Andrew Bonar Law was born on 16 September 1858 in Rexton to Eliza Kidston Law and the Reverend James Law, a minister of the Free Church of Scotland with Scottish and Irish (mainly Ulster Scots) ancestry. At the time of his birth, New Brunswick was still a separate colony, as Canadian confederation did not occur until 1867.
His mother originally wanted to name him after Robert Murray M’Cheyne, a preacher she greatly admired, but as his older brother was already called Robert, he was instead named after the Reverend Andrew Bonar, a biographer of M’Cheyne. Throughout his life he was always called Bonar (rhyming with honour) by his family and close friends, never Andrew. He originally signed his name as A.B. Law, changing to A. Bonar Law in his thirties, and he was referred to as Bonar Law by the public as well.
James Law was the minister for several isolated townships, and had to travel between them by horse, boat and on foot. To supplement the family income, he bought a small farm on the Richibucto River, which Bonar helped tend along with his brothers Robert, William and John, and his sister Mary. Studying at the local village school, Law excelled at his studies, and it is here that he was first noted for his excellent memory. After Eliza Law died in 1861, her sister Janet travelled to New Brunswick from her home in Scotland 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 home to Scotland. She suggested that Bonar Law should come with her, as the Kidston family were wealthier and better connected than the Laws, and Bonar would have a more privileged upbringing. Both James and Bonar accepted this, and Bonar left with Janet, never to return to Rexton.
Law went to live at Janet’s house in Helensburgh, near Glasgow. Her brothers Charles, Richard and William were partners in the family merchant bank Kidston & Sons, and as only one of them had married (and produced no heir) it was generally accepted that Law would inherit the firm, or at least play a role in its management when he was older. Immediately upon arriving from Rexton, Law began attending Gilbertfield School, a preparatory school in Hamilton. In 1873, aged fourteen, he transferred to the High School of Glasgow, where with his excellent memory he showed a talent for languages, excelling in Greek, German and French. During this period, he first began to play chess – he would carry a board on the train between Helensburgh and Glasgow, challenging other commuters to matches. He 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.
Law became a “self-improver” despite his lack of formal university education he sought to test his intellect, attending lectures given at Glasgow University and joining 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 served him so well in the political arena.
By the time he was thirty Law had established himself as a successful businessman, and had time to devote to more leisurely pursuits. He remained an avid chess player. Law also worked with the Parliamentary Debating Association and took up golf, tennis and walking. In 1888 he moved out of the Kidston household and set up his own home at Seabank, with his sister Mary (who had earlier come over from Canada) acting as the housekeeper.
In 1890, Law met Annie Pitcairn Robley, the 24-year-old daughter of a Glaswegian merchant, Harrington Robley. They quickly fell in love, and married on 24 March 1891. Little is known of Law’s wife, as most of her letters have been lost. It is known that she was much liked in both Glasgow and London, and that her death in 1909 hit Law hard; despite his relatively young age and prosperous career, he never remarried. The couple had six children.
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.
Law eventually became Prime Minister in October 1922 and governed until May 1923.
Law was diagnosed with terminal throat cancer and, no longer physically able to speak in Parliament, resigned on 22 May 1923. The shortest serving Prime Minister of the 20th century, he died six months later on October 23.
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.
The University of New Brunswick’s first library was bestowed to the campus by the Provincial government in 1931, and was expanded and refurbished through the generosity of Lord Beaverbrook in 1951.
In the latter year the library was named in honour of two native-born sons of New Brunswick: Andrew Bonar Law, Prime Minister of Great Britain from 1922 to1923, and R.B. Bennett, prime minister of Canada between 1930 and 1935.
Since 1967, the building has housed the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick.
The development and operation of the Bonar Law Historical Site was one of cooperation from all levels of government, combined with a strong community pride in the site. From the very beginning of the development in 1974, this site received strong support from the community and surrounding area. It has become a community-gathering site for local festivals and celebrations.
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