Losing out to his competitors

I am constantly amazed by the amount of material that still lies undiscovered in archives throughout Britain and beyond that relates to Thomas and Lucy Atkinson. A few days ago I came across a reference to a document in the Manchester Central archives and having applied to see a copy, this morning it arrived.

It is a note, dated 8 August 1836 and addressed to the Secretary of the Royal Institution in Manchester.

Manchester letter content

The note is brief and to the point:


I have forwarded three drawings for your exhibition which I hope the committee will approve and give a place accepting the pictures.

I am Sir,

Your Obedient Servant

T W Atkinson

Beneath the note he lists the three drawings he has submitted:

No 1 A design for the Athenaeum in George Street

No 2: A design for the Unitarian Chapel, Upper Brook St

No 3: A view of Sudely Castle, Gloucestershire.

Clearly Thomas was submitting his three drawings for an exhibition, to be held at the Royal Institution. At this time he was an architect, practising in Store Street in central Manchester. He had already won a commission to design a headquarters building for the Manchester and Liverpool District Bank and had also designed several churches in the City.

Of the three drawings mentioned in Thomas’ letter, I am familiar with one – that of the Unitarian Chapel. Here is his drawing of the building:
Unitarian chapel

The chapel was not built to this design, as a very different neo-Gothic design was eventually accepted by the church committee and it was built between 1836-38. The winner of the competition? It was Sir Charles Barry, who also happened to win the competition to design a building for the Manchester Athenaeum, the subject of Thomas’ first drawing. Barry subsequently went on to help AW Pugin with the design and construction of the Houses of Parliament, following its destruction by fire in 1834. Thomas Atkinson was also involved in some of the detail work on that building.

So here we have two drawings by Thomas showing buildings he was not able to build, having been beaten in a competition by the same man – Sir Charles Barry. I wonder what hs thoughts were?

As for Sudely Castle, it still exists and is now flourishing. But in the 1830s it was in a mess. The wealthy Worcester glove-makers, John and William Dent, bought the estate from Lord Rivers in 1830 and then the castle itself from the Duke of Buckingham and Chandos in 1837. The Dents restored the castle using their architect, Harvey Egington of Worcester and later George Gilbert Scott. Is it possible that Thomas Atkinson’s drawing was part of a bid for that bit of work too?

Thus it appears that all three buildings mentioned in this brief note represented potential work that did not materialise. Not surprisingly, Thomas’ business was soon to be in difficulties. His partnership with the architect Alfred Bower Clayton was dissolved in October the same year “by mutual consent”. And barely 16 months later, in February 1838, Thomas was declared bankrupt. It was to lead to a major reassessment and to decisions that would transform his life.

(If anyone knows the whereabout of copies of the Athenaeum picture and the picture of Sudely Castle, please let me know. A copy of the Unitarian chapel drawing is held by the RIBA library.)


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