Charlie and Reg Watkins
by Emma Warren

Most people walking down Guildford Street in the 1960s would not have realised they were passing one of the country’s most renowned electric guitar and sound system factories. Watkins Electric Music (WEM) was founded by brothers Charlie and Reg Watkins, in London in 1949.

Initially they ran a record shop but branched out into buying and selling guitars, with Charlie eventually setting up a separate shop on his own. He was fascinated by the mechanics of guitars and frustrated that at live music gigs the guitars couldn’t always be heard, as with no pickups fitted there was no amplification. It wasn’t until the mid-1950s that guitar playing became fashionable, with the likes of Lonnie Donegan and other skiffle groups. When musical tastes changed, Charlie decided to dedicate more shop space to guitars, and his shop became a hangout for musicians to sit and play and chat. The problem of amplification was a universal one. Charlie, with the help of Reg, a cabinet maker by trade, and electrical engineer Bill Purkis put their heads together to find a solution.

WEM advertisement. Courtesy of Chertsey Museum.

The first Watkins amp, the Westminster, was followed by two further models by 1956. Uptake was such that more staff were needed to keep up with demand. With the company doing well Charlie turned his thoughts to what was to become their most famous invention, the Copicat – a portable echo machine. It became so widely used that it became a key sound of 1960s music.

Whilst Charlie was expanding his musical equipment empire, Reg turned his attention to making guitars. The Watkins brothers hoped to make the first solidbody guitar in the UK, and set up production in Caxton House, 57 Guildford Street, Chertsey. Alas, they missed out on the accolade of being the country’s first, beaten to it by a few days by the Dallas Tuxedo guitar. However, the Rapier 22, 23 and 24 were an instant success as they were affordable, at only £33, to young musicians learning to play. By 1960 WEM were the dominant force in the British music industry with their supply of amps, echo chambers and electric guitars. The company grew until it had over 150 employees working across four factories. They became the first manufacturers in the world to produce a 10000w PA system for live music, and so became the leading suppliers of touring sound systems with WEM equipment used by some of the world’s most famous musicians. The Who, Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones all regularly used WEM.

WEM ceased making guitars in Chertsey in the late 1970s.

Share your thoughts

Allowed tags: <p>, <a>, <em>, <strong>, <ul>, <ol>, <li>