Just out – new book on the Atkinsons


Delighted to see that John Massey Stewart’s long-awaited tome on the Atkinsons has finally been published. At 344 pages, Thomas, Lucy & Alatau: The Atkinsons’ Adventures in Siberia and the Kazakh Steppe provides a detailed narrative of the Atkinsons’ travels and includes some never-before-seen watercolours. A useful addition to the growing body of literature on the Atkinsons. A more detailed look at the book will follow soon.

The Alatau Atkinson Letters to Lahainaluna High School

Letters from Alatau Atkinson, Thomas and Lucy’s son, are almost unknown, so I was delighted recently when Leslie Hiraga, one of the Lahainaluna Historical Preservation Committee (LHPC) members at Lahainaluna High School on Maui, in the USA, State of Hawai`i, sent me copies of a previously unknown set of letters dating back to the beginning of the twentieth century. They provide a treasure trove of information.

One of Alatau’s letters to the headmaster of Lahainaluna High School

Readers of this blog will remember that Alatau, who was born in a remote part of what is now eastern Kazakhstan, migrated to Hawaii in 1869, together with his wife Annie and first child Zoe. There he started work as a teacher, before eventually rising to inspector general of public schools for the Kingdom of Hawai’i and then the Republic of Hawai`i, and served in the Territorial House of Representatives in 1898, as well as editing the Hawaiian Gazette for many years. (A detailed biography of Alatau, written by his relative Marianne Simpson, can be found here.

Alatau Tamchiboulac Atkinson

One of several educational innovations introduced by Alatau was his leadership in revitalizing Lahainaluna School on Maui. The school was originally established in September 1831 as a “high” school, making it the oldest educational establishment surviving today west of the Mississippi River on the continental US. For many years it was the leading educational light in Hawai`i. Indeed, the first newspaper ever published in the Pacific Region was issued from its printing press. Later a bookbindery was added where text-books in Hawaiian and English were published as well as commercial printing.

But by the beginning of the twentieth century Lahainaluna was struggling with funding and a decline in enrollment. After Hawai`i became a territory of the USA (1900) federal funds became available to establish a land grant college.  Atkinson lobbied strongly to convert Lahainaluna, which was an English-speaking, work-study boarding school for boys, into the college. Alas, the 1901 Territorial Legislature awarded the location to Honolulu on the island of O`ahu, opening the College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts in 1907 (present day University of Hawaii at Manoa).

With the location of the college already decided, Atkinson revised his vision for Lahainaluna. He then lured C.A. MacDonald away from Kamehameha School for boys on Oah`u to take the helm as principal and with funds obtained from the Territorial government in 1903 Atkinson orchestrated a complete reorganization of Lahainaluna. New buildings were constructed and new teachers employed with the aim of developing a vocational trade school. New dorms were constructed, continuing the enrollment of male boarders. The new main building was named in Atkinson’s honor. A principal’s home was constructed, becoming a social hub hosting dignitaries visiting the area.

Lahainaluna became known as The Vocational Trade School until 1923. At that time it was incorporated into the public school system of the Territorial Department of Public Instruction as a Technical High School, adding both male and female day students to the previously exclusive boarding school. In 1961, not long after statehood Lahainaluna became a comprehensive high school eventually adding female boarders in 1980, and continues today as such.

The correspondence held in the school archives consists of seven letters from Alatau Atkinson to the school’s principal, C. A. MacDonald. There is also a letter from Alatau’s wife, Annie, sent following her husband’s death. The opening ceremony invitation for the new buildings on 7th June 1905 – which Alatau and his wife attended and at which he gave an address – and several photographs complete this important little collection.

1905 06 07 Commencement and Formal Opening of New Buildings
Programme for opening ceremony of the new Atkinson Hall at Lahainaluna in 1905 (courtesy of LHPC)

In these letters there are clear indications of Alatau’s pride in having helped to reorganize the school:

I am pleased to hear of the success of the institution which you so ably conduct. It is a great satisfaction to me, a broken man, to see a younger man going forward as you are doing. It gives me this pleasure that I made no mistake when I chose you and your good wife to look after Lahainaluna. You certainly had a bad time when first you started, but your sterling Scottish blood has overcome the difficulties. Everything you tell me of the improvements is a joy to me. I shall never see Lahainaluna in its prime, as it will be under you, but it is satisfactory to know that the institution is so well started.

Alatau’s reference to being a ‘broken man’ refers to his bruising encounter with the new appointed Territorial Governor of Hawai`i, George Carter, who had recently engineered his dismissal as Inspector-General of Public Instruction.

One letter, written just before the formal opening of the new buildings – including the main hall, which was named Atkinson Hall in his honor – refers to his political troubles:
Of course, I feel your kindness and friendship in desiring to call the main building Atkinson Hall, and I should consider it a great honor, especially as it is the stand that I took about Lahainaluna that sealed my fate. You will remember our interview with the Governor. But do you think it wise to name the place after a fallen man? I confess I would like my name to be associated with Lahainaluna, but I do not want to get you into trouble, my dear friend.”

Sadly, the hall was destroyed in a fire in 1959.

Atkinson Hall-Lahainaluna High School-Hawaii
Atkinson Hall before it burnt down in 1959

There is also a letter to Mr. MacDonald from Alatau’s wife Annie, written soon after her husband had died. She recalls their visit to the school: “I was so happy to know I was with him at Lahainaluna for he was so proud of the place and had such a good opinion of you.”

I have little doubt that there is still more documentation about Alatau to be found in Hawai`i. Besides his civic duties and journalism, he was also the organizer of the territory’s first Census in 1896. A spokesperson for Lahainaluna High School told Siberian Steppes: “A. T. Atkinson’s foresight and contributions to Hawai`i’s educational advancement during a tumultuous time are embedded within Lahainaluna’s 187 years of enduring and proud history.”

Thomas Atkinson and Royal Beulah Spa

The Victorian obsession with spas and pleasure gardens is well known, particularly those in London. Sadler’s Wells, the Clerkenwell Spas, Bagnigge Wells, Hampstead Spa, St Pancras Wells, Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens and literally dozens of other similar establishments were once the Victorian equivalent of theme parks, offering music, entertainments, food and drink and other pleasures to an eager public.

But until now the role of Thomas Atkinson in running and designing Beulah Spa – later known as Royal Beulah Spa following its patronage by Queen Victoria and members of her court – in South London was only known to a few specialists.

Beulah Spa, Norwood-Salmon2
Beulah Spa in south London. Atkinson designed the gardens and lakes and the colonading around the pump house.

In fact, Atkinson played a significant role in redesigning Beulah Spa, reinvigorating its gardens and entertainments and acting as its general manager in the mid-1830s.

Today Beulah Spa as a place has almost entirely disappeared. A small park and a few buildings are all that is left of a place that was once one of the grandest venues in the city. I am grateful to Professor James Stevens Curl and to Chris Shields who have both written about the heyday of Beulah Spa* and alluded to the role played by Thomas Atkinson. Thanks also go to Sally Hayles for her research into this interesting subject.

Beulah Spa is located in Upper Norwood in the borough of Croydon, close to present-day Crystal Palace. Landowner John Davidson Smith was the first person to exploit the natural spa at Beulah, testing its waters in the 1820s and getting a very positive reaction from scientists, including the great Michael Faraday. In August 1831 the Countess of Essex opened the landscaped Beulah Spa Gardens, with a pump house to dispense its medicinal waters designed by the famous architect Decimus Burton.

The spa soon became popular. A hotel was opened on the site and before long great extravaganzas were being staged. In October 1832 the Band of the Royal Artillery played to 1500 people on the lawns, songs were written (‘I met her at the Beulah Spa’, for example), and the landowner Smith was soon selling off chunks of nearby land to cash in on the resort’s popularity.

One of several popular songs written about Beulah Spa

However, despite the success of the resort and its patronage by aristocrats and politicians, by the end of 1834 Smith was bankrupt and the entire place was put up for auction in May 1835, including the Spa, music-room, lodge and entrance, walks, gardens, farm buildings totalling around 30 acres. Several contemporary newspaper reports noted that the new owner was Thomas Atkinson, who they said had paid £27,000 for the entire business.

In fact, it seems very unlikely that Atkinson was the actual purchaser. Designer or creative director would seem to be more accurate terms. Atkinson had moved to Manchester in 1834 and was working on a number of projects alongside his new business partner – and fellow architect – Alfred Bower Clayton. However, he was beginning to experience serious financial problems with his largest project to date – the central Manchester headquarters building for the Manchester and Liverpool District Bank.

By the mid-October 1836 Atkinson and Clayton had dissolved their partnership. Thomas remained in Manchester, with his family living in nearby Chorlton, but it seems likely he was also looking for work in London, where he had first made his name. Taking on a short-term project at Beulah Spa would have provided him with cash and the possibility of finding further commissions.

Press article from July 1836 explaining the changes made by Atkinson at Beulah Spa

We know that Atkinson took on the job of redesigning the gardens and also reinvigorating the entertainments. His efforts appear to have paid off. In July 1835 Princess Victoria made the first of four recorded visits to the Spa, riding across country from Windsor, accompanied, according to the Morning Post, “by his Royal Highness the Duke of Cambridge, Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Saxe Weimar, the Earl and Countess of Denbigh, and Miss Hope Johnson.”

That August grand galas were held every Monday, Tuesday and Saturday, including one advertised as having “grand illuminations, a hermit’s cave and Harry Twist, the Shakespearean clown and jester.” The Beulah Minstrel strolled through the grounds singing love ballads in exchange for a silver coin, Indian juggler Ramo Samee entertained the crowds, there were concerts and public dancing and bands from the Coldstream and Scots Guards and Miechel’s German Band. Those bored with the music could visit the camera obscura which apparently had a telescope powerful enough to see Windsor Castle.

Poster for one of the many ‘spectaculars’ held at Beulah Spa

Thomas Atkinson’s work at Beulah Spa included enlarging the flower beds and lawns and building log houses, lakes and new walkways. He was described as “a gentleman combining knowledge of architecture with great natural facility for landscape gardening” and said he “intended to carry on with vigour, tempered by discretion and a scheme of attraction and amusement.”

One report noted that “under the tasteful eye of this gentleman, new walks have been opened, affording different and varied views of the surrounding scenery and country. The lawn in the centre of the Spa has been enlarged and beautified by the intermixture of rustic flower beds, planted with geraniums, fuchsias and other exotics: an arcade in the same style has been thrown up, communication with a refreshment room and within a step of the well and it is in contemplation to erect another well at the back of the arcade, as the mineral water is very abundant and the increased popularity of Beulah Spa has created a great additional demand for it.”

Another report from July 1836 noted the improvements, commenting: “The arrangements have been entrusted by the proprietors to Mr Atkinson, the highly successful architect, who if it be allowable to judge by what has been already done in the grounds, cannot but prove more than equal to the task assigned him.” In fact, Atkinson had greater ambitions; plans for a new hotel, together with between 50 and 70 houses in a grand crescent were drawn up by Atkinson, ready for the 1837 season. The idea was to sell the houses off to the gentry and in the process make a considerable fortune.

Atkinson terrace
The grand terrace Atkinson proposed for Beulah Spa. It was never built.

Although some drawings were done for the houses, they were never built, probably because such a terrace well outside London proper was never likely to find backers. In the meantime, his problems had not gone away, particularly those involving his other major project, in Manchester – the headquarters of the Manchester and Liverpool and District Bank. It was this project that finally forced Atkinson into bankruptcy.

Looking at Atkinson’s comparatively short involvement with Beulah Spa, it seems clear that he took on the job of redesigning the grounds and possibly building a grand crescent as a way of gaining some extra money with which to support his Manchester business. When that failed, Atkinson must have been devastated. It seems likely that his marriage collapsed not long afterwards and after travelling to India, he returned to England only to leave soon after for Hamburg in the early 1840s, where he worked for several years as an architect.

But by 1846 even that was no longer satisfying enough. Following the tragic death of his son from TB in Hamburg in the spring of 1846, he left for Russia, from where he did not return for more than a decade, and then with a new wife and child. Beulah Spa, long forgotten, represents an interesting and important phase in his remarkable life. Indeed it is likely that when he met Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle in 1857, when he was a famous explorer, he may even have mentioned to her that he had seen her at least once before – at the Beulah Spa pleasure gardens 20 years previously.

* See James Stevens Curl, Spas, Wells and Pleasure-Gardens of London, Historical Publications, London 2010. ISBN 978-1-905286-34-8; Also Chris Shields, The Beulah Spa 1831-56: A new history, 2018. ISBN 978-0-244-37303-0. Many thanks to both for all their assistance.

Thomas Atkinson at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibitions 1830-42

Thomas Atkinson was a regular exhibitor at the Royal Academy Summer exhibition, a fact that can be checked easily using the online index recently made available here. Between 1830 and 1842 Atkinson exhibited a total of nine pictures and one model at the prestigious exhibition held at Burlington House in Piccadilly, London. Most of works he exhibited are now lost and known only from the entries in the catalogue or from similar drawings held in other collections.

Those that are known include Atkinson’s View of the East Front of Hough Hill Priory, erected at Staly Bridge, Cheshire for David Cheetham, Esq, which was exhibited in 1832. The original is held by Tameside Archives. A view of the front of the house is also held by the RIBA Library in London. Cheetham was the brother of John Cheetham, the MP, for whom Atkinson also built a large mansion in the same town.

Hough Hill Priory, Stalybridge4
Hough Hill Priory by T W Atkinson

Less well known is the View of the crescent proposed to be erected on the terrace, Beulah Spa, Norwood, exhibited in 1836. A version of this is currently held by the local archives in Streatham, south London. Atkinson was engaged at this point as general manager and designer for the very popular Beulah Spa – a kind of mid-Victorian theme park lying to the south of London, close to what became Crystal Palace.

The proposed terrace Atkinson designed for Beulah Spa

Atkinson’s design for a tomb in memory of Walter Spencer Stanhope (on whose estate Atkinson had been raised) is known from a surviving drawing held by RIBA, as well as other near-contemporary drawings. The tomb itself still exists, although part of it has been obscured by more recent building work.

One of Atkinson’s drawing for Walter Spencer Stanhope’s tomb at Cawthorne Church, Yorkshire.

St Nicholas Church in Tooting – which is still standing – is known from the aquatint published by the church elders as a gift to benefactors and about which I have written previously. However, the existence of a model of the church – and its present whereabouts, if it survives – are unknown.

The two drawings of the palace at Moorshedabad exhibited in 1842 are known from the fact that they were sold at auction by Christie’s as recently as 1979. Both are signed by Atkinson, who also added his title of ‘Architect’ to the drawings. The fact that he wrote ‘architect’ on the drawings cannot refer to the fact that he designed these buildings, which were begun in 1829 and finished in 1837. He was in England during these years. Even the title says the palace was “designed by and executed under the superintendence of Lieut. Col. McLeod.”

One of the two drawings by Atkinson of the palace at Moordshedabad, India

There is something of a mystery surrounding these drawings – and a number of others listed amongst Atkinson’s possessions from such locations as Athens, Egypt, Aden, Persia and India – which illustrate locations that are consistent with a journey to India. However, no evidence of such a journey – which must have taken place in the early 1840s – has yet come to light.

There are a number of architectural drawings of St Luke’s Church, Cheetham Hill, held in the Manchester Archives, although these do not include the interior views or a south-west view of the church, which is widely regarded as Atkinson’s greatest architectural achievement.

Unknown – and possibly lost – pictures from the Royal Academy include his interior views of a Catholic Church in Manchester exhibited in 1840, and the proposed church for Camberwell shown in 1842.

Several of the pictures are wrongly attributed in the original catalogues to ‘J Atkinson’ or ‘J W Atkinson’, errors that probably result from clerks misreading Atkinson’s handwriting.

The full list of Atkinson’s pictures/models exhibited at the Royal Academy:

1830Address given as 8 Upper Stamford Street, Blackfriars Road.

Catalogue No: 1049: A tomb erected in Cawthorne Church, Yorkshire, to the memory of Walter Spencer Stanhope Esq.

1832Address given as 8 Upper Stamford Street, Blackfriars Road.

961: Model of St Nicholas Church, Lower Tooting, Surrey, erected under the direction of TW Atkinson.

989: View of the east front of Hough Hill Priory, erected at Staly Bridge, Cheshire for David Cheetham, Esq, under the direction of T W Atkinson.

1836Address given as Beulah Spa, Norwood.

973: View of the crescent proposed to be erected on the terrace, Beulah Spa, Norwood                J Atkinson.

1840Address given as Manchester

913: View of the altar, pulpit, reading desk, etc, in St Luke’s Church, Cheetham Hill, Manchester. T W Atkinson.

960: S W view of St Luke’s Church, Cheetham Hill, Manchester. T W Atkinson

1061: Interior view of a design for the Catholic church, Manchester, showing the high altar, side altars and organ gallery. T W Atkinson.

1842Address given as Rutland Cottage, Downshire Hill, Hampstead.

1027: View from the south-east of the palace of the Nawaub Nazim of Moorshedabad, the capital of Bengal, designed by and executed under the superintendence of Lieut. Col (Now Major-General) McLeod, late chief engineer, Bengal Establishment. J W Atkinson

1050: View of the north-east of the palace of His Highness the Nawaub Nazim of Moorshedabad, the capital city of Bengal. Designed by and executed under the immediate superintendence of Lieut. Col. (now Major-General) McLeod, late chief engineer, Bengal Establishment, exclusively by native workmen. J W Atkinson

1151: View from the S W of a church proposed for Camberwell designed by J Atkinson