We have an antique vase from 1889. We didn’t know what it was, and more importantly we didn’t know who it was made for. Thanks to research then replies to this blog, the mysteries are solved (mostly). Wonderfully, we have heard from a descendant of the couple whose marriage it was made to commemorate (see below). The goblet is large (30cm tall with a 4 pint capacity) and beautifully engraved, with a floral thistle theme and pictorial images of Edinburgh Castle and the Palace of Holyrood House. The lead crystal rings like a bell when tapped. And it has two coins/medals inside a blown glass cavity (“knop”) at the foot of its stem.
The starting point was that the goblet-shaped vase had an engraved dedication:
Mr & Mrs F. Aitken
as a token of respect
on the occasion
of their marriage
25th July 1889
About three years ago, with minimal effort, I found out who it was that got married. Frank Aitken, an auctioneer, was married on that day to Jessie G Hay, at her home at No. 9 Crichton Street, Edinburgh. He was 26, and she was 21. He was living at No. 41 Bristo Street. His parents, both deceased, were Thomas Aitken, a master printer, and Frances Fell. Her parents were Alexander Hay, a grocer, and Isabella Ross Thomson. The minister was from the Newington Free Church, and the witnesses were William L Smith and Maggie Hay.
Mind you, the scanned marriage certificate on Scotland’s People was of such poor quality that at first I couldn’t be sure about some of that information. Like names and ages! 21? 26? Scotland’s People are great though. They will re-scan images as bad as this very quickly.
Here’s the readable version, below. What a difference! It became clear that Jessie was not 26 and Frank was not 21. And the addresses became clear. Crichton Street: it still exists, lying between Appleton Tower and the Informatics Forum at George Square. Bristo Street nearby no longer exists, physically.
Cheapskate search methods
So, who were Frank and Jessie? Was the presentation goblet, or vase (or “serving rummer” perhaps) a typical gift? Or was it something special? Was it specifically the sort of thing you would give an auctioneer? Well I don’t know about the latter questions, so, first, let’s look at the couple themselves.
You’ll notice that the start of this story is a bit like a tutorial. It does get onto the story itself, soon enough, and there are twists, turns, and a cliff-hanger.
When I searched, I was only researching digitally on my lap-top, which meant that any downloaded certificate cost me £1.50. I couldn’t afford to download a dozen, or a hundred, and evaluate them all. Instead I had to guess from the free index entries which was the most likely hit, and hope I was not paying for an expensive negative, or worse, a false positive that would incorrectly encourage me to take the wrong path. Visiting the records office at Scotland’s People on-site with a day-pass allowing unlimited access for eyeballing certificates solves that problem, and so is a far more resilient approach, as well as being better value, if you have the time to spend. On the other hand, the big advantage of a lap-top is that you can use a free half-hour in a waiting room or do this to drown out those middle of the night thoughts… and you can use half-a-brain while watching TV or waking up… and so on. It’s a perfect holiday activity with a glass of wine in, oh, let’s say rural France.
So this posting reports partial and money-saving research, and has some loose ends that could be easily tidied up one day when I have the time to visit in person. (But as usual, the things I really want to know will be hard or impossible to find out.) So I’ve not hit “brick walls”, not yet. Normally I’d want a more complete picture before posting, but the reason I’m putting this online with its loose ends is that I know there are other people out there, looking at the same Aitken family. They don’t know about this “token of respect”.
But oh jings I made mistakes with this one. I made a mess with my mental arithmetic, for starters. In addition I started with two candidate ages for each of Frank and Jessie, thanks to that poor quality image. Other factors that didn’t help included Frank’s surname in the 1901 census being indexed as “Aitkin”. So three years ago, I had initial success, then got fed up and stopped… and forgot all about it. Tidying out the laptop, I found some files, refreshed my memory, fixed my mistakes and, an evening or two later, here we are.
“Aitkin”, what a pain, but thank goodness for fuzzy searching when you get stuck. On the other hand, a mis-spelling like this in a census can be useful for a free index search. It led quickly to the couple and four daughters in the 1901 census. I didn’t bother to pay for the actual certificate when I found the family on the same page, each indexed “685/5 138/ 14, Newington, Midlothian”. Some information is therefore missing, including Frank’s job, the family address, and everyone’s place of birth, especially useful for the adults. But I got the basic names and rough ages. I’ve added final details in square brackets, as confirmed later. This is to make it more likely for this to get found during an internet search, in part.
- AITKIN FRANK, M 39 [Frank Aitken, born 1862]
- AITKIN JESSIE, F 33 [Jessie Fell Aitken m.s. Hay]
- AITKIN BELLA, F 10 [Probably Isabella Thomson Aitken born 1890]
- AITKIN LAURA, F 7 [Laura Aitken, born 1893 ]
- AITKIN EVELYN, F 5 [Evelyn Maud Aitken, born 1895 ]
- AITKIN FRANCES, F 2 [Frances Jane Fell Aitken, born 1898 ]
In the 1911 census, Frank was in South Leith (a northerly area beginning at Calton Hill and Leith Street in central Edinburgh). By listing the 138 Aitken hits in “Leith”, and sorting them by the reference number “692/2 61/ 2”, I checked to find out which other Aitkens were in his household. There were none.
Frank was alone on census day, but he may or may not have been living alone. All I know is that he was not with his family. It could have just been for one night, or something else. He was aged 48. Is this a loose end or a cliff-hanger?
So, where were the children and Jessie? I searched. Since, even at age of 15, Evelyn may have been in employment as a maid or similar, it made sense to look for the youngest child Frances first. She would have been around 11-13 years old in 1911. I found her in Morningside among the 178 Aitkens in that area, with page reference “685/6 46/ 15”.
Later, it was confirmed the family was at 354 Morningside Road, a tenement block opposite what is now the Post Office, with Andante bakery and Santander on the ground floor: another bit of Edinburgh well known to me. For completeness, the 1915 Valuation Rolls says that all the flats were owned by “marriage contract trustees of Col. James Ramsay Campbell and Mrs Campbell”. The rent was £23 a year, a little higher than other rents in the building. Her neighbour on the same landing was Thomas Park, ironmonger. In higher flats were Robert Young, auctioneer; Mrs Helen Peebles; Andrew Farquharson, upholsterer; John Alexander Colley, ship-master; Mrs Caroline Toughill; Abraham Nevison Sutherland, cashier. Other photos and mentions of the block come up below.
The 1911 census reference lists the family. Bella would have been aged 20, so was probably married or working and living somewhere else. A fifth daughter had been born since 1901: Jessie, aged 8, and a son, Frank (junior). Was Frank the father at the other address on business? Checking the actual census page will reveal how his presence at that address was described…
- AITKEN JESSIE, F 43
- AITKEN LAURA, F 17 [Laura Aitken, born 1893 ]
- AITKEN EVELYN, F 15 [Evelyn Maud Aitken, born 1895 ]
- AITKEN FRANCES, F 12 [Frances Jane Fell Aitken, born 21/08/1898 ]
- AITKEN JESSIE, F 8 [Jessie Hay Aitken, born 10/02/1902
- AITKEN FRANK, M 4 [Frank Aitken, born 1907 ]
Looking later, at death certificates, there were a few possible candidates for Jessie. (Fewer than ten.) Again, eye-balling the originals will rule some out and perhaps find the correct one. None have Green as a middle name, but there are front-runners in 1946 and 1952. And I couldn’t find a likely death index listing for Frank. Ha, perhaps they left Scotland, I thought. We’ll see about that later.
Before they were married
Moving back in time, to births, there is a Jessie Green Hay born in 1867 in “St George”, which is in the St Charlotte’s square end of Edinburgh New Town. Maybe that’s her, if her father’s business was located in that area and the family lived over the shop. But I doubt it. This is needing checked.
I have found Frank, though, for sure. He was born on 30th March 1862, at No. 27 George IVth Bridge, in central Edinburgh. The birth certificate also indicates that his parents (Thomas and Frances, m.s. Fell) were married on August 25th 1854, in Edinburgh.
Frank’s brother James
In the 1861 census there is only one hit for the parents of Frank, a couple called Thomas and Frances Aitken, in Newington Edinburgh (ref “685/5 33/ 16”). I assumed it was the right couple. (It was.) Thomas L. Aitken aged 30 and Frances J. Aitken aged 26 were parents of two sons: Thomas L. Aitken aged 5 and James A. Aitken aged 3. It suggests Frank’s parents’ years of birth were around 1831 and 1835 respectively, and that their ages at their marriage were around 24 and 20. But because the full records begin in 1855, all those hypotheses were a bit hard to check, and I didn’t bother.
I couldn’t spot them in the 1871 census, but I didn’t try super-hard. Loose end.
In the 1881 census, Frank (aged 19) and his elder brother James (aged 23) were both boarders in a Lodging House in South Edinburgh, run by Rachel Sherriffs, aged 46, unmarried. Frank was an assistant in a stationer’s, and James was a clerk in an auctioneer’s.
So that brings us back to 1889, when Frank and Jessie were married, and were presented with this beautiful glass vase or goblet with the two wee “coins” in the stem. The language in the dedication is formal, so it is likely to be a business gift, not a present from a sibling or parent to the couple. Since Frank was an auctioneer when he got married, and since the 1881 census indicate a similar job for James, I assumed Frank and James were in business together, the latter having started down that route first. This assumption paid off.
Who gave the gift?
What hadn’t revealed much was the inscription on the other side of the coins. As noted above, one is stained or tarnished, but the other is clearly inscribed with four names, presumably of the people who made the gift:
A.B. BENNET, J.A. IRVINE, J. MORRIS and T.B. BENNET.
These could be friends, business colleagues, customers or… well, I don’t know. In the Scottish Post Office Directory for 1889, I found an Archibald Bennet trading as A.B. Bennet & Co, located at 35 West Preston Street, in Newington. I bet that’s him. But I can’t be sure, and I can’t find any likely leads for the others.
It’s hard to get consistent focus through the irregular and curved glass. Here is another image. These disks are very small, at about 2cm in diameter. The letters are only 2-3mm high.
Turning to the Aitken brothers themselves, the Scottish Post Office Directory of 1895 says Frank and James A. Aitken were in business as auctioneers at 37 & 39 Lothian Street, which is very close to Bristo Street and Crichton Street. Lothian Street still exists, in part, at the junction of Potterow and Bristo Place and Teviot Place. 37/39 seems to be where Brighton Street is: I can’t see a building between 35 and 41 Lothian Street. Today, Lothian Street looks towards Bristo Square, which is overlooked by the McEwan Hall, the building of which was completed in 1894.
James (also a “valuator”) was living at “Easdale” (aka No. 14) Gilmour Road (I think it is a large semi-detached villa in south Newington), and Frank was living at 2 Sciennes Hill Place, in a tenement. By 1895 the business had moved to 375 High Street, and Frank and Jessie to another tenement flat at 39 Viewforth, in Bruntsfield.
The Edinburgh Evening News of 12 May 1902 has a birth announcement for their daughter born on the 10th, in Viewforth. This must have been Jessie. As was normal in those days, it’s all about the man: the un-named daughter was born to the un-named “wife of FRANK AITKEN, auctioneer”. Handy for me, though.
They were still at these addresses in 1906, but in 1907, Frank’s business listing in the Post Office directory (and home) no longer appears. James A. Aitken’s listing is unchanged, right up to 1911 (the last available to view)… but Frank is gone. More than a loose end.
Things go wrong
The internet opened things up. Things went right for me, but didn’t seem to go so well for Frank and Jessie.
Google told me that in 2006, over 10 years ago, someone called Jim from Canada was asking on TalkingScot.com about the family on a thread he called “Aitken’s Auction, Edinburgh”. See http://www.talkingscot.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=53&t=6224
Here is the gist of the thread, lightly edited, [with some comments from me] which reveals that Frank’s brother James seemed to be the lead in the successful and long-running business, and that James had a son, Thomas, who later joined the firm, while Frank emigrated.
And, bingo, in 2006 Frank had at least one living grandchild, one who is interested in their family tree. He appears below too.
[Jim from Canada ]
Hi everyone, I’m doing some family research for a friend who’s grandfather, Frank Aitken, was an auctioneer in the Edinburgh area in the late 1890’s and early 1900’s.
By chance has anyone come across reference to this auction house or any ideas where I might find reference to it. Many thanks, Jim
Is it possible the auction house was James A Aitken of 375 High Street ?
Here’s a tale :
First a marriage from :
The Scotsman – Saturday, 13th November 1915, page 14 SHARPE-AITKEN.-At Edinburgh, on the 1Oth November 1915 (by special licence), CECIL JOHN SHARPE, R.N.R. Assistant Paymaster, H.M.S. ” Commonwealth,” only son of Walter T. Sharpe, Haverfield, Kew Green, London to FRANCES JANE FELL, fourth daughter of FRANK AITKEN, auctioneer and valuator (late of Edinburgh), and Mrs F. AITKEN, 354 Morningside Road, Edinburgh. (Australian and Canadian papers please copy.)
Note daughter’s name and wording – Frank appears to have left Edinburgh.
In The Scotsman archive there are thousands of ads up till the end of its coverage ( 1950 ) for James A Aitken & Son, Auctioneers of 375 High Street Edinburgh. [“established 1879”]
The & Son bit was added in 1912 : a notice in The Scotsman of Saturday, 23rd December 1911, confirms that JAMES AITCHISON AITKEN ‘s son THOMAS LAURIE AITKEN will join him as a partner as Auctioneer and Valuator at 375 High Street. [Maybe born in Tarbolton, Ayrshire, in 1888.]
[grannysrock,posting IGI information on James and Frank’s parents and then their children, including Frank himself and his siblings]
MARRIAGE – THOMAS LAURIE AITKEN & FRANCES JANE FELL
25 AUG 1854 Saint Nicholas, Liverpool, Lancashire, England
THOMAS LAWRIE AITKEN – 13 DEC 1855 Edinburgh
JAMES AITCHISON AITKEN – 13 APR 1857 Edinburgh [This is brother James of the auction-house]
JOHN AITKEN – 14 SEP 1860 Edinburgh
FRANK AITKEN – 30 MAR 1862 Edinburgh [This is the Frank on the goblet]
MARGARET THOMASINA ELIZABETH AITKEN – 18 APR 1864 Edinburgh
The Scotsman – Saturday, 11th November 1950, page 1
HEIRS WANTED. Any Parties claiming to be Heirs of the late FRANK AITKEN formerly of Edinburgh, Scotland (married to Jessie Hay), who died on 15th January 1918 at Liverpool, New South Wales. Australia, are requested to communicate with the undersigned, to their possible advantage. SHEPHERD & WEDDERBURN, W.S., 16 Charlotte Square, Edinburgh. [ The placement of a missing “)” is crucial. It was Frank who died in New South Wales, not Jessie, as I wrongly assumed to begin with. Actually, this is a loose end, I need to see the original.]
A quick search on the [Australian] NSW BMD Index at http://www.bdm.nsw.gov.au/cgi-bin/Index … ent=births gives this result [for a death? Arrival? ] Registration Number 2804/1918 – AITKEN FRANK, father THOMAS L, mother FRANCES J, LIVERPOOL.
forgot a bit :
The Scotsman – Thursday, 5th February 1914, page 12
AITKEN. At a Nursing Home, Edinburgh, on tbe 23 inst., James Aitchison Aitken, auctioneer, of 14 Gilmour Road. Craigmillar Park, in his 57th year. Funeral from house to Newington Cemetery to-day (Thursday), at 2.30.
Friends please accept this intimation and invitation.
[grannysrock + editing by me]
Jim I just looked at the NAS catalogue :
RefNo CS318, CS318/58, CS318/58/1
Title Concluded Sequestration Processes under 1856 Bankruptcy (Scotland) Act 1858– [and related titles]
Repository National Archives of Scotland
Title Frank Aitken, Edinburgh, Midlothian, Auctioneer valuer
Description Start date: 24/04/1907 [etc]
It might be worthwhile looking at this ?
[also] Perhaps some money turned up somewhere ! (Thomas Laurie Aitken died 6 Aug 1949 ?????) I think you are going to have fun figuring it all out…
Sally, thank you so much. You have filled in many blanks in this family’s history.
This is the family. What you’ve found is that the Auction House actually was founded by Frank’s (b: 1862) uncle. A family story suggested that Frank left his family in Edinburgh about 1910/11 and went to Australia. Your findings confirm this.
Assuming High Street, Edinburgh has not been re-numbered (I don’t think it has), then 375 is directly opposite the front steps of St Giles Cathedral. … I went down there this afternoon, and 375 is … [next to the whisky shop]
Financial doom and gloom
<to be checked> Frank’s financial problems in 1907 will remain a loose end for now, but things were pretty terrible, and I suspect this is when he and Jessie parted company with their goblet. The sequestration case is dated as starting on the 24th April 1907, and took some time to resolve completely. The Scotsman appears to have a classified advertisement on the 22nd June 1907 (page 15) announcing a sale of the whole sequestrated estate of Frank Aitken of Cockburn Street at auction (of all things) on Monday 24th. <to be checked>
And, since the family story is that Frank went to Australia around 1911, we can presume that he was living alone in Leith not long before his departure.
I hoped Frank’s family or Jim from Canada would find this, or that anyone interested in Edinburgh’s Aitken Auctioneers and their family might have something to add. See “update”, below. I hope the photos do the goblet justice, and I will try to update and improve them. Its mystery now is partly cleared up, but with has additional layers of meaning, and more questions. Did things work out for Assistant Paymaster Sharpe of the HMS Commonwealth and Frances Jane Fell Aitken?
Originally it was a beautiful and expensive gift from, I presume, some members of the local business community, crafted in Edinburgh, and presented to a young businessman and his new wife. Some two decades later there was some kind of bankruptcy around 1907, emigration to Australia after 1911, and the death of Frank soon after that, in 1918, aged just 56. Back in Edinburgh, Frank’s brother James died in 1914 aged only 57. Frank and Jessie had several children, and one of them (Frances) for sure got married in 1915 to a sailor in Edinburgh, aged just 16/17. Who knows the relationship of that to Frank’s emigration and the financial difficulties of the family? How did Jessie and the children cope? (Cliff-hangers.)
After all that apparent turmoil, the firm was still trading at the same address into the 1950s, but I don’t know who owned it. Perhaps James’s son Thomas Laurie Aitken (whose dates are 1883-1949, assuming his birth is indexed as Thomas Lowrie Aitken.) Perhaps it was his death in 1949 that prompted the search for Frank’s heirs in November 1950. That resulted in… who knows what.
We still don’t know the route that brought this goblet / vase into our family’s possession, many decades ago. Surely it never left Scotland. Perhaps Frank and Jessie passed it on to one of their children. But since it was a wedding gift, perhaps Jessie could see it far enough. Perhaps it was sold or given away, either when Frank left, or when someone died.
Whatever, we don’t know if there was a link to us from the Aitkens in some way. I thought there had to have been, because this object is absolutely unlike most of the paintings and nick-knacks in the family, who had no link to Edinburgh. A memento of an unknown wedding is not a likely gift from someone else, either. But I don’t think we will ever know how it was acquired. (I’m asking around.) Even if it was just randomly acquired, I think it must have been because there is something appealing about it. A smidgen of romance. Mysterious.
Anyway, something prompted its purchase, and ensured that it was kept while other belongings were weeded out. I’m so glad. It certainly appeals to me, now more than ever.
Just one day after first posting, before I corrected all my typos and a rookie error, Jim from Canada got in touch on the talkingscot website chat forum. Since that’s a public forum, I’ll reproduce his reply here. Thanks Jim – I’m amazed that the PM worked and that you were able to get back onto the site and reply so quickly, and thanks for your gracious words (not all reproduced here to save my blushes).
… My friend Douglas Aitken is the son of Frank Aitken born 1907. Frank jr was the youngest child of Frank and Jessie. I was asked by the family living in Canada to find out what happened to their grandfather Frank after he left Jessie and the children in Scotland and went alone to Australia for reasons unknown. He became penniless and died in Liverpool Asylum in New South Wales, Australia and is buried in an unmarked paupers grave. Thanks for the info on the goblet celebrating Frank and Jessie’s marriage. My friend Doug will be absolutely thrilled.
So, this has worked out far better than I could have possibly imagined. Oh dear, that doesn’t read so well, having just pasted in the text describing how Frank died as a broken man on the other side of the world, and Jessie was left alone with five children, clearly very vulnerable. Apart from that, I’m so happy, and amazed, that following up on the inscription on the goblet has had such good results, so fast. At times I worried it was a little ghoulish, but now I am sure it’s not. I’m sure that we can all feel empathy for Frank and Jessie, for whom things because so hard, whatever happened.
Doug Aitken, grandson of Frank and Jessie and son of Frank junior – see the comments – sent me a beautiful family photo in the last days of 2018, and an excellent epilogue (“what happened next”) about many of the people mentioned here. Perhaps he or we can post it, but in any case … it is a privilege to make contact across the generations and ocean, and to feel grateful for our short time of awareness in this world, and the positive, caring networks we experience (of which family is usually the most important, inalienable and delicate) in among the trials and finiteness of life.
National Records of Scotland – Sequestrations help – let’s hope someone who knows how to search the legal docs finds something out and leaves a summary!
Here’s a current definition, plagiarised from someone’s debt website. “Sequestration is a form of insolvency that results in a person’s assets being transferred into the control of an appointed Trustee so that they can be used to satisfy creditors to the greatest extent possible. The term sequestration itself means much the same as bankruptcy in other parts of the UK. In effect, sequestration is Scotland’s version of bankruptcy and the sequestration laws are very similar to the bankruptcy laws in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.” “Sequestration is a form of insolvency designed to be used only as a last resort and when an individual is genuinely unable to meet their unsecured debt obligations in any way. Sequestration can be entered into voluntarily by a person submitting a debtor application who wants to draw a line under their debt management situation and move forward, or creditors can force an individual into sequestration in order to see debts they are owed repaid in part or in full. …”