In This Issue:
Edward Marjoribanks was the first of our family since Thomas, the 16th century Lord Advocate, to hold high political office, but he came of a line that was already distinguished in both politics and business.
His father, Dudley Marjoribanks, inherited a substantial fortune from his own father, Edward Marjoribanks of Greenlands, and acquired considerable wealth of his own as chairman of Meux Brewery. He built the splendid mansion of Brook House in London’s fashionable Park Lane and purchased the highland deer forest of Guisachan (“Place of the Firs”) in Inverness-shire, and the substantial estates of Hutton and Eddington near his family roots in Berwickshire.
Fulfilling a family tradition, in 1853 Dudley became the Liberal Member of Parliament for Berwick-upon-Tweed and, although he was never a political high-flyer, he was a useful member and in 1880 — for reasons perhaps not unconnected with the wealth and prestige that he brought to the party — was elevated to the peerage as the first Baron Tweedmouth.
Meanwhile, his son Edward, was receiving the education expected of a sprig of the upper classes, at Harrow and at Christ Church, Oxford, where he was regarded as a keen student, a hard rider, and a leader of a set of sporting young gentlemen. He was “sent down” (expelled) from Oxford, apparently for a prank which the authorities could not ignore. This blot on his record, however, did not set him back at all and, after a period of extensive travel, he began to read for the bar.
At this time he met, fell in love with and, in 1873, married Lady Fanny Spencer-Churchill, daughter of the Duke of Marlborough and aunt of Winston Churchill. It was an ideal match. Lady Fanny shared her husband’s love of the great outdoors and, in particular, of deer-stalking. She was brave and cheerful, with none of the irritating condescension sometimes met with in the aristocracy, and supported Edward to the full in all his undertakings. She was loved by everyone she met, of whatever persuasion. She and Edward had one son, Dudley who, like his father, was a superb shot. Dudley served in the army in the Boer War, and eventually succeeded his father as the third — and last — Baron Tweedmouth.
Edward was called to the bar in 1874 and, although he showed great promise at law, politics was already claiming his life. The Liberals of Berwickshire in that year wanted him to become their candidate in the approaching General Election but somehow the telegram inviting him to stand went astray. The following year he fought a by-election in mid-Kent but was defeated.. Berwickshire then adopted him as the candidate to oppose the sitting Conservative member whenever the next election should arrive. He took a lease of Duns Castle in the constituency and from that base began to organise support among the electorate.
The call came when Disraeli dissolved Parliament in 1880. Edward and his wife campaigned tirelessly. There were vastly fewer voters in those days but, before the advent of the motor car, it was no easy job to get around this rural constituency. His reward was to overturn the Conservative majority by 268 votes out of a total poll of 1600.
There was never any doubt about Edward’s Liberalism. He had an unswerving devotion to the party and to its leader, “The Grand Old Man,” William Gladstone. So firm was his grasp of political principle that, after a long discussion with him, Winston Churchill, a committed Conservative as a young man, wrote to his father: “I wish you could have been there to answer him, for I could not.” Later, when Winston had become a Conservative Member of Parliament, it was Edward who persuaded him to transfer his loyalty to the Liberals and smoothed the path for him. He had the pleasure, before his illness and death, of seeing Winston become a colleague in a Liberal cabinet.
Edward was never a great one for speeches in the House of Commons and preferred to serve in a “back-room” role. On the other hand, he was intensely active on behalf of his constituents and especially the Scottish fishing industry. After a disaster caused by a storm that struck the little port of Eyemouth, he worked hard and effectively to get get relief measures under way and to improve harbour facilities on Scotland’s east coast. He was among the first parliamentarians to hold regular meetings with his constituents and to act as a link between people and the government.
Edward’s reward was not slow in coming. In the election of 1885 he was re-elected with the enormous proportion of seventy-five per cent of the poll and the following year was appointed a Government Whip with particular responsibility for the Scottish members.
These were difficult days for the Liberal Government. Gladstone was determined to introduce Home Rule for Ireland but, by doing so, split his party down the middle. In those circumstances, a Whip’s job becomes almost impossible but Edward never faltered under fire and came out of the struggle with a much enhanced reputation. Certainly he was a rock for Gladstone to lean on. “The Grand Old Man” said of him: “His very presence brought sunlight.”
As a result of the Home Rule disaster, the Liberals lost office and Edward spent the next six years patiently organising the party in Scotland in preparation for the next election. He spent his time forming new Liberal associations in both the Borders and the Highlands and counselling local associations about how they should treat those members who were nominally Liberals but were opposed to the party on the issue of Home Rule. His general approach was to conciliate dissidents in the hope that they might return to the fold. Once the election campaign began, however, he devoted himself without reservation to supporting the candidature of loyal members and ensuring their return.
In 1892 the Liberals were indeed re-elected but with a majority of only forty seats — a luxury to a modern prime minister but, in those days when party discipline was much laxer, a small margin indeed. Edward was given the post of Chief Whip and his task, in what would be inevitably Gladstone’s last attempt, was to rally the ranks and assure the passage of the Home Rule Bill. He set himself to this task with his customary devotion.
“This one thing I do,” he declared, and that one thing he did, by a combination of conciliation, cajolery and occasionally out-and-out brow-beating. Amazingly, he managed to control the famous Marjoribanks temper, in public at least, although he is on record, after an interview with a particularly noisome specimen of genus homo politicus, as having caused significant damage to a table, table cloth and a water-beaker.
Edward’s nephew, also called Edward (1903-1932), describes in his biography of Lord Carson  the part his uncle played in one of the tumultuous Home Rule Debates. While a vote was being taken and feelings were running high, a Liberal member walked across the floor and approached Carson on the Opposition benches. Some of Carson’s friends, thinking he was about to be assaulted, laid hands on the invading Liberal, blows were exchanged and a debacle ensued. At the height of the disturbance, Edward, the Chief Whip, tall and strong, his silk hat still securely on his head was seen violently parting the combatants. a task which his nephew observed, seemed “much to his taste.”
Alas, the triumph was all in vain. The Bill passed the House of Commons, thanks to the faithful forty, but it was contemptuously thrown out by the House of Lords. Gladstone resigned and, although the Liberal Government staggered on for a couple more years, its days were numbered. Before it fell, Edward himself had become a peer on the death of his father and was translated to that very House of Lords which had frustrated his finest efforts. He found the upper chamber, with its enormous hostile majority, uncongenial but he soldiered on in the faithful service of the Liberal cause.
On the occasion of his accession to the peerage, and his consequent retirement as Chief Whip, the satirical London magazine “Vanity Fair” published a drawing of Edward by the famous caricaturist “Spy,” captioned “A Late Whip.” The accompanying text describes the Marjoribanks family as “of quite respectable antiquity” and Edward as the best Whip that the Liberal party ever had “within the memory of the oldest politician.”
The Earl of Oxford and Asquith, in his memoirs , pays further tribute to Edward’s services:
“A fine upstanding man, he enjoyed unfailing health and an inexhaustible flow of high spirits. He was rich and fond of pleasure, but worked at his job like a galley-slave. He was geniality incarnate to the good party man who did his duty by listening and not replying to other people’s speeches, and voting consistently in the Government lobby. Withal, he had at his command all the resources of a fiery temper and a copious vocabulary of vituperation, which were drawn upon without scruple or reserve for the punishment of slackers or ‘independence.’ . . . Marjoribanks , it must be added, harboured no malice, and would be ‘hail fellow well met’ the next time he encountered one of his victims.”
A Liberal Triumph
For ten years following their defeat the Liberals were out of office and Edward, when not escaping from political struggle at his
beloved Guisachan or in foreign travel, devoted himself to preparing for the next electoral round. He and Lady Fanny gave brilliant political dinners at Brook House, travelled the country inspecting local Liberal associations, and coached party candidates in the Liberal creed. To him must be ascribed much of the credit for the great Liberal triumph of December, 1905, when they swept back into office with a majority in the House of Commons of more than two hundred seats.
Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, the new prime minister, invited Edward to become First Lord of the Admiralty, the political head of the Navy. This was an immensely important post for, though Britain had ruled the waves with an effortless superiority for a century, its dominance was now threatened by the rising might of Germany. The outgoing government had recognised the threat and, through Admiral Sir John Fisher, as professional head of the service, was beginning to reorganise training, ship construction and dockyard organisation. Edward very wisely decided, for the time being at least, to follow his predecessors’ lead. He threw himself into the modernisation of officer training, carried through an important improvement in the conditions of service of the dockyard labourers and conscientiously inspected port operations and facilities throughout Britain and the Mediterranean.
In matters of strategic policy, however, things did not go so well. Fisher, who firmly believed in the traditional doctrines of naval supremacy, was not universally popular in the service and was vehemently opposed by Admiral Lord Charles Beresford who wanted Fisher’s job. Edward supported Fisher but, true to his conciliatory nature, did not apply sufficient firmness to quell the quarrel.
A Diplomatic Embarrassment
Eventually the dispute became public through the august pages of The Times newspaper which were read by the German Kaiser Wilhelm II. Wilhelm — and this was quite out of order — wrote personally to Edward, nine pages in his own handwriting, to complain about some disparaging references to Germany made by one of Fisher’s supporters. King Edward sharply reproved his German nephew for breaching protocol in writing directly to one of the King’s ministers. The affair might have ended there but Edward, childishly pleased at being written to by an emperor, showed the letter widely around London society so that its contents became public knowledge. There was nothing dishonourable in this episode, and it had no effect on naval policy, but it was something of a diplomatic embarrassment.
Politics, in any case, had never been more than half his life. It was in his friendships, his sport, and most of all at Guisachan that he really lived. No man in the country was a more accomplished sportsman, in the old-fashioned sense of hunting, shooting and fishing. It is said that in his day he was among the best half-dozen shots in Britain and he was always ready to take himself off from dawn to dusk to a rewarding trout stream. On one occasion in Albania, no sooner had he and his party landed than he took off in the direction of a nearby stream. “That’s the last we shall see of him today,” said Lady Fanny, and so it was; he returned at dusk with a goodly creel of trout. Despite his love of sport, however, he was always ready to yield to his friends and guests his own place in the line of guns or the best beat on the river. It was this gift for hospitality and his ease of address that also made him effective as a politician, perhaps even more effective at the grass-roots level than at Westminster.
The Perfect Hostess
Lady Fanny was the ideal complement to these talents. She was herself as expert and keen a sportswoman as any, always the perfect hostess with that unobtrusive gift of supplying everything a guest could want almost before he was aware of it himself. It was therefore a tragedy all the heavier for coming completely out of the blue, when in the late summer of 1904 it became known to the Guisachan staff that she had come home to the highlands only to die. Her doctor had warned her six weeks earlier that she had little time to live. (The nature of her illness is not known but it likely was cancer.) Typically, she had said nothing to anyone, completed her round of political and social engagements, set her affairs in order and returned to face death in her favourite spot on earth. She was not buried at Guisachan, however, but in the family’s mausoleum at Chirnside, near Hutton Castle, in the Borders.
Edward bore up manfully under this blow, though it afflicted him sorely. At the time he suffered financial disaster. He had never been particularly inclined to economy, living in the splendid style considered appropriate to his class and political eminence. Hitherto there always had been enough money; he had, after all, been left a considerable fortune. Now, however, Meux Brewery which was the main source of his income had collapsed. Brook House and Guisachan had to be sold and it was a considerable relief to him to be able to move into his official residence in the Admiralty, where he was joined by his mother. Outwardly he seemed almost the same man as he had always been but it does appear that his judgment was no longer quite as sound, and he was undermined by gnawing insecurity, aggravated by the loss of his wife who had always supported him and buoyed his morale.
He had suffered much and was about to suffer more. Prime Minister Campbell-Bannerman had made him a member of the Order of the Thistle, Scotland’s highest decoration, but when H.H. Asquith became prime minister in 1908, Edward was moved from the Admiralty to the less demanding position of Lord President of the Council, on the pretext that the heads of the armed services really ought to sit in the House of Commons. In his last public appearance, at the naval officers’ training college at Dartmouth, he gave a dignified account of his stewardship at the Admiralty but it was beginning to be noticed that his behaviour was occasionally eccentric. In September of 1908 he suffered a stroke and resigned from the Cabinet. Twelve months later he was dead at the comparatively early age of sixty and was buried next to his wife at Chirnside.
Tributes to him poured in, stressing his warmth of heart, his coolness under political fire and his straightforward honesty of character and purpose. His greatest memorial, however, is a memoir privately published by his worshipping sister Ishbel, Lady Aberdeen on which I have drawn (with some caution) for much of this article. Sadly the copy I have used came into my possession with its pages uncut, suggesting that this labour of love was more satisfying to the writer than to its recipients. It is, however, a source of much information that never could have seen the light of day in any other fashion.
In appearance Edward was imposing, bearded, with a bald dome, and always impeccably dressed. He possessed magnificent physical powers as a young man, and even beyond, and was completely fearless whether confronted by a physical or a political challenge. There is plenty of evidence that he had great ability, but perhaps not of the kind that includes generalship; one cannot see him as credible prime minister though some of his political friends thought of him as such until a very late stage in his career. Rather, his talents were those of an excellent chief of staff. He did whatever he knew it his duty to do. Thanks to his complete integrity, he was trusted implicitly by Gladstone and other party chiefs and gained the reputation of never having put his personal interests above his public duty.
Not every politician can reach the top, and Edward never did, even though he attained a cabinet post of supreme importance. In this last role he must be considered an honourable failure, though far from a disaster. He did succeed, however, in spending a lifetime in politics while maintaining the qualities of a gentleman — not a bad epitaph for a statesmen now almost entirely forgotten by historians.
2. A Whip is responsible for keeping channels of communication open between the ordinary Members of Parliament and the party leadership and ensuring that members turn up to vote on all appropriate occasions.)
John Marjoribanks (1763-1833) was the eldest son of Edward Marjoribanks, a successful wine merchant based in Bordeaux in France who inherited from his father the estate of Hallyards at Kirkliston near Edinburgh and later, from a cousin, the estate of Lees, near Coldstream in the Borders.
His mother, Grizel Stewart, was considered a distinct catch when she married Edward Marjoribanks. She was from a prominent Edinburgh family. Her father, Archibald, had been Lord Provost, and she was connected with the banking family of Coutts who later were to be major benefactors of the Marjoribanks family.
Through her influence with Sir R.M. Keith, ambassador to Vienna, John was granted a commission in 1779 in the 16th Regiment of Foot and spent a year in France on the staff of a general in order to improve his languages and to acquire a knowledge of affairs. He later transferred to the Coldstream Guards. In about 1787 he formed the two most important friendships of his life: with the heir to the Marquis of Bute and with Thomas Coutts, the effective founder of the famous London bank. In 1791 John married Alison Ramsay, the daughter of a dry old Edinburgh banker, and shortly afterwards retired from the army and bought Eccles House, some seven miles from Lees. There is some evidence of wild oats sown: in mid-1791 a boy, John, “natural son of John Marjoribanks Esq. of Eccles” was baptised at Coldstream. The mother was Janet Wood. John acknowledged the boy and later set him up in a modest trade as a shoe-maker.
At Eccles John lived for some time in relatively reduced circumstances, farming the estate and begetting four sons and five daughters. He seems to have had little talent for farming, although Eccles was a substantial estate. Taxes in 1798 amounted to £49.18s, the equivalent of nearly £5,000 today — calculated on the basis of a house with 58 windows, twenty rented farms and houses, three male servants, one four-wheeled carriage, three riding horses, eight working horses and two dogs.
John’s son Charles, although too young to remember much of events directly, describes local society as debauched and brutal, although it included several men of high social standing.
“Among this hard-drinking set, most of them greatly his inferiors, were several of the best years of my father’s life thrown away,” he says.
It may be that Charles is reflecting his mother’s point of view, an understandable one from a lady brought up in the relatively cultivated environment of bourgeois Edinburgh.
In 1800 the family moved to Edinburgh where John, perhaps with some pointed encouragement from his wife, joined Manfield’s Bank in which his father-in-law was a senior partner.. The Marjoribanks family had shown a preference for banking; many of John’s relatives had been directors of the Bank of Scotland during the 18th century and several were Deputy Governors. John himself, however, had no talent for the banking profession.
“Order and arrangement never entered into either his proceedings or his compositions,” says Charles.
The many letters of John’s which have survived, however, don’t tend to bear out that harsh judgment. He writes in an impatient scrawl when obviously in a hurry but the tone is business-like. It is probably true, however, that the dispassionate nature of a banker’s routine work irked his volatile and active temperament. For some years after he left the bank John seems to have had only the rents from Eccles with which to support his large family.
In 1807, however, his fortune improved dramatically when old friendships began to show a real return. The Coutts connection, had already helped to find positions for his brothers, especially Edward who was then senior partner in the bank and was eventually to become one of the most important figures in the banking world of the 19th century. Now it was the Marquis of Bute who rescued John by making him his agent and over-all manager of all his estates in Scotland, a post that seemed to suit him perfectly. Within a year he was able to buy a fine house in Charlotte Square, the most fashionable part of Edinburgh. His position gave him a parliamentary vote on the island of Bute, which seems an odd asset in our democratic age but gave him valuable political influence in 19th century Scotland before the days of parliamentary reform. At this time he also returned to Manfield’s bank, as a partner and, probably due to his father-in-law’s influence, became a member of Edinburgh City Council in 1811.
It was certainly thanks to the Marquis of Bute that he was returned as a Member of Parliament for Bute in 1812. The Marquis was clearly a little uncertain as to whether John was a good political choice to represent his constituency. He wrote to Lord Grenville apologising for the fact that John was a good friend to the Catholics, a highly incorrect stance at the time, but added the assurance that he could nevertheless be relied on to support the Tory government.
Conflict of Interest
John was never a particularly prominent M.P., though he caused a minor political storm when in 1815, very shortly after becoming a baronet, he proposed a vote of thanks to the Duke of York, in recognition of his role in the war against Napoleon, and added the proviso that the Duke’s debts should be paid off by the nation. As it happened, the Duke was a client of John’s at Mansfield’s Bank and, even in the days when less attention was paid to the private interests of M.P.s, the proposal was rather too much of a conflict to swallow. The House expressed its thanks to the Duke but left him to cope with his debts.
In 1818 John was re-elected in the County of Berwick in somewhat dubious circumstances. The sitting member, a Mr. Baillie, at first expressed his intention to stand again but subsequently was somehow “persuaded” to withdraw in John’s favour.
The following year he made a notably liberal proposal during debate on the Seditious Meetings Bill which was introduced following the so-called Peterloo Massacre in Manchester in which eleven people were killed when soldiers forcibly broke up a meeting in support of parliamentary reform. John argued that political meetings should not be forcibly dispersed unless the mob was actively preventing the magistrates from arresting seditious speakers. This initiative established a pattern in which all subsequent Marjoribanks Members of Parliament in the 19th century were Liberals. (The first was John’s son Charles who was elected for Berwick after his father’s death.)
After 1820 he seems to have accomplished little as an M.P. He objected to having his women-folk in London because they nagged him, especially when he got home late from his gambling club. Apparently his play did not ruin him but it was expensive and a distraction from his duties at the House of Commons.
Charles (who is a somewhat unsympathetic witness) adds:
“Habits of too great indulgence laid the foundations of premature age, both bodily and mental, the decay of his powers of body and mind being visible after he reached sixty.”
It was Edinburgh, however, not London that was the scene of his major achievements. In 1813 he writes to Lord Bute that he has been elected Lord Provost of the City for the ensuing year and he was unanimously re-elected in October, 1814. During his two years in office he saw at last the commencement of a project which had originally received parliamentary sanction thirty years before. On 1st March, 1814, he laid before the City magistrates a new plan for the building of a gaol on Calton Hill and a splendid new bridge to span the deep ravine that separated the hill from the city centre.. The project was a difficult one but a feasibility study by the famous engineer Robert Stevenson assured the City worthies that it could be accomplished. On the next day the proposal was debated in the city Council. The total cost would be in the order of £20,000 (say, £2,000,000 in modern money.) There were no undue delays; the foundation stone of the new Regent Bridge was laid the following year and the sixty-foot-wide bridge was opened in 1819. There survives today an elegant monument on the bridge commemorating the name of its prime mover.
‘Zeal and Ability’
The bridge was not his only achievement. He pressed forward the completion of the monument to Lord Nelson, also on Calton Hill, and with the aid of a Parliamentary grant, completed a previously abandoned college. In September 1814 his colleagues gave him a vote of thanks for “zeal and ability in promotion of objects of public utility, and such as are calculated, when completed, to adorn and embellish the City.” In the following year they voted to have his portrait painted and and hung in the City Chamber with a suitable inscription commemorating particularly his devotion to “public works and improvements.”
By now he was a very distinguished man, indeed, a member of the exclusive Pitt Club. He became a baronet in 1815 and was Acting Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Freemasons of Scotland between 1816 and 1818. (The Prince Regent was the titular Grand Master.) Little is known in detail of his Masonic activities, although he is known to have consecrated the West Calder Lodge in 1818 and its badge includes the cushion from the Marjoribanks arms.
He was also a man of considerable wealth. His various investments were now doing much better and he inherited Lees on his father’s death in 1815. His estates in Berwickshire alone were valued in 1817 at a little over £3,000, bringing in an income of perhaps £600 a year (say, £60,000 in modern money.) It is interesting that these estates included the farm of Dedriggs which had belonged to another Marjoribanks branch and had been mysteriously lost some two generations earlier. Sir John acquired it from the Earl of Home but did not keep it long.
His last ten years were less happy. His two old friends — Thomas Coutts and the Marquis of Bute — were dead and, if Charles is to be believed, he was showing signs of mental and physical decline. Although he was again Lord Provost in 1825, he was beginning to fancy himself ruined and sold off all his property in Eccles, retaining only the Lees estate. He seems to have had some sort of break-down and went to live in Paris for a while, where his fortunes continued to decline.
“The shadows passed,” says Charles, “but the scars remained.”
He returned to Lees where he passed the remaining few years of his life in relative serenity.
It is not altogether easy to catch the flavour of the man. In appearance he was stocky and square-faced. His son Charles, who is by far the main witness to his personality, found him a severe and unsympathetic even frightening father, although, what is unusual for those days, he never beat his children. It is to Charles that we owe the description of him as a tempestuous man, unable to compose himself to routine, preferring a “grand dash to the mark,” and liable to fly into a rage when upset by minor frustrations, although Charles adds that “few men would bear up with more manliness and composure against a heavy and unavoidable calamity.”
Fortunately, a few notes pencilled in the margin by John’s youngest son David suggest a different and more loving side to his nature. The truth probably is that Charles, being rather easy-going and a bit of a dreamer, and perhaps physically somewhat timid, was temperamentally a world away from the excitable, powerful personality of his father. It may be that David, being more robust, was better able to appreciate his true worth.
Certainly John’s letters to both Bute and Thomas Coutts show a capacity for warm friendship and also a deep concern for the welfare of his brothers and children. His concern, however, was not always exercised with good judgment. He obtained a post with the East India Company for his son Edward for which the boy was quite unfitted and which ended in disaster.
He was also generous — some would say careless — with his money. It is very clear that he generated the warmest respect among his colleagues on the City Council. He could be both devious and ruthless in the pursuit of either his own, his employer’s, or his family’s interest, and he made enemies thereby.
He may perhaps have been loved by the few, respected by the many, and hated by those who crossed him. What is certain is that he was one of the most eminent of what was for several generations a particularly brilliant family.
6. While in the service of the Marquis, John presented his employer with a volume detailing the Marjoribanks history and supporting the notion that the ancestral lands once belonged to Lady Marjorie Bruce. See The Marjoribanks Journal No.1, page 3.
- The Commons, 1790-1920, by R.G. Thorne.
- The Lord Provosts of Edinburgh, 1296-1932, by M. Wood.
- A History of the Bank of Scotland.
- Lodge’s Peerage, 1911.
- Biographical Note No. 99 from an edition of the prints of John Kay, Edinburgh, 1820.
- Untitled MS Memoir by Charles Marjoribanks (Macao, 1831) in the Signet Library.
- Letters in the archive of Coutts Bank.
- Letters in the archive of the Marquis of Bute.
- City Council Minutes of Edinburgh.
- Extract from records supplied by the Grand Lodge of Freemasons of Scotland.
- Cess and Valuation Roll for Berwickshire, 1779-1817
- Assessed Tax Schedules for Berwickshire, 1789-99
- Old Parish Register, Coldstream, Berwicks.
Ishbel Maria Marjoribanks was a memorable member of that branch of the family that had its centre in Lees, the family seat on the river Tweed. In a family of men who held high office in government and commerce, she won equal distinction for a life-long career of social service, particularly for her accomplishments in improving the lives of women.
Her father was Dudley Coutts Marjoribanks, the proprietor of Meux Brewery and a Member of Parliament for Berwick-upon-Tweed, who was later made a baronet and raised to the peerage as the first Baron Tweedmouth. Her mother was Isabel Hogg, daughter of James Weir Hogg, a wealthy barrister and a distinguished Speaker of the House of Commons. Ishbel (Gaelic for Isabel) was born 14 March 1857 in Brook House, the magnificently ornate four-storey mansion which her father had built in the fashionable West End of London.
She had a happy childhood among her father’s art treasures in Brook House and the ponies, dogs and wild birds at Guisachan in the highlands. She worshipped her mother but kept a respectful distance from her father because of his frequent outbursts of temper. She had an older brother, Edward, later the second Baron Tweedmouth, and an older sister, Mary, later the first Viscountess Ridley. Another brother, Stewart, died of scarlet fever while still a schoolboy.
With the help of the servants, she taught herself to read by age three and, by the time she was six, was exchanging letters regularly with her father. Her formal education was undertaken by tutors and, in her early years, by a Swiss governess, with whom she spoke French and German, never English.
While still quite young she had strong religious feelings and, at the age of 17, with her father’s reluctant permission, became a Sunday school teacher in the Quebec Chapel, Marble Arch. She was remarkably successful at instilling Christian precepts in more than a dozen somewhat unruly London boys, some of whom would follow her home to Brook House for tea after church.
A Ruling Passion
The desire to instruct and improve became a ruling passion of her life. Her father allowed her to set up a Sunday school at Guisachan for the children of the servants and tenant farmers and she learned to play the concertina to accompany the hymns.
One of her tutors urged her to continue her education by applying for admission to Girton, the women’s college in Cambridge, but her father rejected the idea as preposterous for a girl of her day and class. At the age of eighteen she was formally initiated into London society and the kind of life that her father deemed proper by being presented at Court to Queen Victoria.
By far her favourite partner at the balls she attended during her first season John Campbell Gordon who, at the age of twenty-three, following the sudden deaths of his two elder brothers, had unexpectedly become the seventh Earl of Aberdeen. Ishbel had first met him while riding in a London park when she was just fourteen and was immediately captivated by his charm and gentle manners. In the six years that followed Johnny became for Ishbel “the one dream of my life” but Lord Aberdeen, protesting his undying friendship, shied from the halter. Finally, with some discreet prodding from Lady Marjoribanks, he took the bit in his teeth and they were married in St. George’s, Hanover Square, on November 7,1877 in a service conducted by the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Ishbel and her husband occupied Haddo House, the family estate in Aberdeenshire, and a handsome town house in London’s Grosvenor Square where their first child, George, was born in 1879. George was followed by Marjorie (1880), Dorothea, who lived only a few months, (1882), Dudley (1883), and Ian (1884.) Ian died in a motor accident at the age of twenty-five.
Tea and Lemonade
At Haddo House, Ishbel took on the job of helping to educate the children and servants of the tenant-farmers by holding Saturday-night classes in the village hall for young men and correspondence courses for the girls who were not allowed out in the evening. Farm servants in those days were allowed a one-day summer holiday in August during which they customarily got drunk and misbehaved. Ishbel turned the occasion into an alcohol-free fete by opening up the grounds of Haddo and staging games and a flower show. Well-known local ladies served cakes, tea and lemonade from trestle tables to eight thousand people.
Aside from her social work, Ishbel’s other great passion was politics. As a young girl she had met Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone when he visited Guisachan and together they rode over the estate, talking all the while about Ishbel’s pet animals and Gladstone’s affairs of state. The Gladstones were frequent visitors at Brook House and, after Ishbel’s marriage, at Haddo and other houses. He left a Cabinet meeting in 1883 to be godfather to Ishbel’s second son, Dudley Gladstone Gordon. Ishbel, to her parents’ horror, helped Mr. Gladstone in his Strand Rescue Mission in which, on Friday evenings, he sought out prostitutes in the area and tried, over cups of tea, to help them begin a more independent life.
After his re-election in 1885, Mr. Gladstone asked Lord Aberdeen to accept the post of Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, an important but largely ceremonial office, as the representative of the Crown. It was, in fact, a dangerous post. Nationalists were rioting continuously on behalf of Home Rule and people were starving because of the failure of the potato crop.
Relieving the Famine
Ishbel, who disliked Ireland and particularly the restrictions imposed by vice-regal protocol — what she called “flummery” — nevertheless threw herself into the job with her customary enthusiasm. On her own initiative, she instigated a meeting of all the warring political factions who agreed to co-operate in relieving the famine. Lord Aberdeen anonymously provided £1,500 of his own money to buy seed potatoes for planting.
Ishbel, to help stimulate trade, organized an exhibit of Irish spinning, lace-making and other industries at an international exhibition in Edinburgh. She required her guests at the Castle garden party to appear in clothes made of Irish materials and established the Irish Industries Association which was approved and supported by all sections of the population. Gradually, they began making friends. Irish bands learned to play God Save the Queen, and people cheered the sound. Much of the enthusiasm was generated by the expectation that Mr. Gladstone’s Home Rule bill would be passed by Parliament but it was, in fact defeated by just 30 votes, to the considerable satisfaction of most of the Marjoribanks relatives who were opposed to the idea.
Out of a Job
Mr. Gladstone’s government was defeated at the ensuing election and the Aberdeens were out of a job. During the few months they had spent in Ireland, however, they had won over the Irish people. Crowds cheered their carriage through the streets as they left. Ishbel, who years before, revolted by Ireland’s political violence, had vowed never to set foot in the place, had fallen in love with it. She wrote in her diary, “Ireland is laid on us to do all in our power for her for ever.”
While they rested and contemplated their future, she and her husband embarked on a tour of India, Australia and New Zealand and returned by way of the United States. Wherever they went, they were greeted warmly by Irish emigrants. On board ship, Ishbel organized a school for the passengers’ children.
While they were in America, they took the opportunity of visiting Ishbel’s younger brothers, the honourable Coutts and Archie Marjoribanks. Archie was the unpaid assistant manager on his father’s 200,000-acre Rocking Chair Ranch in Texas. Coutts managed the smaller Horse-Shoe Ranch at Towner, South Dakota. Both their enterprises failed within a few years.
On their last evening in New York, the city’s combined Irish-American societies serenaded the Aberdeens under their hotel window.
Once home, Ishbel once again took up the cudgels on behalf of Gladstone and Home Rule and her fiery speeches were much admired. At the same time, through the Haddo House Association, she resumed her labours to improve the lot of working women and established a monthly magazine for female servants which she called Onward and Upward.. It sold for a ha’penny and carried household hints and home remedies and included a special section for children called Wee Willie Winkie, edited by Ishbel’s daughter Marjorie, later Lady Pentland.
Ishbel was much in demand throughout the kingdom for her inspiring and uplifting speeches. She believed that the best solution to the poverty and over-crowding that afflicted so many people in Britain was emigration to the colonies. To promote that cause and to investigate conditions that emigrants would face she decided to visit Canada in the autumn of 1890. 
She and her husband crossed Canada in a private railway car and, along the way, Ishbel spoke with working women who had recently arrived from Britain. Her account of the trip was published in Onward and Upward in monthly instalments and later as a book, “Through Canada with a Kodak.” While in British Columbia they bought a fruit farm in the Okanagan region which they named Guisachan to provide an occupation for Ishbel’s brother Coutts whose experiences as a South Dakota rancher had been less than successful.
On her return to England, Ishbel again took up the promotion of Irish industry. She and Lord Aberdeen bought a house in London for the sale of Irish lace, clothing and dress materials. When the Chicago World’s Fair was announced in 1888, she and Lord Aberdeen went to America and raised $15,000 to finance an exhibit of Irish exports.
The Aberdeens, anticipating a Liberal victory in the General Election of 1892 and the return of Gladstone to power, were looking forward to a return to Ireland and the resumption of their work there. To their astonishment, however, the new Chief Secretary who was responsible for the resurrected Home Rule Bill objected to Aberdeen’s appointment for personal reasons and Gladstone was forced to accede to his wishes.
The Prime Minister came to dinner and offered Lord Aberdeen the choice of either Secretary of Scotland, Lord Chamberlain, Viceroy of India or Governor General of Canada. He chose Canada as the best of a bad lot. The Irish were dismayed.
After a ten-day crossing of the Atlantic the Aberdeens arrived beneath the ramparts of Quebec in September 1893. After a week’s stay in the Citadel, they took up their official duties in Ottawa.
They had been warned by Lord Ripon, the Colonial Secretary, that as Governor General of Canada, Lord Aberdeen must be strictly non-political. The Canadian government was Conservative and he and Ishbel were conspicuous Liberals. These restrictions, Lord Ripon warned, would be irksome and he added, with rare prescience, “and I fear Lady Aberdeen also will find them so.”
When the Conservative Prime Minister Sir John Thompson died in 1894, Aberdeen, as Governor General, had the responsibility of inviting someone to succeed him.. Both he and Ishbel had taken an intense dislike to the leading candidate, Sir Charles Tupper. Instead Aberdeen, acting on his own and abetted by Ishbel, contrary to advice from London, invited the acting Prime Minister, Senator Sir Mackenzie Bowell, to form a government. Bowell was notably incompetent and a leader of the Orange Order in Ontario, a distinction not likely to endear him to the Catholics.
The strategy behind this extraordinary decision, at least in Ishbel’s mind, was that Bowell would immediately call an election to confirm his Prime Ministership and, being an unpopular figure, would be defeated by Sir Wilfrid Laurier, the Liberal leader, a charming and eloquent man and a great favourite of the Aberdeens.
Bowell dithered and eventually decided, to Ishbel’s annoyance, to soldier on without an election and the country suffered for two years under his misdirection. During all of this time, Ishbel followed the debates closely from a chair in the House of Commons and schemed unconscionably with secret informants, and at private lunches and little dinner parties with parliamentarians, to advance the Liberal cause.
Bowell resigned in 1896 and was succeeded as Conservative leader and Prime Minister by Sir Charles Tupper. In the election that ensued Tupper was defeated by Laurier and Ishbel’s long laid schemes at last were crowned with success.
In a more legitimate role, Ishbel carried off her vice-regal duties with great style. Invitations to Government House were eagerly sought. At state dinners the train of her bejewelled gown was carried by her two small sons, dressed in velvet cavalier costumes. She became famous for her tableaux, dramatizing incidents in Canadian history, in which the household staff, the guests and members of her own family were all drafted to play parts. She and Lord Aberdeen, in honour of the Queen’s Jubilee in 1897, spent $4,000 of their own money to stage a huge pageant in Toronto celebrating Canada’s progress in industry, the arts and sciences and sports. Such expenditures consistently exceeded Lord Aberdeen’s salary of about £10,000 a year and alarmed the Edinburgh lawyers who were managing their personal finances.
National Council of Women
Ishbel spoke to two thousand women in Toronto who had met at her invitation to discuss formation of the National Council of Women — the first time a Governor General’s wife had made a public speech. Ishbel became the first president of the new Council which united all women’s organizations in the country and which continues to thrive.
Ishbel’s other remarkable triumph was the founding of the Victorian Order of Nurses, another Canadian institution which has long survived her departure. Modelled on the Queen’s District Nurses’ Service of Britain, it provides nursing care in the home, especially for the elderly and the chronically ill. It was named for the Queen in honour of her Jubilee Year. Many nurses and doctors who saw their prerogatives being diminished objected but her considerable persuasive powers prevailed.
During their five years in Canada, the Aberdeens conscientiously visited every part of the country to register their presence and to begin to understand the people. Ishbel was by far the more visible of the pair and it was frequently said — not entirely as a joke — that she herself was the real Governor General. When the time came to leave, there were widespread public demonstrations of affection and even those people whose feathers Ishbel had ruffled by her unbridled enthusiasms praised her intellect and her high-minded intentions.
Ishbel confided to her diary: “One almost thinks one’s self in Ireland.”
On her return to Britain in 1898, she took up again her role as president of the International Council of Women, a post to which she had been elected in 1888. She played a leading part in the great assembly attended by five thousand women from more than twenty-five countries to debate women’s roles in the professions, the arts, politics, education, social welfare and world peace. For almost fifty years Ishbel, known affectionately to the members as ‘Grannie” provided effective and conscientious leadership to the movement which eventually attained a membership of twenty million women. and exercised a profound influence in the realization of women’s goals in the postwar world.
In 1906, at the invitation of the Liberal Prime Minister Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, the Aberdeens returned to Ireland and Lord Aberdeen resumed his post as Lord Lieutenant. Living conditions had improved during their absence, thanks in no small measure to Ishbel’s’ initiatives in promoting Irish industry, but the clamour for Home Rule was becoming more insistent and aggressive. The movement was closely associated with the Gaelic language and culture, a tradition which Ishbel had admired since childhood days in the Scottish highlands. Members of the Gaelic League were invited to the Castle to dance to the pipes of Irish regiments and the Irish aristocracy, from the North and the South, came to sing Gaelic songs and to listen to Irish poetry. Ishbel renewed her efforts on behalf of Irish industry and the welfare of rural workers.
Promoting Good Health
She took a special interest in health and particularly infant mortality and tuberculosis. She inaugurated the Women’s National Health Association which she felt, aside from its obvious usefulness, might help bring together the rival political and religious factions. She organized an exhibit, equipped with a gramophone and magic lantern which travelled throughout the country promoting good health habits; a horse-drawn caravan carried it to the most inaccessible places. With government help, the Association established pasteurized milk depots, built hospitals, dispensaries and sanitariums and expanded its activities to include medical and dental inspections for school children, provision of school meals, testing of dairies, baby clinics, first aid and cookery classes. Ishbel was the first woman to be made an honorary member of the British Medical Association.
At the outbreak of war in 1914, the opposing factions in Ireland closed ranks, Irish volunteers joined the British army, and the Conservatives in the House of Commons agreed to support a Home Rule bill, provided that it was not introduced until after the war.
Lord and Lady Aberdeen had expected to remain at their post during the war and, at the end of it, to help celebrate the inauguration of Home Rule. In October, 1914, however, Prime Minister Asquith wrote to Lord Aberdeen, politely acknowledging his many contributions and advising him that, when his nine-year term ended in December, he would not be reappointed. In the New Year Honour List he received the additional title of Marquis, a rank exceeded in the order of precedence only by a dukedom and the king himself. He chose to be Marquis of Temair, Gaelic for Tara, the traditional seat of the kings of Ireland.
Visit to America
Ishbel, although no longer officially associated with Ireland, carried on the work of the National Women’s Health Association. She sold her jewels to help finance the program and solicited contributions from wealthy friends in Britain. She and Lord Aberdeen undertook a fund-raising tour of America which was to have taken just six months but lasted two and a half years. In the end they collected some £25,000 to ensure that the enterprise so hopefully begun would not be abandoned.
They returned from America to the hardships of post-war Britain, including punitive tax policies. Their own finances, so liberally expended in the public service, were seriously depleted. They sold part of the Haddo estates, turned over the house to their eldest son, Lord Haddo, and moved into a house at Cromar, their small estate forty miles from Haddo, where Lord Aberdeen went as a young man to shoot grouse.
While at Cromar, Ishbel and Lord Aberdeen collaborated to publish their reminiscences under the inspired title “We Twa'” ( “We Two.”) which was immediately sold-out and was followed by more recollections, published as “More Cracks with We Twa'” which could be translated (ungrammatically) as “More Chat with We Two.” Lord Aberdeen published a book of his favourite anecdotes, “Tell Me Another,” and Ishbel a collection of her articles called “Musings of A Scottish Granny.”
They celebrated their Golden Wedding anniversary on November 27, 1927 in the house in Grosvenor Square (although it had long since been sold) and received about a thousand guests.
After fifty-seven years together, Lord Aberdeen died at Cromar of a cerebral haemorrhage on March 7, 1934. Ishbel could no longer afford Cromar House and was forced to give it up. Queen Mary who, like other members of the Royal Family, had been a frequent visitor at Cromar, came to tea from Balmoral on Ishbel’s last day in the house. She then moved into a house in Aberdeen acquired for her by her eldest son. In her last public engagement, undertaken without her doctor’s permission, at the age of eighty-two, she officially opened a new Y.W.C.A. building in Birmingham with a prayer for the younger generation “which has come into the world in such troublous times.” As the nations were about to be plunged into another war, her great heart failed on April 18, 1939 and she was buried beside her beloved companion and husband at Haddo House.
10. See the first article of this issue.
11. The Aberdeens’ generosity to their servants and their concern for their welfare was popularly supposed to have inspired J.M. Barrie’s satirical play, “The Admirable Crichton,” in which masters and servants reverse their roles. Aberdeen protested and Barrie apologetically denied any intention to offend.
12. There is a well-known painting by A.E. Emslie which shows the dinner table at Haddo in 1884 with Mr. Gladstone seated at Ishbel’s right, the Earl of Roseberry on her left, and a piper playing in the background.
- A Bonnie Fechter, the Life of Ishbel Marjoribanks, Marchioness of Aberdeen, by Marjorie Pentland, 1952
- Ishbel and the Empire, by Doris French, 1988
For at least fourteen generations members of the family have had to cope with the misspelling and mispronunciation of their name. (It has a well-founded claim to being the world’s most often misspelled.)
Some people have stubbornly insisted on the original name; others, to save time and irritation, have changed the spelling. George Marjoribanks who was captured fighting in the Stuart cause at Preston in 1715 and was transported to Virginia changed his name to Marchbanks. Some of his descendants called themselves Marshbanks. Other members of the family dropped the final s and became Marchbank.
He was Samuel Mandeville Marjoribanks, born December 19, 1770 at Thornhill in Perthshire, the eldest of eight children born to John Marjoribanks and his wife Helen Murdoch of Kilmadock. There is some doubt about the identity of John’s parents. John is known to have been born in 1743 but the parish registers show two John Marjoribankses born in that year within a few weeks of each other. So far, it has not been possible to say with any certainty which of the two couples involved were Samuel’s grandparents.
In any case, John Marjoribanks, Samuel’s father, a dyer or fuller by trade, perhaps seeking to improve the family’s fortunes, sailed to Charleston, South Carolina, arriving there in 1785 or 1788. From Charleston he went to work in White’s Mill.
When his family in Perthshire didn’t hear from him and had no news of his whereabouts, his eldest son Samuel Mandeville Marjoribanks went to America in 1794 to look for him. Landing in Charleston he met a William Peden who told him that Samuel’s father had gone to work at White’s Mill. Samuel shortly discovered that his father had died soon after arriving in America.
His mission having come to a sad end, Samuel was about to return to Scotland when he met and fell in love with Elizabeth Robinson, the daughter of Alexander Robinson and Margaret Cameron. They were married 6 November 1797. Elizabeth was prepared to go with her new husband when he returned to his native land but, when they arrived at the Charleston docks, her courage failed her and they turned back.
Elizabeth, nevertheless, is described by one of her grandchildren as, “a woman of strong character and possessing wonderful energy.” Samuel too is described on his tombstone in the cemetery of Concord Presbyterian Church at Woodward, South Carolina, as “a man of remarkable firmness. prudence and piety.” He was an elder of Concord Church for some forty years. They were happily married for almost fifty years. Elizabeth died in 1846 and Samuel in 1851. They are buried together.
It is not clear when Samuel’s father changed his name from Marjoribanks to Banks. His name appears in probate records of 1790 as Banks. In any case, all of Samuel’s children were called Banks. There were eleven of them in all, one of whom died in infancy.
Little is known about most of the children. Their daughter Juliana — known in the family as Julia — was born 11 March, 1804 and married Col. Joseph Ragsdale Coleman. Col. Coleman was not a regular church-goer and Juliana, with a tender concern for his immortal soul, promised him that, if he would go to church regularly, she would go with him to a church of whatever denomination he chose. The colonel chose the Friendship Baptist Church in north-central Fairfield County. Juliana, true to her promise, gave up her Presbyterian inheritance and established a Baptist tradition that persists among her descendants to this day.
She and her husband are said to have been so fat that they had to have a buggy specially built to convey the two of them back and forth to church.
Col. Coleman died 26 June 1859 of “bilious fever” at the age of 56. Juliana survived him for a dozen years, dying 21 December 1871. They are both buried in the cemetery of the Friendship Baptist Church, about five miles from the graves of Juliana’s parents.
It is not surprising, given their pious upbringing, that two of the five sons of Samuel and Elizabeth became Presbyterian ministers. William Banks spent his career in Fairfield and Chester counties but his brother Alexander Robinson Banks, who was born 26 June 1808, travelled widely and became quite famous throughout the South for his piety and his eloquence.
It was said that he had been raised in the faith, “the Bible, the Shorter Catechism and the Creed being taught to him as soon as he could lisp.”
As a young man, he worked as a clerk in Winnsboro, South Carolina, saved his money, and enrolled in the Hopewell Academy in the York District. In 1831, at the age of 23, he affiliated himself with the Presbyterian Church. After a brief period at a college in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, he become a teacher. He had charge of a school in Pickensville, Alabama when he experienced a calling and decided to commit his life to the work of the church. He spent the next three years studying at the Theological Seminary at Columbia, South Carolina and in April, 1836 was licensed as Presbyterian preacher and was ordained an evangelist.
Hardships and Privations
His first challenge was to carry the word to the wilds of Arkansas. “A History of Presbyterianism in North Louisiana,” gives this account of his early days:
“He immediately began his work under many disadvantages, undergoing hardships and privations that would have discouraged many men, travelling for days on horseback, through wild, unknown regions, swimming creeks and rivers, through tempest and sunshine but always found kind hearts and hospitable treatment.”
During his years in Arkansas, from 1836 to 1865, he organized, or helped to organize, more than twenty churches. While there, in 1838, he married Elizabeth Pratt, of Hebron, New Hampshire, who was at that time the principal of the high school at Spring Hill, Arkansas. They had two children, Henry Howard Banks, who followed his father into the ministry, and Alexander, who died at the age of five. Elizabeth died on 5 September 1883 at El Dorado, Arkansas and is buried in the old Presbyterian Cemetery across the street from the site of El Dorado’s First Presbyterian Church where he husband preached.
Three years later Alexander was married again to Mrs. Mary B. Macon, widow of John T. Macon of Hardman, Tennessee, and they had four sons and three daughters.
He preached for twenty-three years at Rocky Mount and Banks Chapel in Louisiana where he was loved and admired by people of all denominations. After spending six weeks visiting a dozen of his old parishes in Arkansas, he was taken with a chill and died on 23 September 1891 at the age of 83.
There are many descendants of Samuel Mandeville Marjoribanks throughout the South. Notable among them is James Green III who is descended from Samuel’s daughter Juliana. James, who was born in Savannah, Georgia in 1949 and now lives in Winnsboro, South Carolina, is the unofficial genealogist of the Banks branch of the family. He tries to attend all highland games in the South, carrying the Marjoribanks banner in the parade and greeting visitors at a Marjoribanks tent which he rents at his own expense. He is also a computer expert and manages a Marjoribanks page on the Internet’s World Wide Web.
There is also a numerous family of Brooms in South Carolina, descended from Thomas Furman Broom who married Juliana’s daughter Cecily Aline.
There is a group which shares descent from both the Banks and the Weir families who meet regularly to celebrate their common ancestry. The linkage between the two families arises because a grandson of Samuel Mandeville Banks (William Henry) and a granddaughter (Leila) both married members of the Weir family. The 1996 reunion was held at the home of Richard Brian Weir on the Banks Weir road near Blackstock, South Carolina.
One of the Banks line, Margaret Corinne Cannon, put her name forward in 1996 for election to the South Carolina state legislature. She was contesting a seat recently vacated by a kinsman, Claude Marchbanks. Claude’s ancestry is not known. Margaret is a Banks/Weir, descended from Elizabeth, the daughter of Samuel Mandeville Banks, and her husband David Weir.
William Banks Dove, who also traced his ancestry to Elizabeth and David, was Secretary of State for South Carolina around the turn of the century.
Among other Banks descendants of whom we have a record:
* Mrs. Meredith Guinn of Montclair. California, and Gerald S. Boswell of Zebulon, North Carolina are both descended from Samuel’s son John (1798-1859) who was a magistrate in Chester County during the 1840s.
* Donna Banks Stroud of Angleton, Texas, is descended from Rev. Alexander Robinson Banks.
* Staff Sergeant Robert Henry Laxton, now serving with the U.S. Air Force in Germany, is descended from Samuel’s daughter Margaret and her husband Henry Moore.