A generic name for a British private soldier.
'Tommy Atkins' or just 'Tommy' is best known to us as the generic name of British soldiers in the First World War, but is that where the name originated?
Like 'John Smith', 'John Doe' or just the ubiquitous 'Jack', Tommy Atkins may or may not have been a reference to a specific person. Why Tommy Atkins? Well, we don't know, but we do have a helpful document to help decipher how and when the term became commonplace. When the British War Office issued their Collection of Orders, Regulations, etc. (otherwise known as The Soldiers Book) in August 1815, they provided a specimen form to show how it should be filled out:
Description, Service, &c. of Thomas Atkins, Private, No. 6 Troop, 6th Regt. of Dragoons. Where Born... Parish of Odiham, Hants... Bounty, £6. Received, Thomas Atkins, his x mark.
Tommy Atkins may have been a real person - after all Atkins isn't that common a name, so why choose it otherwise?
This may have not been a coinage of the term but merely a use of an existing generic nickname, but it certainly did have the effect of popularising the name, as all serving soldiers would have been obliged to see the form. There is a widely circulated assertion that the name was in use in 1743, when it was referred to in a letter sent Jamaica referring to a mutiny among hired soldiery there:
"Except for those from N. America (mostly Irish Papists) ye Marines and Tommy Atkins behaved splendidly".
Sadly, the above is not accompanied by any evidence and the letter, if it ever existed, appears to have gone astray.
Another story, again not furnished with any evidence, is that the name was coined by the Duke of Wellington in honour of a soldier who had died at the Battle of Boxtel in 1794. Clearly, if that's true then the Jamaican letter story isn't, and vice versa.
Both of the above need to be treated with caution. Without evidence, assertions regarding phrase origins are worthless.
Nevertheless, the name was chosen by someone at some time and the suggestion that Tommy Atkins may have been a real person isn't entirely implausible. If not, why choose Atkins, which isn't an especially common surname?
The name was commonly used from the mid 1800s and by 1864 at least had been adopted by the soldiery to refer to themselves. This letter, printed in the Army and Navy Gazette, July 1864, contained a list of grumbles about the lack of clarity of military rules. The author, given the implied criticism he was making of the authorities, chose to remain the anonymous 'Tommy Atkins'.
There is throughout the service, a want of uniformity in many matters concerning which clear, unmistakable rules should be laid down. On the Queen's birthday should a royal or general salute be given by the troops? [and so on...]
I am etc,
So, we don't know who Tommy was, or if he was real, but we do know there were Tommies in the British Army well before WWI.