John Edward Atkins



Like many of the people we have featured, the name of John Edward Atkins will appear to many as one more individual lost to the annals of time, caught up in the larger historic narrative of the events of Dunkirk. There is, however, far more to his story than might be the case with others. Tragically, John was killed on the 1st June 1940; like so many, playing his part in the rescue of the British Army from the port and beaches around Dunkirk. Where John's story differs is that he was aged just 15 when he died. The story and accompanying documents have been kindly provided to the museum by his family, who have been so active in keeping the memory of their relative alive over the ensuing years. We are honoured that they have agreed to allow us to bring his story to a wider audience.


John Atkins was born in 1925 to Mr & Mrs J Atkins of Shamrock Road, Gravesend, Kent; he was one of five children. Gravesend has a long connection with the sea and is located on the south bank of the River Thames, directly opposite the port of Tilbury in Essex. While Tilbury is better known to the outside world, due to both its commercial port and passenger cruise terminal, Gravesend grew up as a town providing the essential services of ship repair. In such an environment, it seems only natural that John would grow up with the desire to head off to sea as soon as he was old enough. John's education was initially at Chalk School and later at the Gordon School. On leaving Gordon, he started his working life in a factory, before joining the Thames barge Lady Rosebery as cook and third mate. Had John remained working in the factory, it is safe to say that he would have been unlikely to find himself three miles off the coast of France on  the morning of 1st June, 1940.




The Lady Rosebery was a Thames sailing barge. The Thames barges were still a common sight in 1940, although their main purpose was diminishing. They were designed solely to transfer cargo from larger ships which were unable ,due to their size, to get up the river to unload directly at the many wharves located closer to London. When the Victorian engineers began to construct large enclosed docks down river of the city, the use of the barges began to decline, so what trade they could ply was becoming increasingly reliant on the coastal business around the smaller ports of the Thames estuary. Even in 1940, it was often cheaper (if not necessarily quicker) to transport goods via the barges into London.


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