I spent the day yesterday in the library of the Royal Geographical Society in London transcribing Thomas Atkinson’s diaries, something which has absorbed a lot of my time in the last couple of years. The five diaries, which span the years 1847-53, are mostly written in pencil. Atkinson’s neat handwriting is not too difficult to read, although often he writes in tiny lettering that requires the use of a magnifying glass.
After much time and effort I am now nearing the end of this enormous task and hope before long to publish the diaries in book form. They are full of surprises and remarkable stories and unlike Atkinson’s books, clearly ordered in terms of places and dates.
Most recently I have been working on the diary for 1849, during the summer of which Thomas and Lucy and their baby, Alatau, made the return journey from Kapal in what was then Chinese Tartary (and is now Eastern Kazakhstan), to Barnaul in southern Siberia. I won’t go into too much detail about the narrative, but I want to draw your attention to something that I have never before seen mentioned in any writing about the Atkinsons.
I am referring to a paragraph from the diary entry for Tuesday 16th August 1849. At this point, the Atkinsons had left the Djungar Alatau Mountains and had passed by the western edge of Lake Ala Kool on their way north into the Tarbagatai Mountains. Somewhere here they met up with Sultan Iamantuck and his family, who showed considerable kindness to the Atkinsons.
Thomas decided that he would create a portrait of the Sultan and his family. He describes the scene in his diary thus: “We had a visit from the Sultan early, but this being a fast he would not take breakfast. He had brought Lucy a present of some Chinese silk for a kalat (silk robe-ed). I desired our Cossack to say I wished to sketch him and would go to his yourt shortly. On arriving there I found him surrounded by many Kazakhs. He received me with great politeness. All seemed greatly interested in what I was doing and looked at my camera with great surprise. Having sketched the Sultan, I then sketched his daughter, a very pretty girl of 17 years old. She was busy making the ornaments for a yourt. I also sketched the son, a fine youth of 22 years old.”
What struck me about this paragraph is, I think, obvious. It is Thomas’ mention of a ‘camera’. Bearing in mind that this was 1849, we are talking about the earliest days of photography. Could it be possible that Atkinson had taken a photographic camera with him on this journey? If so, why had he never mentioned it before and why has no-one ever seen any photographs – probably Daguerreotypes, which were invented in 1839 – of his travels?
The answer was provided to me by the excellent staff of the RGS library, who were able to point out that Atkinson was probably referring to a camera lucida, which is an optical device made up of a mirror and lenses that is used as a drawing aid by artists. Patented in 1806, it superimposes the subject being viewed onto the surface upon which the artist is drawing. The artist sees both the scene in front of him and the drawing surface simultaneously, as in a photographic double exposure.
The fact that Atkinson used such a device raises some fascinating issues. First, we can now be sure that at least some of his portraits of Kazakh nomads were pretty accurate, as the camera lucida allows faithful picture to be drawn. Second, can we also assume that he used the device for some of his landscapes as well?
And here is a woodcut of Atkinson’s portrait of Sultan Iamantuck and his children, as published in his book, Oriental and Western Siberia:
Sadly, the original drawings that Atkinson brought back with him from Siberia and Central Asia have long since disappeared. What a pity!
Following on from my previous blogpost, my good friend Natalya Volkova from Barnaul in southern Siberia has just sent me the outline for a university course at Gorno-Altaisk State University called Siberia in Letters of an English Lady: Lucy Atkinson. The course is a special English course on the History and Literature of Gorny Altai and you can find a copy of it here: Teaching the Atkinsons-Gorno-Altaisk.
The course outline ends with an essay (in Russian) from Tatyana P Shastina on the place of the Russian Altai in the literature of the Russian Empire. Overall, it is a very impressive and fascinating course. What a pity the Atkinsons are not studied in such detail in their homeland!
Lucy Atkinson’s writings, contained in her book Recollections of Tartar Steppes and Their Inhabitants, (John Murray, London, 1863) are increasingly of interest in Russia. Her sharp observations and witty comments, added to the fact that her travels were so extraordinary for a woman at that time – provide an interesting insight into mid-nineteenth century Siberia. Three years ago, Natalya Volkova published a translation of some of Lucy’s writings in Barnaul in southern Siberia and these have now caught the eye of two academics at nearby Gorno-Altaisk State University, in the capital of the Altai Republic.
Dr Maria Ostanina and Dr Tatyana Shastina have written ‘An English Lady in the “Wild Space” of Siberia (based on Mrs. L. Atkinson’s Recollections of Tartar Steppes and Their Inhabitants)’, Studia Litterarum, 2018, vol. 3, no 3, pp. 64–81. (In Russ.) DOI: 10.22455/2500-4247-2018-3-3-64-81. You can find a copy here.
I cannot give a full critique of the paper, as I don’t read Russian well enough, but with the aid of Google Translate I have been able to make some sense of the argument, which is about the way outsiders perceive the ‘wildness’ of Siberia. An interesting topic, which would perhaps be even more so were the authors to compare the attitudes of foreigners about Siberia to those of Russians themselves.
Another little mystery in the Thomas Atkinson saga has been resolved – the whereabouts of the grave of his first wife, Rebekah.
Thomas married Rebekah on 1 April 1819 in Halifax, where he was probably working in a local quarry. Rebekah, born in 1792, was six or seven years older than Thomas – who was 20 – and she was already pregnant with their first child Martha, born in November the same year. Although we don’t know the circumstances which led to the end of the marriage, we know that it probably broke down in the late 1830s or early 1840s, when the couple were living in Manchester.
The clues to their separation are few and far between. We know from the 1841 Census that at that time Thomas, together with his youngest daughter Emma, was living in Chapel Lane, a poor neighbourhood of Chorlton cum Hardy, then a rural village with around 700 inhabitants about four miles south of Manchester, where most people were employed on farms or in market gardening. Also living in the house was Alice Booth, 30, described as a family servant.
Thomas and Rebekah’s other daughter, Martha, had married Manchester solicitor James Wheeler in July the previous year in the local parish church and was also living nearby. The Atkinsons’ only son, John (b.1823), must have left home already, although I cannot find him anywhere in the 1841 Census.
Rebekah (sometimes spelled Rebecca) may have been living alone in nearby Chorlton on Medlock. There is a ‘Mrs Atkinson’ listed in Crawshaw Street and described as a washerwoman, but the details are hard to confirm because, as the census-taker noted in the margin, “house locked up and not back until Wednesday”. Most of the neighbours were cotton weavers. It is hard to believe that Rebekah would have been forced to take in washing, but the fact she was not present may mean this information was incorrect. The fact her son John cannot be found on the Census may mean that he was living elsewhere with his mother.
A decade later, at the time of the 1851 Census, Thomas was already long gone, having arrived in St Petersburg in July 1846. Even before that, it is likely he was living in Hamburg for several years, along with his son John. There is also some evidence that he travelled by sea to India in the early 1840s. In February 1848 he married Lucy Finley in Moscow.
Rebekah was noted in the 1851 Census as a visitor to No 5 Beaufort Street in Chelsea, along with another woman, Mary Ann Grouinett (possibly Groinett), who had come from Cheltenham. The head of household was Mrs Mary Anne Palmer, who lived there with her two daughters and her son. Whatever the arrangements at that time, Rebekah was to stay at the house for the rest of her life.
In 1861 – by which time Thomas, Lucy and Alatau were back from Russia and living in West London – the Census shows she is still in Beaufort Street with Mrs Palmer and her two spinster daughters and Mary Ann Grouinett. All are described as receiving an annuity. By 1871 Mrs Palmer is described as a boarding house keeper and Rebekah as an annuitant. Mary Ann Grouinett is also still there. The two daughters have gone and there are now more boarders.
Rebekah died at Beaufort Street on 7th May 1872, by which time she would have been 80, although described as 77 on the death certificate, which described her as “Widow of Thomas Witlam Atkinson, Architect”. A nurse, Jane Day, of nearby Cheyne Row West, was present at her death.
After searching for several years, Sally Hayles has now found Rebekah’s final resting place. In fact, she was interred in Highgate Cemetery in Hampstead, one of seven huge private cemeteries established by an Act of Parliament in the mid-1800s to relieve the pressure for burial plots in central London, which had run out of space. It was opened in 1839 and soon became a favoured place for London’s middle classes to be buried.
The plot was purchased by her son-in-law James Wheeler, who paid 15/- for the privilege. There is no headstone or memorial associated with the plot. At the time of Rebekah’s death the Wheelers were living not far away in a very grand house in Cumberland Place, just off Marble Arch in Central London, together with six servants, including a butler and a footman. They are buried together in St Michael and All Angels Church in Cuxton, near Rochester, Kent – not far from Thomas, who is buried in Lower Walmer.
Sally Hayles had also previously located Lucy Atkinson’s grave. She died of bronchitis on 13 November 1893 in a house in Mecklenburg Square, close to Kings Cross in London and is buried in Tower Hamlets Cemetery (also known as Bow Cemetery) in Mile End. This is close to where she was brought up near the East London docks. An inscription on the gravestone – now unreadable – originally read:
Sacred to the memory of
Lucy Sherrard Atkinson
Thomas William Atkinson, FRGS, FGS
Born April 16th 1819
Died November 3rd 1893
“We have loved thee with an everlasting love,
therefore to devine kindness were drawn thee.”
Thomas and Lucy’s son, Alatau, paid a total of 10 guineas for the plot, although he was living in Hawaii and did not attend the funeral. Presumably he also chose the quote, which is adapted from a line in the Old Testament Book of Jeremiah, although it does not follow the King James translation. The dates are slightly wrong, and Thomas’ middle name is wrong, which suggests it was carved by someone who was not given clear instructions. Close by in the same cemetery is the grave of Benjamin Coulson Robinson, in whose house Lucy lived for several years and to whom she was related. Benjamin’s wife Hannah was one of the witnesses to Lucy’s will.
Around 100 people gathered at the Beulah Spa lawns in Upper Norwood, south London, on Saturday to unveil a plaque and history lectern to commemorate the now almost-forgotten Royal Spa that once existed there.
Many of those attending wore Victorian clothing and danced quadrilles, just as they would have done so in the 1830s-40s when Beulah Spa was in its heyday. The unveiling of the granite memorial stone and pictorial history lectern was performed by mayor of Croydon, Bernadette Khan. Both mention Thomas Witlam Atkinson, who redesigned the gardens, built ornamental ponds and constructed several buildings on the site in the late 1830s.
Attendees included Councillor Pat Ryan (who contributed to the cost of the stone and lectern) Stephen Oxford, Secretary of the Norwood Society, Father Leonard Marsh of All Saints Church and Keith Walshe, former Headmaster of David Livingstone School.
The Spa flourished for several years in the mid-1800s, but later fell into disuse. Most of the buildings were demolished and land was sold off for housing development, although the original gatehouse and a part of the gardens still exists.
The Friends of Spa Woods, who have monthly work days tidying up the area, were all present and provided festivalgoers with tea, coffee and homemade cakes. The event was organised by Beulah Spa History Project founder Chris Shields, who has recently published a book on Beulah Spa.
Written accounts by British travellers to remote parts of Siberia are not common. Many of those who wrote about their journeys across Asia kept closely to the well-travelled Great Post Road and, later, the Trans-Siberian railway and were seldom far away from safety. That is partly why Thomas and Lucy Atkinson’s accounts of their travels are so interesting. They certainly travelled more than any other foreigners in the remotest parts of the Russian Empire, but otherwise the wanderers are few and far between.
Thus it was a pleasure to read recently Robert Louis Jefferson’s book Roughing it in Siberia (Sampson, Low, Marston & Co, 1897) in which the author describes a winter journey in 1897 to remote mountains in what is now northern Tuva. Tuva lies to the south-east of Krasnoyarsk in southern Siberia and is best known today for its extraordinary throat-singers and nomadic reindeer herders. It is still a remote place, as I found out some years ago on a trek through its Western Sayan Mountains, where there are still nomads living amidst the glorious taiga.
Jefferson – a journalist by training and a pioneering cyclist who had previously cycled to Moscow and back from England and then across Siberia and had written two books about his exploits – travelled on this occasion with three companions from London, but without bicycles, preferring instead the vicissitudes of rail travel. At the time they travelled they were able to reach as far as Chelyabinsk in the southern Urals before having to leave the European rail system. The Trans-Siberian Railway had not yet been opened, although work was well underway, and Jefferson describes the breakneck pace at which it was proceeding.
He is pretty vague about the purpose of his journey, other than to inspect some goldmines – presumably on behalf of British investors. His companions included John Scawell, an Englishman who had just returned from goldmines in Australia, India and the Transvaal, and Evan Asprey, who had spent five years in Siberia and could speak Russian. The third was Thomas Gaskell, an American citizen of English origin, only 28 but well-travelled throughout Asia. All were aware that once completed, the new railway would create many potential business opportunities in Siberia, if only they could defeat the notorious Russian bureaucracy.
Jefferson writes well and tells many good stories. He notes the large numbers of emigrants from southern Russia making their way, freely, to southern Siberia, having been offered assisted passage by the Imperial government. “The principle underlying Russia’s colonisation scheme is similar to England’s policy with regards to Canada, only that the means are easier and influence energetic and widespread,” he notes. He calculates that a Russian peasant could travel 2000 miles for the grand sum of six roubles – equivalent to 13s.3d. at the time the book was written, although the accommodation was little better than cattle trucks.
As Jefferson and his colleagues endured the extremely slow (8mph sometimes) local trains to Kurgan, Omsk, Tomsk and then the end of the railway at Krasnoyarsk, they could hardly have known the hardship that they would soon face travelling through the taiga in the bitter cold of winter. He doesn’t explain why he chose a winter journey, but presumably it was because the route they took would have been impossible during the summer, when the ground turns to bog and the air is full of billions of biting mosquitoes.
From Krasnoyarsk they faced an eight-day, 800-mile, journey south in two horse-drawn sledges, part of it down the frozen Yenissei River. “I can only say that as it turned out it was a hundred per cent dearer, two days slower and a hundred times more uncomfortable than if we had taken the regular post-road through Atchinsk,” writes Jefferson with feeling.
The journey was mostly sleepless as a succession of semi-drunk yemshiks drove their troikas at high speed and with little care for obstacles en route. At one point Jefferson and Gaskell found their sledge at a standstill with one of the three horses dead in a deep snowdrift. The yemshik was nowhere to be seen and had presumably fallen off the sledge some time before. The two men had to find their own way to the post house, using a bicycle lamp to light the way. What became of the yemshik they never found out.
Eventually all four men made it to Minusinsk, where they left the river Yenissei to travel into the Sayan Mountains and the settlement of Karatuzski, which they reached after three days. Jefferson describes the village as “the headquarters of the goldmasters during the summer operations”. At this time China still controlled most of the land to the south of here, including what is now Tuva. Here it was necessary to hire some labourers and despite what he had been told previously, most of those who presented themselves were criminal exiles. “Out of over 200 men who presented themselves to us not one per cent bore the passport of a free man; but had, instead, the police certificate which detailed the crime and the sentence of the holder.”
They hired six men, all of whom had been banished to Siberia for violent murder. They also met some of the local goldminers, many of them rich men, who spent their time drinking and gambling. After a couple of days they set off again, this time in a caravan of 15 single-horse sledges, along the river Armeul, a tributary of the Yenissei.
This was a very hard journey, with horses and sledges constantly slipping from the improvised track. Gaskell’s sledge was smashed to pieces in one fall, and all of them were thrown into the snow on more than one occasion. After four days they finally saw the Sayan Mountain peaks, which marked the boundary between Russia and China. Further travel down the Isinsoul River (I have not been able to identify it), led them to the goldmine they had been searching for, consisting of a small collection of huts and a sluice-house.
Jefferson describes in detail the alluvial gold workings, which were so crudely constructed that anywhere up to 50 per cent of the fine gold was lost during the washing process. The miners worked in gangs of three or four, selling their gold to the mine owners who in turn were required to sell to government inspectors. The spoil heaps often covered up virgin territory, forcing the miner to move constantly, leaving behind large unworked areas.
Their main tool was a ‘Long Tom’ box, which had a pierced iron plate at one end through which the gold dropped into another, slower stream of water. Even the bigger box sluices were crude and lost around 20 per cent of the gold. Most produced around an ounce of gold for every ton of alluvial, low by world standards, but with such cheap labour and provisions, the mines could still make a lot of money.
Overall, however, Jefferson cautioned against investing in goldmining in the Sayan Mountains, although he thought large profits could be made if one company was to buy up most of the goldmines and introduce modern extraction techniques.
Before leaving the mine, he decided to make a trip over the mountains to the southern slopes of the Sayan Mountains in what was then Chinese territory. No-one seemed to know where the border was and there was no sign of Chinese troops or border police. Everyone accepted that it must all soon become part of Russia.
Jefferson, Scawell and a Russian guide set off on sledges to cross the peaks and were surprised to see much less snow on the southern slopes and little ice on the streams. They soon spotted some people who turned out to be reindeer-herding Soyots – the same ethnic group that the Atkinsons had come across on their trip to the Eastern Sayan Mountains in 1851 – and whom we met during our visit to a nearby region last year. The nomadic Soyots offered sable skins in exchange for tea, tobacco and gunpowder.
Two weeks later Jefferson and his friends left the Sayan goldfields to return to Europe, believing that they had been the only Englishmen, besides Captain Wiggins, “to enter Siberia in order to inquire into the commercial resources of that vast country.” He was wrong on that, as the Atkinsons had been in almost exactly the same area 50 years before him.
Nor was this the last of Jefferson’s adventures. In 1899 he published A New Ride to Khiva, detailing his bicycle ride to the remote desert city now in Uzbekistan, first made famous by Captain Fred Burnaby. Sadly, by 1914, at the age of only 47, Jefferson was dead. Today, like many of our Siberian explorers, his name is almost forgotten. You can find out more about him in an interview with his grandson, John Jefferson, which is published here.
I am delighted to report that on 29th September the Mayor of Croydon, Toni Letts, will unveil a memorial stone and public lectern commemorating the former existence of the Royal Beulah Spa, which once dominated the hills of Upper Norwood. We have written here before about the Spa and the important role played by Thomas Atkinson in its reinvigoration in the mid-1830s, when he redesigned the grounds and several buildings at the site. He is mentioned on both the plaque and the lectern.
The spa was later visited by Queen Victoria – which is how it became Royal Beulah Spa – and for a decade or so became a major out-of-town attraction for thousands of wealthy London citizens, who would go there to ‘take the waters’, that the famous scientist Michael Faraday described as equal, if not superior to those of Bath, Wells and Cheltenham.
The commemoration is organised by the Beulah Spa History Project, founded by local author Chris Shields, whose book, The Beulah Spa 1831-1856 A New History, was instrumental in drawing to public attention the remarkable history of this long-forgotten London landmark. He was backed by the Friends of Spa Woods, the Norwood Society and the Mayor. As well as a plaque it also includes a lectern that explains to visitors to the site – which is now only a vestige of the former pleasure gardens – how it once looked.
The unveiling of the plaque at the original site of the spa in Upper Norwood will include live music from the All Saints Clarinet Quartet and a period dance performance in Victorian dress by Mrs Bennet’s Ballroom Company.