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John Forbes of Bombay

1743-1821

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John “Bombay Jock” Forbes built a trading and banking empire in India that survives to this day in the form of Forbes & Company, one of the oldest continuously operating firms in the world. He left his fortunes and estates to his nephew Charles Forbes, who become the first Baronet of Newe.

John Forbes was the second son of John Forbes, 2nd Laird of Bellabeg and Christian, daughter of Rev. John Shephert, Minister of Logie Coldstone. John was the grandson of George Forbes, 1st Laird of Bellabeg, and great-grandson of William Forbes, 5th Laird of Newe. The Forbes of Newe were descended from Sir William Forbes (1385 – 1445) of Pitsligo, second son of Sir John Forbes of the Black Lip, and immediate younger brother Alexander, 1st Lord Forbes.

John Michie, a kinsman of the Forbes of Bellabeg, most likely secured John’s position as purser for three East India Company ships, the Asia, the Bute, and the Bessborough in 1764. After three years, Forbes was authorized by the Court of East India Company to act as a “Free Mariner” and later was a part of the select category of “Free Merchants” in India. He created Forbes & Company, Ltd., in 1767 to conduct the business of trading Indian cotton. As the Indian trade with Great Britain boomed, Forbes diversified into shipping and shipbuilding. With its vast financial holdings, the company expanded into banking and was eventually appointed banker to the Government of Bombay. This developed into the State Bank of India. Alliances with Ritchie Stuart & Co. and the house of Campbell lead to the formation of Forbes, Stuart and Campbell and a further widening of Company interests. An association with the Swedish Match Company resulted in the creation of the Western India Match Company.

In 1790, his nephew Charles Forbes joined his uncle in India and learned the business. He was the son of John’s elder brother, Rev. George Forbes of Leochel and Katherine Stewart of “Inveraury” in Strathdon. John Forbes returned to Britain in 1796 and bought a townhouse in Fitzroy Street in London. His long-term investments allowed him to make a series of acquisition of Forbes ancestral lands in Strathdon that included Ledmacay, Culquoich, Culquaharrie, and Ardgeith. He also purchased the estates of Newe from James Forbes of Seaton. James had acquired the estate from John Forbes, 9th Laird of Newe, who had been a Major in the British 29th Regiment. He had become bankrupt and died in King's Bench prison in 1792, where he had been imprisoned for nine years.

“Bombay Jock” was also involved in many charitable endeavors, including raising funds for the Royal Scots Corporation of London, a charity that supported Scots in need within London. He also lent over £10,000 to landowners in Aberdeenshire, including Sir William Forbes of Craigievar, 5th Baronet, (1755-1816.)

When Forbes died in 1821 at his house in London, his fortune was estimate at just under £350,000 (over US$20 million today), excluding his estates. He left several bequests, including £10,000 to build a lunatic asylum at Aberdeen. His left his estates of Newe to nephew Charles Forbes and bequeathed him funds for the specific purpose of enlarging the family home initially built in 1604. Charles Forbes selected Marischal College architect Archibald Simpson to greatly expand what was to become Castle Newe.

"Bombay Jock’s” funeral was an extraordinary affair, as described by Alexander Laing:

"His nephews brought down the body in great pomp to the family sepulchre at Strathdon. On their arrival at Aberdeen, the Magistrates and gentlemen followed the Hearse in funeral procession, from the Town Hall to the confines of the city. The cavalcade moved off at twelve o clock noon and the attendance was spontaneous consisting of the most distinguished citizens, the Clergy, the Principals and Professors of King's and Marischal Colleges, the Managers of the Infirmary and the Lunatic Asylum to whom the defunct had made great largesse’s, and were joined by the seven Incorporated Trades and walked in the following order

"Three Town Sergeants with reversed halberts well mounted in crape, The Incorporated Trades four a breast each preceded by their proper officers and the youngest incorporation in front, The Burgesses of Guild of Old and New Aberdeen ,with many of the gentlemen and inhabitants from both cities and neighbourhood, The Managers of the Lunatic Asylum and Infirmary, The Principals and Professors of both Colleges in their gowns, each preceded by their Sacrist bearing his mace. The hearse containing the Body and drawn by four horses. The nephews and relatives of the defunct, followed in a coach drawn by four horses and three other carriages."

(Alexander Laing, The Donean Tourist, Giving an Account of the Battles, Castle, Gentlemen’s Seats etc., J. Booth, 1828, p. 61-3)

His tomb is in the Strathdon Parish Churchyard in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. The inscription reads:

"A dutiful son, an affectionate brother, a warm and steady friend ; his amiable manners and goodness of heart endeared him to all who knew him — his active benevolence was extended to all who stood in need of assistance. But, the "widow and fatherless" in India and in Britain, were the special objects of his protection. This monument was erected by his nephew, Sir Charles Forbes, Baronet of Newe and Edinglassie. 1837."

Forbes Street in Bombay (Mumbai) was named for Forbes. In the 20th century, this street was renamed V. B. Gandhi Marg, in honor of Dr. Vithal Balkrishna Gandhi (1896 –1969), an Indian social reformer, political leader and businessman. In 2007, Hafeez Contractors built One Forbes, a seven-story office building near the Bombay Stock Exchange, Reserve Bank of India, and High Court.

For more information, see Glenbuchat Heritage Archive (http://www.glenbuchatheritage.com) specifically “Bombay Jock” and the lecture “Bombay Jock: Merchant Adventurer of the Early British Empire in Asia," by Dr. Andrew Mackillop, Aberdeen University.

Top: John Forbes, 1744 - 1821. Of New Strathdon, Aberdeenshire, formerly of Bombay, by William Ward, National Gallery of Scotland. Middle: Tomb of John Forbes, Strathdon Parish Churchyard, Aberdeenshire, Scotland. Bottom: One Forbes, Mumbai, India.