The Steppes come to Brighton – sort of…

I am delighted to announce that Steve Brown, a great, great, great grandson of Thomas and Lucy Atkinson, is presenting a humourous show at the Brighton Fringe Festival based on his discovery of his family roots. He will be presenting Slightly Famous in Kazakhstan at the Black Dove pub – COVID permitting – on Saturday 17th and Sunday 18th October at 4pm.

As Steve points out, the Atkinsons are almost forgotten in their English homeland, but in Kazakhstan it is a different story. There they are regarded as national heroes, the earliest Europeans to spend time in the region and to write extensively about it and – in Thomas’ case – to paint it.

Having visited the remote places in which his ancestors stayed – and had a child – in the late 1840s, Steve came to realise the awe which the Atkinson name generates in Kazakhstan today, and which, as the flyer for his show says, resulted in he and his family members being “feted on Kazakh TV, rubbing shoulders with various ambassadors, politicians and oligarchs and also learning a little about the seductive nature of fame”, as well as the scandal which led his ancestors to be airbrushed from the history books. Steve will also explain why he thinks Lucy Atkinson should be a feminist icon for our troubled times. So get out there and buy a ticket while you can…

Video of launch of Travellers in the Great Steppe


Dr Steve Brown, H E Erlan Idrissov and myself at the launch

I am delighted to report that yesterday’s launch of my new book, Travellers in the Great Steppe: from the Papal Envoys to the Russian Revolution, went off yesterday at the RGS without a hitch. The virtual audience heard from RGS director Professor Joe Smith, from His Excellency Erlan Idrissov, Ambassador of Kazakhstan to the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland, and from Dr Steve Brown, great-great-great grandson of explorers Thomas and Lucy Atkinson, before the presentation. Don’t worry if you missed it, because there is a link to the video of the event , which you will find here. You will need to use the access code *udEv2jV. I will try to find a way to create a permanent link, but you should be able to download the files to your own computer – note that this is a very large file. Please let me know if you have any questions about the video, or, more generally about the book itself. Many thanks to all of you who were able to tune in and watch the event. Another book coming later this year….

RGS director Professor Joe Smith also addressed the launch meeting
Nick Fielding at the podium

More on ‘Travellers’ book launch

My new book, Travellers in the Great Steppe: from the Papal Envoys to the Russian Revolution (Signal Books), will be launched next Wednesday at 1430 at the Royal Geographical Society in London. Although the COVID-19 restrictions prevent us from opening the event to the public, there is full online access to the presentation. You can log in via Zoom using the link in the article below this, or you can check out the RGS website, where there is also a link – see here. After short speeches from guests, I will give a brief illustrated presentation of the book’s contents. Hope you can make it!

Official launch of Travellers in the Great Steppe

I can confirm that the official launch of my new book, Travellers in the Great Steppe: From the Papal Envoys to the Russian Revolution, will take place on Wednesday 23rd September at 14.30. It will be a hybrid event, meaning that the launch will be broadcast live from the Royal Geographical Society in London, but members of the public will not be able to attend in person, although they will have full access via the internet. If you would like to register for the launch please click this Zoom link. I will outline some of the fascinating stories contained in the book and there will also be words from H E Erlan Idrissov, Ambassador of Kazakhstan, Thomas Atkinson descendant Steve Brown and from a speaker from the RGS.

Published on 23rd September

More on first edition of Lucy’s book on Ebay

I am delighted to say that the first edition copy of Lucy Atkinson’s book, Recollections of Tartar Steppes and their Inhabitants, that was for sale on Ebay for £1,320, has now been sold to one of her descendants.

The book contains a fascinating inscription. It says “To her Grace, the Duchess of Wellington, from Rod. I. Murchison, 15 March 1863”. This is clearly Sir Roderick Impey Murchison, who was President of the Royal Geographical Society for many years, including from 1862 until his death in 1871. He was the most important geographer of his generation and many natural features around the world – and one on the moon – are named after him.

Murchison’s dedication to the Duchess of Wellington

Murchison was a great supporter of the Atkinsons and after Thomas died in August 1860 he organised a public subscription fund to raise money for their child Alatau’s education. The fund raised around £300, which enabled Alatau to attend Rugby School. Murchison pointedly supported Lucy even after Thomas’ bigamy became public knowledge. He clearly obtained this copy of her book very soon after it was published at the beginning of 1863 and presented it to one of the grandest ladies in the land.

Sir Roderick Murchison in 1860

Another rare US edition of Atkinson’s Oriental and Western Siberia

I have recently identified a previously unrecorded American edition of Thomas Atkinson’s first book of travel, Oriental and Western Siberia. This is a subject I have written about several times before. In October 2018 I wrote about the early editions published in America by Harper Brothers, J W Bradley of Philadelphia and John E Potter, also of Philadelphia. Then in December last year I came across a deluxe edition, also published by Potter, possibly in about 1870 – WorldCat says 1885. The Potter company bought the assets of J W Bradley in 1867.

The newly-discovered edition was published by The Keystone Publishing Company, also of Philadelphia, but published later, possibly in 1890. It is not listed on WorldCat. Just as John E Potter had bought out J W Bradley, so in 1889 Keystone bought out John E Potter.

The cover gives little clue to the book; the spine says Oriental and Western Siberia, but does not mention Atkinson’s name. And the front cover has Explorations of Siberia embossed in gold lettering. There is no publication date on the title page. Inside, it resembles the Potter edition in terms of paper quality, with the same poor quality woodcuts of Atkinson’s original illustrations, but none of the colour plates.

Keystone edition-1
The Keystone edition of Oriental and Western Siberia

The continuing publication of various editions of Atkinson’s books in America throughout the second half of the nineteenth century suggests that his publishers in the UK sold unrestricted foreign rights for its future publication. Either that, or as was often the case at the time, the books were published without a royalty being paid. Are there more copies out there? I daren’t guess, but WorldCat lists another US edition published in the early 1900s. Anyone seen one?

Keystone edition-2
Keystone edition title page

Travellers in the Great Steppe – new launch date

The official launch of my new book, Travellers in the Great Steppe: from the Papal Envoys to the Russian Revolution (Signal Books, Oxford), originally scheduled for 1st July, is now due to take place on Wednesday 23rd September at the RGS in London. It is likely to be what is now referred to as a ‘hybrid’ event ie myself and a few guests will gather together – socially distanced, of course – and broadcast the event to anyone who cares to watch. Please watch this space for further details. Copies of the book should be available from bookstores and Amazon before that date.

Steppe cover1

First edition of Lucy’s book up for sale

An interesting first edition copy of Lucy Atkinson’s book, Recollections of Tartar Steppes and their Inhabitants, is presently on sale on Ebay. Priced at an eye-watering £1,320 – only 700 copies were printed, so this is not so outrageous for a copy in good condition – it was once owned by Elisabeth Wellesley, the Duchess of Wellington (1820-1904). On the front endpaper it is inscribed ‘To her Grace the Duchess of Wellington’ and signed and dated March 15 1863.

Elisabeth, Duchess of Wellington, was the wife of the second Duke, Lord Douro, who succeeded his father in 1852, although the arranged marriage was not a happy one and there were no children. She served as Mistress of the Robes to Queen Victoria from 1861 to 1868, and again from 1874 to 1880.

The Duchess of Wellington in 1861

At some point, the book was passed on to Hersham Village Hall Company Limited and the library of Hersham Working Mens Club, close to her home at Burhill Park near Walton on Thames, Surrey. A rare book, it remains a classic of nineteenth century women’s travel literature and is almost certainly the first serious travel book written by an Englishwoman.

Book launch postponed…

I am sorry to announce that social distancing restrictions mean the launch of my new book Travellers in the Great Steppe, due to be held at the Royal Geographical Society in London on 1st July, has been postponed until September. If restrictions remain in place the event may take place as a virtual launch. I will let you know as soon as I hear any further details.

Silver buttons that once belonged to the Atkinsons

One unforeseen consequence of the COVID-19 lockdown is that it has given many of us the opportunity to do the little jobs we have all been meaning to do for years. Such was the case with Paul Dahlquist who lives on Big Island in Hawaii. Paul, who is a direct descendant of Thomas and Lucy Atkinson, decided it was time to go through some old papers. “With all the time I have had on my hands, I have been rummaging through a box containing family letters from at least the 1920ʻs to the 1970’s,” he tells me.

Imagine his surprise when he came across a scribbled note and three metal buttons. The note reads:
Gun metal (Russian) cuff buttons, or studs, given to the Revd. Canon Alexander Mackintosh of St. Andrewʻs Cathedral, Honolulu, by Alatau T. Atkinson, Esq of Pauoa Road. The buttons belonged to Mr. Atkinsonʻs father the famous traveller. So it is fitting that the son of Helen Dahlquist, being the 5th generation, should possess the buttons. Canon Mackintosh landed in Honolulu for 1st time with Mr. & Mrs. Atkinson & carried Zoe on shore!


The note describing the buttons left to Paul Dahlquist

Paul adds: “I don’t know who wrote the note but think it might have been not long after I was born in December 1940, perhaps at my Christening, but there is no mention of the buttons in a list of attendees, gifts given, and the food for that august event. The really important fact is they once belonged to TWA. And I didn’t even know we had them. There are 3 buttons, two look like cuff links to me but Iʻm not sure as they have an unusual, to me, clasp. The third is larger and has a fastener like a pin, so I don’t know what that might have been.”

The silver buttons, two of which have been converted into earrings.

From what we can gather from the note, it would appear that Thomas and Lucy’s son Alatau Atkinson, gave the buttons to Alexander Mackintosh, the canon of St Andrew’s Cathedral in Honolulu. Mackintosh had travelled to Hawaii in 1869 with the Atkinsons and, according to the note, had carried their daughter Zoe ashore in Honolulu. The two men were clearly very close friends. Alatau played the organ at St Andrews and was a regular churchgoer.

Alexander Mackintosh died in 1930, but it would appear that one of his descendants decided to return them to the Atkinson family a decade later and presented them at Paul’s christening in 1940.

The Revd. Canon Alexander Mackintosh surrounded by his family in Hawaii.

As for the buttons, rather than being Russian military buttons, they look very similar to buttons that were made of silver and decorated with niello in the Central Asian steppes and were highly prized. Most nomadic clothing did not include buttons, but they were widely used to decorate the elaborate headdresses of women. In fact, the traveller John Castle, writing in the 1730s, tells how all his buttons were snipped from his clothing by the women in the yurts in which he stayed with members of the Junior horde of the Kazakhs.

Kazakh silver buttons similar to those once owned by Thomas Atkinson

Two of the buttons rediscovered by Paul have been converted into earrings, while the other has a simple pin. They join the small group of artefacts, including a samovar, a pair of acquamarine earrings, a penknife, some letter seals and various other objects that have survived within the family for more than 170 years. Who knows what else will turn up!