Henry Noel Atkinson was a member of a family that had serious upper class connections through his mother’s line. She was Ursula Mary Cotton-Jodrell and the male members of her family achieved very high positions either in the military or in the church. Ursula’s father (Henry Noel Atkinson’s grandfather) was George Edward Lynch Cotton (born in Chester in 1813). He distinguished himself firstly in the world of education. He was appointed by Thomas Arnold to be a master at Rugby School where he taught for 15 years and then he was made Headmaster at Marlborough School. In 1857 he was consecrated Bishop at Westminster Abbey by the Archbishop of Canterbury and then personally selected by Queen Victoria to be Bishop of Calcutta and Metropoliton Bishop of India, Burma and Ceylon. He drowned in 1866, having consecrated a cemetery at Kushtea, he slipped on the plank taking him back to the boat he was using and fell into the Ganges, was washed away and never seen again.
Ursula’s brother (Henry Noel Atkinson’s Uncle) was Colonel Sir Edward Thomas Davenant Cotton-Jodrell. This powerful and wealthy man owned estates in Cheshire and Derbyshire. He was Commander of the Cheshire Royal Engineers from 1888 to 1908. He was on HQ staff of the War Office from 1906 to 1912. he was MP for Wirral 1885 to 1900. His wife was Mary Rennie Coleridge (related to the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge)
Ursula married Rev Walter Hillyard in 1879. He was the vicar of St Oswalds in Worleston, Cheshire. (In this paish was Reaseheath Hall, the home of Ursula’s brother above). They had a son George Walter Hillyard who was born in 1880. There was also a baby girl who did not survive. Tragically Rev Hillyard died in 1881 at the age of 28, leaving Ursula a widow.
(PS The son George Walter Hillyard has proved very difficult to trace. He attended his stepfather’s funeral in 1914 and we have reason to believe that he spent at least some of his life in Australia and Canada)
Ursula remarried in 1884 another vicar, Rev Arthur Atkinson who was 24 years older than her and the vicar of Audlem Parish in Cheshire. Four years later, their only child was born. Henry Noel Atkinson arrived on Christmas Day 1888 at Audlem Vicarage, in Cheshire. His father was by then 54 years old
In the 1891 census the family was still at Audlem and Henry was the only child. He had a resident nurse called Ada Clarke to help take care of him. The household was supported by other resident servants. Christine Cooper was a Lady’s Maid/Domestic servant, Mary Woodlam was the cook, Eleanor Hind was a housemaid and Edith Bosworth was an under housemaid.
The next census of 1901, finds 12 year old Henry away at boarding school on the Wirral. His father was by then a retired clergyman though he had been ‘promoted’ in the intervening years to Rev Canon Atkinson an honorary Canon to Chester Cathedral. He lived with his wife Ursula in Highfield Hall,Northop Hall and again there was a supporting cast of domestic servants. Sarah Lewis was the cook, Matilda Lewis, Mary Lewis and Elizabeth Littler were kitchen maids/domestic servants and Ann Cockburn was a Laundress
In the 1911 Census the family was still at Highfield Hall. Henry Noel was 22 and is described as ‘a Gentleman Gardener’. His father was 77, his mother was 53. There was a lady named Ellen Baker aged 24 – described as a ‘companion’ and a gentleman visitor and five servants listed.
Education. His first school was ‘Mr Leonard Dobie’s, Moorland House’, Heswall. He then went to Charterhouse where he was in the cricket eleven. From there he went to St John’s College Cambridge
Hobbies. Henry was a keen golfer and was a member of Chester Golf Club. He won the Welsh Amateur Golf Championship in 1913
Army Career. He joined the Special Reserve of the Cheshire regiment on November 1st 1913 and went through his six months training with the 1st Battalion then stationed in Londonderry. On mobilisation he rejoined his regiment and was at once attached to the 1st Battalion still at Londonderry and sailed with them from Belfast on August 14th 1914 under orders for the front where he was until he was officially reported missing after the battle of La Bassee at Volaines. It was presumed at the time that he was in all probability wounded and a prisoner of war. There were unofficial reports that he had been wounded and taken to a French hospital, although it seems that in fact he was killed.
The DSO (Distinguished Service Order). Henry Noel Atkinson was awarded this in December 1914 ‘For conspicuous gallantry under heavy fire from front and both flanks, by collecting a few men and checking the enemy, thereby facilitating the retirement of his colleagues.’. He was promoted from 2nd Lieutenant to Lieutenant on 2nd February 1915 which was about four months after the date he died.
The death of Canon Atkinson (father) A year after his son was reported missing, Canon Atkinson died aged 81 years. He only ever knew that his precious only child was ‘missing’ There is a commemorative plaque dedicated to him in Northop Church..
This very sad soldier’s story raises as many questions as it answers. His death and commemoration were handled very differently to any other soldier that we have learnt about. He was the first casualty from this parish which made the event more sensational – the long lists of casualties had not yet begun. His Uncle was very influential both in the Cheshire Regiment and in the War Office and indeed in Parlaiment. Henry Noel Atkinson was decorated for bravery and promoted after his death. He was (almost uniquely) allowed to have his own memorial stone in France (see link below to read this sad saga). The story of poor Henry Noel Atkinson gives us a glimpse into a world where patronage and family connections counted for much. In the end, though, his death on the battlefield was no less harrowing than any of the others – he was a young man cut down in his prime leaving a devastated family.