Robert (pictured right) was the second son of William Laidlaw and wife Agnes Purdom. He was born at Bonchester farmhouse, Bonchester Bridge, Roxburghshire on 15th January 1856. In later life Robert erected the Laidlaw Memorial Hall at Bonchester Bridge in memory of his father. He was educated at the Parish School at Kirkton. Robert began his business life in Hawick in the Scottish borders and in the course of a few years he joined the wholesale textile trade in London. In the summer of 1875 he went to the South African Diamond Fields. In 1877 he went to India and lived for twenty years in Calcutta. He travelled extensively in Asia, Africa and America.
In 1882 he founded Whiteaway, Laidlaw and Co; with branches in twenty cities in India, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur as well as Shanghai.
Whiteaway and Laidlaw, of which he became Chairman, was often referred to as the Selfridges of India. It became a premier department store in the early 20th century, buying products that appealed to Europeans and wealthy locals. They were into tailoring as well as importing and selling household goods. The business continued until 1962. Laidlaw was also proprietor of tea estates in Darjeeling and Chairman of Duncan Durian Rubber Estate Ltd in the Federated Malay States.
Robert was married to Mary Francis, nee Collins daughter of Cpt W Blow Collins after she had been left a widow with several children on the death of her first husband, W.L. Francis of the India Office. She found work in Laidlaw’s infant business and a romance developed. Laidlaw effectively became father and mentor to his adoptive family who became wealthy in their own right. He had three daughters with Mary; Ethel, Margaret and Dorothy, a son, William died in infancy.
The Calcutta Boys’ School was opened in 1877. It was endowed by Robert and others interested in the education of the sons of the Anglo-Indian and domiciled European Community. (A girl’s school was erected nine years later).
Back in England the Laidlaws settled in Chislehurst buying a newly built house designed by Ernest Newton on the Willett development in Camden Park Road. Not surprisingly they named the house Bonchester (pictured here). The house is described in diaries as a ‘grand mansion’ but rather surprisingly the eldest daughter Ethel attended Goucher College in Baltimore, USA.
Churchill was a supporter of Laidlaw and campaigned on the public trail with him, and was an occasional guest at Bonchester. Robert became the Liberal MP for East Renfrewshire from 1906 until 1910.
In 1909 he was knighted and made British Commissioner to the International Opium Commission in Shanghai. He was a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and latterly President of the World’s Sunday School Association from 1913.
The Laidlaws left Chislehurst in 1909 selling their home to William Campbell, a diamond merchant, father of Malcolm Campbell, the future land speed record holder. Sir Robert bought The Warren at Coney Hall, Hayes from Everard Smith for £15,000. Sir Robert specialised in the growing of seedling Rhododendrons, Azaleas and trees which still flourish there today. In 1914 Sir Robert gave the house to the British Red Cross Society for use as a 50 bed hospital.
Sir Robert died in London aged 60; he bequeathed a significant amount of money to run what became the Laidlaw Memorial School in Ketti Nilgris, Southern India. It was founded for the poor and destitute children of British or Anglo Indian descent in India; it is situated in picturesque landscape, 2400 metres above sea level and is now one of the most highly coveted educational institutions in India.
With grateful acknowledgement to Dr John Francis, Tasmania,
Copyright John Francis 2012