Watkins & Doncaster was founded in 1874 by William Watkins in Eastbourne. His house, called 'The Villa Sphinx' was named after the Hawkmoth and gained the nickname 'The Villa Stinks' as a result of the all-pervading smell of moth balls. He established a butterfly farm in his grounds, three-quarters of an acre being devoted to rearing Lepidoptera collected from all over the world.
In 1879 Watkins moved the business to 36 The Strand, London - pictured here. He formed a partnership with Arthur Doncaster which only lasted until 1880 when William Watkins left to continue independently.
Arthur Doncaster carried the business on and was a remarkable man. He was completely deaf and dumb and all his conversations were carried out on a slate hung around his neck. When customers went into the shop and asked for something, he wrote the reply on the slate and passed it to them to read and pass back. Being handicapped to that extent, it is quite surprising that he built up a business of the size he did. He became a world authority on tropical butterflies and worked in close conjunction with the British Museum, giving much advice and assistance to the curator of tropical butterflies. At the end of the Victorian era one of the popular things in those days was glass cases of stuffed birds, and at one time the firm employed five taxidermists, fully engaged in stuffing and mounting birds under glass domes.
Arthur Doncaster had an assistant, Frederick Mette, who later became his partner and finally took over the business when Doncaster retired in the 1930s. Mette knew little about tropical butterflies but was an acknowledged expert on birds eggs. He continued until 1939 when he died, and the business ran for about a year with nobody in charge until Richard Ford, a field entomologist, bought the company in 1941.
During the time Richard managed Watkins & Doncaster, the company purchased large entomological collections (mostly butterflies) as they became available for sale. This continued the practice of William Watkins, Arthur Doncaster and Frederick Mette. These were first offered for inspection to the British Museum (Natural History) [now the Natural History Museum] which resulted over the years in the donation of nearly 27,000 specimens of butterflies and moths to that institution.
The post-war rebuilding of The Strand led to the move of the company down to Welling, Kent in 1956 (pictured here). This became the new head office and where the postal side of the business expanded.
Robin Ford joined his father Richard in 1963 and the expansion of the firm progressed steadily, with a demand growing from export customers, education and research. In 1969 Richard moved to the Isle of Wight to further his research in geology, particularly fossilised mammals, leaving Robin to run the business. The Welling office site became too small to accommodate the firm so in 1973 Robin found a larger site (pictured here) - still the current premises, in Hawkhurst, Kent with his wife Julia who became a partner of the business.
In 1976, Watkins & Doncaster took over the lease of the famous butterfly shop in the Lanes at 21 Brighton Square. The shop catered for the entomologist with attractive displays of butterflies and insects, and also appealed to the public in general who were becoming more aware of nature and conservation. The shop ran until 1985 when rents became too costly to continue. The office in Hawkhurst continues to run a showroom for customers to browse and buy products, both new and old.
In 2004 Robin and Julia's daughter Amy, with a background in business studies and marketing, joined the company.
Watkins & Doncaster remains a highly specialised family-run business with equipment sent all over the world, not only for private collectors but also for important crop research and pest control. An extensive range and variety of products continues to be offered, with a large proportion manufactured in-house. Great pride is taken with the quality of the traditional equipment adapted to modern day usage with the emphasis on the study of insects.