Arthur Samuel Atkinson was born at Hurworth, Durham, England, on 20 October 1833, the eighth of 13 children of Elizabeth Smith and her husband, John Atkinson, architect and stonemason. The family settled at Frindsbury, Kent; it was there that Arthur grew up. A close, lifelong bond of friendship developed between him and his elder brother, Harry.
Arthur's formal education was spasmodic: he had about 1½ years altogether at Blackheath school. However, his zest for learning – especially his interest in natural history – was such that his future wife was to write: 'He really is a wonder, he has entirely educated himself & will go on educating himself I have no doubt till his dying day'.
In September 1852 Arthur's older sister, Emily Elizabeth Atkinson, married a London lawyer, Christopher William Richmond. In December of that year, the newlyweds, together with relatives from both families, embarked on the Sir Edward Paget bound for New Zealand. In the party were C. W. Richmond's mother, Maria (Lely) Richmond; his sister, Jane Maria Richmond; and Arthur and Harry Atkinson.
After arriving in Auckland on 25 May 1853, Arthur Atkinson travelled on to New Plymouth, where others of the Richmond family had already settled, and began work on the Richmond farm, New Merton. On 30 December 1854 he married Jane Maria Richmond, who was nine years his senior, at St Mary's Church, New Plymouth. They had four children: Edith Emily (1858), Ruth (1861), Arthur Richmond (1863), and Alice Mabel (1864).
In 1856 Arthur and Maria moved into their new house on 200 acres of land at Hurworth, near New Plymouth, where the extended family group of Richmonds, Atkinsons and Ronalds lived for the next three years. Besides clearing bush and farming, Arthur indulged in a variety of pursuits – cheese making, mail carrying, horse raising and racing, and cricket. When a tribal dispute of Te Āti Awa appeared to threaten New Plymouth, he trained as a volunteer. He also read widely with Maria, learnt French and German, began a study of the Māori language, collected plant and insect specimens for Ferdinand Hochstetter and went bird watching on Mt Taranaki with a Māori companion, Mohi. He enjoyed these activities but was not entirely satisfied with what seemed a life of 'supreme potterings'.
On the outbreak of the Taranaki war in March 1860, Hurworth was abandoned. Maria took refuge at New Plymouth and Arthur joined No 2 Company of the Taranaki Volunteer Rifle Corps. Towards the end of 1860 ill health forced first Maria and then Arthur to leave for Auckland. There, in May 1861, Arthur commenced work as a translator in the Native Office where John White was also employed. He and White worked together on a Māori dictionary until a disagreement arose over editing. Arthur Atkinson extended his knowledge of Māori at regular meetings in his house with two Māori living in Auckland – Wirihana Mātene and Rāwiri Taiwhanga.
If there was a conflict between his interest in Māori matters and his involvement in the volunteers, it was not insuperable. He made journeys to Kaipara and Hokianga in order to live among Māori and absorb their language and customs. Yet while in Auckland he advocated to Governor Thomas Gore Browne the formation of a mobile volunteer force able to track 'rebel' Māori in the Taranaki bush.
Arthur and Maria Atkinson returned to New Plymouth in May 1862. With his brother-in-law, Henry Richmond, Atkinson edited the Taranaki Herald, later becoming sole editor and part proprietor; he was also a correspondent for the Nelson Examiner and the Auckland Daily Southern Cross. In February 1863 he was offered the editorship of the Daily Southern Cross but turned it down. He enjoyed journalism, writing an article with 'astonishing facility'. When military operations resumed in Taranaki he was an enthusiastic member of the newly formed 'Bushrangers'. Always at the back of his mind, however, was the idea – fostered but never imposed by his wife – that he should pursue a more settled career, probably in law.
As a public commentator, politics intrigued Atkinson. He became more actively involved as a member of the Taranaki Provincial Council from 1864 to 1869 and as MHR for Omata from 1866 to 1867. But a speech impediment, a tendency to vacillate and a fondness for satire meant that he was never a popular politician. Nevertheless, his advice was sought by others, especially his brother, Harry Atkinson.
In February 1868 Atkinson shifted his family to Nelson, where he commenced legal studies by becoming judge's associate to C. W. Richmond. He qualified, passing a 'brilliant examination' in 1871. In November of that year he went into partnership with an established lawyer, Charles Yates Fell, who later became his son-in-law by marrying Edith Atkinson. In keeping with his improved prospects, in late 1871 Atkinson bought a house with 7½ acres of land at Nelson, called Fairfield. This house, extensively altered over the years, became his final home.
Legal practice by no means absorbed all Atkinson's energy. Among his interests was the study of language – Māori in particular but also other Polynesian and Melanesian languages. Like many colonists Atkinson assumed that the Māori race would eventually be absorbed by the European. Because of that he was anxious to put 'upon record all that is as yet unrecorded of the Māoris, their history, life and language.'
In 1892 Atkinson clashed with Edward Tregear over the latter's Māori–Polynesian comparative dictionary, published in 1891. Atkinson maintained that Tregear's methodology was unsound and his knowledge of Māori language inadequate. He expressed the last point with his usual acerbic wit: 'The weak point…in Mr Tregear's work lay in the fact that the learned author had not waited to learn the Māori language before beginning to write his Māori dictionary.'
Unlike William Travers and Tregear, Atkinson published relatively little but he systematically collected Māori words and idiom, and annotated printed Māori. His scholarship was acknowledged by H. W. Williams in his preface to the fifth edition of A dictionary of the Māori language (1917).
Atkinson also took a keen interest in astronomy. In 1882 he was asked by the Royal Society of London to be an official observer of the transit of Venus on 7 December. Using a specially imported Cooke refracting telescope, he recorded the total eclipse of the sun on 9 September 1885. This telescope is now housed in Nelson's Atkinson Observatory.
All his life Atkinson was a collector of specimens – spiders became his speciality. As a consequence his nickname in later years was 'Spider'; in his youth he had been called 'Birdie' on account of his passion for collecting birds. He was a member of the Nelson Philosophical Society, a foundation member of the Polynesian Society and a foundation member, later president, of the Nelson Association for the Promotion of Science and Industry.
Singular both in appearance and manner, Atkinson was not readily understood or appreciated by many with whom he dealt. He could be 'facetiously aggravating'; he himself commented: 'The substance of what I say is serious though the surface of it looks only absurd.' He was often wrapped up in his own thoughts and pursued his scientific inquiries in a study described as a 'chaos of bottles, dusty books, cobwebs and wood ashes', which he defied anyone to tidy. Aspects of his behaviour were unconventional: he was a vegetarian, he ate at odd hours, and preferred water to alcohol.
Arthur Atkinson died at Fairfield on 10 December 1902 after a protracted illness; he was survived by his wife and children. Being a settler in a new colony suited Atkinson, offering him a variety of opportunities, extending his skill in practical matters and quickening his lively curiosity in what lay close to hand and mind.