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Atkins, Thomas [Tommy] (d. 1794), soldier and epitomist of the British infantryman, remains an obscure figure but is thought, according to the most reliable accounts, to have been a private serving in the 33rd regiment of foot during the Netherlands campaign of the French Revolutionary Wars. On 15 September 1794 Atkins took part in the battle of Boxtel, at which he was mortally wounded by sabre and bayonet blows to the head and chest, and by a bullet injury to the lung. As he lay dying he was observed by the regiment's lieutenant-colonel, Arthur Wellesley, later first duke of Wellington, to whom Atkins is reported to have dismissed his condition as ‘all in a day's work’ before expiring where he lay.

In June 1815 ‘Thomas Atkins’ appeared as the name of a fictitious soldier for a specimen page of a new British army pay book. Opinion differs on whether the choice originated with the War Office or with Wellington. The latter is said to have recalled the heroism and dignity of his former soldier, and to have chosen ‘Private Thomas Atkins’ of the 1st battalion, 33rd regiment of foot, as a worthy representative of the regular British soldier. It is unclear how far, if at all, the biography on the 1815 specimen page related to that of the deceased private. Certain details, including his birth at Odiham, Hampshire, subsequently became part of the accepted factual information surrounding the real-life Atkins (as recounted, for example, in Robert Graves's foreword to Frank Richards's Old-Soldier Sahib, 2nd edn, 1965). Additional information, including a birth date of January 1784 and service in the Surrey rangers (1802–4) and 4th regiment of foot (1806–13), is clearly an invention for the purposes of the specimen page, while at 5 feet 8½ inches the 1815 Atkins is rather less imposing than the hero of Boxtel measuring 6 feet 3 inches.

Though this version remains the most plausible explanation for the origin of the generic name, two alternative accounts place Atkins earlier in the eighteenth century. The first—a letter sent from Jamaica in 1743—provides no biographical evidence but suggests that the name was already used to describe a category of soldier: ‘ye Marines and Tommy Atkins behaved splendidly.’ A second identifies Atkins as an infantryman captured by American forces at Yorktown in 1781, though this account offers no explanation for the possible connection with Wellington. The duke's own involvement in the story has also been questioned. Writing in the Printer's Pie (1908), Lieutenant-Colonel N. Newnham Davis claimed that it was not until 1843 that Wellington recalled his encounter at Boxtel and recommended Atkins as a suitable common name for army documentation. This suggested version of events was vigorously rejected during the 1920s in favour of the original account.

Whatever its provenance the identification of the British soldier as a ‘Thomas Atkins’ or ‘Tommy’ became increasingly common during the third quarter of the nineteenth century. The name replaced existing sobriquets such as ‘John Trot’ or ‘Thomas Lobster’ (on account of soldiers' red coats) and provided an equivalent to the navy's ‘Jack Tar’—another nineteenth-century eponym, which probably derived from the tarred canvas coats and hats worn by seamen. The first reference to Atkins in the Oxford English Dictionary dates from 1883, and the connection between name and type was further strengthened by popular entertainments, including Charles Hayden Coffin's song from the musical A Gaiety Girl (1893) and strongman Eugen Sandow's appearance at the London Hippodrome (1900) as ‘Thomas Atkins, the human bridge’. In his poem ‘Tommy’ (1890) Rudyard Kipling offered a more equivocal image, which drew attention to the soldier's lowly status and isolation and to the ordinariness of a subject burdened by unreasonable expectations both positive and negative:
We aren't no thin red 'eroes, nor we aren't no blackguards too,
But single men in barricks, most remarkable like you.
(Rudyard Kipling's Verse, 399)
Openly critical of what he considered to be Kipling's demeaning sketch, William McGonagall sought to reassert the typical characteristics of bravery, endurance, and patriotism:
Then hurrah for Tommy Atkins, he's the people's friend,
Because when foreign foes assail us he does us defend.
(McGonagall, 113)
A similarly dignified, if better executed, portrayal was Richard Catton Woodville's painting God Bless You, Tommy Atkins (1899), which depicts a British soldier assisting a wounded colleague in battle.

Bolstered by British involvement in Egypt and in the South African War (1899–1902), Tommy Atkins reached his widest audience during the mass conscription of the First World War, when in novels, newspapers, and picture periodicals he was the subject of regular commentaries on the courage, stoicism, fitness, and potential subversiveness of the working-class soldier. These years also saw the appearance of ‘Thomasina Atkins’, typically a member of the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps. Thereafter the term, never popular in the ranks, fell into gradual disuse, although it was still present in descriptions of the British expeditionary force of 1939–40. In an intriguing echo of the earliest known reference, the name Thomas Atkins is now used for a variety of Jamaican mango.

Philip Carter

Sources  

E. Longford [E. H. Pakenham, countess of Longford], Wellington, 2: Pillar of state (1972) · Rudyard Kipling's verse: definitive edition (1940) · W. McGonagall, ‘In praise of Tommy Atkins’, in W. McGonagall, More poetic gems (1962) · J. Laffin, Tommy Atkins: the story of an English soldier (1977) · Journal for the Society for Army Historical Research, 1/5 (Sept 1922), 181 · Journal for the Society for Army Historical Research, 2/7 (Jan 1923), 8, 10 · Journal for the Society for Army Historical Research, 9/1 (July 1930), 175 · R. Graves, foreword, in F. Richards, Old-soldier sahib (1936); 2nd edn (1965) · E. J. Hardy, The British soldier (1915) · M. Paris, Warrior nations: images of war in British popular culture, 1850–2000 (2000) · ‘Why are English soldiers called “Tommy Atkins”?’, www.iwm.org.uk/collections/books/bookfaq5.htm, Sept 2002