Saturday, 24 November 2012

More about Thomas Atkinson, surgeon, of Kirkleatham

Thomas Atkinson, the writer of the whaling journal, was a young man of 21 when he made the voyage to Davis Straits.

He was born in the spring of 1753 in Kirkleatham, a North Yorkshire village a couple of miles from the mouth of the River Tees. 

His father Thomas was Master at the Hospital founded in Kirkleatham in 1676 by Sir William Turner for the relief of ten "poor aged" men and women and the relief and upbringing of "ten poor boys and ten poor girls". 

The "poor boys" and "poor girls" usually entered the Hospital at the age of eight and left at sixteen.  At this time most of the boys came from the North Riding, from Scarborough to Askrigg, but some came from much further afield – from Ticknall in Derbyshire, Bristol and Hertfordshire.  They included the sons of a local clergyman, a Darlington bookseller and a Northallerton attorney, which may indicate that the founder's intentions as to the children's circumstances were not being strictly followed in this period.

It is possible that Thomas Atkinson's sons were taught alongside the boys of the Hospital.  Wherever they went to school, they clearly received a good education; Thomas's second son William was to become a Doctor of Divinity and Fellow of Christ's College, Cambridge. 

The career chosen for young Thomas may have been influenced by the surgeon employed at the Hospital (at a salary of £50, compared to the £45 paid to the Master), but the Hospital was also in contact with the York Infirmary whose surgeons pronounced one boy's "scrofulous disorder" as incurable in 1773.

Thomas must have been very recently qualified when he made the voyage to Davis Straits, or was possibly still an apprentice, and we have no information as to why he chose to make the trip.

The decision may have been prompted by a family connection, but unfortunately little is known of his parents other than the fact that the Atkinsons had lived for several generations at Scaling Dam, a moors hamlet a few miles from the coast.  It is interesting to note that at this time one of the Blue Coat Boys was Thomas Peacock, son of the Revd John Peacock, curate of Stainton in Cleveland, possibly a family connection of Captain Robert Peacock of the Hope.

At Midsummer 1775, a year after the Hope's voyage, Thomas's father left the Hospital to go to Marske Hall, on the coast.  He was now 53 years old and had been Master at Kirkleatham for 24 years.  At this point he disappears from our view.

Young Thomas's brother Isaac went to London and became a wholesale linen draper in Cheapside.  His sister Jane married Captain Thomas Galilee, a Whitby man who settled in Rotherhithe; her daughter Jane married George Langborne of Whitby, whose family yard had built Captain Cook's Discovery.  Of Thomas's brother John nothing is known, and all that is known of the fourth brother Daniel is that he had two sons and a daughter.

In 1828, when the Revd William Atkinson made his Will, he left his estate to be divided between the three children of his late brother Daniel and the six daughters of his late sister Jane, who had been widowed while the girls were still in their teens.

William Atkinson does not mention his brothers Thomas, Isaac and John.  Possibly they had died leaving no family, or perhaps they had been sufficiently successful to make ample provision for their children.  It is also possible that William, who had been involved in feuding in his old college, Catharine Hall, had quarrelled with his brothers, but one might have expected him to have explained this in his Will.

It is clear from young Thomas Atkinson's journal that it was not the sea that took his interest, but the strange new lands he encountered and, above all, the Inuit. 

It seems that the following year his curiosity and love of adventure led him to take up the post of Surgeon at Moose Factory in the Moose district for the Hudson's Bay Company in North America.   This was the Company's oldest settlement in the province of Ontario, located on Factory Island, about 11 miles from the mouth of the Moose River on the shore of James Bay.

In 1776 Thomas was sent to build a trading post, Wapiscogamy House in East Ontario.  He remained Surgeon (in charge) at Wapiscogamy until the summer of 1778.

From September to December 1779 he was Master of Henley House, on the junction of the Albany and Kenogamy Rivers; from January to June 1780 he was Assistant there.  He spent the following year as Assistant at Albany, until he left Canada on the Royal George on 21 September 1781.

The manuscript is a contemporary fair copy of Thomas Atkinson's original journal and may not be in Thomas's own hand.  It is possible that it was transcribed by a relative.  It bears a strong resemblance, particularly in the decoration and flourishes, to his father's graceful hand.

By the end of the 19th century the journal was in the possession of his sister's granddaughter, Miss Margaret Langborne of Whitby, who gave it to one of her great-nieces.

For more on the Atkinson family, see this post


Parish Registers of Easington and Kirkleatham
Turner Hospital Records (Teesside Archives and NYCRO)
The Will of the Revd William Atkinson, TNA (PROB 11/1771)
The Will of Thomas Galilee, TNA (PROB 11/1296)
'Biographical Register Volume II 1666 – 1905', Christ's College
Venn Alumni cantabrigienses, Cambridge 1940
(with thanks to Suzan Griffiths, Librarian of St Catharine's College, and Ruth Waite, alumni officer of Christ's College, Cambridge)
Hudson's Bay Company Archives online at the Government of Manitoba's Culture, Heritage, Tourism and Sport website: Biographical Sheet for Thomas Atkinson

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