James ‘Jim’ Aitken was born in Horsburgh Castle Toll, Innerleithen, Peeblesshire, Scotland, on the 23rd September 1855, the son of Alexander Guthrie and Elizabeth Aitken (née Stark). His father was a farm worker, and Jim worked in the local woollen industry, first as a weaver, and later as a commercial traveller selling locally produced tweeds.
On the 23rd September 1879, James’ 24th birthday, he married Jessie Dawson Jarvie and they had six children – Alexander, born in 1881, James junior, born in 1883 and known as ‘Jarvie’, William, born in 1888, John, born in 1890, Marshall, born in 1891, and Crissy (‘Chrissie’), born in 1898. The family home was at Walkerburn, Edinburgh.
In 1908, Jessie Aitken died, and in 1912, Jim and Chrissie decided to emigrate to Merritt, British Columbia, Canada to join Jarvie and his wife, who already lived there. They arrived in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, on the 5th October 1912, having boarded the
Grampian in Glasgow, Scotland.
In 1914, Jarvie’s wife had died and as Jim Aitken had developed a heart condition, he decided to return to Edinburgh, to Davidson’s Mains, where his late wife’s family still lived. The other family members decided to go with him.
As a result, he booked second cabin passage for them all, on the Anchor Liner
Cameronia and at the end of April 1915; they left Merritt for the last time to travel to New York to join her. However, at about the same time that they were travelling, the Admiralty requisitioned the Cameronia for war use as a troop ship and the family was transferred instead to the much more luxurious Lusitania. They all joined her at her berth, at Pier 54, in time for her sailing, just after mid-day on 1st May 1915. The family party consisted of Jim Aitken, his daughter Chrissie, his son Jarvie, and his young grandson James, also known as Jarvie, and born after Jim Aitken’s arrival in Canada.
The transfer to a much finer ship proved to be no bonus for the family, however, as six days after the
Lusitania left New York, the family was virtually wiped out after she was torpedoed and sunk off the coast of southern Ireland by the German submarine
U-20. All but Chrissie Aitken were killed as a result of this action.
Jim Aitken's body was recovered and identified, however - the only one from the family dead to be so - and after being landed in Queenstown, it was taken to a temporary mortuary set up in Cunard's office at Lynch’s Quay, where it was given the reference number 14. This would indicate that it was one of the first to be recovered. Jim Aitken was aged 59 years.
Chrissie Aitken had the unenviable task of identifying her father’s body and once this had been done, it was buried on 10th May 1915, in The Old Church Cemetery, Queenstown, in Mass Grave C, 2nd Row, Lower Tier. It was on this day that most of the dead from the sinking were buried after a long funeral procession which began at Lynch’s Quay.
On 17th July 1915, property recovered from Jim Aitken’s body was sent to his brother-in-law, Mr. William M. Marshall, of ‘Ivy Lea‘, Davidson’s Mains, Edinburgh, who had been granted administration of his estate. This consisted of one $5 bill, one half dollar piece, one quarter dollar piece, a purse containing two penknives and assorted American, British and Canadian silver and copper coinage, some keys and some pins and two watches.
Scotland Births & Baptisms 1564 – 1950, 1861 Census of Scotland, 1871 Census of Scotland, 1881 Census of Scotland, 1891 Census of Scotland, 1901 Census of Scotland, Cunard Records, Chris Doncaster, Edinburgh Evening News, Liverpool Record Office, Deaths at Sea 1871 – 1968, PRO BT 100/345, Sunday Express, Surrey Comet, UniLiv.D92/1/8-10, Graham Maddocks, Geoff Whitfield, Michael Poirier, Jim Kalafus, Cliff Barry, Paul Latimer, Norman Gray.
Copyright © Peter Kelly