I am publishing today two pictures from Hawai’i. The first was published recently in a pamphlet about the origins of playgrounds and parks in Hawai’i and shows ‘Atkinson Playground’ at its opening in 1916. The Park was one of four created by the Free Kindergarden and Children’s Aid Association and, in part at least, was aimed at providing a place in which youngsters could gather and keep out of trouble. As it was created after 1906 – the year in which Alatau Atkinson died – we must presume it was created in his memory. Alatau Atkinson, who arrived in Hawai’i in 1869, was initially a school teacher, but rose to become Inspector-General of Schools for the islands and well-known for his enlightened attitudes, including the championing of English as the language of instruction and establishing ‘special schools’ for difficult children.
The map below shows the location of the park, which existed up until the 1950s. Today, the playground is buried beneath large warehouses and is at the western end of Ala Moana Drive, which runs along the waterfront in Honolulu, just to the west of Waikiki. We know that Alatau’s son, Robert Atkinson, through his involvement and ownership of the Hawaiian Dredging Company, was responsible for developing much of the land in this area and reclaiming it from the sea. At the east end of Ala Moana Drive is Atkinson Drive, which connects to Kapiolani Drive, one of the city’s major thoroughfares.
You can see the location of the playground more clearly on the map below – thanks to Peter T Young for pointing it out to me – where it is in the top right quarter.
My second picture, which comes from a postcard, shows a view of Lahainahula High School, which is located on the island of Maui and was the earliest school established by missionaries in Hawai’i; for many years it was the leading educational establishment on the islands.
In fact, the picture shows the Atkinson Hall at the school. Sadly, the hall no longer exists , but we do know that there is a connection with Alatau. In 1904, in his capacity as Inspector General, Alatau delivered the address at the formal opening of the Lahainaluna Technical High School, where the idea of offering practical subjects to pupils was pioneered. Perhaps that it how the hall got its name. Any further information on this or on Atkinson Playground in Honolulu, would be most welcome. We will come back to this subject.
One of the most remarkable surviving exchanges of correspondence involving Thomas Atkinson is a pair of letters between him and the great Victorian novelist Charles Dickens. The letters, part of the Dahlquist Collection in Hawaii, shed unexpected light on the plight of the Siberian exiles that Thomas and his wife Lucy met during their travels in that vast territory.
Thomas wrote to Dickens in the summer of 1857, very soon after he had first arrived back in England from Russia. “I called at your house yesterday and unfortunately found you had gone to the country for Midsummer. If indeed I had found you at home most probably you would have decided it rude that a perfect stranger should intrude upon you without an introduction. However I determined to present myself without a word or line from anyone and let the object of my visit plead my cause. At least it was not a selfish reason which brought me to your door.”
Here Thomas is referring to the house at Gad’s Hill Place, near Rochester in Kent. Dickens had only moved into the house a month before, but stayed there for the rest of his life.
Thomas continues: “Having spent seven years wandering through Siberia and the Regions adjoining and occasionally receiving some of your works which often helped to pass away an hour and make me feel as if transported from the wild scenes which surrounded me to the fireside in my own land. It is under such circumstances that a man is made to feel the full force of your thoughts and appreciate your works.”
Ho goes on to say that he also wishes to express the gratitude of others for Dickens’ words: “During my travels in Oriental Siberia I made the acquaintance and in fact lived amongst the political exiles banished into these regions since the accession of the late Emperor Nicholas, many of whom had served in our own Navy and others who had lived in our little island. To these men and their families your works were a boon.”
The exiles he referred to were the Decembrist exiles who had been sent to Siberia for life for opposing the accession to power of Tsar Nicholas I. Later they were followed by their wives and families and their plight became a cause of great sadness amongst the Russian population, who saw them as champions of freedom and democracy. Atkinson continues: “These men were most particularly desirous that I should convey to you a knowledge of the great pleasure your writings had afforded them (in a region so remote and vested by many with such terrible horrors and such great admiration for you as a man they have often said “should we have a Dickens in our country with the free use of his pen and consolation of his thoughts what a blessing it would be for the land and what changes he would work in the moral conditions of the people, but this is denied to us.”
Atkinson concludes by asking Dickens to forgive his intrusiveness and noting that as he was planning to meet some of the exiles again in the future, “I would not leave England without in this slight degree accomplishing their wishes and be unable to say I had made known their feelings of respect to you.”
Dickens clearly received the letter and was evidently much affected by it. On 8th July 1857 he replied to Atkinson, as follows:
Sir, Constant occupation has prevented my replying to your very interesting letter until now. I have been deeply touched by your communication to me of the approval and good will of those unfortunate gentlemen among whom your wanderings have carried you. If you can see any of them again, pray assure them that I believe I have never received a token of remembrance in my life, with so much sadness mingled with so much gratification. I wish I could do more for them than remain true to the principles which faithfully maintained, would render their wrongs impossible of infliction. Lord help them and speed the time when their descendants shall speak of their suffering as of the sacrifice that secured their own happiness and freedom,
Charles Dickens’ letter to Thomas Atkinson
Strong words indeed from Dickens, who was clearly very moved by Thomas’ note and his story of the Siberian exiles. The letter has never been published before and ought to lead to at least a footnote in the next Dickens biography.
Nor was this the only connection between the two men, although the second connection is somewhat more distant. Alatau Atkinson, Thomas and Lucy’s son, was married in England in January 1868 – seven years after Thomas’ death – to a young woman called Annie Humble, who came from Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Her father in turn was Stephen Humble, who had made a reputation as a fine portrait painter. Humble died in 1858, aged 46, when Annie was only nine years old, but amongst the many people he painted was a young Charles Dickens. This is the portrait, seen on display in the 1930s when it came up for auction:
Thomas Atkinson never returned to Siberia after his return to England in 1856, although there are accounts of Russians visiting him and Lucy at their home in the Old Brompton Road. The exiles in Siberia probably never knew for sure if their message to Dickens had been delivered. Today, after more than 160 years, we can confirm that it was.
This remarkably fine document, part of the Dahlquist Collection held in Hawaii, is a copy of the passport issued to Thomas Atkinson by the representative of the Hanseatic Republics of northern Europe. It allowed Atkinson to travel to Hamburg in particular, where he had decided to take part in a competition to design a replacement for St Nikolai Kirche, one of the city’s most important churches, which had been destroyed by a disastrous fire at the beginning of May that year.
The document states:
By the Agent and Consul General for the Free Hanseatic Republics of Lubeck, Bremen and Hamburgh, resident in Great Britain.
These are to request and require all those whom it may concern to allow Mr Thomas Witlam Atkinson, National of Great Britain, Gentleman, going to Hamburgh, to pass freely without let or hindrance and to afford him all aid and assistance.
Given at London, the 4th day of July 1842.
The fact that Atkinson received this passport on 4th July 1842 shows that he was well aware of the possibilities that existed in a city that had been devastated by a massive fire that raged for three days, killing over 50 people, destroying 1700 buildings and leaving around 20,000 people homeless.
I have not been able to establish just how long Atkinson stayed in Hamburg. He did not win the architectural competition, which was eventually awarded to another Englishman, George Gilbert Scott. But the likelihood is that there was plenty of work in the city for a jobbing architect. We know that his son from his first marriage, John, died there in April 1846, so it is possible he was a resident in the city for almost four years, After his son’s death, most likely from tuberculosis, Thomas made his way first to Berlin and then to St Petersburg, where, having decided to give up his profession of architect, he began his travels.
The new church was once the tallest building in the world. It was mostly destroyed by Allied bombing during the Second World War, but the spire still stands and is a well-known landmark. Building started in 1846 and the church was finally consecrated in September 1863.
I have been asked by Baltabay, a reader in Kazakhstan, if I know the location of the six large stones drawn by Thomas Atkinson and published in his book Travels in the Region of the Upper and Lower Amoor.
This is the picture to which Baltabay is referring and it can be found in Chapter 6, which is called ‘The Kora and Traditions’. Many people have been fascinated by this picture as it shows six huge stones precariously perched in the bottom of a steep-sided valley alongside a river. Some have even speculated that they were placed there by aliens or beings with superhuman powers, as they appear to be enormous and unnatural.
Like Baltabay I was fascinated by this picture and very keen to track down the location of the stones. It appears that no-one had previously worked out the precise position. The valley that Atkinson describes is that of the Kora River, which starts at a glacier in the Djungar Alatau Mountains of eastern Kazakhstan and eventually flows into Lake Balkhash. It lies about 10kms to the south of Kapal, the small settlement where Thomas and Lucy stayed from October 1848 until May 1849 and where Lucy gave birth to their son, Alatau.
The valley itself is not easy to get into. Its western end, which terminates at the town of Tekeli, is almost impenetrable due to the very steep sides. However, there is a Buddhist stupa located at the valley entrance, suggesting that it was known about in ancient times.
Three years ago, with the help of local guides, I was able to reach the only track that can be used by vehicles to access this remarkable valley. Still today, Atkinson’s description of the valley holds true: “From this point the valley was exceedingly rugged, the granite cliffs on the north being nearly perpendicular and rising nearly 1,000 feet. On the south side, a dense forest commences on the bank of the river, extending up a very steep sloe for about 500 yards, to the base of some huge rocky masses. These rose in three terraces till they reached the snow line; in parts they were wooded, in others the cliffs have fallen, forming a mass of debris that extends from the edge of the forest to the lofty crags that stand bristling out of the snow like watch-towers and battlements.”
It is a truly beautiful valley, almost untouched since Atkinson’s day, although there is now a small yurt camp. In the past tigers roamed this area, and although they have long since disappeared there are still bears in the area and remarkable stands of wild flowers. It is a truly beautiful place.
Atkinson describes the five of the huge stones that he later sketched: “As I approached this spot, I was almost induced to believe that the works of the Giants were before me, for five enormous stones were standing isolated and on end, the first sight of which gave me the idea that their disposition was not accidental, and that a mastermind had superintended the erection – the group being in perfect keeping with the scene around. One of these blocks would have made a tower large enough for a church, its height being 76 feet above the ground and it measured 24 feet on one side and 19 feet on the other. It stood 73 paces from the base of the cliffs, and was about 8 feet out of the perpendicular, inclining towards the river. The remaining blocks varied from 45 to 50 feet in height, one being 15 feet square and the rest somewhat less. Two of these stood upright, the others were leaning in different directions, one of them so far that it had nearly lost its equilibrium.”
Atkinson goes on to give an account of local superstitions about the rocks, noting that they were the result of a feud between geniis who inhabited the area and who had been punished by Shaitan and buried beneath the huge rocks. Ever since, locals had been fearful of entering the valley. The world ‘kora’ itself means closed or entombed.
Being such large stones, I assumed that it would not be difficult to find them in the Kora Valley. However, I could find nothing that closely resembled the stones, despite walking almost 15 miles along the bottom of the valley. However, I did find what I think it likely to have been the location for the stones. I also heard an explanation for their absence.
A local climbing guide, now retired, told me that the Kora Valley had been transformed on several occasions by earthquakes. On at least one occasion the valley had been blocked by falling rocks, forming a lake which had later burst and swept downstream large amounts of debris. He thought this could have happened to the stones. This made sense, as close to the spot described by Atkinson there are indeed a number of very large stones standing on their own at the bottom of a cliff. They are not so tall as those Atkinson described, but if the original stones had been knocked over and shattered, the existing stones could easily be the remnants of those he mentioned. Here are my photographs of the existing stones.
Of course, if you choose not to believe such a rational explanation, they you can join the ranks of sceptics that can be found online speculating about the superhumans who were able to move these massive rocks. Or perhaps you can choose to believe the Kazakhs, for whom this place still holds a sense of mystery.
Thomas Atkinson’s connections with the Russian Tsars are well known. His first book, Oriental and Western Siberia (1858), was dedicated to Tsar Alexander II, Emperor of Russia, whose father, Tsar Nicholas I, had given the traveller an enormously important document – a passport that allowed him to wander across Russia and Siberia, to leave and re-enter the country and to call upon local officials for help and provisions. Later, both Tsars had offered the Atkinsons their personal protection in St Petersburg even as Russia and Great Britain were at war in the Crimea between 1853-55.
However, Atkinson’s connection to Queen Victoria is less well known, even though his second book, Travels in the Regions of the Upper and Lower Amoor (1860), was dedicated “by special permission” to Queen Victoria. What is more, letters and books in the Royal Collection at Windsor provide some background to the relationship between Atkinson and his monarch.
The first time we hear about this is in Queen Victoria’s personal diary, where she records a meeting she held with Atkinson in October 1856, only weeks after he had returned from Russia for the first time to deliver his book manuscript to his publishers. Victoria writes:
“A frost, & found it cold, when we walked out with the Children after breakfast. — Service at 11. — After luncheon we saw about 50 very interesting drawings & paintings done by a Mr Atkinson, who has for about 6 years been travelling in Siberia, & Mongolia, which must be most curious. He has seen all the Russian possessions there & all their unknown Forts. He was very kindly treated by the Empr Nicholas, even after the war broke out, being allowed to remain at St. Petersburg, whilst it was going on. He saw the Emperor about 5 or 6 days before he died. — Walked & drove home. — Dining alone.”
However, that was not the end. It seems quite likely that there was a second meeting, although I cannot find a record. However, details are contained in a letter dated 21 December 1857 from Atkinson to a senior member of the Royal Household, Colonel Sir Charles Beaumont Phipps.
This letter makes it clear that the Queen had agreed to allow Atkinson to present a copy of his first book in person at Windsor Castle. She writes an instruction (in red ink) to Phipps on the back of a letter: “It may be presented in person – some day after luncheon next week at Windsor.”
Phipps must then have written to Thomas, who replied to query the arrangements: “When Her Majesty’s pleasure has been expressed will you do me the favour to inform me on which day during the week the audience will be granted? You have mentioned three o’clock as the hour but the day is not named,” Thomas writes.
Even if we do not know whether or not the meeting ever took place, we do know that Atkinson presented a special copy of his book, bound in red leather with gilt tooling, to the Queen, as it remains in the Royal Collection at Windsor.
Emma Stuart, Senior Curator of Books and Manuscripts at the Royal Collection Trust, tells me that the Royal Collection also holds copies of Travels in the Regions of the Upper and Lower Amoor (which was dedicated to Queen Victoria) and Lucy Atkinson’s book, Recollections of Tartar Steppes. In addition, there is a second copy of Oriental and Western Siberia at in the Royal Collection at Sandringham, which was bought by King Edward VII when he was Prince of Wales.
Saw this advert today on Ebay for a copy of Thomas Atkinson’s first travel book, Oriental and Western Siberia (1858). It contains a dedication from the author to William Foster White, who at the time was Treasurer of St Bart’s Hospital in London. The seller claims the book is unique in that it contains a signature of the author. In fact, there are at least two other copies of this book that contain a dedication from Atkinson. At £13,000, I can’t help but think that the seller is being a little optimistic on his price.
I am delighted to see that Rugby School has published a tribute to Alatau Atkinson, son of Thomas and Lucy, in the 2018 issue of their magazine, Floreat. Alatau attended the school from 1864-66, following the death of his father, after the Fellows of the Royal Geographical Society and others raised more than £200 to pay his fees.
The article was written by Marianne Simpson, a descendant of Lucy Atkinson’s brother, William York Finley. She has previously written an extensive article for this blog on Alatau’s background, which you can find here. Other articles about Alatau on this blog include one about the rhyme sung about him at Rugby, which you can find here.