Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Thomas Atkins (1808–1860)

by K. J. Cable

This article was published:

Thomas Atkins (b.1808), clergyman and lecturer, was born in London and in 1830-34 was educated at Highbury for the Independent ministry. He was unable to secure a fixed congregation or regular ordination and, on the recommendation of the London Missionary Society, was appointed chaplain at Norfolk Island in February 1836 as no Anglican clergyman could be obtained. Atkins reached the penal settlement in November, left next January and resigned in April. He had quarrelled with the commandant, Major Joseph Anderson, condemned his system, protested against the ill treatment of a prisoner who had died, accused Anderson of peculation and made complaints against the general administration. Governor Sir Richard Bourke considered Atkins's conduct 'highly indiscreet and improper', and believed that his charges were irregular and that he had attempted to proselytize Roman Catholic prisoners. However erratic his mode of proceeding, Atkins's attitude was not without justification and was sustained by genuine concern.

On his return to Sydney, Atkins was appointed catechist on the Lower Hawkesbury. He came under Bishop William Grant Broughton's jurisdiction but did not receive ordination. In September 1838 he sailed for Calcutta to offer his services to the London Missionary Society. Atkins's term as superintendent of a Sailors' Home was a failure, both clerically and personally, and in 1841 he had to go back to Sydney to recoup his fortunes and his health. For two years he tried to form Independent congregations, chiefly at Balmain. He even approached the Presbyterians, and briefly occupied Scots Church pulpit with the sanction but in the absence of John Dunmore Lang, whose second break with his communion was thereby precipitated. Atkins admired Lang but opposed his views on separation of church and state in the colony. Atkins returned to Calcutta in May 1843 and was ordained deacon by Bishop Wilson two years later. His second Indian ministry was a failure; he fell foul of the church authorities and sailed for England in 1847. The twelve years of his colonial wanderings were temporarily at an end. In December 1860, however, he travelled to New York to begin a newspaper in the English interest and to promote 'the formation of a new ecclesiastical organization' which would unite the merits of Anglicanism, Presbyterianism and Independency. He was successful only as an anti-slavery lecturer, and he resumed his activities as a popular preacher in England.

In 1859 Atkins had published in England an account of his colonial experiences, The Wanderings of the Clerical Eulysses … 'written in three months while engaged on open-air preaching at Manchester several times a week and dependent on his literary labour for the means of subsistence'. Ten years later this book, slightly amended and with a new section on North America, reappeared as Reminiscences of Twelve Years' Residence in Tasmania and New South Wales; Norfolk Island and Moreton Bay; Calcutta, Madras and Cape Town; the United States of America; and the Canadas. Atkins's acquaintance with several of these places was slight and his general comments were drawn from memory and of little value. Too much attention has been paid to his descriptions of such men as Solomon Wiseman and Samuel Terry whom he patently disliked. But his narrative of his Norfolk Island experiences is of historical interest and his conduct there redeems somewhat the unfavourable impression conveyed by the rest of his reminiscences.

Atkins was a failure as a colonial clergyman. His erratic and restless personality stood in his way; and his highly individual conception of religion conflicted with his assertions of ecclesiastical authority to make his position impossible in colonies where one or the other had to be accepted.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 18, 19
  • Governors' dispatches, 1837 (State Library of New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

K. J. Cable, 'Atkins, Thomas (1808–1860)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 3 March 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (Melbourne University Press), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


London, Middlesex, England


1860 (aged ~ 52)

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.