Reports of my death…..

Thomas Atkinson’s disappearance from England in the 1840s was so sudden and unannounced and there was so little news about him that some of his peers clearly thought he had died abroad. I have located an entry for Atkinson in the The Dictionary of Architecture, issued by the Architectural Publication Society, the first volume of which appeared in 1853. At this time, he was travelling with Lucy and Alatau from Barnaul in Western Siberia back to St Petersburg.

The Dictionary entry, while short, is complimentary to Atkinson:

In 1841 he was erecting some villas in the Italian style in the neighbourhood of Cheadle, and had previously enriched the suburbs of Manchester with some of its best buildings. The Church of S. Luke at Cheetham Hill, 1840, and that at Openshaw, 1840, both near that city, were from his designs. In 1842 he exhibited drawings of the palace at Moorshedabad, designed by Major-General MacLeod, a fine model of which is in Hampton Court palace.”

However, the final line shows just how comprehensively Atkinson had disappeared: “On leaving Manchester he went to Hamburgh, and thence to S. Petersburgh, in which country it is presumed that he died.” In fact, he did not die until 1861, three years after he returned to England from Russia.

This was not the only occasion on which Atkinson was presumed dead. At a meeting of the Royal Geographical Society held on 28 February 1859 there was a discussion about the fate of the German explorer, Adolf von Schlagintweit, who had disappeared while crossing from India into Tibet and was presumed dead. Atkinson took part in the discussion, counselling caution in presuming the German dead and telling the audience about a previous occasion on which he himself had been reported missing – he was referring to his and Lucy’s journey to Semirechye in what is now Eastern Kazakhstan in 1848-9:

While I was absent I was lost for near eighteen months, and my friends in Siberia gave me up for dead. The gentleman with whom I had left what little property I had there, was about to make application to our minister in St. Petersburg, to know how it was to be disposed of. Fortunately, I returned and claimed it; and so, I think, Schlagintweit may turn up yet.”

Adolf von Schlagintweit

Sadly, Schlagintweit was already dead, having been beheaded by Wali Khan, the emir of Kashgar, in August 1857 on suspicion that he was a Chinese spy. His fate was not discovered until Chokan Valikhanov, the Kazakh/Russian traveller and ethnologist, visited Kashgar disguised as a merchant in 1859. He was able to return to Russia with Schlagintweit’s head, which was sent to his family for burial. The return of the head eventually provided a plot element in Rudyard Kipling’s wonderful novel, The Man who would be King.

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