The life and crimes of Thomas Atcherley

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“Thomas, b. 27 Feb. 1766, d. s. p. July 1801” is all that the Burkes had to say about Thomas Atcherley in their publications on the Genealogical and Heraldic History of the Landed Gentry in the 1800s. He was born, and descessit sine prole (died without issue) 35 years later. Nowadays, family historians like myself are far more interested in what went on between the dates of birth and death of the people in our trees. My research into the Atcherleys has led to some unexpected discoveries about the life – and crimes – of Thomas, who turns out to have been the ‘black sheep’ of his family.

Thomas Atcherley was (as his inclusion in a book on the landed gentry suggests) born into a well-heeled family: The Atcherleys of Marton in Shropshire. Baptised at the parish church of Middle St Peter on 28 February 1766, the day after his birth, he was the family’s second son. He was also their last. Within two months of his birth his father Richard Atcherley was dead, at the age of 34. Further tragedy was to follow. Seven years after the loss of their father, Thomas Atcherley and his four siblings were orphaned by the sudden death of their mother, Jane Atcherley, in 1773. The Shrewsbury Chronicle described Jane as “A gentlewoman whose amiable deportment through life bespoke the pious Christian, the tender parent, and the agreeable acquaintance, which renders her death deservedly lamented.”

Atcherley children Dorothy (aged 11), Jane (10), Richard (9), Elizabeth (8) and Thomas (7) were now without their mother’s tender parental care. Who took responsibility for them from this point is unclear. Their paternal grandfather Thomas Atcherley and  most of their aunts and uncles had died long since. Their maiden aunt Dorothy Atcherley, then aged 45, may have played a part, but I suspect that it was another Dorothy Atcherley, the children’s 69-year-old grandmother, who became their guardian. By the time she passed away in 1792 at the age of 88, all three of her granddaughters were married and their future prospects secured.

The future prospects of Dorothy’s oldest grandson Richard, older brother of Thomas, were also assured. As the oldest son of the late Richard Atcherley senior he would inherit the bulk of the family’s estates. He was nonetheless given the means to pursue a respectable business through his apprenticeship to Messrs Widdens, Potts & Leake, a firm of attorneys in Chester. This had begun in 1781 when Richard was 17 and had cost £150. Surviving legal documents bear his signature as a clerk in November 1781 and as a witness, alongside Charles Potts, in 1783. Whether Richard pursued his legal career much beyond this time is open to conjecture. I have found no other references to him being an attorney. He would most likely have come into his inheritance on reaching the age of 21 on 13 October 1784 and may then have abandoned his apprenticeship. Deeds dating from March the following year, in which he was described as “Richd. Atcherley of Marton, Middle, gent.” show him selling off property in Shrewsbury’s Knocking Street, to Philip Heath of that town. He went on to marry and died, without issue, in 1834 (having taken steps before his death to ensure the continuance of the Atcherley name at Marton despite the end of the male line of the family – see Richard Atcherley and his hopes for posterity).

I have found no evidence that an apprenticeship was arranged for Thomas Atcherley. Like his older brother, he too most likely came into his inheritance on his 21st birthday, which was 27 February 1787. Just what that inheritance was I do not know with any certainty, but it may have been the “fortune of some thousand pounds” which he was later reported to have squandered (see below). Whatever he may have received, by 1794 he had not only lost it but had also got into debt. Being unable to repay those to whom he owed money, he was imprisoned at the Northgate Gaol in Chester. Evidence for this appears in notices published in the Chester Chronicle, and also in The London Gazette, including the following in the Gazette’s issue of 29 July 1794:

THE following Persons being Prisoners for Debt in the respective Gaols or Prisons hereafter mentioned, and not being charged in Custody, on the Twelfth Day of February, One thousand seven hundred and ninety-four, with any Debt or Debts, Sum or Sums of Money, not exceeding in the Whole the Sum of One Thousand Pounds, do hereby give this Publick Notice, That they intend to take the Benefit of an Act, passed in the Thirty fourth Year of His present Majesty’s Reign, intituled An Act for the Discharge of certain Insolvent Debtors, at the next General Quarter Session, or General Session of the Peace, to be held in and for the County, Riding, Division, City, town, Liberty, or Place, or any Adjournment thereof, which shall happen next after TWENTY-ONE Days from the Publication of their FIRST NOTICES in the London Gazette. And they do hereby give Notice, that true and perfect Schedules, containing Discoveries of all their Real and Personal Estates, hereafter to be sworn to, are now ready to be delivered to any Creditors applying for the same, in Manner as by the said Act is directed, to the Goalers or Keepers, or their Deputies, of the said Prisons.

Not far beneath this notice appeared the following:

Chester’s Northgate (illustrated below) was one of four gates giving access to the city, and doubled as the City Gaol for Felons and Debtors until 1807 when a new prison was erected near Watergate. It was visited in March 1774 and again in 1787 by John Howard, the noted campaigner for penal reform, during his extensive investigations into prison conditions in Britain and Europe. Howard noted that felons had a spacious day room, but that their night-room or dungeon measured 14 feet by 8 and had “No light, nor any communication with the external air, but by two leaden pipes of about an inch diameter laid in from the gate-way.” The ‘women-felons’ were confined upstairs in a room called the upper dungeon. Fortunately for Thomas Atcherley, the gaol had “many convenient apartments for debtors” – though I doubt they were as pleasant as Howard almost makes them sound! Furthermore, in addition to having access to a courtyard used by the felons, debtors had “the privilege of walking in the keeper’s garden.”

Debtors were released if their debts were paid (either by others or by themselves with money earned while in gaol). However at the time when Thomas was imprisoned, debtors were expected to pay for their keep while incarcerated and so it was possible for their debts to increase rather than decrease. Evidently the debts owed by Thomas Atcherley were paid and he was released – but just five years later he was back behind bars. He was by this time using a new middle name, Hill, which he appears to have acquired as part of a series of deceptions which eventually led to his downfall. The story of his crimes and of how he was brought to justice was reported in the Reading Mercury of 7 October 1799:

Thomas Hill Atcherly, the person advertised in the Sun and other London newspapers of March last, for defrauding Innkeepers in various parts of the kingdom, is now in confinement at Newbury, having been apprehended by Mr. Batten, of the Tuns in that town on Saturday last. Both Mr. Batten, and Mr. Haskins, of the Sun had been imposed on by this man about 18 months since, and he has since been practising similar cheats at Guildford and several other places. What adds to his disgrace, is that he squandered a fortune of some thousand pounds, and has made even his own brother, a man of family and fortune, in Shropshire, a dupe to his artifices, and deceived many of the clergy and gentry by introducing himself as a relation to Sir Richard Hill.

Two weeks later the same paper relayed the news of Thomas’s conviction and punishment: “Thomas Hill Atcherley, the famous impostor, was convicted at the sessions holden for the borough of Newbury on Tuesday the 15th instant, of petty larceny, and sentenced to a month’s imprisonment and 40 lashes at the public whipping post.”

Inside the church of St Peter at Middle in Shropshire, members of the Atcherley family of Marton are remembered on wall-mounted monuments. Richard Atcherley, brother of Thomas, is commemorated as “a man of integrity and sincerity”. The deaths of the brothers’ parents, Richard and Jane, are also recorded, and there are memorials to some of the later heirs to the Atcherley name, arms and Marton estate. But there is no mention of Thomas ‘Hill’ Atcherley, who must have brought shame upon a devout, Christian family which, for the most part, obeyed (and in some cases enforced) the law.

As we have seen, Thomas died in July 1801. At 35 years of age, he had lived a year longer than the father he never knew. Now, more than two centuries later, his life – and his crimes – are remembered not through a tablet in a church but by way of this electronic memorial. Family historians tend to be rather forgiving of their families’ black sheep. Whether Thomas’s own family ever forgave him for his crimes I know not, but I hope that as good Christians they did.

Image credits. Extract from London Gazette, issue 13689, 29 Jul 1794, page 780 used under the Open Government Licence v2.0. The Old North Gate from page 253 of Chester in the Plantagenet and Tudor Reigns. Image adapted from a scan downloaded from the British Library Flickr Photostream; no known copyright restrictions.


[1] John Burke and John Bernard Burke (1847), A Genealogical and Heraldic Dictionary of the Landed Gentry of Great Britain and Ireland. Volume I, page 32. Copy viewed at Google Books.
[2] Middle, Shropshire parish register covering 1766, entry for baptism of Thomas Atcherley. Copy viewed at Findmypast. Indexed at FamilySearch, Batch P01576-1, Film 908237.
[3] Memorial inscriptions at St Peter’s church, Myddle, Shropshire. See MIs at Myddle St Peter (2) for photographs and transcriptions.
[4] Shrewsbury Chronicle, 5 Jun 1773, page 3.
[5] More, Shropshire, parish register covering 1792. Entry for burial (at Middle) of Dorothy Atcherley. Copy viewed at Findmypast. Abstract in Parish Register Society and Shropshire Parish Register Society (1900), The Registers of More, Shropshire, page 82 viewed at Mocavo, the Internet Archive website and at the melockie website.
[6] Wem, Shropshire, marriage register covering 1782. Entry for marriage of Robert Taylor and Dorothy Atcherley. Copy viewed at Findmypast. Abstract in Shropshire Parish Register Society (1908), Diocese of Lichfield Volume X, The Registers of Wem, Part II, page 742 viewed at Mocavo, the Internet Archive website and at the melockie website. Indexed at FamilySearch, Batch I02493-9, Film 1657606, Ref ID item 5 p 163.
[7] Loppington, Shropshire, marriage register covering 1782. Entry for marriage of David Francis Jones and Jane Atcherley. Copies viewed at Shropshire Archives and at Findmypast. Indexed at FamilySearch, Batch I03467-9, Film 1701251.
[8] Chester Holy Trinity, Cheshire, marriage register covering 1785. Entry for marriage of Robert Corbett and Elizabeth Atcherley. Copy viewed at Findmypast. Indexed at FamilySearch, Batch M00967-1, GS Film 0924608 IT 1.
[9] The National Archives. Board of Stamps: Apprenticeship Books, Series IR 1. Warrant No 24, Inds 38, Brought 23d October 1781. Entry 14. Copy viewed at Ancestry – Register of Duties Paid for Apprentices’ Indentures, 1710-1811.
[10] James Coleman Collection, Document D. D. 1,351. In index (MS Word format) downloaded from National Library of Wales website.
[11] Hawarden Deeds, Documents 1605, 1606, 1607: Nov. 5. [1783]. In index (MS Word format) downloaded from National Library of Wales website.
[12] Shropshire Archives item 3668/44 dated 25 March 1785. Abstract at Access To Archives.
[13] Chester Chronicle, 18 Jul 1794, page 3.
[14] London Gazette, issue 13689, 29 Jul 1794, page 780.
[15] P Broster (1781), The Chester Guide. Page 35. Copy viewed at Google Books.
[16] John Howard (1777), The State Of The Prisons In England And Wales. Volume I. Page 442. Copy viewed at Google Books. (See also the John Howard League website.)
[17] Joseph Hemingway (1836), Panorama of the City of Chester. Page 117. Copy viewed at Google Books.
[18] Debtors, at Victorian Crime and Punishment (website, accessed 14 Jul 2014).
[19] Reading Mercury, 7 Oct 1799, page 3.
[20] Reading Mercury, 28 Oct 1799, page 3.

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Dr John Atcherley’s World War One

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< More Atcherley stories from World War 1

Dr John Atcherley’s service with the Royal Canadian Navy in World War One saw him acting as Surgeon not only to the crew of an RCN sloop, but also to crews of the two submarines that vessel tended. With his shipmates he undertook a voyage from one side of Canada to the other via the Panama Canal, before narrowly avoiding a cataclysmic explosion, sailing to Bermuda and back, and being joined on board by a renowned inventor (whose name may ring a bell).

Having been recorded on the thirteenth census of the United States in 1910 in San Francisco, John Atcherley and his family found themselves being enumerated again just one year later, at 646 Harris Street in Vancouver, British Columbia, for the fifth census of Canada. The schedule showed that they had immigrated in 1911 itself; presumably in the first half of the year given that the census began on 1 June.

John, aged 45, a native of England who had become a naturalised American in 1900, now gave his nationality as Canadian. The census shows that he was a surgeon working on his own account; in other words, he was in private practice. In 1912 however, John obtained employment as a surgeon with the Canadian Pacific Railway Company. He worked for the CPR until 1914 – which was of course the year in which the Great War in Europe began, prompting calls for Canadians to come to Britain’s aid.

John answered the call. Joining the Royal Canadian Naval Reserve, on 1 May 1915 he became Surgeon of the Shearwater, a submarine tender based at Vancouver’s Esquimalt Dockyard. This was probably at or around the time that the vessel was transferred from the British Royal Navy to the Royal Canadian Navy, her name changing from HMS to HMCS Shearwater (pictured below in ‘dazzle’ camouflage paintwork).

The 980-ton Condor-class sloop aboard which John served had been commissioned at Chatham Dockyard in Kent, England in 1901, and had been in service with the Royal Navy in the eastern Pacific. The submarines she tended, CC-1 and CC-2, had been bought from Chile by the government of British Columbia on the day that Britain declared war on Germany, for the purpose of defending the province from German attack. Since Canadian provinces had no power to maintain military forces, the subs had quickly been transferred to the RCN. HMCS Shearwater was lent by the Royal Navy to tend them and she was officially commissioned for that purpose on 8 September 1914.

The German threat to Canada’s western seaboard had come from a squadron of ships in the Pacific under the command of Vice-Admiral Graf Maximilian von Spee. However all but one of that squadron’s ships were destroyed after they entered the Atlantic, during the Battle of the Falkland Islands in December 1914. The surviving ship, the Dresden, was scuttled by her crew in Chilean waters after the Royal Navy finally caught up with and started firing upon her in March 1915.

Thus, when John Atcherley joined the Shearwater’s crew, the risk of a German attack upon the west coast of Canada was negligible. Over the ensuing two years the sloop accompanied the submarines in its charge as they followed a peacetime routine of spending about two weeks each month at sea, diving and firing practice torpedoes (the Shearwater acting as target), and spending the intervening periods at harbour (see photo, right). During the latter periods the submarine crews maintained the subs’ engines and other equipment, and lived aboard the Shearwater.

In 1917, it was decided to transfer the subs to Canada’s east coast, with a view to sending them across the Atlantic. The voyage began on 17 June. John Griffith Armstrong (in his book The Halifax Explosion and the Royal Canadian Navy) describes what happened:

If it had ever existed, the need for the subs to remain on the west coast had long since passed. Under the mistaken impression that the already obsolete boats, with their finicky two-cylinder engines, would be of use in European waters, the British Admiralty had asked for them to be made available at Halifax. An epic voyage ensued. The vessels were en route from June, their 8,000-mile passage marred by frequent break-downs and long stays in a series of ports. Although a dedicated but overworked crew constantly cleaned and overhauled the engines, cylinders and piston heads cracked, and fuel pump crankshafts broke. Without the enthusiastic assistance of the US Navy, including frequent towing, during the subs’ passage through the Panama Canal and up the eastern seaboard, it is doubtful that the hapless little flotilla would have found its way to Halifax.

Mechanical breakdowns were not all that the submarine crews had had to endure during their journey. In the Tropics, the temperature in the subs’ boiler rooms reached highs of 140 degrees. On one occasion the battery of the CC-2 caught fire and the resulting clouds of chlorine gas incapacitated most of the men on board. It seems likely that the Shearwater’s surgeon John Atcherley was kept busy during the voyage!

The submarines, and their mother ship HMCS Shearwater, arrived at the RCN’s dockyard in the port of Halifax on 14 October 1917. Although CC-1 and CC-2 were ordered to refuel and head across the Atlantic, carrying out the latter part of those orders was clearly impossible. The Admiralty therefore cabled as follows: “Consider submarines should be repaired and should remain at Halifax where they may be useful if enemy submarines cross Atlantic.”

The need for the submarines to undergo extensive repairs freed the Shearwater for other duties. She therefore accompanied four drifters on a voyage to Bermuda, where the latter were to be delivered to the Royal Navy. Consequently, the Shearwater had most likely departed Halifax before the catastrophic explosion of 6 December 1917. The collision of two ships in the harbour on that date, one of which was laden with wartime explosives, was the largest man-made explosion up to that time, causing the deaths of around 2,000 people and injury to thousands more.

Just as Navy Lists published in Britain in 1916 and 1917 had shown John Atcherley as Surgeon of the Shearwater, so Canadian Navy Lists during 1918 showed the same (the photo above shows John with his shipmates in 1919). By August of that year the Shearwater had returned to Halifax from Bermuda, to find that the repair work and refitting of submarines CC-1 and CC-2 had been completed. With German U-boats now operating around the Newfoundland and Nova Scotia coasts, destroying ships and laying mines in Canadian harbours, anti-submarine capability was needed. CC-1 and CC-2 were not fit for full operational service, but they were capable of being used for training purposes.

Tended once again by their old mother ship, the submarines were to head for Cape Breton’s salt-water Bras d’Or Lakes. There, they would become targets for hydrophone operators to hone their submarine detection abilities. They would also develop their own anti-submarine warfare skills – it was still hoped that the subs would eventually head out into the Atlantic to engage the enemy.

In the event, a shortage of suitable crewmen meant that only CC-2 (the better of the two subs) was despatched to Cape Breton, accompanied by the Shearwater, on 31 August 1918. The RCN’s files on the work that went on there have sadly been destroyed, but a detailed record was kept by a civilian scientist with considerable expertise in acoustics, who worked with the naval personnel throughout September. That civilian scientist was none other than Alexander Graham Bell (pictured right), best known of course for inventing the first practical telephone. His diary shows that he spent time aboard the Shearwater while it was ‘torpedoed’ (an experience he is said to have found “disconcerting”). He used that ship’s hydrophones to listen to the sounds made by the CC-2 and other vessels, before carrying out experiments to improve the reception of a number of underwater detectors. It seems inconceivable to me that during this time, Bell and Atcherley would not have met.

CC-1 never joined her sister sub at Cape Breton. Instead, at the end of October 1918, CC-2 (presumably along with the Shearwater) was recalled to Halifax, arriving there on 4 November. One week later the Armistice was signed and the Great War was over. This marked the end of Dr John Atcherley’s wartime service – but not the end of this story. There is more to tell, regarding the contributions to the war effort made by other members of John’s family, and of John’s post-war life.

Picture credits. HMCS Shearwater: public domain image from Wikimedia Commons. CC-1 and CC-2: public domain image from Wikimedia Commons. Officers of HMCS Shearwater: © and dedicated to the memory of the late Dave Perkins, used with the kind permission of Paul Benyon, webmaster of Late 18th, 19th and early 20th Century Naval and Naval Social History. Click on the image to see a larger version on that website. Alexander Graham Bell: public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.


[1] Thirteenth census of the United States, 1910. State of California, County of San Francisco, Assembly District 38, San Francisco City. Supervisor’s District 4, Enumeration District 189, Sheet 10A. View image at Internet Archive website. View FamilySearch record.
[2] Fifth census of Canada, 1911. Province British Columbia, District 12, Enumeration District 28 (Vancouver City), page 7. View image and transcript at Automated Genealogy website. View FamilySearch record.
[3] About the 1911 Census at Library and Archives Canada (website, accessed 12 July 2014).
[4] Passenger list for the Niagara, departing Vancouver, British Columbia, 24 Nov 1922 for Honolulu, Territory of Hawaii. Copy viewed at Ancestry – Honolulu, Hawaii, Passenger and Crew Lists, 1900-1959.
[5] Who’s Who in American Medicine, 1925.
[6] John Atcherley. Mamiya Medical Heritage Center website. Archived at Internet Archive.
[7] HMS Shearwater (1900) at Wikipedia (website, accessed 12 July 2014).
[8] HMCS CC-1 at Wikipedia (website, accessed 12 July 2014).
[9] Gilbert Norman Tucker (1952), The Naval Service of Canada. Volume I. Copy viewed at Internet Archive.
[10] Vice-Admiral Graf Spee’s Cruiser Squadron (and succeeding pages) at World War 1 Naval Combat (website, accessed 13 July 2014).
[11] John Griffith Armstrong (2011), The Halifax Explosion and the Royal Canadian Navy: Inquiry and Intrigue. Preview copy viewed at Google Books.
[12] Halifax Explosion at Wikipedia (website, accessed 13 July 2014).
[13] HMSO (1916), The Navy List, for October, 1916. Page 399r. Copy viewed at Ancestry – UK, Navy Lists, 1888-1970.
[14] HMSO (1917), The Navy List, for August, 1917. Page 399q. Copy viewed at Ancestry – UK, Navy Lists, 1888-1970.
[15] Government Printing Bureau (Ottawa) (1918), The Canadian Navy List, for October, 1918. Page 103. Copy viewed at Ancestry – Canada, Militia and Defence Forces Lists, 1832, 1863-1939.
[16] Julie H. Ferguson (2014), Through a Canadian Periscope: The Story of the Canadian Submarine Service. Preview copy viewed at Google Books.
[17] Alexander Graham Bell at Wikipedia (website, accessed 13 July 2014).

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