The Spike or Victoria University College Review 1935
Arthur Richmond Atkinson 1863-1935
Arthur Richmond Atkinson 1863-1935
He is one that will not plead that cause wherein his tongue must be confused by his conscience . . . He shoots fairly at the head of the cause, and haying fastened, no frown nor favours shall make him let go his hold.
—Thomas Fuller: The holy and profane state.
With the death of A. R. Atkinson, Wellington has lost a distinguished citizen and the College a good friend. In the City and in the College he will long be remembered as a generous friend of learning and as a stubborn fighter for the public weal.
A. R. Atkinson was a learned man, a great lover of books for their own sake and a very discerning critic. Sir Henry Newbolt described him as the most expert bibliophile he had ever known. He had gathered together a library of some ten or twelve thousand books; and as he grew older his time was passed more and more in their company. But he was also at one time very much a man. of affairs. In his early manhood, not long after settling down to the practice of law in Wellington, he was elected a member of Parliament. He was a Liberal of sorts, but he had no taste for the crude Seddoman article and soon disappeared from the House. A study of the defeat of the little group with which he acted would perhaps do much to explain the subsequent decay of public life in the Dominion. For like them he knew his own mind, stuck very obstinately by his convictions and would yield nothing to the anarchic beneficence of the despot who then ruled New Zealand.
After leaving Parliament he served for some time as a City Councillor, but gave more and more of his time to journalism and to certain institutions and causes which were near to his heart. He was for several years New Zealand correspondent of the Morning Post, and for a longer time of the London Times; and he wrote regularly for The Round Table. For the rest he became known as a very ardent advocate of Prohibition and as an equally ardent opponent of the Bible-in-Schools movement.
As an undergraduate at Oxford he achieved some celebrity as a wit; he was in later years extremely well-informed, and in controversy he was always a man to be feared. In an undergraduate debate at Corpus he once opposed a motion to abolish the House of Lords. He said that he had only one complaint against the Peers, and that was simply that there were not enough of them! He proposed to amend this weakness of the peerage by providing that all peerages should be hereditary, "not only in the male line and in single representation but in every line of descent and in every descendant." The effect of this would be that in the long run nobody would be outside of it! Many years later in Wellington, he cross-examined a minister of religion, who had informed a committee of the House of Representatives that the Bible could be taught in the schools "without note or comment." "You think," said Atkinson, "that the Bible is a plain book that anyone can understand?" "I do." said the minister; "at any rate in all the really important parts." "Will you tell us one such part?" said Atkinson. "Yes," said the witness, "the 53rd chapter of Isaiah." At this Atkinson rummaged in one of his apparently bottomless pockets and fished out a copy of the Bible and read the story of Philip the Evangelist and the Ethiopian eunuch in the Book of Acts: "And Philip said, understandest thou what thou readest? And he said, How can I except some man should guide me. And the place of the Scripture which he read was this—." It was the famous passage from the 53rd chapter of Isaiah!
Mr. Atkinson was for twenty-three years a member of the College Council, and on more than one occasion proved himself a very sturdy defender of the independence of the university teacher. By his will the College library received some 1,200 volumes from his library and a fifth share—estimated at about three thousand pounds—of the residue of his estate.