Robert Aitken (1849 -1873): The First Vicar
The need of a church and a parish priest was great and in 1849 the Rev. Robert Aitken was offered this new Peel district as his sphere of work by Bishop Philpotts of Exeter.
Aitken was then in his 50th year and had already exercised a remarkable ministry. This was wider than denominational boundaries. He had conducted missions of revival throughout the country including missions to the Cornish miners. He had also built a Methodist church and boarding school on the Isle of Man; and held appointments in London, Leeds and Liverpool. Just before coming to Pendeen he had been working among the labourers of the Baird Engineering Works in Coatbridge near Glasgow.
In response to Bishop Philpotts’ invitation Robert Aitken drove over from Penzance but, after losing his way and then finding little more than a barren piece of moorland with no church, no parsonage and no school he quickly turned his carriage and drove back the way he had come.
A petition, however, organised by William Eddy and signed by every inhabitant, was forwarded to the Bishop asking that pressure be brought to bear on Mr Aitken. A second time he came but this time it was to stay. For the time being he lived at St Just in Bosavern Cot about three miles away. Of William Eddy it has been said that “his name may pass into oblivion, but the results of his bold action will last for all eternity”.
Within weeks of his arrival Aitken was preaching to congregations of over 500, many of whom were moved to tears. An early visitor of Pendeen was the Rev William Haslam whose experience is described in his book From Death into Life.
The Sunday after speaking with Robert Aitken Haslam preached: “that if I had died last week I should have been lost for ever”. This was amid amazing scenes, which launched Haslam’s own career as an evangelist.
Aitken himself continued an amazing amount of travelling round the country conducting parochial missions, often helped by one or other of his three ordained sons. So it is that the name of Pendeen’s first vicar appears on a gravestone in Newport Gwent. The grave is that of one Alice Baker who attended a mission in Newport. It was more than a quarter of a century, before her death in 1900, that she heard Aitken preach. But the effects of his sermon stayed with her to the grave – and doubtless beyond!
A Brass Tablet in the Chancel floor marks the spot where Robert Aitken lies buried in the family vault below. He died suddenly in 1873 on Paddington station when returning to Pendeen from a short holiday.
The Aitken family
Robert Aitken’s great-great-grandson is The Rev Mark Aitken:
* from 1993 Chaplain of Sherborne School, Dorset
* from 2004 Headmaster of St Lawrence College, Ramsgate
and is “patron” of Pendeen and uses the weekly sheet of the church’s prayer requests.