Go looking and you never know what you might find – perhaps a 140-year-old monument in a small Sandgate churchyard.
Although the early social justice campaigner died aged just 31, he had already established himself in Queensland history as a journalist and parliamentarian.
The top of the column is broken to indicate a life cut short and the inscription says, “his days were few but his labours and attainments bore the stamp of a wise maturity”.
Atkin fought for new sugar and cotton growing industries, the extension of the state’s railway network and enfranchisement of goldminers and advocated against common forms of discrimination and was an active campaigner for egalitarianism, land reform, and fairness in electoral boundary redistribution. He saw the Polynesian Labourers Act as a legalised system of kidnapping.
He was born in County Cork in 1841, was educated in France where his mother moved after his father’s death and then returned to England to join the Shropshire militia.
Just before his 23rd birthday, he married Welshwoman Mary Ruck in Middlesex and they set sail for Australia.
They spent the first 18 months near Rockhampton but poor health forced him back to Brisbane where he planned to become a barrister but instead became editor of The Guardian.
He won the seat of Clermont in 1868, but this was challenged because he wasn’t enrolled but he then came back in the seat of East Moreton in 1870.
A liberal who championed progressive causes, Atkin never forgot his Irish roots and although he was a protestant he co-founded the Hibernian Society to help remove prejudice against the Irish Catholic community.
Before moving to Sandgate he lived for some time at Hamilton with his sister Grace who ran a school for young ladies and was the first assistant teacher at Brisbane Girls Grammar School
Atkin died from pneumonia on May 25, 1872 and was buried at Sandgate. His sister was buried beside him when she died in 1876 aged 32. The Hibernian Society erected the monument a few years later.
Another inscription states: “This broken column symbolises the irreparable loss of a man who well represented some of the finest characteristics of the Celtic race; its rich humour and subtle wit, its fervid passions, and genial warmth of heart! Distinguished alike in the Press and Parliament of Queensland by large and elevated view’s – remarkable powers of organisation and unswerving advocacy of the popular cause – his rare abilities were especially devoted to the promotion of a patriotic union amongst his countrymen irrespective, of class or creed, combined with a loyal allegiance to the land of their adoption.”
Atkin’s eldest son James Richard (Dick) became Baron Atkin and a judge on the King’s Bench.
In 1937, the Sandgate church rector noted that Atkin’s grave was in desperate need of restoration and wrote to him about the state of his father’s grave. Funds were provided for its restoration.
The monument is now to be restored again, this time by a group, including the Sandgate Historical Society, convened by Queensland Supreme Court Justice Peter Applegarth “to refurbish the monument and its surrounds so the local community and visitors have access to reflect on the social, cultural and political heritage it commemorates”.
This time it will be landscaped with an information wall and seating so that even though his monument is well hidden, it won’t be lost to history.