This summer, during the trip by the Atkinson descendants to Eastern Kazakhstan, I heard for the first time about a school song or rhyme that was once recited about Alatau Tamchiboulac Atkinson, the child of Thomas and Lucy. Both Belinda Brown and Paul Dahlquist remembered the song, although with slightly different wordings. Neither could remember the full verse. Imagine my surprise this week when I came across a letter that Belinda had written to the author Susanna Hoe back in 1989. Susanna kindly passed me her research notes recently and there was the letter from Belinda, who remarked that Alatau was teased “unmercifully” when he was at school.
Here is the verse – based on the two versions I heard, with the addition of the words in Belinda’s letter:
Went to School on an Elephant’ back.
The elephant run
To see such fun
With Alatau Tamchiboulac on his back
The likelihood is that the rhyme originates at Rugby School, where Alatau spent about three years between 1864-67. No doubt the other boys found Alatau to be very exotic indeed, having been born in the remote central Asian steppes and brought up in Russia until the age of 10, where he learned to speak both Russian and French.
The money to pay Alatau’s fees at Rugby School was raised via a public subscription organised by Sir Roderick Murchison, then president of the Royal Geographical Society after Thomas Atkinson died in August 1861. The main contributors were fellows of the RGS, a society where Thomas was highly regarded and a fellow himself. He was also a very proud elected member of the more exclusive Geographical Club.
My picture shows Holly House, now a newsagents, on the Strand in Lower Walmer, Kent, where Thomas Atkinson died on 13 August 1861. Until the last few months of his life, he and his wife Lucy had been living at Hawk Cottage on the Old Brompton Road near Earls Court in London. As Thomas’ health deteriorated, they decided to move on doctors’ advice to Lower Walmer, close to Deal on the Kent coast. They must have made the move after the beginning of May, as they are still listed at Hawk Cottage in the Census for that year. The house faces directly onto the sea, which would have been less than 100m away at that time.
Lucy wrote very eloquently about Thomas’ final days in a letter sent a month after he died to the Reverend Charles Spencer Stanhope, who had known him since his childhood days at Cannon Hall in Yorkshire.
Lucy’s letter, written on 21 September, is a very moving and remarkably affectionate tribute to her husband:
“Arrived at Walmer, we had a most comfortable and pretty lodging, facing the sea. Here he had the sofa drawn to the window where he used to lie and watch the beautiful vessels passing to and fro; he appeared so happy gazing on England’s wealth. Then I used to lead him down to the sea beach, and there he, stretched on a mattress, dozed away his days. When awake I read to him and all went on well; still I knew he was growing daily weaker. His step became heavier and he leaned with greater weight upon me. At length we were compelled to call in a doctor and he urged the necessity of staying indoors altogether, but before this I must tell you the very great interest he excited in everybody.
“The poor sailors and fishermen used to look upon him with such pitying eyes and as he passed near a form on which some of them sat they would rise to let him pass. Even the little children, when they perceived he was asleep, would pass by on tiptoe. One fine little fellow, not four years of age, with beautiful dark Italian eyes, came to me one day and asked if the gentleman was very ill. I answered that he was ill; he looked very searchingly into his face and then went and laid his head beside him on the pillow. I could but look and think what a beautiful facsimile of winter and spring; there was the opening and closing bud – the one leaving the world and the other just entering upon it. Instantaneous came the thought, which is happiest, he who had fought the world’s battles or he who was just about encountering them?”
Lucy says the doctor advised Thomas to give up the walks to the beach. Before long he could not even walk to his room. Lucy continues:
“Then I had a sailor to carry him. You should have seen the honest rough fellow take him up as if he were a baby. And then when he laid him down it was with such a look of sorrow and pity, he would say ‘I wish you better, sir’. I quite loved that man……On the night before he left us I watched and never supposed he would see daylight again, and yet his sleep was calm and beautiful. He awoke about every half-hour and then the breathing was very heavy and the incessant ais! ais!, but he never once murmured. Not a sound passed his lips. He was perfectly collected, his mind never wandered for a moment. I had never been near a death-bed before but there was that about him told me he was not for long.
“When daylight came I sat down on the bed beside him and ventured to tell him that it might please the Almighty to take him, but he seemed so tenacious of life and so hopeful, I thought perhaps he feared death. I asked him but he said very mildly and gently ‘I hope not’. He became very anxious to leave his bed, after I had talked to him some little time. I had him carried to his sofa; I could have carried him, but he would not let me – his sorrow always was that I had so much to do for him, yet he never liked me to be out of his sight a moment. He appeared all the morning to be in deep prayer, he had his hands constantly clasped; once he asked me to raise him; I placed him in a sitting posture. He then asked for the middle and side windows to be closed and the blinds drawn down. He looked to the east, clasped his hands and I for the first instant thought he was amused with the vessels – but I shortly perceived he was in prayer – he remained thus for a quarter of an hour and then asked to be laid down. I did so, then he asked for all the windows to be open and the blinds drawn up. At this moment the sun shone forth and with a smile he said, ‘What a beautiful gleam of sunshine’.
“Ten minutes before he quitted us he asked for the doctor. I told him I had sent for him. I was kneeling beside him when I saw the change come over him. He tried to speak but could not. He then as I held his head fixed his eyes upon me and so passed off into eternity like an infant closing his eyes for sleep. There was no struggle – so calm, so placid and so beautiful he looked – there was no pallor of death – the hands to the last were just as when living. It was the forehead which was so marble-like.
“Poor Alatau – my heart bled to see my child. He and his father were such good friends. I was obliged to put my own sorrow to one side to comfort my child. You have never seen him. He is so tender-hearted, so loving and affectionate, such a good obedient boy. Though I say it, he is a noble little fellow.”
(Update: when I first published this blog, I thought that the house in which Thomas died was called Holly Cottage, which is away from the beach and closer to Upper Walmer. Having realised it was in fact Holly House, I have changed the pics and added another sentence or two. Otherwise it is the same article).
This week I have been looking at the archives of the Church of England held at Lambeth Palace Library in London, which retains substantial records of the church building work carried out by Thomas Atkinson when he worked as an architect in the 1820s-30s. The records include letter and documents, as well as a number of drawings and plans for the churches Thomas worked on, either as surveyor or architect.
We already know that Thomas obtained a lot of work in building what were then called Commissioner’s churches. These were mostly built in the expanding industrial towns of Britain to provide spiritual welfare for the tens of thousands of people who moved from the countryside to work in factories. The money came from the huge financial compensation that France was forced to pay following the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815.
I already knew of perhaps a dozen churches that Thomas had worked on, including St Nicholas’ church in Tooting, St Luke’s in Cheetham Hill, Manchester, St George’s church, Hyde, St Thomas’ Church, Stockport, St Barnabas’ church, Openshaw and St George’s in Ramsgate. The Lambeth Palace archives include drawings of the floorplan for the Ramsgate church, but there are also two of Thomas’ drawings from All Saints Church in Cawthorne – his own parish in Yorkshire – and drawings from two other churches that are new to me, namely St Margaret’s of Antioch church in Bowers Gifford in Essex and St Mary the Virgin in Hope Under Dinmore in Herefordshire.
From what I can see, the drawings are by Thomas himself, although some are signed ‘Thomas and Charles Atkinson, Upper Stamford Street’, the London address from where Thomas worked in the late 1820s with his business partner – not relative – Charles Atkinson. The Cawthorne drawings, which date from 1825, are signed Thomas Witlam Atkinson, 33 Great Pulteney Street, London, which is an address I have never seen before. He must have lived/worked there before moving south of the river to Upper Stamford Street a year or so later.
The Bowers Gifford church is particularly attractive. We know that in 1829 Thomas was asked to repair the church, which was in danger of collapse. Odette Gibb, the present church warden, tells me that Thomas “examined the dangerous condition of the church and drew up the plans for the work to be done to make the church usable again. Originally only the roof was going to be repaired but the rest of the building was too dilapidated so it was decided to enlarge the width of the church by two foot and create more seating.” The work cost a total of just over £632. Below are two of Thomas’ drawings of the church.
The tower of St Margaret’s church (Lambeth Palace Library ICBS 01093d)
The drawings for All Saints church in Cawthorne are also very interesting. As a 19-year-old Thomas had already carved an intricate headstone for his mother, who was buried in the churchyard. It must have given him enormous satisfaction to return to his native village, where he had been the son of a mason, to design and build a new nave for the church. And as well as adding an extra nave, Thomas had also begun work on a memorial tomb for Walter Spencer Stanhope, the incumbent at nearby Cannon Hall until his death in 1822 and someone Thomas had known all his life. He exhibited his drawing for the tomb at the Royal Academy soon after completing the work on the church and by 1829 it had been installed.
Other churches mentioned in the Lambeth archives include Christ Church, Timperley in Cheshire, where a grant for building work was refused in 1839. The file says “Application aborted after increase in costs and problems with plans.” This was the time when Atkinson was having financial difficulties and had been declared bankrupt, so there may be a connection. There is also a file on St Chad’s church in Stockport, where the architect is listed as Charles Atkinson of 13 Thames Inn, London. Was this the same person who was in partnership with Thomas? Further investigations are needed on this.
Thomas Atkinson’s contribution to the architecture of Manchester is finally beginning to get some of the attention it deserves. From his yard, first in Piccadilly and then around the corner in Store Street, he took on several substantial projects in the mid-1830s, although ultimately, the city was to be instrumental in his downfall as an architect.
The church was built – and the tower survives to this day – but the villas, alas, were never completed. Also mentioned in the book are the headquarters for the Manchester and Liverpool District Bank, the observatory planned for Kersal Moor, his proposal for a Unitarian Church in Upper Brook Street and the church he built at Openshaw. We could also mention the superb houses he designed for John Cheetham and his brother in Stalybridge – both now sadly demolished.
Mr Schofield casts Thomas as a Cassandra, a man who made many plans for the city, but who was ignored by the establishment. This is slightly harsh, although understandable. I have previously noted the fact that he lost out on several commissions to the architect Charles Barry and it is certainly true that it was the Manchester and Liverpool District Bank building that finally sent him into bankruptcy in 1838. But The Builder magazine, in its obituary of him, published on 31 August 1861, was full of praise for his work:
“The building of the District Bank was as important an event in the architectural history of Manchester as that of the Travellers’ Club was in London since it showed the local public that effect was not dependent on mere “orders”, that there was something more than these in the matter of architecture. The epoch of the acquirement of this insight by the public cannot be too highly estimated. Subsequently the same architect opened out in like manner another avenue to taste, by the adaptation of the central lantern-lighted staircase hall, for which Barry is to be credited as regards the Royal Institution, but which with the surrounding arcades which Atkinson added, was a novelty in private houses.
During the few years in which Atkinson practised in Manchester, taste certainly improved by his example. In his Italian villas, bold cantilever cornices, and more effective porches and chimneys; and in his Gothic designs, the features which are now well known, but were then habitually caricatured, were introduced. Indeed, his Gothic was considerably in advance of that practised by London architects.”
Nor was it just his designs that were impressive. He also had an impact on the other architects in the City:
“To show the change that has taken place, it may be well to mention, that at Atkinson’s arrival in Manchester, the architects of the town had their assistants for nearly everything beyond surveying, from London. Most of these assistants had been indebted for what they could do, to one master, the now deceased too-much-forgotten George Maddox, of Furnival’s Inn: they had not rested long enough in his school to acquire his unquestionable taste; and they were generally deficient in such matters as Gothic mouldings and tracery, to an extent which now seems a deficiency in the power to produce no matter what character of good architecture. By all these gentlemen, some of whom have since deservedly attained a good position, and were then sufficiently qualified to judge, Atkinson was pointed to as a rare bird, a man veritably who made his own designs and was an artist.”
Anyone who wants to find out more about Thomas’s work in Manchester should join one of Mr Schofield’s tours of the city, several of which cover developments in the city in the nineteenth century. There is a further opportunity to hear more about Thomas’ work in the city on 16th November at the Victorian Society, when writer John Massey Stewart is due to give a talk on ‘Thomas Witlam Atkinson (1799-1861): a forgotten Victorian architect and artist’. Details can be found here.
Yet again, I have been delighted to find another substantial reference to the work of Thomas Atkinson, this time evidence given by Thomas to a select Parliamentary Committee. The evidence is fascinating because it was taken down verbatim by shorthand writers and every now and then something of Thomas the man comes across as he gives evidence. His performance was very impressive. He exhibited a detailed knowledge of the facts and delivered new and interesting information to the committee members, who questioned him at length.
The first I knew of this evidence to Parliament was last year in Hawaii, when I came across original letters between Thomas and William Ewart MP among the papers belonging to Thomas’ descendant Paul Dahlquist. In one letter, dated February 1859, William Ewart MP, chairman of the Parliamentary Select Committee on the Colonization and Settlement of India, wrote to Thomas Atkinson asking him if he would be willing to give evidence on his experiences in Central Asia, and in particular on the possibility of increasing trade.
Thomas replied on 11 February, stating that he would have “much pleasure in attending your committee…when I shall endeavour to answer such questions about the regions I have travelled through as they desired to be informed upon.”
Three days later, on Monday 14th February, Thomas made his way to the Houses of Parliament to appear before the committee. It was only last week that I finally found time to search the Parliamentary archives, where Rhiannon Compton was kind enough to locate the records. This is what they show.
Thomas was the committee’s second witness, preceded only by Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, the founder of Kew Gardens and a great expert on northern India and the Himalayas. Dalton and Hooker later became great friends and it is interesting to speculate that this was where they first met each other. Thomas was first asked about the extent of his travels. He revealed that he had been as far east in Siberia as the source of the Lena river in the Baikal Mountains, west of Lake Baikal; as far south as latitude 42 degrees, and to within 70-80 miles of Kashgar in what is now Xinjiang, western China, to the sources of the Syr Darya (Jaxartes).
He was closely examined on what he had heard about Russian trade with Central Asia and gave well informed answers, noting that British calicoes were being brought from India to Khokan (Kokand) in the Ferghana Valley. The MPs were particularly keen to know if there were good prospects for opening up trade between Britain and Central Asia and Thomas replied in the affirmative. He said woollen clothes would be bought, but “they must be of particular colours; dark colours would not sell, but vivid colours, red, crimson, yellow, green or light blue are much admired; dark blue would not sell.” He said he had had several local costumes, but had to leave them behind in Russia: “I found things accumulated so fast that having to travel on camel and horseback it was impossible to bring as many things as I desired.”
Thomas noted that the Russians were trying to increase their trade with Central Asia and that they sold calicoes, leather, copper, iron and hardware. They banned gunpowder and the Chinese had a monopoly on the supply of brick tea, about which there was a long discussion, including its use as currency: “I have had as many as 100 of those bricks to travel with; it was the only money,” he told the committee. He also described how it is brewed and said he “very often found it an excellent supper.”
The MPs asked him about the wealth of the tribes on the steppes; and Thomas recounted how he had often come across chiefs who owned 10,000 horses and 50,000 oxen. The MPs seemed bemused when he explained that there was no agriculture and that the nomads lived simply on the products of their animals. Their income came from selling livestock, particularly oxen, to the Russians. “They grow no corn,” he explains, “they eat animal food, horse flesh and mutton and drink koumis, made from mare’s milk. They have hyran (cheese), made from the milk of cows and sheep, which is dried in the sun till it becomes as hard and very like limestone; when used it is broken into small pieces and then softened in water. I have sat down at a brook and made an excellent meal of it.”
Thomas was then questioned about gold production, noting it was mostly found in the small mountain ranges south of the Altai mountains, where it is washed from river gravels. Asked what size nuggets he has seen he replied: “the largest I have seen was about 84lbs in weight; it was considered the largest nugget in the world for a long time; 10lb is quite common in some of the mines.”
Asked about the dress of the locals, Thomas stated that they wear costume and were “well dressed, frequently in silk…they wear garments of most vivid colours; and when seen together they made the most picturesque groups of people it is possible to imagine.”
Thomas was asked in detail about the danger of travelling in Central Asia. He said that the caravans were well protected and that Europeans would be able to get to Khokan, although the caravan trade would have to be in the hands of local Tartars. He was protected by the Cossacks provided to him by the Russian Tsar, although in more remote areas “they were obliged to put off their uniform. It would have been dangerous for them to wear it.” As for himself: “I never changed my costume, although I was advised to do so and put on that of an Asiatic, which it was said would afford me more security. I found myself favourably received in my own costume and I should recommend others to adopt this course.”
He continued: “I had a passport from the Emperor himself, which enabled me to leave his empire and re-enter it wherever I chose; otherwise upon the frontier they would not have permitted me to leave.” He always had three Cossacks selected for their language skills. “I could speak Russian with the Cossacks and then they acted as interpreters for me.” He said he spoke Russian “sufficient to travel”. In fact, we know that Lucy often translated for him as her language skills were better than his.
He was never plundered except in Siberia, where he was robbed by convicts. “I believe a man may travel by the caravan routes through these regions with perfect security, if he has firmness and deals honestly with the tribes. Other areas were more dangerous, he admitted, but added “I was well armed and I showed them that I could use those arms if it was necessary…I had the Cossacks and if I had ordered them to shoot a man they would have done it in a moment.”
Thomas also gave a good account of his first meeting with Tsar Nicholas I: “He asked me to state distinctly what my object was, and I did so. I had found great difficulty with the government, when I made an application to be allowed to travel and then I came to the determination that I would apply to the Emperor for his permission. I made an application through Mr Buchanan, our minister in St Petersburgh, and in three days I had the Emperor’s order to travel.”
Asked whether the Tsar had questioned him over his purpose in travelling, he replied: “He desired to know my object in travelling and I told him it was to sketch the scenery of the country and make notes of anything I thought valuable.”
Thomas’s information on the attitude of the Central Asian tribes to the Russians is of great interest to the committee. He said they “know very well that Russia is surrounding them with forts and that the time is not very far distant when she will say ‘You must pay tribute, and not only pay tribute, but become soldiers when it is necessary’.” He thinks they would respond favourably to an approach from the British and adds that “England lost a favourable opportunity of making acquaintance with them a few years ago.”
Here he was referring to the fate of Lt Col Charles Stoddart and Capt. Arthur Conolly, two British army officers who were beheaded by the Emir of Bokhara in 1842. “I was not there,” he added, “but my impression is, from what I could gather, that the death of our two officers, Messrs Conolly and Stoddart, was solely their own fault.”
This was controversial, as the Revd Joseph Wolff’s account of his attempted rescue of the two men, first published in 1845, had lauded them as heroes. Thomas was undeterred: “Several Russian officers and merchants of my acquaintance who have visited Khiva do not agree with Dr Wolff. They believe that these officers were sacrificed by their overbearing conduct, believing they could command the Khan of Bokhara as they would a regiment on parade at the Horse Guards.” Asked how it was their own fault, Thomas replied brusquely: “From being somewhat insolent.”
Stoddart and Connolly – executed by the Emir of Bokhara
After further extensive questioning, Thomas was thanked and left the committee meeting. Two days later, on 16 February, William Ewart wrote to Thomas again: “In consequence of the interesting evidence you gave us on Monday I am led, on behalf of the Committee, to ask whether you could give us a summary of the most obvious measures adopted of late years by Russia for developing the trade of Central Asia. We would not ask you for more than the aforesaid views. The committee could receive you tomorrow at 2 o’clock.”
So on 17th February Thomas returned to Westminster to continue giving evidence. In answer to the question of how Russia was extending its trade into Central Asia he talked of the three Kazakh hordes (jus in Kazakh) and explained that two – the middle and small hordes – were now under the complete control of the Russians, allowing caravans to pass in complete security and that the third horde, the Great Horde, was partially under Russian control. Tartars from Russia controlled the caravans, which were now widely accepted by the khans and sultans.
Thomas also talked about the steamer traffic on the great Central Asian rivers, including the Syr Darya – then called the Jaxartes or Sihon. He pointed out that they could steam up above Khokan and that there were six steamers of up to 1,000 tons on the Aral Sea in 1856, but that there were now more. However, they were not used for trade, but solely to resupply the forts and military camps of the Russians. He said that the tribes had tried to resist the Russians: “Even during the years I spent with them there was a great commotion and if the Kazakhs had had a leader, Russia would have been driven out of the Great Horde, undoubtedly.” Russia had expanded its forts so extensively that they now stretched well beyond the Chinese border – “50 miles beyond in some parts, 300 miles in others.” He had little doubt that Russia would be successful in Central Asia: “The Kazakhs have been completely asleep and Russia has gradually gone on from one point to another and erected forts, so that the time will come when she will say to the sultans and chiefs, ‘You must pay us tribute’. In fact, they are hemmed in.”
Overall, Thomas’ evidence is impressive. It is both precise and accurate. He spoke from knowledge and at that point was surely more knowledgeable than any living Englishman on the Russian progress in Central Asia. He said that British trade could make headway in Central Asia, but that the Russians had pretty much got things sown up. And that was precisely the case. The Central Asians, he said, recognise the quality of British goods, but could not easily obtain them. The Russians were even falsely printing ‘Made in Manchester’ on their cottons in order to dupe traders into buying their inferior goods.
Despite the very interesting material that was uncovered by this select committee, its final deliberations were never fully published, although the verbatim evidence was. On 7th April 1859 an election was called by Lord Palmerston’s government and the committee, along with Parliament, was dissolved. The recommendation was that another similar committee should be formed in the following Parliament, but I have not been able to find out if this occurred.
Thomas kept in touch with Ewart, accepting invitations to dinner at his house in Cambridge Square and agreeing to show Ewart’s daughters his paintings. Whether they bought any is not recorded. In March 1860, just over a year after he had given his evidence Ewart wrote to Thomas to tell him that he was going to make a few remarks about Central Asia during a debate in the House of Commons, basing his comments on Thomas’ evidence.
Where did Lucy Atkinson live after her husband, Thomas, died in August 1861? Until that point they had been living at Hawk Cottage on the Old Brompton Road, although for the last months of his life, when he knew he was dying, Thomas lived in Lower Walmer in Kent, presumably in order to take advantage of the sea air.
Hawk Cottage no longer exists, but we know what it looked like from a watercolour that has survived – not by Thomas, but by the artist William Cowen.
The modest house had a walled garden which offered a degree of privacy. Outside was little more than a country lane that led out towards Earl’s Court and the edge of town. It would probably have been described as a ‘genteel’ area, well away from the hustle and bustle of the City of London and the docks. The location of the house can be seen in the map below to the right. Today The Boltons nearby is one of the most exclusive streets in London, with houses changing hands for tens of millions of pounds. Cresswell Lodge, the property that backed onto Hawk Cottage, was until the 1860s at least a boarding school for young ladies.
Thomas, Lucy and Alatau are shown living at Hawk Cottage in the 1861 Census, where he is described as an ‘Author of Travels’. Alatau is described as a scholar, although I have yet to find out where he was attending school. The great Victorian scientist, Sir Francis Galton, mentioned the Atkinsons and the cottage in his autobiography. Referring to their return to England he notes: “They took a picturesque but ramshackle small house and garden, called Hawk Cottage, that stood on the old Brompton Road, nearly opposite to where Bina Gardens are now, on a spot that had not then passed into the hands of the builders of streets. They were much visited by members of the highest Russian nobility and by many English friends.” (from ‘Memories of my Life’).
When Thomas died his estate went to his first wife, Rebecca Atkinson, who was living in Beaufort Street in Chelsea. Lucy was soon in financial difficulties (see articles below) and six months later, in March 1862, she made an application to the Royal Literary Fund for a grant. Her application was successful and she was awarded £80, to be followed in 1863 by the award of a Civil List pension of £100. But what is noticeable is that the address she gives for her application to the RLF was No 9 Lilly Terrace, New Road, Hammersmith. Did she have to move because she could no longer afford the rent for Hawk Cottage? I think that is very likely.
New Road was renamed Goldhawk Road in the 1890s, but of Lilly Terrace there is no trace. However, a clue to the location of Lilly Terrace can be found in a map of the area dated 1862. This shows that between Wells Road and Serle Terrace there was a ‘Lily Street’. It doesn’t quite make sense that a terrace on New Road should be called Lily Street, so my guess is that this was actually Lilly Terrace. The houses were newly built at this time and it may be that the mapmaker was using a temporary name. Either way, this is the most likely location of the terrace, which you can see on the map below just below the N in New Road.
Today, it is not easy to see the old houses, as shopfronts have been built along most of the road. But by standing back you can still see the old terrace quite clearly.
Lucy stayed here for a few years before she disappeared from view for some time. It is likely that some time before the end of the 1860s she returned to Russia for a while, perhaps working in her old profession as a governess. By 1881 she was back in London, living in Mecklenburg Square, close to Kings Cross. She was to stay there for the rest of her life.