Page 1: Biography
Aitken, John Guthrie Wood
Merchant, mayor, politician, churchman
This biography, written by Ian W. Fraser, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.
John Guthrie Wood Aitken was born on 6 February 1849 near Kilchenzie, on the Kintyre Peninsula, Argyllshire, Scotland, the son of devout Presbyterians Isabella Tudehope and her husband, Robert Aitken, a farmer. John was educated at the grammar school in Campbelton and then worked in Glasgow with James Templeton and Company, carpet manufacturers. A young man of integrity with an aptitude for business, he was appointed manager of their London branch after about a year. He kept this post for 12 years.
While in London he became friendly with George Wilson, another young Scot, who worked for a firm which traded with the colonies. The two men planned to become partners and to set up business in Wellington, New Zealand. John Aitken arrived there in July 1882 and began establishing their mercantile firm. George Wilson followed in December and they styled themselves Aitken, Wilson and Company. They imported goods for sale, and exported butter, wool and flax.
Theirs was a successful enterprise and Aitken developed wide business interests, becoming a director of many companies and president of the Wellington Chamber of Commerce in 1899. He was also active in the community. He played a leading role in the establishment of the Wellington Boys' Institute, and he took an active interest in the YMCA and YWCA, nurturing the former from a precarious financial state to a soundly based and active body. He was a member of the Wellington Education Board from 1907 to 1918 and helped to found Scots and Queen Margaret colleges, becoming a member of their first boards of governors. From 1908 to 1919 he was on the Victoria University College Council. He was a trustee for the Wellington Society for the Relief of the Aged Needy and the Wellington branch of the New Zealand Society for the Protection of Women and Children, and a chairman of the Wellington Hospital and Charitable Aid Board.
Aitken stood for mayor of Wellington in November 1899, winning easily. In 1901 he defeated T. M. Wilford by a large majority and was re-elected until 1905, when he retired from local politics. During his term in office electric trams were installed, replacing horse vehicles, the town hall was built and Te Aro Baths constructed. It was said that he always helped those in genuine need. For instance, when a widow was left with a mortgage she could not cope with on her reduced income, he cleared it himself.
During his time as mayor Aitken also entered national politics. In 1902 he stood as an opposition candidate for City of Wellington in the parliamentary elections, winning in a tightly fought contest. In 1905 he was returned for Wellington East. In the House of Representatives he advocated Bible readings in schools, free secondary and university college education, and was a prohibition and anti-gambling campaigner. He retired in 1908 and in 1914 was called to the Legislative Council.
A prominent Presbyterian, John Aitken had been elected a church property trustee in 1893. From 1909 to 1921 he was on the committee of the Wellington Presbyterian Orphanage and Social Service Association. The high regard in which he was held by the church was marked by his election in 1916 to be the first lay moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand. His term of office began in 1917.
Over six feet tall and heavily built, Aitken had such large feet that his shoes were made specially for him. Every Sunday he attended St John's Church, where he was an elder, attired in his frock coat and striped trousers. John Aitken never married. He died in Wellington on 17 August 1921, having rendered many years of service in commerce, politics, education, welfare and the church.