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.