Samuel Laing

Samuel Laing
  • Born:

    St Andrews Square, Edinburgh, Summer 1811

  • Died:

    Rockhills, Sydenham Hill, London, August 1897

  • Father:

    Samuel Laing of Papdale

  • Mother:

    Agnes Kelly

  • Married:

    Mary Cowan, 18 August 1840

  • Children:

    Eight including Francis, Mary, Cecilia and Malcolm

Samuel Laing was born in Edinburgh but into a well-known Orcadian family, the Laings of Papdale. His mother Agnes died the year after he was born and he spent his early years in England, being looked after by his grandmother and aunt.

When his brother, the lawyer and historian Malcolm Laing died in 1818, Samuel Laing Snr inherited the Papdale estate in Kirkwall. He brought his son, and daughter Mary, to Orkney in the following spring, when Samuel was almost eight. He began his schooling at the long-established Kirkwall Grammar School but when the master, David Paterson, deserted his post in 1823, Samuel was sent to a school in Hampshire at the end of the year. His father had "no good opinion of a Scotch education", so after Hampshire, Samuel was sent to Houghton-le-Spring near Durham. He then spent two years at home in Kirkwall studying with a tutor from St John's College, Cambridge.

Samuel Laing Snr described his son's education as the principal object of his life for many years and the investment paid off handsomely as Samuel graduated from St John's College in 1832 as second wrangler. This meant he came second in the Mathematical Tripos, regarded as the most important exam in Britain; and not just by the university; the results were given great publicity and published in the Times. Mathematics was considered so important at Cambridge that up to 1851 a student could not obtain a classical degree without passing the mathematics exam. Cambridge described their mathematics students as requiring "breadth of reasoning, readiness to generalise, perception of analogies, quickness in the assimilation of new ideas, a keen sense of beauty and order and, above all, intuitive powers of the highest kind."

Samuel was elected a fellow of the college on 17 March 1834 and won the Smith's Prize, awarded for the best essay on physics or applied mathematics by a junior BA. In Cambridge at that time, most of the teaching of students was done by private coaches and he stayed on at the university as a coach until 1835. He then took a degree in law and, after surviving an attack of smallpox, was called to the bar in June 1837. That year, Samuel's brother-in-law, Henry Baxter, died suddenly, leaving him a legacy of £500, with which he could support himself until he was established.

In late February 1839, after months of nervous headaches, he left on a tour of Europe with his father. They visited France, Italy and Switzerland, before Samuel returned to England, where he became private secretary to Henry Labouchere, later Lord Taunton, president of the Board of Trade.

In 1840 Laing was appointed Counsel to the Rail Road Commissioners at the Board of Trade. This was a very important position at the height of the railway boom and carried a salary of £500 per annum, on top of the £300 he continued to receive as private secretary. He lost this position in September 1841, when the Conservatives came to power and Gladstone became President of the Board of Trade.

As Secretary of the Railway Department 1842-47 Laing, with William Gladstone, was a member of the Dalhousie Railway Commission that produced the 1844 Railways Act and Samuel is credited with suggesting the idea of Parliamentary Trains. These were trains that had to run at least once a day, in both directions on every line, at not less than 12 miles per hour, including stops. They had to stop at every station and had to provide covered third class coaches at no more than 1d a mile. When these trains were first introduced, third-class passengers were 28% of the total, in 1875 they made up 78% and the parliamentary trains are given most of the credit for this increase.

In 1842 he won the £100 Atlas Prize with his essay, National Distress: its Causes and Remedies. John Stuart Mill quotes facts from it in his Principles of Political Economy, and the essay is quoted several times by Karl Marx in Das Kapital.

The literally unimaginable conditions Laing describes in the manufacturing cities clearly touched and angered him. He wrote,

"Anything is better than this, anything better than that the bulk of the population should be ground by want and misery down to a state of contented degradation."

He noted that, in agricultural districts, 204 out of 1000 reached the age of 70, in London this number was 104, in Birmingham 81, in Leeds 79 and in Manchester 63.

However, some sentences do mark him out as a man of his time -

"The emancipation of the female sex from the regular labour of productive industry, and their appropriation to the domestic duties of life is justly reckoned one of the greatest achievements of European civilization"

In 1845 Laing drew up 240 reports on railway projects for the Board of Trade. He went on another European trip with his father to recover, travelling up the Rhine. That year he gave up his civil service position and began to act as counsel for railway companies submitting projects to the Rail Road Commissioners. He earned £11,000 in 1846.

When Arthur Anderson, Shetlander and founder of P&O, stood as candidate for Orkney and Shetland in 1847, Laing came to Orkney to chair his election committee. He wrote political pamphlets under the name Magnus Troil. Anderson won the seat but only served one term.

Laing was asked to become Chairman and Managing Director of the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway in 1848 and, over the next five years almost doubled passenger numbers. He was still keen to provide affordable train travel for the poor and is credited with introducing day trips.

"The Brighton railway had inaugurated them [cheap Sunday excursions] not many years before with 2/6 day trips to Brighton and 4/- day trips to Hastings and Eastbourne. That company had had the good fortune to possess as Chairman and Managing Director a benevolent philosopher, Mr Samuel Laing, agnostic of the Spencer and Huxley school, moralist and worker of good deeds, author of Modern Science and Modern Thought and other pithy volumes; and it was primarily to him, if I mistake not, that the toilers of London owed this boon."

Alfred Rosling Bennett London and Londoners in the 1850s and 1860s 1924

Laing was Chairman of the Crystal Palace Company from 1852 to 1855 and erected the first pillar when it was moved to Sydenham Hill. The London, Brighton and South Coast Railway were major shareholders in the re-erected Palace. They laid a new line from London Bridge Station and had a railway station in the grounds, connected to the Palace by a glass covered colonnade. A shuttle service charged 3d for the 14 miles.

Crystal Palace was intended to provide education, enlightenment and "healthful exercise and wholesome recreation" protected from the weather. Collections were to be made of items of "high educational character, not only direct instruction but refining influence". It had a concert hall that could seat 4000. In thirty years the Palace had 57 million visitors.

Samuel Laing was Liberal MP for the Northern Burghs (Kirkwall, Wick, Dingwall and Dornoch) 1852 -57 and resigned from the railway in 1855. Having lost his seat in 1857, he regained it in 1859 and became Financial Secretary to the Treasury, second in precedence after the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who is a member of the cabinet. Gladstone was the Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time.

In 1860 he went to India to serve as the Finance Minister for four years. In a lecture he gave to the Kirkwall Young Men's Literary Association in 1864, he said he had started for India at a week's notice, presumably on the death of his predecessor Sir James Wilson. He and Sir James Wilson and the Viceroy, Lord Canning, are credited with restoring India's financial equilibrium after the Mutiny of 1857-58. His budget speech of 1861-62 helped to initiate the present urban local government system, by proposing that local services should be based on local resources.

In his lecture he said that when he arrived in India he

...had just three months in which to prepare, get in from the different departments and local authorities and revise estimates in the minutest detail of every branch of civil and military expenditure of our great Indian Empire".

He found a budget deficit of £6 million and unpopular and unproductive new taxes. In three months he saved £5 million out of an annual budget of £28 million and in the next year saved another £2 million. This was largely by reducing army, navy and civil establishments. He recalled that he had been called to the railway company when its finances were at a low ebb and large reductions were necessary and that it had been the same in India. He observed,

"What was wanted in each case was simply patience in hearing evidence before coming to a decision, common sense in arriving at a sound decision and firmness and promptitude in carrying it out…Could one battalion, stationed in a central spot and kept in a state of readiness and efficiency be safely trusted to do the work of two... It was done by taking every opportunity of entrusting local affairs to local management and enlarging the powers and responsibilities of provincial governors and chief commissioners.

When Laing came back from India he went back to work at both ends of the country. Without his guiding hand, the LSBCR had made unwise investments in new lines and by 1866 they were on the verge of bankruptcy. All of the Board were forced to resign, except Allen Sarle, of Cornish parentage but born at Westness in Rousay in 1828. He had become the company accountant the year before Samuel Laing had resigned as Chairman. Samuel was persuaded to return as Chairman and, with a new board, and Allen Sarle as general manager, he restored the company's profitability. Laing remained in his post for another 27 years, until he was 82. During that time, the company pioneered electric lighting in their passenger coaches and introduced Pullman coaches.

Laing returned to Parliament as well, representing the Northern Burghs again from 1865 to 1868 and Orkney and Shetland from 1873 to 1885. According to David McKie in 'McKie's Gazateer, A Local History of Britain', Laing played a small but significant role in extending the electoral franchise.

"He had a decisive influence on Diraeli's extension of the franchise in 1867, when he moved an amendment, and persuaded Conservatives to back him in that amendment, taking reform well beyond what had at first been proposed. Its effect was to remove one Member from all boroughs whose electorate was under 10,000 instead of just from those of under 7,000 as the Bill stipulated. As many as seventy-two Conservatives backed him against the government, contributing to an outcome which Asa Briggs, in his book Victorian People, judges to be 'far more democratic than Disraeli, or indeed, most of his opponents, had ever intended.'"

Until the 1850s, investing in business was a risky undertaking, as investors had unlimited liability for losses incurred if a business failed and could lose many times the amount they had invested. The Companies Act of 1862 simplified the formation of limited liability companies and the General Credit and Finance Company was launched in the following year, with Samuel Laing as its chairman. Its prospectus said that it planned "to undertake all such operations as an intelligent and experienced Capitalist might effect on his own with a capital of millions." In other words, the company would invest its shareholders' money in "industrial enterprises, Public works and Railway undertakings" and "conduct mercantile transactions."

In 1868, Laing, with two other members of the GCFC Board; his business partner James Thompson Mackenzie, and Philip Rose, a very successful lawyer and an advisor to Disraeli, developed the idea further and designed the Foreign & Colonial Government Trust. They asked Lord Westbury, a Privy Councillor and ex-Lord Chancellor to become chairman of the Trust. Its stated objective was

"To provide the investor of moderate means the same advantage as the large capitalist in diminishing risk in Foreign & Colonial stocks by spreading the investment over a number of stocks."

The idea wasn't greeted with great excitement, though the Times did say that,

"The scheme in its principles supplies a want that has long been felt."

John Newlands, in his book, Put Not Your Trust in Money wrote,

"Rose, Laing, Mackenzie and Westbury used their unique combination of experience and talents to 'invent' the investment trust. The fact that the Foreign & Colonial exists to this day, and flourishes, is a tribute to their ingenuity."

The original share issue raised £16.1 million and The Foreign and Colonial Investment Trust Co is now one of the largest global growth investment trusts in the world; in August 2013 it had assets of £2.6 billion.

The year in which he left Parliament, 1885, saw the publication of his first book of popular science, Modern Science and Modern Thought. Problems of the Future followed in 1889 and Human Origins in 1892, when he was 79 and 81 respectively, and still chairman of the railway company. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in his book, Through the Magic Door, wrote,

"Talking of popular science, I know no better books for exciting a man's first interest, and giving a broad general view of the subject, than these of Samuel Laing. Who would have imagined that the wise savant and gentle dreamer of these volumes was also the energetic secretary of a railway company? But that a man with so pronounced a scientific brain as Laing should continue all his life to devote his time to dull routine work, remaining in harness until extreme old age with his soul open to every fresh idea and his brain acquiring new concretions of knowledge is indeed a remarkable fact. Read these books and you will be a fuller man.

I had met someone… who made some remark about the prehistoric remains in the valley of the Somme. I knew about these and showed him that I did. I then threw out some allusion to the rock temples of Yucatan, which he picked up and enlarged upon. He spoke of Peruvian civilization… I cited the Titicaca image… He spoke of Quaternary man… Each was more and more amazed at the fullness and the accuracy of the information of the other, until like a flash the explanation crossed my mind. "You are reading Samuel Laing's Human Origins!" I cried. So he was, and so, by a coincidence, was I".

The Laing family lived at Perrymount in Sydenham from 1847 to 1849 and then for some time in Brighton where they were visited by American humourist Charles Leland.

"Samuel Laing, M.P., the chairman of the Brighton Railway, had at that time a house in Brighton, with several sons and daughters, the latter of whom have all been very remarkable for beauty and accomplishments. In this home there was a hospitality so profuse, so kind, so brilliant and refined, that I cannot really remember to have ever seen it equalled, and as we fully participated in it at all times in every form, I should feel that I had omitted the deepest claim to my gratitude if I did not here acknowledge it.

Mr. Laing was or is of a stock which deeply appealed to my sympathies, for he is the son of the famous translator of the Heimskringla, a great collection of Norse sagas, which I had read, and in which he himself somewhat aided. Of late years, since he has retired from more active financial business, Mr. Laing has not merely turned his attention to literature; he has deservedly distinguished himself by translating, as I may say, into the clearest and most condensed or succinct and lucid English ever written, so as to be understood by the humblest mind, the doctrines of Darwin, Huxley, and the other leading scientific minds of the day

This family enters so largely into my reminiscences and experiences, that a chapter would hardly suffice to express all that I can recall of their hospitality for years, of the dinners, hunts, balls, excursions, and the many distinguished people whom I have met under their roof. It is worth noting of Mr. Laing's daughters, that Mary, now Mrs. Kennard, is at the head of the sporting-novel writers; that the beautiful Cecilia, now Mrs. MacRae, was pronounced by G. H. Lewes, who was no mean judge, to be the first amateur pianiste in England; while the charming "Floy," or Mrs. Kennedy, is a very able painter. With their two very pretty sisters, they formed in 1870 as brilliant, beautiful, and accomplished a quintette as England could have produced."

Samuel Laing died on 6 August 1897 at Rockhills, the house in the Crystal Palace grounds on Sydenham Hill where Joseph Paxton had lived. He left an estate valued at £96,861.

Principal source: The Autobiography of Samuel Laing of Papdale 1780-1868 R P Fereday 2000