religious doctrines. The course had restored my faith in a Creator and God but it had eliminated outworn religions so, having got that slate clean, I didn’t want to join another religion immediately, or ever!

After Margaret had become a Bahá’í, and we were having firesides in our house, it was three years before I showed any interest. During the firesides I used to stay upstairs in the kitchen and I would serve the tea and coffee and join the social chat afterwards! I found the Bahá’ís all very nice and pleasant but I would always avoid the actual talks at the meetings.

In 1968 I went with Margaret to Haifa. The Humphrey family had booked to go but at the last moment they had to drop out because their son Vahid was ill. We had all been going to a health clinic because Margaret hadn’t been too good health-wise, but we cancelled that and went to Haifa instead. It was the 1968 International Oceanic Conference in Palermo, followed by a boat journey (in Bahá’u’lláh’s footsteps) to the Holy Land where He had been incarcerated in the Most Great Prison. But I didn’t know about all this at the time… I just knew it was an Oceanic Conference and a commemoration for the arrival of Bahá’u’lláh at Akka.

So I joined about 180 Bahá’ís from the UK, amongst whom were many Persians. There was trouble getting through Customs and the journey was long for we travelled for 12 hours via the continent, and our son Paul was very young. When we got to Palermo, we found ourselves in a maternity hospital instead of a hotel because about 2,000 Bahá’ís had turned up and there wasn’t enough space for us all! That was a bit disappointing as I only had a fortnight’s holiday a year and the two weeks were very valuable to me. Margaret went off to all these conferences and I was usually left with Paul, who was about two or three. I wasn’t invited to a single activity and I assumed that I wasn’t allowed to join in! So instead I went around on my own and visited an odd beach or two, returning to the hotel, but I really didn’t enjoy myself. I had a stomachache, Paul was a bit niggly with a temperature, and Margaret was off all the time. She didn’t even invite me to the Public Meeting which was held in Palermo, as she said it would be all in Italian! Anyway, after three or four days I was really fed up with the Bahá’ís and Palermo and was glad to get away.

When I reached Haifa, I found that all the shrines and all the Holy Places were closed – for Bahá’ís Only – so again I was excluded from everything. This really made me mad and I thought what a miserable lot they were! Anyway, eventually, due to the action of John Wade, who talked to the House of Justice about there being just one or two people in two thousand who were not Bahá’ís and the fact they weren’t allowed to go to anything – I got special dispensation from the House to go to the Shrines. So I went into the Shrine of the Báb, but when I went to the Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh, the youth who was the official guide there, wouldn’t let me in for he didn’t believe the scribbled note saying I could be allowed in! We non-Bahá’ís spent hours mooning around and feeling very very cross about it. There were constantly groups going into the Shrines and we weren’t even let in between groups.

Anyway, eventually Margaret was off somewhere and I took myself off to the Shrine of the Báb when everyone else was in Akka. I went there and prayed and said: “Look, if this is a true religion, let me know by the morning” and I left it at that! Anyway by the morning I had declared as a Bahá’í. So that was the answer and that was how I became a Bahá’í. I think it was on August 12th.

Although I knew some of the principles of the Faith at the time, I didn’t really know very much and when I discovered that the Bahá’ís actually didn’t drink alcohol, I was quite shocked. Although I had known that Bahá’ís didn’t drink, I had never thought of this rule as actually applying to me! I got an even worse shock when I heard someone at the Unitarian Church tell me that Bahá’ís had to ask the permission of all parents before they could get married. That was another terrible shock to me. I was already married, but I had never been told about this rule. I remember telling the lady who told me, that she was entirely wrong. She told me that she had heard it from a Hand of the Cause, but I still thought she had made a mistake.

I wrote a letter to the National Spiritual Assembly on the spot after I had “declared”, for the whole of the NSA of the British Isles was in Haifa, but they wouldn’t accept my “declaration” because it was out of their jurisdiction to accept it. I couldn’t be accepted until I got back to England.

Nothing much happened for about two years. I had been serving on a local Spiritual Assembly and attending Feasts and meetings in Barnet, then Betty Reed arrived one weekend and gave us all a terrible shock! Nine of us Bahá’ís were on a course with her and Betty was so dynamic that she shook us up and from that time on we all became more active Bahá’ís. I served on a Proclamation Committee with Pat Green at some stage but it was Betty Reed who shook us into activity. She had been with an Educational Training Programme with the Boot and Shoe Trade in Northampton and she used many psychological techniques to awaken us. She would give us a lecture and later on in the afternoon she made each one of us give a two minute talk on the lecture. All nine of us had to suddenly think about what she had said and, what’s more, if you couldn’t speak for two minutes, everyone else had to remain silent. It was really terrifying as none of us had been listening all that intently! We were all in a state of nervousness and ready to leave. We had to be up at 9 o’clock the next morning and she was strict with the timing and with everybody being present. We were told not to come on the course if we couldn’t come for the whole weekend. Norman and Doreen Bailey were on the same course, along with Margaret Appa and Wendy Ayoub. The next day we had to talk for 10 minutes on the subject she had talked about, which was always the House of Justice and the Covenant. It certainly gave us all a good shaking up and we began to take in more. From then on I also began to read more.

I must admit that I kept on drinking for about three years after I was a Bahá’í because at that time I was a Sales Manager. Then a high powered European Sales Manager came to visit and invited me to a meal in a pub. I told him that I was having a beer, and asked him what he would like to have? He said that he would have milk! I was so mad that he had the courage and audacity to say that he was having milk when I, who was a Bahá’í, was having a beer to show that I was one of them! So, from that day onwards, I refused to have any more alcoholic drink.

In 1985 we went to work in Haifa and I was the Section Head of Electrical and Mechanical Services. We started work at 6.30 each morning and we worked very hard until 3.30 or 4 pm. I found that work very fascinating and it gave me access to all sorts of places that otherwise I couldn’t even have thought of going to. I even had access into the inner shrines. The major project when I was there was the rewiring of Bahji – the Mansion, and all the gardens. Margaret was working in the Seat and we had a lovely flat opposite the Shrine of the Báb. We left the World Centre in 1988 due to family health problems. We returned home and got involved with lots of Bahá’í activities here in Totnes. Then we got itchy feet and went on a holiday to Yugoslavia and ended up pioneering to Belgrade for the next four years.

 

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Bob Watkins

Totnes, Devon, June 1993

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Editor’s note: Back home in England, Bob served for many years on the Bahá’í National Venues and Logistics Committee responsible for logistical arrangements for Bahá’í conferences and gatherings.  A much loved member of the UK Bahá’í community, Bob passed away in Devon in January, 2007.

 Six members of the first Local Spiritual Assembly of Belgrade, the first LSA to be formed in Yugoslavia (November 1990).  From left to right: Bob Watkins, Margaret Watkins, Jane Czerniejewski, Paul Watkins, Semira Sohrabian (now Bailey) and Mehyar Badii. (Missing from photo: Susan and Glen Duncan & Slobodan Conkic.)

Six members of the first Local Spiritual Assembly of Belgrade, the first LSA to be formed in Yugoslavia (November 1990).
From left to right: Bob Watkins, Margaret Watkins, Jane Czerniejewski, Paul Watkins, Semira Sohrabian (now Bailey) and Mehyar Badii.
(Missing from photo: Susan and Glen Duncan & Slobodan Conkic.)

Margaret and Bob Watkins at Bahjí

Margaret and Bob Watkins at Bahjí

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