William Atkinson (1800-1855)

Written by Tim Cockerill

Occupation: Surgeon


William Atkinson was born and baptised at Blawith, a small village near the foot of Coniston Water, in 1800, the second son of John Atkinson (1767-1854) of Ivy Tree, Blawith,a yeoman and slate quarry owner, who had married in 1794 Ann Gardner, alias Garner, (1770-1850), the daughter of Christopher Gardner ( 1732-1804), of Subberthwaite, later of Great Urswick.

The Atkinson family had farmed about a 100 acres at Ivy Tree since at least the end of the 17th Century and had married into such local families as the the Lancasters of Water Yeat, Blawith; the Bellinghams of Satterthwaite; and the Chambleys of Scales. This branch of the Atkinson family numbered amongst its members the Revd William Atkinson (1724-1764), incumbent of Kentmere and later Selside, near Kendal, whose portrait was painted by George Romney in about 1760 and who was a cousin of the above- mentioned John Atkinson.

By the beginning of the 19th century, when young William was growing up, his father John Atkinson seems to have concentrated his efforts on his slate quarries. He is listed under 'Slate Quarry Proprietors ' in the Ulverston area in Parson and White's Directory of Cumberland, Westmorland, Furness and Cartmel in 1829 as owning slate quarries at Coniston, which produced pale green slates; Tilberthwaite, green slates; and Torver, dark blue slates, together with eleven other owners. However, Mannex and Co's Directory of Westmorland, Lonsdale and Amounderness in Lancashire of 1851 makes no mention of any of them, although covering Blawith and Ulverston. Yet when John Atkinson died in 1854 he left no will and no letters of administration were needed since he was recorded as having disposed of his property in Blawith in 1836 and presumably had sold his slate quarries.


Where William Atkinson went to school is unknown but presumably he received his education locally, perhaps at Town Bank Grammar School, Ulverston. In1816 he was apprenticed for five years to Rowland Briggs (1764-1829) junior, of Ulverston, surgeon and apothecary, the son of Rowland Briggs ( 1727-1797) apothecary, with whom he was in partnership and then succeeded. In 1821 his master reported to the Society of Apothecaries that William had finished his apprenticeship and testified as to his moral character, whereupon William was duly granted  a certificate to practice as an apothecary. It was not compulsory to be a member of the Society, despite needing their certificate to practice, and William did not join.

Medical Career

In addition to completing his apprenticeship, William would have been expected to complete one course of anatomical lectures, one course in surgical lectures and to have worked in a hospital. His certificate shows he attended at The London Dispensary for six months and also specifies that he attended a number of lectures: two on anatomy and physiology, two on the theory and practice of medicine, two on chemistry and two on Materia Medica. He also needed to pass professional examinations set by the Royal College of Surgeons in England as well as being licensed, by the Society of Apothecaries, in accord with Apothecaries Act 1815.

The Medical Directory for 1855 confirms that he gained his Licentiate of the Society of Apothecaries in 1821 and his MRCS England in 1822, so that soon afterwards William Atkinson probably set up in practice as a surgeon-apothecary in Main Street, Broughton-in-Furness, his only rival being Edward Fish of Sykehouse, Broughton. Atkinson never married and always lodged with his friends Thamer and Margaret Bolton, or Boulton, at 50 The Square, Broughton, who are listed as landed proprietors in the 1841 and 1851 census returns.  These unmarried ladies were the daughters of the Revd John Bolton, or Boulton, incumbent of Ulpha 1786-1796 and vicar of Millom from 1797 until his death in 1822. His first wife was Anne ( 1759-1799) , the eldest of the thirteen children of  Miles Cooper, a yeoman of Beckfoot, Ulpha and a cousin of the Revd Dr Myles Cooper (qv). Their daughter Thamer was born in 1794 and died in 1869 and Margaret was born in 1796 and died in 1875. They were baptised at Broughton-in-Furness and, after their father's death in 1822, lived for the rest of their lives in the town. Their brother was the Revd Myles Cooper Bolton MA (Oxon), (1798-1865), patron and rector of Shimpling, near Long Melford, Suffolk.

The 1851 Census confirms that William Atkinson MRCS and LSA was still practicing as a surgeon and general practitioner in Broughton and he was also the Medical Officer of the Broughton West District of the Ulverston Union. The only reference to his medical skills appears in Soulby's Ulverston Advertiser and General Intelligencer on 25 October 1849, as follows:

Successful operation under Chloroform

Amputation of a limb was performed on Monday last on a young man called Mardale, who we last week stated, had been accidentally shot through the thigh at Waberthwaite. The operation, through the aid of chloroform, was completed successfully by Mr Atkinson of Broughton and Mr McKnight of Bootle and the patient we understand is progressing favourably.

Robert McKnight of Bootle , surgeon is listed in Mannix and Whellan, Directory of Cumberland of 1847 and it was in this year that chloroform was first used by James Young Simpson (1811-1870) an Edinburgh obstetrician, so this operation represents the early adoption of chloroform in Cumbria.

In 1829 there were 1815 persons in Millom parish with no surgeons recorded; in Hawkshead parish there were two surgeons for a population of 2,014; in Dalton-in-Furness with a population of 2,446 there were three surgeons; and in Ulverston, with a population of 7,102, there were six surgeons. In comparison, William Atkinson and Edward Fish , although listed under Broughton, also served the parish of Kirkby Ireleth with a population of 2,947.

By 1841 Millom's population had not increased and the community still had no surgeons so presumably Atkinson and Fish of Broughton had to cover this area as well, although Bootle, with a population of 696, could field Robert McKnight to assist, as he did for the 1849 operation using chloroform. The number of medical practitioners in a community is probably related not only to the population figure but also to the relative local prosperity.

Death and burial

Mr William Atkinson, as a surgeon, he was never referred to as 'Dr' and this is evident from the notice of his death in Soulby's Ulverston Advertiser dated 13 September 1855. He died on 6 September, after a short unspecified illness aged fifty-six, after a professional career of thirty-four years.  He was described as skilled and respected and that his 'indulgence to the poorer class of his patients was proverbial'. By making differential charges practitioners were able to allow their wealthier patients to subsidise the indigent members of the community.  On 10 September 1855, his funeral took place in his native village of Blawith, where he was buried in the old churchyard, where the gravestone, in the form of an obelisk, can still be seen.

He had signed his will on 13 July 1854, mentioning his deceased younger brother Christopher (1808-1851), whose daughter Margaret, who had been his ward, was to marry George Lewthwaite (1839-1912) JP, of Broadgate, Thwaites in 1864, and his friends Thamer and Margaret Bolton, with whom he lived.  Probate, recorded at Richmond,  was granted to the executors: the yeoman William Crowdson of Greenslack; William Walker, a grocer, and Thamer Bolton, all of Broughton-in-Furness on 19 February 1856.  His estate was sworn at 'under £800', today about £40,000. However this figure did not include real property and the deceased had also inherited Ivy Tree, Blawith, the family farm.

Under the will a trust was set up for William Atkinson's niece, Mrs Margaret Lewthwaite (1840-1924), who had become his ward and lived with him as another lodger in the Bolton household after her father died in 1851, when she was eleven. The farm and other assets were retained and provided Margaret with a modest private income for the rest of her life. A year after her death, in 1925, the farm was auctioned and bought by Stephen Hart Jackson of Ulverston, the family solicitor, who already owned the adjoining farm, for £1,300 ( now about £42,000; resold in 2017 for £375,000). All Margaret Lewthwaite's surviving descendants received equal portions and the William Atkinson Trust was finally wound up in 1935.


  • Ancestry.com (for Rowland Briggs)
  • Bowes, Peter, family information to the author by e-mails in 2021
  • Cockerill, Timothy, Myles Cooper, President of King's College, New York, Transactions of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaelogical Society, New Series, volume LX1V ( 1964), pp. 336-348, Titus Wilson, Kendal, 1964
  • Cumbria Archive and Local Studies Centre, Whitehaven, ref. YDLEW/ 10/ 6, comprising the author's file on the Atkinson family of Ivy Tree, Blawith, as part of the Lewthwaite of Broadgate archive.
  • Haswell, Colonel. J.F, transcriber, The Parish Registers of Millom, Cumberland 1591-1812, Titus Wilson  and Son, Kendal, 1925
  • Hudleston, C. Roy, editor and transcriber, The Coopers of Beckfoot, Ulpha by the Revd. G.M. Cooper, Transactions of the C. and W. XLIV, pp. 349-355
  • Library and Archives of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, letter dated 25 April 2024 from Susan Isaac, Customer Service Manager, to the author
  • Loftie, the Revd Arthur G., editor, The Registers of the Broughton-in-Furness Chapel in the Parish of Kirkby Ireleth 1634-1812, Preston, 1959
  • Mannex and Whellan, Directory of Cumberland, 1847
  • Mannex and Co, History, Topography and Directory of Westmorland, Lonsdale and Amounderness in Lancashire, Beverley, 1851
  • Medical Directories 1847 and 1855
  • Memorial Inscriptions in Blawith Old Churchyard, transcription at Cumbria Archive Centre, Barrow-in-Furness
  • Muir, Rory, Gentlemen of Uncertain Fortune, pp. 71-93, Yale, 2019
  • National Census Returns, 1841 and 1851 for Broughton-in- Furness
  • Parson, William. and White, William, History, Directory and Gazetteer of Cumberland and Westmorland with Furness and Cartmel in Lancashire, Leeds, 1829
  • Payne, Jane, Archive Officer, The Society of Apothecaries, e-mail to the author dated 3 June 2024
  • Soulby's Ulverston Advertiser and General Intelligencer, 25 October 1849 and 13 September 1855
  • The Romney Society Newsletter No. 56, Winter 2012-2013, p.4 ( re portrait of the Revd William Atkinson by George Romney)