Thomas Atkinson, Engineering’s Forgotten Labour Activist

The story of Thomas Atkinson, born in 1811 in Walbottle near Newcastle and who worked as a railway engineer in Battersea in the 1860s and 1870s, and died living in Clapham in 1908  is told by Wandsworth historian Neil Robson in a new topic entry on the North East Popular Politics database (No. 723)

The article will be published with footnotes and illustrations in The Wandsworth Historian in 2016.

Apprengticve to George Stephenson

Born on 1 June 1811 in Walbottle, a coal-mining village just a few miles west of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Thomas Atkinson became an apprentice engineer to George Stephenson. He worked on The Rocket. In  1831 he joined the Newcastle branch of the Journeymen Steam-engine Makers’ Society (later generally known as the ‘Old Mechanics’).

Seward Strike 1836

Throughout 1836 there were a number of strikes in London involving engineering firms on this very issue.  As a committed unionist Atkinson volunteered to travel to the capital to take part in one of those strikes ‘at an engineering shop in the East End of London’. This will have been the dispute at the works of Seaward & Co., the marine-engine manufacturers based at Millwall.  With at least two others Atkinson set about inducing the men at the firm’s Canal Iron Works to come out in protest.  Samuel Seaward took out warrants against the leading strikers who, he claimed, had prevailed upon others to abscond.  Atkinson and another man escaped arrest.

Variety of Jobs

He then led a peripatetic life.  In 1840 he was in London installing an engine he had recently built in Liverpool.  After that assignment he was employed by the Great Western Railway at Paddington, and in 1843 he was sent by the firm to Swindon to set up the shops that would become the largest railway works in the country.  By the early-1850s Atkinson was back in London working for the pre-eminent engineering firm of John Penn & Sons  on Blackheath Hill.  There he helped construct the engines for the new royal yacht, the Victoria and Albert II, which was launched at Pembroke Dockyard in January 1855.

LCDR in Battersea

By the mid-1860s he had returned to his first specialism, locomotive building, and had found employment in the newly-opened engineering shops of the London Chatham & Dover Railway (LCDR) at Battersea.

For his part in a strike in 1875 Atkinson was sacked, and lived the rest of his live on benefits from the ASE. By 1907 he was  living in Clapham with his unmarried daughter, Elizabeth. It was with a view to making his final years ‘free from care’ that a benefit social was arranged for him at Battersea Town Hall, as a result of which over £100 was raised on the night.  Atkinson died the following year aged 97, and was buried – in Norwood Cemetery on 19 September 1908.


About seancreighton1947

Since moving to Norbury in July 2011 I have been active on local economy, housing and environment issues with Croydon TUC and Croydon Assembly. I am a member of the Love Norbury Residents Associations Planning & Transport Committees, and Chair of Nobury Community Land Trust. I write for Croydon Citizen at I co-ordinate the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Croydon Radical History Networks and edit the North East Popular Politics database. History Project.. I give history talks and lead history walks. I retired in 2012 having worked in the community/voluntary sector and on heritage projects. My history interests include labour movement, mutuality, Black British, slavery & abolition, Edwardian roller skating and the social and political use of music and song. I have a particular interest in the histories of Battersea and Wandsworth, Croydon and Lambeth. I have a publishing imprint History & Social Action Publications.
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