My last posting looked at what happened to Lucy Atkinson following the death of her husband, Thomas Atkinson, in August 1861. This posting tries to piece together the story of Thomas’ first wife, Rebecca, and the children of that marriage – Martha, John and Emma. I am grateful to Sally Hayles and Marianne Simpson for their help with both postings.
Thomas Atkinson’s decision not to tell Lucy Sherrard Finley, the woman he married in Moscow in February 1848, that his first wife was still alive – he is described as a widower in the marriage record – was to have enormous repercussions for both of them.
He had been living apart from his first wife, Rebecca, for six or seven years by the time he married Lucy, most of that time abroad. Considering the difficulties and expense of obtaining a divorce in mid-Victorian England, it is perhaps understandable that he chose to obscure the issue. However, once he had married Lucy, fear of being accused of bigamy meant he could never fully explain to anyone, in Britain at least, the full story of his and Lucy’s 40,000-mile journey through Siberia, Central Asia and Mongolia. For much of that journey they were accompanied by Alatau, the son born to the couple during the winter of 1848 in the town of Kapal in what is now eastern Kazakhstan. But at no point in either of Atkinson’s two books on his travels does he mention either Lucy or Alatau and he chooses instead to write as if he had been travelling alone or only with guides.
Their absence from his published narrative is huge, as we learn both from his diaries – where they are mentioned extensively – and from Lucy’s own book, Recollections of Tartar Steppes, published in 1863, two years after Thomas’ death. Even though it is partly based on Thomas’ diaries, the book contains much that is new and casts a much more intimate light on their travels as a family group through these remote regions. The drama of Lucy’s several scrapes with death, the almost unattended birth of Alatau, the occasions on which she raised a gun to protect her husband from attackers – she was a crack shot – and many other dramatic moments are set out in scintillating detail.
Lucy only found out about the existence of Rebecca, Thomas’ first wife, following his death in August 1861, barely three years after their return from Russia. We don’t know precisely when she found out, but only weeks after Thomas’ death, Rebecca was granted letters of administration over Thomas’ estate, effectively making her his heir. This must have come as a deep shock to Lucy, who had always believed that Thomas was a widower. No doubt she was also expecting to inherit his (comparatively meagre) estate.
Instead, she had to face the humiliation of explaining to various grandees and acquaintances that she was indeed married to her husband and was not a disreputable woman who had travelled with a married man and had a bastard son. In stuffy mid-Victorian England it was indeed a remarkable achievement that Lucy – who had been out of England for a total of 18 years – was able to retain her dignity and even continue to express her affection for her husband.
But what about Rebecca Atkinson? What do we know about her, and about the three children born to her and Thomas? There are gaps, but the narrative is beginning to unfold. The couple must have met in 1818-19 when Thomas, still learning his trade, worked at the sandstone quarries in Halifax, Yorkshire, which specialised in flagstones for floors and provided cut stone for housing and public buildings.
Rebecca’s father, John (b1760), was a cordwainer or shoemaker. He and his wife Jane had at least five children, of whom Rebecca was the second oldest, born in 1792. All the children were christened at St John the Baptist Church in Halifax, the same church in which Thomas and Rebecca were married on 1 April 1819, when Thomas was just 20 and Rebecca was 27. As their first child, Martha, was born in Halifax on 9th November the same year, it is reasonable to assume that Rebecca was pregnant when they married.
The family’s movements in the first half of the 1820s are hazy, to say the least, but we know that Thomas was moving around the country quite a lot at this time, from Yorkshire, to London, to Kent, working on contracts as he progressed from mason to clerk of works until he was finally able to set himself up as an architect. He learned his skills on the job, taking on more and more responsibility as he progressed from carving stone to gradually producing drawings for architectural work. Already, whilst he was living in Ashton-under-Lyne in the early 1820s, he was teaching art as he worked on a local church. It is also possible he was allowed to take part in art classes at Cannon Hall as he was growing up, where he would have been instructed by one of several art teachers that passed through the house.
In the early 1820s Thomas and Rebecca must have moved back to Cawthorne for a while, as he worked on St George’s church in Barnsley for some time, walking the five miles to the town and back every day. He was also given work by the Spencer Stanhopes, who eventually persuaded him to go the Manchester and may have helped to set him up in business. Throughout this time, he was beginning to develop his interest in architecture and was already building a collection of castes of sculptures he came across in his travels. He seems to have made a particular study of the rural churches of Lincolnshire, but his first publication, Gothic Ornaments Selected from the different Cathedrals and Churches of England, published in 1829, shows that he travelled widely in order to sketch.
Two further children followed Martha – John William, born in 1824 in Yorkshire, and Emma born in 1829 in Lambeth, South London, after the family had moved there (I have not been able to find birth records for either). We don’t know exactly where they lived, but Thomas’s architectural business was located at 8 Upper Stamford Street (now demolished, but the street still exists, renamed Stamford Street) in Southwark, on what is now the South Bank, and it is likely he lived there too. From 1825-28, just overlapping with the Atkinsons, the architect Charles Hollis, who build All Saints Church in Poplar and Windsor Bridge and the Church of John the Baptist also in Windsor, lived next door at No 10.
The family stayed in London for four or five years, with Thomas working on villas in Central London and South London, on St Nicholas’ Church in Tooting and various other architectural projects. However, by 1834 they had returned back north to Manchester, moving into a property in Chorlton cum Hardy, to the south of the city centre, where Thomas’ building business, based first in Piccadilly in the city centre and then in nearby Store Street, initially flourished. However, within three years his business was in trouble and early in 1838 he was declared bankrupt.
It seems likely that Thomas spent some time in debtors’ prison, if only for a short while, as the discharge book for the Fleet Prison in London shows Thomas being released in February 1841, on sureties from William Richardson and John Skerette Stubbs, a well-known milliner in Manchester. He was certainly not in prison for his daughter Martha’s wedding in July 1840 to James Wheeler, an up-and-coming solicitor from Manchester. Thomas is described as a ‘gentleman’ on the wedding record, as is Wheeler’s father, John Wheeler.
In fact, James Wheeler was quite a catch for Martha Atkinson. He belonged to a large, prosperous and well-known Manchester family connected to publishing and journalism. His grandfather, Charles Wheeler, founded the Manchester Chronicle in in June 1781 and his father John also edited the paper. Of his nine siblings, his brother John was also a journalist and colleague of Charles Dickens on the Morning Chronicle in London. His eldest brother, Charles Henry Wheeler, became part of the Winchester elite as a well-known publisher and writer. James’ elder sister, Elizabeth Wheeler Stone, was a social novelist, amongst the first to expose the distress of the manufacturing districts of Lancashire in the first half of the nineteenth century in such novels as William Langshawe, the Cotton Lord (1842). Another brother, Thomas Wheeler, after Cambridge and the bar, became a county court judge in St Marylebone, London.
James himself seems to have dabbled in journalism before turning to law, taking the helm at the Manchester Chronicle before it was sold off in 1834 and then writing several books including Manchester: its political, social, and commercial history, ancient and modern (1836) and the anthology Manchester Poetry (1838). Soon after becoming a lawyer he was acting for several large railway companies, which at that time were expanding rapidly across Britain, including several that were associated with George Stephenson (1781-1848), the designer of The Rocket and the first inter-city public railway line at Stockton and Darlington in 1825. During the late 1830s and afterwards he was appointed solicitor for numerous railway stock companies.
So when Martha married James at St Clement’s in Chorlton cum Hardy on 11 July 1840, Thomas must have been very proud. Despite his recent financial difficulties, he was marrying his daughter into a well-to-do, well-connected dynasty. And so it proved to be. James’ practice grew and by the mid-to-late 1840s he had moved with his family from Manchester to a new office in Victoria Street, Westminster in London, next to the building that would eventually become the headquarters of the Institute of Civil Engineers.
I have not been able to find James and Martha Wheeler in the 1851 Census, although we know their third child, Edith, was born in Pimlico in 1847. Their youngest child, Gertrude, was born in Kingston, Surrey in 1856. Two older children, Godfrey and Marian, had been born in Chorlton cum Hardy in 1843 and 1845 respectively. By 1861 the Wheelers were living at the newly-built 4 Ladbroke Gardens, in Notting Hill, with their four children, Martha’s sister Emma and James’ sister Anne and her husband (and James’ business partner) William Yates Caistor, also a solicitor. The extent of their social advance is shown by the fact that they had four servants living in the house.
By 1871 the Wheelers were living at 22 Great Cumberland Place (now demolished), close to Marble Arch in Marylebone, London. Now they had six servants including a butler, footman, lady’s maid, cook and two housemaids. The three girls and Martha’s younger sister Emma were still living at home.
The following year, in May 1872, Rebecca Atkinson died at home in Beaufort Street, Chelsea, aged 77. Her death certificate states she was “widow of Thomas Witlam Atkinson, Architect.” A nurse, Jane Day living in Cheyne Row West, Chelsea, was present at her death.
Prior to her death she had lived in Beaufort Street for more than 20 years. She first appeared there, in the house of a widow, Mrs Mary Ann Palmer and her two unmarried daughters, in 1851, when she is described as a visitor. She is still there in 1861 and 1871, although Mrs Palmer had presumably died by 1871. All the other residents of the house were women annuitants.
James Wheeler died in August 1875. His will was proved by his son Godfrey and daughter Edith who were his executors. He left effects of no more than £60,000 – a massive fortune at the time.
By 1881 his widow Martha was living at 32 Hyde Park Gardens, along with her youngest daughter Gertrude – now 35 – a cook, a butler and a footman. Martha was still there in 1891, along with her grandson, Frank G W Bliss, (aged 5 and born in India) and seven staff. She died in 1899 and was buried next to her husband at St Michael and All Angels Church in Cuxton, near Rochester, Kent.
Martha was predeceased by two of her daughters. In June 1886 Gertrude, the youngest and last to leave home, had married Irishman William Alexander Willock, who worked for the Madras Civil Service as Collector and Agent at Vizagapatam in India. They had travelled out to India, but less than two years later, in February 1888, Gertrude died during childbirth at the English hill station of Trichinopoly in Tamil Nadu. She and the baby were brought back to England and buried at the church in Cuxton.
Gertrude’s sister Edith also married a colonial officer, although of a somewhat grander station. Her new husband was Henry William Bliss – in 1889 he was knighted and became Sir Henry William Bliss KCIE – who after receiving his degree at Merton College, Oxford, in 1863 joined the Madras provincial civil service. He served as Commissioner of Salt and Revenue from 1878 to 1886 and as a member of the Finance Committee of India from 1886 to 1887 and member of the Board of Revenue from 1887 to 1889. He then served as a member of the Imperial Legislative Council of India from 1890 to 1892 and Madras Legislative Council from 1893 to 1898.
The marriage took place in November 1879 at Christ Church in Bombay. It was Bliss’ second marriage, following the death of his first wife, which has resulted in the birth of a son, Charles Bliss. Edith and Henry had three sons, the second of whom was born in ‘Ooty’ (Ootacamunde), a well-known hill station to the north of Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu. And that is also where Edith died in May 1898. She is buried there, but a memorial tablet at Cuxton Church in Kent records her passing and gives her name and title as Dame Edith Bliss.
Her husband, Sir Henry, retired from the Indian Civil Service almost immediately after her death and moved to London, where in 1900 he married for a third time and became a Moderate Party member of the London County Council. Later he retired to Abbey House in Abingdon, Berks where he died in 1919.
As for Marian Wheeler, the eldest daughter, she married a military man, John Rudge, in February 1878. In 1881 he was living in Portsea, Hants, with Marian and their newly-born daughter, Amy. He was an infantry major in the 1/10 Regiment and on the Active list. A decade later he was a colonel and living in Lincoln with Marian and Amy. By 1901 he was on the retired list, living at Millbrooke, Topsham, Countess Weir in Devon, with Marian and their nephew, Godfrey Bliss (15), son of Marian’s sister Edith, together with four servants. I have not been able to trace Amy any further.
Martha and James’ only son, Godfrey the eldest child, studied law at Magdalen College, Cambridge, graduating in 1866. He was called to the bar in 1869, but by 1881 he was a non-practising barrister, living at 21 Harbour Terrace, St Austell, Cornwall with his American-born wife Mary and a servant. Presumably, having inherited a considerable sum from his father, he had decided not to work. Two children born to the couple died soon after birth.
Soon after this Godfrey migrated to Aiken, South Carolina, in America, where he became a successful businessman. By 1902 he was President of the Sterling Kaolin Company and a keen golfer.
He died without children in 1933 and letters of administration were granted to his cousin, Philip Wheeler Bliss. According to the Aiken Journal and Review of 30 August 1933: “The Will of Mr. Godfrey Wheeler, who died in Aiken on Aug. 19th, has been filed at the office of the Probate Judge. Professor Otis L. Courtney, with whom Mr. Wheeler resided was willed the sum of $10,000, and the balance of the estate was left to his nephew, Colonel Philip Bliss, of England. The residue is to be divided with another nephew, Harry Bliss, if he survived at the time of Mr. Wheeler’s death. The Will is dated Dec. 21st, 1931. and witnessed by R. L. Gunter, H. H. Raynham and L. R. Weeks. The estate has not been appraised, but it is estimated at about $40,000.”
Godfrey owned over 200 acres at the time of his death and was thus a wealthy man. Philip and Harry Bliss, to whom he left the majority of his estate, were both sons of Godfrey’s sister Edith.
The only line that seems to have continued from James and Martha was via Edith Bliss’ children – Henry, Godfrey (known as Harry) and Philip. All carried the name Wheeler as part of their name.
After Balliol and the army, Henry became a research chemist for the British Research Association for the Woollen and Worsted Industries. He had a son who died at birth and he himself died in 1964 in Hampshire.
Harry I have no further details for, except that in 1911 he was living with an aunt and uncle in Devon.
As for Philip Wheeler Bliss, he went to Eton and then became an officer in the Royal Engineers, rising to the rank of Brigadier. At the beginning of the Second World War, having become an expert on reinforced concrete, he was appointed Director of Fortifications and Works at the War Office before retiring in 1943. He bought a house in Budleigh Salterton with his wife Monica and died in 1966. His son, Captain Philip Bliss, sold the house the same year and the following year it reopened as the Fairlynch Museum, a local history museum and one of the only thatched museums in Britain.
I have not been able to locate any further family members, although I believe that two of Brigadier Bliss’ grandsons emigrated to Australia. Any further information would be much appreciated.
Thus we return to Thomas and Rebecca Atkinson’s two other children, about which little is known. We know that John William Atkinson was born in Yorkshire in 1824 and that he died in Hamburg on 3rd April 1846, aged 22, probably from TB. The Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser for 11 April 1846 noted that he was a marine artist: “His talents were various: as a marine artist they would have been great, as shewn by his sketches, one of which, The Phantom Ships, is of a very high order.” The lack of information about this critical period in Thomas’ life prevents us being too specific, but it seems likely that John’s death had a significant impact on him. John was living with Thomas in Hamburg at the time he died.
It cannot be a coincidence that Thomas chose to give up architecture at this point and head for some of the most remote places on earth, in the wilds of Siberia and Central Asia. A failed business, a broken marriage and then the death of his only son would have been a considerable burden for anyone.
Thomas and Rebecca’s youngest daughter, Emma, is even more of an enigma. Born in Pimlico in 1827, she can be found living with Thomas in 1841 in Chorlton, but without either her mother or brother. I cannot find a trace of her (or, for that matter, Martha and her husband) in the 1851 Census records and there is a trace of a possibility that all three were living in Madrid, Spain. In 1861 she was still unmarried, living with her sister Martha and James Wheeler in Ladbroke Gardens, Kensington. She was still with them in 1871 in Gt Cumberland Place, Marylebone, still unmarried. In both the 1861 and 1871 Census her birthplace is given as Lambeth, rather than Pimlico. After that the trail goes cold.
Several sources say that she is Emma Willsher Atkinson, author of Memoirs of the Queens of Prussia (London 1858). This is not correct, as this author can be traced from childhood and has no connection with Thomas and Rebecca. Memoirs… contains a dedication on the frontispiece to ‘A much-beloved invalid sister’, which does not square with the Atkinson family. I have not been able to find out where or when Emma (daughter of Thomas) died.
The overall picture is that Thomas’ first family did pretty well for themselves. When the family broke apart at the beginning of the 1840s Thomas was bankrupt, with few prospects of getting back into business. His daughter Martha’s marriage to James Wheeler turned out to be fortuitous – and prosperous. And their children also prospered.
Thomas’ son John did not live long, but his father stayed with him until the end. And Emma, his youngest daughter, although she appears not to have married, lived well in her sister’s houses for many years. Rebecca herself lived quietly in a respectable part of London as an annuitant, with her two daughters only a short cab ride away. Of course, we don’t know how Rebecca and her daughters felt about their father and whether or not he ever saw any of them again after he returned to London from his travels. Perhaps one day some information will emerge.