I am delighted to see that a Wikipedia page has now been opened for Alatau Tamchiboulac Atkinson, to join those of his parents, Thomas and Lucy. The detail of the entries for Alatau is mostly accurate, although it still needs more information, particularly in relation to his achievements in education policy and his role in the annexation of the Kingdom of Hawaii by the United States.
I thought it might be useful to look into the various American editions of Thomas Witlam Atkinson’s books. His two main books, both originally published in London by Hurst & Blackett, are Oriental and Western Siberia (1858) and Travels in the Regions of the Upper and Lower Amoor (1860). A second edition of the second book, Travels, was published by Hurst & Blackett in 1861.
Both of the English volumes (see below) were published in Royal Octavo in cloth bindings that were beautifully decorated with gilt illustrations based on woodcuts used in the books. They are such good examples of the technique that both are now included in the British Library’s specialist collection of gilt book covers.
In America things were slightly different. Both books were published in several editions soon after their initial publication in London, but the paper quality is generally poor and the illustrations are weaker, with maps only present in the Harper editions. The size is also smaller. The 13 colour lithographic plates in the Hurst edition of OWS have been turned into much lower quality B&W engravings in the American editions. The woodcuts are also inferior. The artist used in the American books by Harper & Bros was Dorothy Hope Smith.
So far, I have been able to discover the following American editions:
For Oriental and Western Siberia, there are two editions from Harper and Bros of New York, in 1858 and 1865. There are also two editions by publisher J W Bradley of Philadelphia in 1859 and 1860. And then there is another edition by John E Potter, which is undated, but probably dates to about 1870. Potters often bought titles from fellow Philadelphia publisher Bradleys.
For Travels in the Regions of the Upper and Lower Amoor I have been able to discover just two editions, both by Harper & Bros in New York, the first published in 1860 and the second in 1861.
The best example of the American editions is the Harper 1860 edition of the Amoor book (see below) which was available in a special edition of blue cloth with gilt illustration and a map, similar to the English edition. This is now rare.
Neither of Atkinson’s books were published again until late in the twentieth century, when several academic publishers issued new editions. Later there were several varieties of print-on-demand books.
Thomas Atkinson’s diaries continue to intrigue me. As mentioned previously, I have been reading and transcribing the diary for 1849, which records the journey the Atkinsons made from Kapal in the Zhetysu region of Eastern Kazakhstan back to Barnaul in southern Siberia, a distance of more than a thousand miles.
The journey took them most of the summer as they explored the Djungar Alatau Mountains and all the river valleys of the Zhetysu before reaching Lake Ala Kool, located close to the border with Xinjiang in western China. In the 1840s this region was still known as Chinese Tartary, although the border was mostly unmarked.
The Atkinsons, including their new baby Alatau, departed their winter base at Kapal in May 1849 and by the middle of August, after many adventures, had finally left the Djungar Alatau Mountains behind them. They were to retain a fondness for this region for the rest of their lives. Their aim now was to travel between Lake Ala Kool and its smaller westerly companion lake, Sassyk Kool – which translates as ‘Smelly Lake’. From here their aim was to travel into the largely unknown Tarbagatai Mountains and then across the steppe northwards to the Altai Mountains.
By the 13th August 1849, the Atkinsons had reached Lake Sassyk Kool. The lake itself is actually quite hard to see as it is surrounded on all sides by dense reed beds, as I found out during a trip there in 2015.
This is how Thomas describes their arrival at the lake:
“Our way lay along the end of the lake at a verst distant. Having gone some versts Lucy wished to ride up to the shore. We did so that she might have a good view. On reaching the reeds I saw two pelicans sitting on a sandbank. I instantly dismounted and walked in amongst the reeds until I got within shot. I fired and they both rose up and flew a short distance where one fell dead. The other fell a short way further but was able to swim. Neither of them could be got as the Kazakhs were afraid of the waves, although both were floated to some reeds about one hundred paces from the shore. I was obliged to leave them, but most reluctantly.”
The mention of pelicans caught my attention. One does not immediately think of Kazakhstan in relation to pelicans, but in fact these large birds exist in several areas in Central Asia, including the Caspian Sea. In fact, I had come across them once before, in Mongolia.
During a stay in a remote part of Western Mongolia in 2006 – probably a thousand miles east of the Zhetysu region – I had attended Naadam – the Mongolian summer festival that is celebrated every July with competitions of archery, wrestling and horse racing. Here, as you can see in my photographs, I noticed that some of the horsemen had a strange implement sticking out of their waistbands.
Known in Mongolian as a Khusuur, this implement is used after a horse race to remove the copious amounts of sweat produced during a long (often 25km or more) race. Its use means that the sweat does not freeze on the horse’s body. One horseman was very happy to show me this interesting piece of equipment and to explain its origin. I was told that riders normally wear the khusuur in their belts, while horsebreeders wear them tucked into their long boots.
The first one I saw was made from wood, carved with seven horses for good luck. But I also caught site of another version, whose origin was only too clear:
As can be seen from the photo above, some of the older khusuurs are made from the heads of pelicans, as the Mongols believe the beak is the perfect shape to scrape sweat from a horse. The skull is wrapped in felt and ‘eyes’ are fixed into it. Pelicans in Mongolia are now protected, so this practice is now banned, although some of the older men still have these scrapers, passed down to them through their families.
I spent the day yesterday in the library of the Royal Geographical Society in London transcribing Thomas Atkinson’s diaries, something which has absorbed a lot of my time in the last couple of years. The five diaries, which span the years 1847-53, are mostly written in pencil. Atkinson’s neat handwriting is not too difficult to read, although often he writes in tiny lettering that requires the use of a magnifying glass.
After much time and effort I am now nearing the end of this enormous task and hope before long to publish the diaries in book form. They are full of surprises and remarkable stories and unlike Atkinson’s books, clearly ordered in terms of places and dates.
Most recently I have been working on the diary for 1849, during the summer of which Thomas and Lucy and their baby, Alatau, made the return journey from Kapal in what was then Chinese Tartary (and is now Eastern Kazakhstan), to Barnaul in southern Siberia. I won’t go into too much detail about the narrative, but I want to draw your attention to something that I have never before seen mentioned in any writing about the Atkinsons.
I am referring to a paragraph from the diary entry for Tuesday 16th August 1849. At this point, the Atkinsons had left the Djungar Alatau Mountains and had passed by the western edge of Lake Ala Kool on their way north into the Tarbagatai Mountains. Somewhere here they met up with Sultan Iamantuck and his family, who showed considerable kindness to the Atkinsons.
Thomas decided that he would create a portrait of the Sultan and his family. He describes the scene in his diary thus: “We had a visit from the Sultan early, but this being a fast he would not take breakfast. He had brought Lucy a present of some Chinese silk for a kalat (silk robe-ed). I desired our Cossack to say I wished to sketch him and would go to his yourt shortly. On arriving there I found him surrounded by many Kazakhs. He received me with great politeness. All seemed greatly interested in what I was doing and looked at my camera with great surprise. Having sketched the Sultan, I then sketched his daughter, a very pretty girl of 17 years old. She was busy making the ornaments for a yourt. I also sketched the son, a fine youth of 22 years old.”
What struck me about this paragraph is, I think, obvious. It is Thomas’ mention of a ‘camera’. Bearing in mind that this was 1849, we are talking about the earliest days of photography. Could it be possible that Atkinson had taken a photographic camera with him on this journey? If so, why had he never mentioned it before and why has no-one ever seen any photographs – probably Daguerreotypes, which were invented in 1839 – of his travels?
The answer was provided to me by the excellent staff of the RGS library, who were able to point out that Atkinson was probably referring to a camera lucida, which is an optical device made up of a mirror and lenses that is used as a drawing aid by artists. Patented in 1806, it superimposes the subject being viewed onto the surface upon which the artist is drawing. The artist sees both the scene in front of him and the drawing surface simultaneously, as in a photographic double exposure.
The fact that Atkinson used such a device raises some fascinating issues. First, we can now be sure that at least some of his portraits of Kazakh nomads were pretty accurate, as the camera lucida allows faithful picture to be drawn. Second, can we also assume that he used the device for some of his landscapes as well?
And here is a woodcut of Atkinson’s portrait of Sultan Iamantuck and his children, as published in his book, Oriental and Western Siberia:
Sadly, the original drawings that Atkinson brought back with him from Siberia and Central Asia have long since disappeared. What a pity!
Following on from my previous blogpost, my good friend Natalya Volkova from Barnaul in southern Siberia has just sent me the outline for a university course at Gorno-Altaisk State University called Siberia in Letters of an English Lady: Lucy Atkinson. The course is a special English course on the History and Literature of Gorny Altai and you can find a copy of it here: Teaching the Atkinsons-Gorno-Altaisk.
The course outline ends with an essay (in Russian) from Tatyana P Shastina on the place of the Russian Altai in the literature of the Russian Empire. Overall, it is a very impressive and fascinating course. What a pity the Atkinsons are not studied in such detail in their homeland!
Lucy Atkinson’s writings, contained in her book Recollections of Tartar Steppes and Their Inhabitants, (John Murray, London, 1863) are increasingly of interest in Russia. Her sharp observations and witty comments, added to the fact that her travels were so extraordinary for a woman at that time – provide an interesting insight into mid-nineteenth century Siberia. Three years ago, Natalya Volkova published a translation of some of Lucy’s writings in Barnaul in southern Siberia and these have now caught the eye of two academics at nearby Gorno-Altaisk State University, in the capital of the Altai Republic.
Dr Maria Ostanina and Dr Tatyana Shastina have written ‘An English Lady in the “Wild Space” of Siberia (based on Mrs. L. Atkinson’s Recollections of Tartar Steppes and Their Inhabitants)’, Studia Litterarum, 2018, vol. 3, no 3, pp. 64–81. (In Russ.) DOI: 10.22455/2500-4247-2018-3-3-64-81. You can find a copy here.
I cannot give a full critique of the paper, as I don’t read Russian well enough, but with the aid of Google Translate I have been able to make some sense of the argument, which is about the way outsiders perceive the ‘wildness’ of Siberia. An interesting topic, which would perhaps be even more so were the authors to compare the attitudes of foreigners about Siberia to those of Russians themselves.
Another little mystery in the Thomas Atkinson saga has been resolved – the whereabouts of the grave of his first wife, Rebekah.
Thomas married Rebekah on 1 April 1819 in Halifax, where he was probably working in a local quarry. Rebekah, born in 1792, was six or seven years older than Thomas – who was 20 – and she was already pregnant with their first child Martha, born in November the same year. Although we don’t know the circumstances which led to the end of the marriage, we know that it probably broke down in the late 1830s or early 1840s, when the couple were living in Manchester.
The clues to their separation are few and far between. We know from the 1841 Census that at that time Thomas, together with his youngest daughter Emma, was living in Chapel Lane, a poor neighbourhood of Chorlton cum Hardy, then a rural village with around 700 inhabitants about four miles south of Manchester, where most people were employed on farms or in market gardening. Also living in the house was Alice Booth, 30, described as a family servant.
Thomas and Rebekah’s other daughter, Martha, had married Manchester solicitor James Wheeler in July the previous year in the local parish church and was also living nearby. The Atkinsons’ only son, John (b.1823), must have left home already, although I cannot find him anywhere in the 1841 Census.
Rebekah (sometimes spelled Rebecca) may have been living alone in nearby Chorlton on Medlock. There is a ‘Mrs Atkinson’ listed in Crawshaw Street and described as a washerwoman, but the details are hard to confirm because, as the census-taker noted in the margin, “house locked up and not back until Wednesday”. Most of the neighbours were cotton weavers. It is hard to believe that Rebekah would have been forced to take in washing, but the fact she was not present may mean this information was incorrect. The fact her son John cannot be found on the Census may mean that he was living elsewhere with his mother.
A decade later, at the time of the 1851 Census, Thomas was already long gone, having arrived in St Petersburg in July 1846. Even before that, it is likely he was living in Hamburg for several years, along with his son John. There is also some evidence that he travelled by sea to India in the early 1840s. In February 1848 he married Lucy Finley in Moscow.
Rebekah was noted in the 1851 Census as a visitor to No 5 Beaufort Street in Chelsea, along with another woman, Mary Ann Grouinett (possibly Groinett), who had come from Cheltenham. The head of household was Mrs Mary Anne Palmer, who lived there with her two daughters and her son. Whatever the arrangements at that time, Rebekah was to stay at the house for the rest of her life.
In 1861 – by which time Thomas, Lucy and Alatau were back from Russia and living in West London – the Census shows she is still in Beaufort Street with Mrs Palmer and her two spinster daughters and Mary Ann Grouinett. All are described as receiving an annuity. By 1871 Mrs Palmer is described as a boarding house keeper and Rebekah as an annuitant. Mary Ann Grouinett is also still there. The two daughters have gone and there are now more boarders.
Rebekah died at Beaufort Street on 7th May 1872, by which time she would have been 80, although described as 77 on the death certificate, which described her as “Widow of Thomas Witlam Atkinson, Architect”. A nurse, Jane Day, of nearby Cheyne Row West, was present at her death.
After searching for several years, Sally Hayles has now found Rebekah’s final resting place. In fact, she was interred in Highgate Cemetery in Hampstead, one of seven huge private cemeteries established by an Act of Parliament in the mid-1800s to relieve the pressure for burial plots in central London, which had run out of space. It was opened in 1839 and soon became a favoured place for London’s middle classes to be buried.
The plot was purchased by her son-in-law James Wheeler, who paid 15/- for the privilege. There is no headstone or memorial associated with the plot. At the time of Rebekah’s death the Wheelers were living not far away in a very grand house in Cumberland Place, just off Marble Arch in Central London, together with six servants, including a butler and a footman. They are buried together in St Michael and All Angels Church in Cuxton, near Rochester, Kent – not far from Thomas, who is buried in Lower Walmer.
Sally Hayles had also previously located Lucy Atkinson’s grave. She died of bronchitis on 13 November 1893 in a house in Mecklenburg Square, close to Kings Cross in London and is buried in Tower Hamlets Cemetery (also known as Bow Cemetery) in Mile End. This is close to where she was brought up near the East London docks. An inscription on the gravestone – now unreadable – originally read:
Sacred to the memory of
Lucy Sherrard Atkinson
Thomas William Atkinson, FRGS, FGS
Born April 16th 1819
Died November 3rd 1893
“We have loved thee with an everlasting love,
therefore to devine kindness were drawn thee.”
Thomas and Lucy’s son, Alatau, paid a total of 10 guineas for the plot, although he was living in Hawaii and did not attend the funeral. Presumably he also chose the quote, which is adapted from a line in the Old Testament Book of Jeremiah, although it does not follow the King James translation. The dates are slightly wrong, and Thomas’ middle name is wrong, which suggests it was carved by someone who was not given clear instructions. Close by in the same cemetery is the grave of Benjamin Coulson Robinson, in whose house Lucy lived for several years and to whom she was related. Benjamin’s wife Hannah was one of the witnesses to Lucy’s will.