Thomas Atkinson, church architect

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.

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Thomas’ groundplan for the church at Hope under Dinmore, Herefordshire (Lambeth Palace Library ICBS 01941)

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.

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Thomas Atkinson’s drawing of St Margaret of Antioch church, Bowers Gifford, Essex           (Lambeth Palace Library ICBS 01093b)

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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.

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The headstone Thomas carved for his mother in 1818
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The tomb Thomas designed and carved for Walter Spencer Stanhope at Cawthorne

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.

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