AITKEN, William

William Aitken, 1549b

5½ weeks after he had his head cut open by being knocked down by some roughs in the street, William Aitken suffered a life of Epilepsy in hospitals and asylums. His wife left the children to fend for themselves and it would appear he never saw any of them again.

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b.~1855 – d.1915

William AITKEN was born ~1856 in Southampton, Hampshire, his father, Robert, was a 22 year old Scottish born mariner, and his mother, Ellen WHITE, was a 22 year old House servant at Kingsclere, Hampshire, they were unmarried.

William’s father Robert appears all over the world, travelling from Australia, Canada, America, the Caribbean and many UK ports throughout his life, so it is likely he met Ellen whilst on shore leave in Southampton.

Robert and Ellen eventually married in Newington, London, 5 years after William’s birth. It could be that this was the first opportunity they had with Robert’s busy marine schedule.

Over the next few years saw the birth of William’s siblings, George Grieg and Arthur Robert. Their middle names have come from their grandparents on Robert’s side, Robert Aitken and Jane Grieg.


On the 1871 census, William’s mother Ellen Aitken, the wife of a seaman, is living with children William (15) a Printer, George (9) and scholar, and Arthur (4) on Henry Street, Ratcliffe, Limehouse.

William married Amelia Frances Bird on 29 March 1875 in England. His father is listed as an officer aboard a ship, whilst Amelia’s father is a vellum binder. William is now a Stationer’s Assistant. Amelia’s father is a Vellum binder. William’s younger brother George Greig was witness to the marriage.

Marriage 1875: William AITKEN to Amelia Frances Bird

According to the 1871 census, Amelia, is living with her parents as a Vellum Sewer. It is likely that William and Amelia met through his printing /stationary role. The 1871 census also reveals that 21yr old Amelia has a 7month old daughter, also called Amelia. There is no evidence to prove that William was the father of Amelia, he would have been around 15yrs old at the time.

The following few years saw the birth of William and Amelia’s children; Ellen in 1875, Florence in 1878 and William in 1879.

William’s youngest brother Arthur, died aged just 9.5yrs in 1876, and this tragedy was followed by the death of his father Robert in 1878.


According to the 1881 census, William (25) still a stationer’s asst., and Amelia (29), a book sewer are living at Taylor’s Court, Clerkenwell, with children Amelia(10) now recognised as daughter, Ellen(5), Florence(3) and William(1).

William’s parents are living at 50 Belgrave Street, with their son George (19). It would appear that George has followed in his brother’s footsteps and become a compositor.

The 1880’s saw a rapid increase in William’s family, with the arrival of Ada Elizabeth in 1881, George Frederick in 1884, Charles Edgar in 1886, Maria/Margaret Harper in 1888, and Arthur Herbert 1890.


Around 1891, William came upon an unfortunate attack. He was robbed and kicked in the head, which appears to be the catalyst to a life of suffering epilepsy. This fact is recorded in medical notes from the asylum hospital, but the exact date is a little unclear and differs from his own and his mother’s account. It is from this point the collapse of the family begun. We find out from William’s later recollection that he was in and out of infirmary’s due to his epilepsy, and his wife left around the time he became epileptic.

In Aug 1893, William’s wife Amelia is found entering the workhouse along with Arthur (3) and a new born child Frank (0). I will make an assumption that this is when she left the family. According to the GRO it would appear that young Frank died shortly after, not making it through his first year.

Workhouse admission Aug 11, 1893

The list of children has grown to 10 (If there is doubt about Elizabeth and/or Frank being William’s children then this could be counted as 8 or 9);

  • Amelia BIRD (1870)
  • Frances Ellen (1875)
  • Florence (1878)
  • William John (1879)
  • Ada Elizabeth (1881)
  • George Frederick (1884)
  • Charles Edgar (1886)
  • Maria Harper ‘Margaret’ (1888)
  • Arthur Herbert (1890)
  • Frank (1893)

On 28th June 1894, William was admitted to Fisherton asylum and on 1st May 1902, William was admitted to Horton asylum, where he spent almost 1.5years. Following Horton, William was relieved on 25th September 1903, to Manor Asylum, recorded as a transfer from Horton Asylum.

He is subject to epileptic fits, he says that he is tired of his life – and would like to die, that he is a worry to himself and everybody else, that he has suicidal impulses which he is unable to control.

Facts indicating insanity observed by self, viz; John Joseph Gordon

Although Amelia is listed next of kin (wife), it was William’s Mother who gave an account of his history. We find out that Amelia appears to have abandoned William and the children.

Epilepsy: Owing to it being many years ago since he left home his mother cannot give much information about him. Says he was alright until he had a kick in the head. States that the patient’s wife left the children to shift for themselves and has not been seen for several years.

Trauma: was robbed and kicked in the head about 23 years ago which was the cause of the fits.

Habit: Always a job to keep in work when having fits.

Fecundity: Married 29 years, and has 9 children born alive.

William Aitken’s mother, Jan 1904

Apart from an early incident in October 1903 where William appeared to try and escape, ending up in a fight with the warden and getting a broken arm in the struggle, William settled in at the asylum being described as pleasant, well educated, agreeable and gives no trouble. However, his fits became more frequent, and he was reported as becoming, understandably, very irritable and angry after each case.

He had his first fit, he thinks, in 1891, 5½ weeks after he had his head cut open by being knocked down by some roughs. Picked up in the fit and found himself in the Middlesex hospital. Kept there a week or so and thence house for a few weeks. Fits recurring badly he went into Highgate Infirmary thence to Grays Inn Road infirmary, and thence to Camberwell House where he was 1yr and 10 months. Discharged from there his fits returned badly and after seeing several doctors he went into Middlesex Hospital again (in 1892 or 1893 he thinks).

William’s own recollection of events, June 4th 1906

His records span many pages, with the final entry referring to a new ledger that we do not have (or know the whereabouts of). Therefore we cannot see his final days, although we do know he was transferred to another of the cluster hospitals, the Ewell Epileptic Colony, as that is where he died.

William Aitken died in April 1915 in Epsom, Surrey, at the age of 59 and remains buried at Horton Cemetery in grave 1549b.

and of the family?

William’s mother never remarried, and is recorded living with son George on the 1911 census. She died aged 84 in 1915.

William’s brother George Grieg, remained single, living with his mother Ellen for her whole life. He died aged 56, at the Poplar and Stepney Sick asylum in 1918, and left all his belongings to Henry White, a painter. Who I believe to be his uncle, Ellen’s youngest brother.

William’s sons Charles Edgar and George both joined the army. George died in WW1, whilst Charles died in Hong Kong during WW2 a warrant officer Class II.

Daughter, Maria-Harper (aka Margaret) travelled, and settled in Australia where she has left a legacy of a thriving family.

I was going to continue, but the lives of the family became a rabbit hole and I could get very lost, So I decided to leave it there. This story is after all about William.

About Post Author

Steve Johnson

Self-proclaimed expert on the archives of the Manor Asylum. Website editor and photoshop whizz. Geneaologist and Trustee for the Friends of Horton Cemetery.
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