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Atkins Family

The Explosive Grocer With A Property Empire

Thomas Atkins senior was a coal miner who moved to Swannington and became a grocer.  His second son, also Thomas, became an explosives agent then took over the grocery business as well, employing two of his brothers.  The business thrived and Thomas shrewdly invested in property in the local area, the size only becoming apparent with the writing of his will in 1924.

The Firs - Thomas Atkins shop

Will of Thomas Atkins

1 – Last will of Thomas Atkins.

2 – Executors and Trustees – George Lewis Atkins, George Frederick Sheffield, Joseph Yates Rowse.

3 – Plate, linen, china, glass, pictures, prints, furniture, household effects, dairy and garden tools and plants – wife Sarah Dent Atkins.

4 – Brook House furniture and household effects – lifetime use to brother William Henry Atkins, thereafter to niece Addie Smith daughter of brother Charles Atkins.  (Brook House is next to the former Fountain Inn)

5 – Business of a Grocer Wine and Spirit Merchant and Dealer in Explosives, together with the freehold explosives store in the Baulk field at Swannington, and all the Goodwill, Stock in trade, fixtures, horses, carts, farm, stable and other implements – two brothers Charles Atkins and William Henry Atkins.  (The shop was at The Firs, to the left of the Stone House)  Subject to the lifetime payment to former carter John Wilkins the sum of Twenty pounds per annum

6 – Four dwelling houses situate in Belvoir Road Coalville – to wife Sarah Dent Atkins during her life. Thereafter two occupied by Messrs Thompson and Cory to nephew John William Atkins the son of my late brother John and the two occupied by Messrs Bryan and Armstrong to the said George Lewis Atkins.

7 – Myrtle Cottage at Hoo Ash, Swannington – to nephew Frederick Thomas Walker the son of my sister Maria Walker.  (Myrtle Cottage is 90 Hough Hill)

8 – Messuage, premises and ten acres of land situate at Swannington Common purchased from Mrs Watson – to nephew Charles Walker (current occupier)

9 – Brook House set in one acre and 24 perches occupied by brother Charles Atkins – lifetime rent to brother William Henry Atkins, thereafter to niece Addie Smith.

10 – Pinfold Terrace, 15 houses in Silver Street, Whitwick – lifetime income to wife Sarah Dent Atkins, thereafter to six nephews the sons of my late sister Annie Richards

11 – One acre field “Woodmans Hole” Swannington, plus two and a half acres field at Fone Hill and field at Swannington Common let as allotments to sister Maria Walker

12 – Several closes of land near Swannington Railway Station, adjoining the Midland Railway on the South and fronting the road leading from Hinckley to Melbourne, twenty nine acres (except the Explosives Store) and the four messuages with the gardens known as Station Terrace and occupied by George Fox John Moon Thomas Smith and John Thomas Adcock the two messuages with the gardens occupied by George Stacey and Albert Jones and the farm house with the farm buildings – to nephews the sons of sister Maria Walker except nephew Charles Walker. (Hollies Farm, Station Hill)

13 – Two cottages in Main Road, Swannington purchased from Thomas Walker and occupied by John Henry Fern and John William Smith to nieces May Walker and Mary Walker the daughters of sister Maria Walker.

14 – Three quarters of an acre situate at Snapehill Swannington and two cottages on Swannington Common purchased  from George Walker – income to Hilda Annie Rowse, widow of the late James Rowse until the youngest of her three children attains the age of 21 years, thereafter the property to the three children.  (Snape Hill is an old name for Church Hill)

15 – Dwelling house, garden and premises known as Highfields, Coalville purchased from William Starkey – to niece Alice Whybie Sheffield wife of George Frederick Sheffield

16 – Residue of estate – to brothers Charles Atkins and William Henry Atkins

17 – Signed Thomas Atkins 24th April 1924 in presence of J Fisher Jesson and William Straker of Fishers solicitors, Ashby de la Zouch

Brook House owned by Atkins and Smith family for over a century

Explosives and the Atkins Family

Agent for British Dynamite Company

Alfred Nobel started selling dynamite commercially in Sweden, in 1871 he became a major shareholder in the British Dynamite Company Limited.  By 1876 Thomas Atkins was an agent for the British company and touring Leicestershire giving demonstrations.

Blasting Powder

Blasting powder was used in both quarries and coal mines.  In mines, hewers would undercut a strip of coal at the bottom of the coal face.  Holes were bored into the face and filled with blasting powder to bring the rest of the coal face down.

Some mines had powder magazines and issued blasting powder to approved miners.  At other mines the miners had to supply their own blasting powder and often kept it next to the upstairs chimney in their homes to ensure it was dry.

Thomas Atkins dynamite experiments at Cliff Hill, Markfield and Loughborough - Leicester Chronicle 18th November 1876
Dynamite blows up 50 ton rocks at Stoney Stanton - Leicester Chronicle 20th January 1877
Dynamite does not produce sulphurous smoke - Burton Chronicle 15th March 1877
Thomas Atkins given a licence to store up to 10 tons of explosives - Leicester Daily Mercury 21st August 1875

Gun Cartridges

The Gun Licence Act 1870 was created to raise revenue. It required a person to obtain a licence to carry a gun outside his own property for any reason.  The licences cost 10 shillings, lasted one year and could be bought over the counter at Post Offices.

In rural areas farmers and others had shotguns for shooting rabbits and other game.  Shotgun owners needed cartridges and the Atkins family could supply them.

Powder Houses

The Atkins family had three powder houses on the outskirts of Swannington.    Providing powder was a family affair:

  • Charles Atkins was described as an ammunition or mining cartridge maker in 1881, 1891 and 1901, although he had changed to helping in the grocer’s shop by 1911.
  • Thomas Richards (married Annie Atkins) had given up Manor Farm and taken over the gunpowder cartridge maker role by 1911.  He was assisted by his 17 year old son John William Richards.
Powder House at the Bradleys - by Jenny Palmer 2013

Relationship With The Wilkins Family

In his will, Thomas Atkins left a lifetime payment to his former carter John Wilkins the sum of Twenty pounds per annum.  John lived at 84 Main Street (the houses opposite the former Fountain Inn) and seems to have worked for Thomas for decades, being described on the census returns as grocer’s labourer (1881), general labourer (1891), grocer’s van man (1901) and general labourer 1911.  John would have been a retired 74 year old when Thomas wrote his will in 1924.  Three of John’s children worked for the Atkins family:

  • Fanny Elizabeth lived with Thomas Atkins family at The Firs, Main Street in 1901 and 1911 as a domestic servant, then housekeeper aged 24 and 34.
  • Sarah Jane 20 was still living at home in 1901 and was a paper bag maker for powder.  Sarah Jane married next door neighbour George Harry Brooks in 1903 and by 1911 they were living in Myrtle Cottage, 90 Hough Hill, as Atkins property (see clause 7 of the will).
  • John William 13 was still living at home in 1891 and was a gunpowder cartridge case maker.