‘Chemo Club’ Chronicler

ros aitken

A life well lived — with courage, wit and a writer’s eye

By Alan Tristram

The Kapiti Independent team mourns the loss of one of our most important columnists, Ros Aitken, of Richmond, Surrey,in the UK.

Her association with KIN began in 2012 when, by chance, I  read one of Ros’s emails about her experiences with cancer.

Because I’ve seen the devastating effects of cancer on family, friends and the wider community over the years, I recognised her unique ability to chronicle her experiences. I asked her to write for us.

And so Ros came to write 16 ‘Chemo Club’ columns with courage, compassion and wit about the way she and other patients were facing chemotherapy treatment at St George’s Hospital in South London.


Her writing had as much relevance here in NZ as it did in England. Here is our tribute to Ros Aitken:

Ros Aitken 1942-2014

Ros Aitken died of cancer in the Princess Alice Hospice, Esher,Sureey, on March 3rd.

She was brought up in Cannock, Staffordshire, and was one of the first small group of girls to be educated at the previously boys-only Rugely Grammar School.

 She went on to read English at Bedford College, London, under such prominent scholars as Phyllis Hodgson, Kathleen Tillotson and M.R. Ridley.

She also sang in the chorus of several university productions of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas.

She taught briefly back in Staffordshire before moving to a Girls¹ Public Day School trust showcase, Bromley High School for Girls, where she

taught English and directed a number of plays.  She also sang in the Beckenham Chorale.

 Nearing the end of an unsatisfactory first marriage, she met Tom Aitken, to whom she would be married for forty years, at an Easter course on the

teaching of Shakespeare at Homerton College Cambridge in the early 1970s.

They set up home first in Isleworth, where Tom taught at the Boys Grammar School. Ros taught part time at various schools in Hounslow. Both learned

what it was to deal with classes under the inward flight path of an international airport.

When Ros was appointed Head of English at Tiffin Girls’ School they moved to Richmond. At Tiffin¹s she directed productions including The Boy Friend,

Princess Ida, A Servant of Two Masters (of which, with Tom¹s help, she made her own version of the Italian original), and Everyman.

Later she became a most successful Head of Sixth Form. She remained in touch with some Tiffins’ Sixth Formers for the rest of her life. Many have

praised the depth of her inspiration and support during some of their most significantly formative years.

In Richmond itself she sang in the John Bate Choir and, later, the Barnes Choral Society under the internationally known Peter Gellhorn, by then in his

final years.Following her (reluctant) retirement from teaching she enrolled at Birkbeck College and completed an MA in Renaissance Theatre and Art. 

In writing her dissertation on indoor performances of Othello, following the disastrous fire at the Globe Theatre she was put her in touch with the research department at the revivified Globe (run by Professor Andrew Gurr, like Tom a graduate (but in his case much more distinguished) of VUW. The result was that  she worked there for about eight years as librarian and archivist.

In later life she and Tom devoted much time to travel, typically of a fairly strenuous kind. One of her more unexpected achievements came when she and Tom rode some way up Mount Sinai on camels.

She also joined her husband as a lecturer on aspects of the life of the nineteenth century prime minister, William Gladstone, at Gladstone’s Library

in Hawarden, Flintshire.

Her book on the PM’s second son, The Prime Minister’s Son: Stephen Gladstone, Reluctant Rector of Harwarden, was published in 2012 by Chester University Press.

She was working on a second book, on Catherine Gladstone and her daughters, at the time of her death.

At her interment, in a cardboard coffin in a burial ground which will in 20 years time will be a woodland made up of the trees planted at each unmarked grave,

Tom’s son Mike read out a tribute from the Aitken family in New Zealand. This included a memory of a time when Ros and Tom were crossing the Millennium pedestrian bridge over the Thames near Shakespeare’s Globe. 

A cyclist appeared, weaving at some speed between walkers. Ros blocked his way and berated him roundly.

The thirty or so people gathered at the grave were required to sing two hymns. They were led by Ros’s godson, doctor, organist and choirmaster and — to an expert’s ears at least —  did not drop in pitch as the singing went on.

Ros, I think, would have been greatly impressed.

Ros Aitken was a great and inspirational teacher. She brought literature to life. She had a fierce wit which kept us engaged and enthralled. We achieved more than we thought we ever could thanks to her.
Thirty something years later and a continent away I still hear her voice. She lives on in us, her grateful pupils.