John Aitken’s Legacy in Photographs
With a photographer’s eye and a 4” x 5” camera, amateur photographer John Aitken captured images of his Gulf Island life in the late 19th, early 20th century. Aitken’s legacy includes over 300 glass plate negatives now a treasure of the DeRousie family. Aitken’s photographs are beautifully composed and provide a very special view of the history of not just Mayne Island but also the Klondike gold rush and other parts of the Southern Gulf Islands around the turn of the century.
John Aitken’s grandson’s Don and Doug DeRousie have graciously agreed to share their grandfather’s photographic collection. We thank them for allowing this opportunity to view this photographic history of Mayne Island and B.C.
This wonderful collection of primary source material, much of it previously unknown was digitized in 2017 thanks to a BC/Canada 150 grant. A selection of the photographs is on display at the Mayne Island Museum. The full collection is viewable in binders at the Mayne Island museum or by searching the Mayne Island Museum on-line database at: https://ehive.com/collections/6550/mayne-island-museum
|2017.1.102 Annie, sisters and friends on Flag Hill, Mayne Island||2017.1.037, John Aitken, hunting self portrait||2017.1.234 The steam engine came to Mayne Island in 1914, used to log Highfield and more.|
Born Nov 4, 1873 in Carnwath, Lanarkshire, Scotland to a farming family, John and two Aitken siblings immigrated to Canada, arriving in Halifax aboard the ‘Prussian’ on December 19, 1888. John was 15. The passenger list notes their destination as Victoria.
By 1896 John was living in Sooke and courting Ellen, daughter of Agatha (nee Quijack) and Alec Kimsquit, who was living at the time with her mother and stepfather George Brown. The story goes that George did not want Ellen to marry John Aitken and during an altercation, the stepfather was shot and injured. George pressed charges and the case was sensationalized in the Victoria Daily Colonist during the last half of 1897. John and Ellen were married Jan 9, 1897.
By this time John had acquired a camera and some of his early photographs show him dressed in arctic attire ready for a journey to the Klondike gold rush. Family legend has it that John returned from the Klondike with one gold nugget that he gave to his baby daughter.
|2017.1.109 John Aitken, self portrait in arctic gear. On to the Klondike! 1898||2017.1.150 Copy of Eric Hegg photo, Packer’s ascending Chilkoot Trail. 1898|
John and Ellen moved to the Gulf Islands, living on Moresby and Galiano, and in the early 20th century they settled on Mayne Island. They had 6 children. Ellen died in 1909 due to complications from childbirth. She was 30. In the Aitken collection of glass plate negatives there are only a couple of pictures of Ellen and a photo of her grave on Galiano.
|2017.1.142 Eklen Aitken, c 1900||2017.1.279 Ellen, Dorothy and Nellie, perhaps on Galiano, c. 1905.|
John settled permanently on Mayne Island and purchased a house on in Miners Bay from Eustace Maude from which he operated a store. A couple of Aitken photographs show the “Mayne Store” building, still a familiar landmark along Georgina Point Road.
John’s daughter, Annie DeRousie recalled that her father leased the building at the head of the Miners Bay wharf from the Naylors and moved his store to that more central location. John and his brother operated it until 1923 when they sold the business.
From this location, Aitken photographed events and activities in Miners Bay and Active Pass, documenting shipping, commerce and social life on Mayne Island.
|2017.1.146 & 2017.1.145 Mayne Island Store interiors.||2017.1.048 Mayne Store, John Aitkens home and business on Georgina Point road in Miners Bay, Mayne Island|
|2017.1.250 Victoria Day celebrations, May 24th, c 1913||2017.1.259|
John bought Highfield Farm at Horton Bay in the 1920’s, clearing the forest to to make farm fields on which to raise sheep, plant an orchard and grow peas, hay and other produce. He lived at Highfield Farm until 1955 when he moved back to Miner’s Bay. He passed away in 1959 and is buried with his parents and siblings at Maple Bay Pioneer Methodist Cemetery on Vancouver Island.
|2017.1.130 Hay stooks at Glenwood Farm, Mayne Island||2017.1.218 Threshing on Moresby Island c. 1899|
|2017.1.056 John, John B, Roy and dog||2017.1.322 John Aitken, self portrait as woodcutter and logger.|
|2017.1.025 Aitken children, Dorothy, Roy, John B, Nellie||2017.1.096 Unknown family|
John Aitken’s favorite images to photograph were his children and their life on Mayne Island. From work to recreation to major events on land and sea, Aitken’s photographs provide a fascinating record of pioneer life on Mayne Island in the early 20th century.
It has been a pleasure to work on this project and discover more of the visual history of Mayne Island. The DeRousie brothers delivered the glass plate negatives in 15 small cardboard boxes – the original glass plate negative holders, some labelled Kodak & Co. Together we examined the collection of 309 glass plate negatives. We noted that original order had been lost in the 100 years since John Aitken had them commercially developed. Nevertheless, we catalogued them in the order we found them – ‘accessioning’ the digital images by year (2017), collection number (1) and then chronologically as we found them in the boxes. On E-Hive and in the two binders of 8 x 10 prints in the Museum, they are catalogued by this numbering system. On E-Hive they can also be searched by photograph title and description.
The Aitken legacy goes beyond this collection of 300 images. Ellen and John are ancestors to many descendants, some of whom still live on Mayne Island. It is likely there are other Aitken photographs still to be found and more stories to emerge. We thank the many people who have participated in this project and look forward to new stories emerging.
Jennifer Iredale, Dave Lindquist, Margaret Smith – January 2018
For more information on John Aitken see:
Marie Elliott’, “John Aitken – Amateur Photographer” in BC Historical News, Vol 17, No 3, 1984. http://www.library.ubc.ca/archives/pdfs/bchf/bchn_1984_02.pdf
Marie Elliott, Mayne Island & the Outer Gulf Islands – A History, Gulf Islands Press, Mayne Island, B.C., 1984. P. 45, 85, 119.
Nellie Aitken Georgeson, “Some Mayne Island Personalities”, A Gulf Islands Patchwork, Gulf Islands Branch, BC Historical Association, Pender Island, BC., Eighth Printing, 1991. P. 26.
Johnnie and Annie DeRousie, “John Aitken”, Centennial Year Mayne Island Fall Fair, August 1971. P. 16.
This project is made possible by the generous cooperation of the DeRousie family and financial support from the Mayne Island Agricultural Society and a BC|Canada 150 grant.