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Sir Charles Forbes of Newe and Edinglassie

1774–1849

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Sir Charles Forbes of Newe and Edinglassie, 1st Baronet, (1774–1849) was the head of the first mercantile house in India and later became a politician and philanthropist.
Forbes was the son of the Rev. George Forbes of Leochel and Katherine Stewart of “Inveraury” in Strathdon. He was one of 11 children and was the great-grandson of George Forbes of Bellabeg (1668 - 1745.) George Forbes was the son of William Forbes, 5th Laird of Newe (died 1698), who was descended from Alexander, 1st Lord Pitsligo (died 1636.)

Charles Forbes attended Aberdeen University but left in 1790 at age 16 to join his uncle John Forbes (1743-1821) in Bombay, India. John himself had joined the East India Company in 1764 at the age of 21 and after three years created his own business of trading Indian cotton. His company Forbes & Company Ltd., established in 1767, expanded into ship brokerage, ship building and banking. Within a few years, his company was appointed banker to the Government of Bombay. As a result of his successful business, John Forbes regained the family properties of Newe and Bellabeg, which had been lost in bankruptcy.

His nephew Charles Forbes learned the business in India and retuned to Scotland in about 1810. In 1811, he married Elizabeth Cotgrave. They had three children: John, who died before his father; Charles, who inherited the title; and Elizabeth, who married General, Lord James Hay, second son of the seventh Marquess of Tweeddale.

Forbes was elected to the House of Commons in Parliament for the borough of Beverley (pop. 7,432) from 1812 to 1818. From 1818 to 1832, he represented Malmesbury (pop. 2,200). Although he resided in Aberdeenshire, he and other Members of Parliament could “stand for” boroughs in England in order to become elected to the House of Commons. The number of borough electors could range from 10 to 12,000. In 1831, British started citizens especially in the growing cities, agitated for greater representation. This led to the Great Reform Act of 1832, also known as the Representation of the People Act 1832. This abolished tiny districts, gave representation to cities, gave the vote to small landowners, tenant farmers, shopkeepers, householders who paid a yearly rental of £10 or more, and some lodgers.

As a conservative, Forbes was a strong opponent of the Reform Act. During debates in the House, he referred to the Act as "the vile Reform Bill, that hideous monster, the most frightful that ever showed its face in that house." Ironically, in his opposition to the Act, he made a strong case for women’s suffrage. As reported in the minutes of the House of Commons for July 8, 1831, he asked other Members on what grounds they opposed giving the vote to women: “Ladies had the right of voting for Directors to the East-India Company, and if the right of voting was grounded on the possession of property, there ought to be no distinction of sex.” The Reform Act passed in the House Commons in 1831 and was endorsed by the House of Lords in 1832. This stripped Forbes of his seat representing Malmesbury. He ran for office representing Middlesex (with a population of 1,358,130) but lost to pro-union radical Joseph Hume.

Forbes was an ardent philanthropist and strong advocate for the people of India, with whom he lived for many years. One of his last acts as a Member of Parliament was an Act to appropriate funds to procure a supply of water for the inhabitants of Bengal. He also spoke publicly. In the August 13, 1836, edition of The Times, Forbes wrote that he had “perfect confidence in the honour and veracity of the natives of India.” In April 1840, a statue of him was commissioned in appreciation of his efforts on the behalf of India. The statue, sculpted by Sir Francis Leggatt Chantrey, was placed in the town hall of Bombay (now Mumbai.) Sir Francis also sculpted a bust made from ivory which is now a part of the Thomson Collection at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, Canada.

Forbes was elected Lord Rector of Aberdeen University from 1814–1819. On the death of his uncle in 1821, Forbes succeeded to the entailed estates of the Forbeses of Newe, and was created a baronet by patent in 1823. After a lengthy legal process, he was denied his claim to the attainted peerage of Pitsligo, but was served heir male general in 1833. He died suddenly in November 1849. His baronetcy and estate were inherited by his young grandson, his late son John’s only son Charles (1832-1852), and then by John’s younger brother Charles (1803-1877).

The company that he took over from his uncle John Forbes, is still in operation today. Forbes & Company Ltd, one of the oldest continuing businesses in the world, was taken over by the Tata Group and in 2001 was acquired by the Shapoorji Pallonji Group. The company is involved in the three main areas of engineering, shipping and logistics, and business automation.

Top: Portrait by Sir Henry Raeburn, National Library of Wales; Middle: Statue sculpted by Sir Francis Leggatt Chantrey, Bombay Town Hall; Bottom: Forbes & Co LTD headquarters in 1810 and today.