Public Service – Andrew Bonar Law

Andrew Bonar Law – Financier, Politician and the only British Prime Minister to have been born outside the British Isles.

British Prime Minister Andrew Bonar Law was born 16th September 1858 in Rexton, New Brunswick (now Canada) to the Reverend James Law, a minister of the Free Church of Scotland with Scottish and Irish ancestry, and his wife Eliza Kidston Law.

James Law was the minister for several isolated townships, and had bought a small farm on the Richibucto River, which Bonar helped tend along with his brothers Robert, William and John, and his sister Mary. After James’s Law wife Eliza died during childbirth in 1860, her sister Janet Kidston travelled to New Brunswick from her home in Helensburgh to look after the Law children.

When James Law remarried in 1870 his new wife took over Janet’s duties, and Janet decided to return to Scotland with James & Bonar Law.

At the age of 12, Law left to live with his late mother’s three male cousins – the Kidstons, who were rich merchant bankers in Glasgow. As they were all either unmarried or childless, they saw him as a substitute son and heir. He was educated at Gilbertfield School in Hamilton (1870-1873), and then at age fourteen he transferred to the High School of Glasgow, where he showed a talent for languages, excelling in Greek, German and French.

During this period he first began to play chess and eventually became an excellent amateur player, and competed with internationally renowned chess masters. Despite his excellent academic record it became obvious at Glasgow that he was better suited to business than to university, and when he was sixteen Law left school to become a clerk at Kidston & Sons. Janet’s brothers Charles, Richard and William were partners in the family merchant bank Kidston & Sons, and it was generally accepted that Law would inherit the firm, or at least play a role in its management when he was older.

In 1885 the Kidson brothers decided to retire, and agreed to merge the firm with the Clydesdale Bank. The retiring brothers found him a job with William Jacks, an iron merchant (William Jacks & Co) who was pursuing a parliamentary career. The Kidson brothers loaned Law the money to buy a partnership in Jacks’ firm, and with Jacks himself no longer playing an acting part in the company, Law effectively became the managing partner.

During this period Bonar Law, attended lectures given at Glasgow University and joined the Glasgow Parliamentary Debating Association, which adhered as closely as possible to the layout of the real Parliament of the United Kingdom and undoubtedly helped Law hone the skills that would serve him so well in the political arena. In 1888 he moved out of the Kidson household and set up his own home at Seabank, East Clyde Street, Helensburgh, with his sister Mary [who had earlier come over from New Brunswick] acting as the housekeeper.

Bonar Law was a man of simple tastes, a Sunday School teacher and voracious reader who enjoyed tennis, golf, chess and those great pastimes of students, billiards and darts, and served on the first committee of Helensburgh Golf Club and was one of the founding members of Helensburgh Lawn Tennis Club.

In 1890, at the age of thirty-two, Bonar Law he became engaged to Annie Pitcairn Robley, whom he married at West Free Church, Helensburgh, by the Rev. William Leitch, B.A, on 24 March 1891. Annie Pitcairn Robley was born on 2nd January 1866, the eldest daughter of Harrington Robley, a Ship’s Stores Merchant of Robley & Co.,and Isabelle Pitcairn. She had 3 brothers and 3 sisters, but her younger brother, Harrington, died in 1874 when he was 6 years old. She was eight years younger than Bonar, of a more sociable disposition and with a love of dancing. Biographers of Bonar Law speak of her beauty, her charm and the warmth and sweetness of her personality. “Anne Pitcairn Robley, at twenty-four, with dark hair and large brown eyes and a lively manner, was considered quite a local beauty, and Bonar Law – a man whose frivolity had hitherto found its outlet in tennis and golf – seems to have fallen in love with her immediately.”

They set up their home in Seabank but on the death of Annie’s father Harrington Robley they bought his house Kintillo in Suffolk Street, which they sold in 1909, moving to London, Pembrook Lodge, just off Edwardes Square in South Kensington, because the pressure of commuting was becoming too much.

The marriage was to prove very happy and they had seven children. The couple had five sons and two daughters, although the first son was stillborn. The youngest son was Richard Law, [1901-1980] later Baron Coleraine, the third Charlie Law [1897 -1917], who as a soldier with the King’s Own Scottish Borderers was killed at the Second Battle of Gaza. His eldest son, James Kidston Law [1893 -1917] a pilot with the Royal Flying Corps, was shot down and killed, Isabel Harrington Law, the eldest daughter [1896 – 1969], who married Sir Frederick Sykes and Catherine Edith Mary Law [1906 -1992] , the youngest, who married George Archibald, 1st Baron Archibald.

That summer,1909, Annie became very tired, weak and unwell. They took a house at Moncton, on the Ayrshire coast for the holidays and she rested every afternoon, and tried to carry on until the children were back at school. On her return home, specialists were consulted and advised the removal of her gall-bladder. Annie had the operation, went through a convalescence and apparent recovery and then on Sunday, October 31st she collapsed and died. She was only forty two. Annie was buried in Helensburgh. “Many hundreds came to pay their respects to the popular wife of a local hero, and the sad and stately procession stretched for some two miles from Ferniegar to the churchyard where she was laid to rest. Bonar Law said many times thereafter that he never forgot a single sad detail of that day.”

Their six children aged between sixteen and four were left without a mother. Bonar’s sister, Mary Law, heroically moved in, took the household cares off his shoulders and began the task of bringing up their large family. She reluctantly agreed also to act as hostess at Pembroke Lodge, although her eldest niece Isabel gradually took over that duty.

Bonar Law’s interest in politics had grown stronger as the 1890s went by, and after he inherited a very large sum on the death of one of the Kidstons, he was able to consider running for Parliament. In 1897 Law was asked to become the Conservative Party candidate for the parliamentary seat of Glasgow Bridgeton. Soon after he was offered another seat, this one in Glasgow Blackfriars and Hutchesontown, which he took instead of Glasgow Bridgeton.

Blackfriars was not a seat with high prospects attached; a working-class area, it had returned Liberal Party MPs since it was created in 1884, and the incumbent, Andrew Provand, was highly popular. The campaign was unpleasant for both sides, with anti- and pro-war campaigners fighting vociferously, but Law distinguished himself with his oratory and wit. When the results came in, Law was returned to Parliament with a majority of 1,000, overturning Provand’s majority of 381. He immediately ended his active work at William Jacks & Co (although he retained his directorship) and moved to Pembrook Lodge.

He lost his seat to future Labour leader George Nicoll Barnes in the anti-Conservative landslide 1906 General Election, but he returned to represent Dulwich at a by-election later that year. Though hit hard by the death of his wife, in 1909, he continued his political career; after leaving the House of Commons at the December 1910 election, he returned as MP for Bootle at a by-election in 1911.

On the coronation of George V on 22 June 1911, Bonar Law was made a Privy Counsellor on the recommendation of the new Prime Minister and Arthur Balfour. Balfour was to become increasingly unpopular and eventually resigned the leadership of the Conservative Party. Following a deadlock between Austen Chamberlain and Walter Long, the two leadership candidates agreed to stand down in favour of Bonar Law, who became Leader as a compromise candidate. With the unanimous support of the MPs, Law became Leader of the Conservative Party despite never having sat in Cabinet.

In 1921, ill health forced Bonar Law’s resignation as Conservative leader and Leader of the Commons in favour of Austen Chamberlain. 1921-2 the coalition Government had become embroiled in an air of moral and financial corruption. Austen Chamberlain resigned as Party Leader, Lloyd George resigned as Prime Minister and Bonar Law returned on 23 October 1922 in both jobs.

Bonar Law was soon diagnosed with terminal throat cancer and, no longer physically able to speak in Parliament, resigned on 22 May 1923. He died on 30th October 1923. He wanted to be buried in the family plot beside the north wall of Helensburgh Cemetery beside his wife and sons, but as he was Prime Minister the family agreed that the final resting place of his ashes should be the Nave in Westminster Abbey.

Bonar Law was the shortest serving PM of the twentieth century. He is often referred to as “the unknown Prime Minister”, the name comes from a remark by Asquith at Bonar Law’s funeral, that they were burying the Unknown Prime Minister next to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.The stone in the centre of the Nave at Westminster simply reads:

Andrew Bonar Law
Sometime Prime Minister

He remains the only British Prime Minister to have been born outside the British Isles.

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