Thomas Atkinson’s final days


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?

Holly House (with the awning) is next to what was The True Briton Hotel, as seen in this 1927 postcard

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).

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