Robert Aitken, 1799-1873

Rev Robert Aiken One of the most interesting personalities to have dealings with the Island!
The entry from Dictionary of National Biography, which gives little hard information (and some of that is wrong), is interesting for what is left out!:

AITKEN, ROBERT (1800-1873), popular preacher, was born at Crailing, near Jedburgh, 22 Jan. 1800. Almost before he had attained to manhood he became a schoolmaster in Sunderland, and, whilst living in the village of Whitburn near that town, was ordained as deacon in 1823 by Bishop Van Mildert. He was for some time resident in be Isle of Man, and was married there, but in consequence of some irregularities in preaching, he fell under the displeasure of the Bishop of Chester, and withdrew from the church of England. Although he was never properly received into the Wesleyan ministry, he was permitted to occupy the pulpits of that body, and remained in sympathy with them until the Warren controversy arose. Subsequently he preached at Liverpool and elsewhere in chapels of his own, but finally, on 20 Dec. 1840, took leave of his congregation at Zion Chapel, Waterloo Road, Liverpool, and returned to the Church of England. Mr. Aitken officiated from 1842 to 1844 as curate of the little parish of Perranuthnoe, near Marazion, in Cornwall, and then became the first incumbent of the new parish of Pendeen in the same county. In this remote district, on the borders of the Atlantic, there was erected, from his own designs and under his own personal supervision, a fine cruciform church on the model of the ancient cathedral of Iona, the labour being supplied entirely by the people of the neighbourhood, and chiefly in their own leisure hours. He never held any other preferment, but his services were often sought by the incumbents of other churches in large towns, and he was well known throughout England as a preacher of almost unrivalled fervour. A fine presence and a commanding voice, combined with untiring zeal and sympathy for others, concealed his rashness of judgment. His religious creed was taken partly from the teachings of the methodist church, and partly from the views of the tractarians: he wished the one class to undergo the process of 'conversion,' the other to be imbued with sacremental beliefs. Whether his opinions were in accord with the principles of the established church or not, was fiercely disputed both before and after his death. His sermons and pamphlets, as well as the replies which they provoked, are described at considerable length in the first and third volume of the 'Bibliotheca Cornubiensis.' Worn out with labour Mr. Aitken died suddenly on the Great Western Railway platform at Paddington 11 July 1873.
[Church Times, 6 Aug. to 24 Sept. 1875; Guardian, 23 July 1873; Parochial Hist. of Cornwall (1868), ii. 294 ] W. P. C.

Some of the Manx aspects are covered in Mrs E Chapman's Rev. Robert Aitken, although she admits that it is incomplete (and for someone who founded the Manx Methodist Historical Society frustratingly poorly documented).

Born 22 September 1799 to Calvinist parents who intended him to be a schoolmaster. Attended University of Edinburgh 1816-1819, according to his son (Canon Hay Aitken) he left without graduating but was allowed to use title of A.M. (MA). Licensed to a curacy at Whitburn, assisting his brother who ran a school there, eventually taking over the school. Ordained priest in 1824 and also married, secretly, to (Anne) Elizabeth Eyres, and according to Chapman daughter of a wealthy, erstwhile soap manufacturer in Warrington. As his wife was tubercular they moved to the healthier Isle of Man, living at Kirby Cottage, Braddan, near Douglas and he obtained an honorary curacy at St Georges, hoping for later preferment. His first son, Charles, was born in Douglas in 1826. He was however often in conflict with the then Bishop, according to Eve Chapman because of his Calvinism. His wife's mother joined them on the Island. In 1829 they bought considerable land, then called Ballyemin, at Crosby to the north of the Douglas-Peel road though possession was to be obtained in Nov 1832; this land was renamed Eyreton in honour of Mrs Elizabeth Eyres.

Sometime around the early 1830's he associated himself with the Wesleyan Methodists, the land on which Crosby Chapel stands was conveyed for 5/- and Aitken, who obviously fancied himself as an architect, designed the attractive chapel that still stands there (he and his mother-in-law either paid for the chapel or were major subscribers to it). On 6 October 1834 Robert Aitken, who by then had lost his curacy, preached the opening sermon, still claiming (legally correctly) to be a clegyman in the Church of England. The first entry in the Douglas Circuit new Local Preacher's minute Book dating from 31 Dec 1833 is "that the Rev. Robert Aitken be received on our plan" (where he is shown as 39th in the list of L.P.s though against his name is placed 'refused') and shortly afterwards "that Crosby Chapel be inset in plan and receive appointments that have been given to John Gelling's, Ballacutchel, Cooil Sayle and Ballawilley Killey". In 1834 and again in 1835 he applied to Conference for formal recognition as a Methodist minister, being rejected each time. Chapmen quoting Gregory who describes the 1834 conference ".. a very remarkable candidate for the ministry was proposed by the Douglas Circuit (I.O.M.), but important external elements precluded the recognition of this mighty preacher". According to Chapman the local preachers in particular were worried about his position on the plan, (ordained ministers headed the list whereas LP's were ranked in seniority) - however no indications along these lines can be found in the minute book - however W.T. Radcliffe some 60 years later recalls discussions within the Local Preachers' meetings.

Something of his style of preaching can be obtained from the following description by Gowland (p46)

While revivalism was no longer the staple diet of Manchester Wesleyanism there persisted an inherited or experienced appreciation of its past achievements. There was, too, during the early 1830s an immediate reminder of its potency in the form of the Rev. Robert Aitken, an ordained Anglican curate from the Isle of Man, whose spectacular conversion after sixteen days of continuous fasting and prayer was closely followed by engagements as a freebooting revivalist. His first visit to Manchester in September 1833 drew mixed reactions from Wesleyan circles. Edmund Grindrod, superintendent of the Irwell Street circuit, refused him any accommodation in the Salford chapels, and he failed to appeal to middle class tastes fairly reflected by the wife of James Wood 'I thought I could distinguish very perceptibly an effort in the preacher to produce an animal excitement.... I could not divest my mind of the idea of a maniac'.G9 Yet he was welcomed by Warren in the Oldham Street circuit where his preaching style conjured up memories of a fast-disappearing spontaneity and freedom of expression associated with outdoor preaching and band meetings. And as a revivalist who stepped outside the well-marked ecclesiastical boundaries, Aitken lent weight to the belief that a formal organised ministry was an ugly intrusion upon the simplicity of an earlier age. Moreover it was considered inevitable that the Institution would become the graveyard of any aspiring revivalist as academic considerations dulled the call to simple, powerful preaching.

another, more sympathetic and appreciative description is given by W.T. Radcliffe.

Sometime in 1833/4 he decided to open a school, built at Eyreton, and to be run on strictly religious grounds; accordingly he designed and built 'Eyreton Castle' which still appeared as a boarding school in an 1846 directory though in 1847 it would appear that it was being run as a farm.

In 1836 his second son, Robert Wesley, was born on the Island - he was later to become curate of Lezayre 1861, vicar of Marown 1862-9 before moving to Penzance. His wife died around this time and possibly his mother-in-law moved away for nothing further is heard of her until her death reported in 1863 in Monkwearmouth..

In 1835 serious dissent broke out in Wesleyan Methodism, mostly in response to Jabez Bunting's centralising tendencies - the Warren affair was concerned with the establishment of a Theological Institution to train ministers, many seeing it both as another power bid by Bunting and also a mechanism by which the power of individual chapels would be further reduced (in Bunting's much quoted words "METHODISM was as much opposed to DEMOCRACY as to SIN"). As a result of this agitation a dissenting sect - Wesleyan Methodist Association - broke away from the main Wesleyan body. This sect was strong in Liverpool and again to quote Gowland (pp106/7)

The transition from protest movement to independent organisation was increasingly accompanied by disorderly proceedings in official meetings.....

This contention resulted in substantial losses. In the first place some of the revivalist members discovered an outlet for their energies shortly after the Rev. Robert Aitken intervened in the agitation as a self-appointed arbitrator in June 1835. It had been planned to hire Aitken as full-time preacher at the Music Hall but he was evidently appalled by the speed with which it was proposed to terminate Lamb's contract. In any case he was more concerned to advance his application for admission to the Wesleyan ministry, and his review of the controversy was generally unfavourable to the Association, 'I love your souls, but I will oppose your measures. I pity your case, but I abhor your conduct'. Once his overtures failed to impress Conference, however, Aitken formed the Christian Society in December 1835. Based on an amalgam of Anglican and Methodist polities as well as an unusual mixture of evangelicalism and tractarianism, this Society claimed 1,500 members spread across seven towns by 1837. Aitken had his largest following in Liverpool where he built Hope Hall as his headquarters in 1836. Known locally as Jumpers or Ranters, his supporters attracted attention mainly because of their frenzied revivalist activities in the vaults of the Hall; it was standard practice for members of the congregation to rise up, dance and caper about the room, jump over the forms, tear their hair and clothes, and throw themselves on the floor. As early as January 1836 several Association leaders went over to the Society and they were joined by a number of members until the collapse of the Society in 1840. In the intervening period there were attempts to limit these losses by means of a merger, and the attendance of two of the Society's representatives at the Assembly of 1837 seemed to increase this possibility. But there was a considerable difference between the conventional Association service and the uninhibited expressions of the Hope Hall set. Furthermore, any hopes of union were finally dashed by the bad publicity that the Society began to receive as a result of the investigations of Samuel Warren Jun. who ironically had cause to comment on 'the wild, irrational, indecorous and even impious proceedings' of a congregation which included some of his father's former albeit nominal supporters.G22

Similar earlier activities of Aitken may be the reason that Jabez Bunting saying "in his opinion Mr Aitken's proceedings would end in division" and was a strong reason for his refusal by the 1835 Methodist Conference, which division Gregory said 'came to pass at Spitalfields and Lambeth'.

The Warren dispute also hit the Isle of Man - in 1835 John Cain, a Douglas bookseller and Local Preacher, had been expelled for selling the Watchman's Lantern who sided with the dissenters. Aitken wrote in support of Cain who was a friend, trustee of his school and also of Crosby Chapel. However at a stormy meeting at Thomas St Chapel Cain and others were expelled.

Aitken was an early convert to Teetotalism and campaigned on temperance issues for the rest of his life.

He was known to be have been in London 1837-39 having left 'The Christian Society' and Hope Hall in Liverpool in the care of Rev. John Bowes whilst he missioned Spitalfields and Lambeth.

Here some additional material can be added to Mrs Chapman's history in which she says 'his progress is difficult to follow, being pieced together from local accounts of his activity, sometimes with conflicting dates'. In Kenneth Young's Chapel concerned with Victorian nonconformist activity, he quotes from two early histories of the Peculiar People - a strange, fundamentalist sect founded in 1838 and virtually confined to Essex - to quote Young (p208)

A Church of England parson, a Mr Atkin[sic Aitken] of the Isle of Man, had 'the Spirit of the Lord' come upon him in 1834. 'Being an earnest man' he believed that 'in Jesus Christ there was perfect salvation which brings perfect satisfaction'. He prayed and 'laid aside the Parson's Gown and left the Established Church with all its forms and ceremonies'. He preached in Liverpool 'the glorious gospel of Holiness and the New Birth'. 'Separating himself from all sects and religious bodies', he began open-air preaching in London. Taking his stand outside a hotel, he annoyed the proprietor who engaged men to harass him. At the same place a few days later, he learned that the proprietor and his wife had suddenly died: 'this gave him more boldness to preach, feeling assured that God was his upholder.'

His preaching - 'where many souls were born again and received the gift of the Holy Ghost' - attracted the attention of a Methodist local preacher, William Bridges, a hat-block maker of 8 Grand Lane, near Aldgate, E.1. Atkin preached on the text 'Enoch walked with God' and Bridges was a changed man...' who inspired James Banyard, another fervent Wesleyan who then went on to found the sect.

Yet another strand can be woven into this already colourful fabric - in 1837 the Mormons sent their first missionaries to Britain - the following quote from Evans is illuminating:

Another independent reform clergyman, the Reverend Robert Aitken, played a prominent part in the early labors of the missionaries in Great Britain. He had vigorously opposed the established Church of England, and, being an eloquent preacher, had been successful in establishing and supporting chapels in Liverpool, London, Manchester, Preston, Burslem and elsewhere. The restoration of a church in the latter days in fullfillment of inspired prediction was one of his much-used themes. He capitalised the idea, and had a numerous following. Many of his members in various places left his order and joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

In a state of deep concern and agitation, caused by the loss of many of his best members, this leader of the Aitkenites, as his followers were called, went to Preston with the avowed purpose of "exposing 'Mormonism'" and discrediting the Book of Mormon. Of this action Heber C. Kimball writes:

"He made a very long oration on the subject, was very vehement in his manner, and pounded the Book of Mormon on the pulpit many times. He then exhorted the people to pray that the Lord would drive us from their coast; and if the Lord would not hear them in that petition, that He would smite the leaders.

"The next Sunday Elder Hyde and myself went to our meetingroom, read the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians, and strongly urged upon the people the grace of charity, which is so highly spoken of in that chapter, and made some remarks on the proceedings of the Reverend Robert Aitken, who had abused us and the Book of Mormon so very much. In return for his railing we exhorted the Saints to pray that the Lord would soften his heart and open his eyes that he might see that it was hard to "kick against the pricks." This discourse had a very good effect, and that week we had the pleasure of baptizing fifty into the kingdom of Jesus, a large number of whom were members of Mr. Aitken's church."—Whitney's Life of Heber C. Kimball, p. 164.

Mr. Aitken was one of the first—probably the first in Great Britain—to thus "expose 'Mormonism'."

This was probably in late 1837 or early 1838 as Kimball had left by April 1838. The Mormons had found an initial welcome from the Preston based temperance movement and used their Temperance Hall as their first chapel. This poaching may well have contributed to the collapse of the Christian Societies around 1840.

To return to Eve Chapman's account - in 1838 he applied to the Bishop of Chester (in whose Diocese was Liverpool) for re-instatement in the active ministry. Naturally the Bishop was very cautious and suggested a three year period of probation. The Bishop wrote to the Rev. B. Philpot in the Isle of Man (Aitken's friend and one time associate curate at St Georges but now Archdeacon of Man) perhaps in reply to a reference required from him in this connection, saying that the probation was needed 'to prove his worthiness and serious intent'. He goes on '. . . this period is very necessary. His unmeasured language is more governed by impulse than principle and the language at the end of the letter (presumably of application) does not indicate a satisfactory state of mind . . . (according to Chapman: "The full text is in Canon Hay Aitken's biography") .

During this probation period Aitken remarried, in 1839, to Wilhelmina Macdowell Grant, a marriage which to last 34 years and produce three children - one son died in infancy, Elthelreda (d.1882) and the famous William Hay Macdowall Hunter Aitken, better known as 'Canon Hay Aitken', born in Liverpool in 1841. The 'William Hay' came from Roberts friend and colleague on the temperance circuit, William Hay.

The Manx Sun [15 Jan 1841] carries comment "A correspondant tells us that the Rev R. Aitken has not been received into the bosom of the church until he had repented of his former erratic course, while other denominations received him in the plenary exercise of his wild and unscriptural vagaries, affrighting people out of all soberness and truth." The ceding of Hope Hall to the Established Church (licenced- not consecrated - with dedication to St John the Evangelist on 21 May 1841) and the readmission of Aitken was noted by the Manx Liberal of 3 April 1841 under byline 'Parson Aitken Again!' This provoked a letter on 2 July 1841 hoping that Liverpool had ensured that Aitken had paid all his debts - something which the writer claimed had not happened on the Island.

In 1841-3 he was at St James in Leeds, holding the fort prior to the appointment of a vicar, during this time he established Sunday and evening classes for the poor. Future movements appear difficult to track - Chapmen quotes him as being in Glasgow at the end of 1847 where he stayed for a couple of years having great success in missioning the labourers.

According to Eve Chapman, in 1847 he briefly returned to the Isle of Man as his daughter Lizze, suffering from the same tubercular disease as her mother, died there at Mona's Cliff overlooking Douglas Bay. His new wife however had less regard for the Island and removed, with the children, to Cornwall. It was apparently she who wrote to the Bishop of Exeter asking if a living could be found for him there. The Bishop suggested dividing a large rural parish and giving Robert Pendeen, where, after some pursuasion, he was officially 'anchored' for the rest of his life.

However even here Aitken managed to surprise - according to Shaw [History of Cornish Methodism] Aitken was now a 'Tractartian-Methodist Anglican' and ran his ministry on confessedly Methodist-Catholic lines:

A chapter in Cornish Methodism, not often recognized as such, opened at Pendeen in 1849, when [Bishop] Phillpotts instituted Robert Aitken as the vicar of that newly created seaboard parish. Aitken was a Methodist in the widest sense of the term, and at one time had his own connexion of chapels in the north of England and in London. He had been in turn a Presbyterian, an evangelical Anglican, an independent Methodist and was now a Tractarian-Methodist Anglican. At Pendeen he developed his ministry on confessedly Methodist-Catholic lines. At the vicarage devotional books were read aloud while the housework was being done. The angelus was rung at noon daily, and the household stopped work and joined in prayer for fifteen minutes : much the same had happened in Alexander Menhinick's home at Slades-. bridge. Aitken was as distinctive as Hawker of Morwenstow, whom he facially resembled : he conducted daily service in the church, and moved around in cassock and skull-cap, but he was equally at home in scenes of revivalism. 'Penitents are praying and rejoicing around me in different rooms,' he wrote on one of these occasions. Through the day and the night he prayed with them. One old Methodist who was told about the revival at 'the Puseyite church' determined to go and see for himself, and he was not dissuaded by the reminder that 'Mr. Aitken preaches in a surplice'. 'I don't care,' he replied, 'if he preaches in a sack ... souls are saved, that's clear.' There were similar scenes at Baidhu under the ministry of William Haslam, though not until after the vicar had left the Tractarians and joined the Evangelicals. Haslam was evangelically converted by one of his own sermons, significantly after he had paid a visit to Aitken, and so effectively that a Methodist local preacher in his congregation rose up in his pew and shouted, 'The parson is converted ! the parson is converted!'

Eyreton Castle

Probably never completed as Aitkin wanted - he originally had built two castellated gate houses on the main Douglas-Peel road with the intention of running a drive up the steep hill to the 'castle'. However this drive was never built and access to the castle was via a track running below Eyreton farm. The facade of the castle is 30 yards long - consists of two massive round towers joined by castellated walls; a square tower and much of the building had fallen down by the 1970's (or earlier).. He drew up plans for 'Christ Church School' to educate boys aged 10-16 under the charge of a General Superintedent - the salvation of souls being the main aim, the boys were to spend six hours in chapel each Sunday. The last mention of a school was in 1846 when Mrs Elison Moffat was recorded in Pigot & Slater's directory as running a 'boarding academy'. She was probably the wife of David Moffat (a trustee of Crosby Chapel) whose M.I. is in Marown churchyard:

Sacred to the memory of David Moffat, Surgeon of the late 3rd Ceylon Regt. Born at Dalkeith, near Edinburgh, on the 1st of June 1787, died at Eyreton in this parish on the 16th of July 1844, aged 63 years. Also Eliza Alison, daughter of the above, born at Crosby in this parish, 5 Feb 1836, died at Crosby on the 1 April 1837, aged 18 months. Also Thomas Peter Moffat, son of the above, died the 6 May 1864, aged 30 years.

After that the castle seems to have been used as part of the farm and allowed to fall into disrepair - probably not occupied since the turn of the 19th century.

Genealogical details

Robert Aitken and Anna Elizabeth Eyres were not married on Isle of Man - two of their children appear in the IGI:
Charles Simpson Aitken, baptised 16 April 1826 Kirk Braddan - also appears under Kirk Marown - death reported in Warrington Guardian 17 Jul 1858 as Rev C. S. Aitken, grandson of Late Lt Col Eyres at Cain Menellis, Cornwall.
Robina Ann Alicia Aitken, baptised 13 Jul 1828 Kirk Marown

Robert Wesley may well have been born on the Island but there is no entry in the IGI - presumeably at this period Robert Aitken would have had no dealings with the Established Church.

The death of Mrs Elizabeth Eyres was reported in Warrington Guardian 14 Apl 1863 at Monkwearmouth Co. Durham. Her husband, was is noted in a quoted ballad of 1802 (Warrington Guardian 10 May 1856) as Major Eyres of Warrington Volunteers. A William Eyres was noted as Soap Manufacturer of Friars Green (along with Mr Wm Wyres, jnr, at same address), Warrington in Holden's 1809-1811 directory; by 1814 noted as Eyres & Hatton tallow chandlers, and by 1822 onwards solely as Hatton at Bridge Street and Paddington (this latter factory sold by auction in 1844). However it is not clear that Lt Col Eyres was William (so far I have not found confirmation of his Christian name)

William Eyres,1734-1809, was a noted printer (see Michael Perkin William Eyres and the Warrington Press 1987 pp69-80 Aspects of Printing ed Robin Myers + M. Harris Oxford Poly Press; also P.O. Brien M.D. Eyre's Press 1756-1803. An Embryo University Press Owl Books Wigan, 1993 (ISBN 1 873888-45-7) ). This William Eyres was strongly associated with the non-comformist Warrington Academy and thus might be supposed to be a non-comformist which might explain some absence of records. However the christening of an Ann Elizabeth Eyres is found birth 4 Jun 1804 (bp 5 Jul 1804) 1794 in IGI (source Bishop's Transcripts for Warrington) - father William and Elizabeth Eyres - thus Ann is probably granddaughter of the printer William who is reported as dying a rich man who had invested in various properties.


Dictionary of National Biography
D.A.Gowland Methodist Secessions: The origins of Free Methodism in three Lancashire Towns Manchester:Chetham Society, CS26, 1979
R.L.Evans A Century of "Mormonism" in Great Britain 2nd printing (orig 1937) Utah:Publishers Press 1984 (ISBN 0-916095-07-X)
B. Gregory Sidelights on the Conflicts of Methodism, 1827-1852 London:1898
E.V.Chapman Rev Robert Aitken 1982 (paper published by Manx Methodist Historical Society)
K. Young Chapel London:Eyre Methuen 1972
Thomas Shaw A History of Cornish Methodism D. Bradford Bartantted 1967

The Strange Story of Eyreton Castle Manx Life Jan/Feb 1978 p24/6

LP Minute Book 1833-1888 - Manx Museum MS1620c

Quoted references in extracts

[G9] Selected letters of Mrs Agnes Bulmer with an introduction by Rev. W.M. Bunting London:1842 - quoted by Gowland
[G22] R. Aitken, An address to the preachers, office-bearers and members of the Wesleyan Methodist Societies (London, 1835), p. 31; My first circuit Law and facts from the North. In a letter to Christopher North Esq. From an old contributor (London, 1838); Laws, Regulations and General Polity of the Christian Society, in connexion with the Rev. R. Aitken, being the substance of the minutes of their first general Convocation, held at Liverpool on the 27th day of October 1836 (Liverpool 1836); Liverpool Review 20 June 1903. - quoted by Gowland

C.E. Woods Memoirs and Letters of Canon Hay Aitken, etc London: C.W.Daniel Co. 1928 - presume this is what Mrs Chapmen meant by 'Hay Aitken Biography'
Biblitheca Cornubiensis. A Catalogue of the writings ...of Cornishmen, and of works relating to the county of Cornwall 3vol London:Longmans & co. 1874 - referenced by Chapman

O.F. Whitney The Life of Heber C. Kimball - reprint available via Brigham Book Utah. - quoted by Evans



Any comments, errors or omissions gratefully received The Editor
© F.Coakley , 2001