E. Wulstan Atkins

Godson and promoter of Edward Elgar
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The Independent Online

Edward Wulstan Ivor Atkins, engineer and writer: born Worcester 24 November 1904; MBE 1993; married 1945 Emily Fleming (died 2002; one son, one daughter); died Woldingham, Surrey 12 May 2003.

The death of E. Wulstan Atkins has severed one of the last direct links with Edward Elgar, of whom he was a proud godson. Atkins devoted the many years of his retirement to the promotion of Elgar's music and to the establishment of a "shrine" appropriate to the stature of the composer in English musical history. He was a member of the Elgar Birthplace Trust when it was set up in 1972, becoming chairman of the parent body, the Elgar Foundation, a few years later, and holding this office for nearly 20 years. At the time of his death Atkins was joint president of the foundation, an honour he shared with Dame Janet Baker.

During these years he worked hard to improve the security and preservation of the Elgar manu-scripts and artefacts at the Birthplace Museum, Broadheath, Worcestershire, steering the foundation towards the creation of the Elgar Centre at Broadheath, the completion of which in 2000 gave him so much joy and satisfaction. Indeed, the current vibrant life of the centre and the interest surrounding the Birthplace Museum is in itself as much a memorial to the devotion of Wulstan Atkins as to the composer himself.

Edward Wulstan Ivor Atkins, the only son of Sir Ivor and Lady Atkins, was born in 1904 at Worcester, where his father was director of music and librarian at the cathedral. (The name Wulstan was that of the first Norman bishop of Worcester Cathedral; Elgar worshipped at St Wulstan's Church at Little Malvern and was buried there in 1934). Wulstan Atkins became a chorister at the cathedral, and was educated at the choir school, before moving on to Shrewsbury School and subsequently reading Engineering at Christ's College, Cambridge, graduating with an MA in 1925.

His early career was with the engineering firm of Mott, Hay and Anderson, with whom he was involved in the building of many bridges and tunnels in the north of England, including the Forth Road Bridge and the famous bridge over the Tyne at Newcastle. He spent the Second World War years working in Bath for a gas company, after which he was sent by the government to manage building projects in the North East. In 1950 he became Special Services Manager for the South Eastern Gas Board and it was then that he made his home in Woldingham, Surrey, where he resided for the rest of his life.

In spite of these business commitments Atkins drove hundreds of miles, either to accompany his father on frequent visits to the Elgars, or to attend performances of the composer's works. I first met him when he turned up unannounced at a performance of The Kingdom that I was conducting in Leeds Town Hall, and, as was his wont, this was followed by a generously worded letter in his own distinguished handwriting. On my appointment to Worcester Cathedral in 1975, his was the first letter of congratulation to fall through my letter-box, and there followed some 30 years of valued friendship, during which time he helped me to understand Elgar's music in a way that I could never have achieved on my own. I know many other musicians will share my gratitude for his always-willing advice and sharing of knowledge.

In some ways he remained a product of the Edwardian age in which he grew up, always courteous, warm-hearted, but demanding high standards of etiquette. He never failed to respond to any enquiry or invitation, and was an eager correspondent on any matter, and especially Elgar. That is not to suggest that his musical interests were solely centred on his godfather for, although not a practising musician himself, Atkins was widely read in all musical matters, and could be a very discerning critic.

Inevitably his close association with Elgar put him in great demand, both for personal reminiscences and for lectures to musical societies throughout the land. He had a phenomenal memory right to the last, and was a mine of information on music and musicians of the 20th century. Fortunately, much of this is documented in his fine book The Elgar/Atkins Friendship which was published in 1984 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Elgar's death, and in which the author shows a deep, compassionate understanding of the composer's genius and character. Another more compact book The Centenary of the Birth of a Friendship appeared in 1990, to mark the centenary of the first performance of the Overture "Froissart" when Sir Ivor Atkins first met Elgar.

Both of these books clearly show how much Wulstan Atkins revered his association with Elgar, but also how he felt that he had been given the stewardship of a great love of Elgar and his music, ensuring that future generations would be able to continue his abiding legacy. To that end he strove always to unify those that professed this same devotion, and in recognition of that stewardship donated much of his material to the Foundation, including all the manuscripts that he inherited.

Many organisations benefited from his support and patronage, and these included his presidency of the Croydon Philharmonic Choir, the Oxted and Limpsfield Music Society and, more recently, the Worcester-based Elgar Chorale and Camerata, but he will be missed most by the Elgar Society, with which he was associated since its formation, and, at various times, acted as Secretary, Treasurer, and Vice-President. He attended his 82nd consecutive Three Choirs Festival at Worcester in 2002, and was in the process of ordering tickets for Hereford this year – an astonishing record which will surely last for all time. There are many whose lives have been enriched by association and friendship with Wulstan Atkins, and who will be eternally grateful to him for helping them to understand better the music of arguably Britain's greatest composer.

Wulstan Atkins married his second cousin, Emily Fleming, in 1945, and she predeceased him in 2002.

Donald Hunt