Alexander Whitelaw


Whitelaw was born at Drumpark in Monklands and educated in Sunderland. He studied mining before entering the Gartsherrie Ironworks aged 18, where he soon became manager. In 1852 he was made a partner of the Eglinton Iron Company, and in 1860 became a partner of a family firm, William Baird & Company.

He took a considerable interest in education, as the family firm maintained schools for the children of its 8,000-strong workforce. In 1873, when the Education Act came into law, he became a member of the first School Board of Glasgow and greatly improved the city's schooling system, for instance by securing sites for 15 new schools.

He was elected to parliament in 1874, sitting as a Conservative, but overwork led to his early death, aged 56, on 1 July 1879. He had married Barbara Forbes in 1859 and they had four sons and five daughters.

MR. WHITELAW was born at Drumpark, Old Monkland Parish, in 1823. His mother was Janet Baird, the eldest of the family so well known as the "Bairds of Gartsherrie."

He was educated at Grange School, Sunderland. After devoting some time to the study of mining, and otherwise qualifying himself for the business he was to follow, he entered the Gartsherrie Ironworks in 1841, when eighteen years of age. In the course of a few years he rose to be manager. In 1852 he became a partner of the Eglinton Iron Company; and in 1860, of his uncles' firm, William Baird & Company. The commercial department of the latter business, which is in Glasgow, was placed under Mr. Whitelaw's care in 1864 - from which date he came more intimately into contact with the men and affairs of our city.

The industry, energy, and ability which he brought to bear on his business duties he displayed also in other branches of work. He was a thoroughly public-spirited man, entering heartily and intelligently into all that interested those around him.

From an early period he had taken great interest in education. Messrs. Baird had excellent schools for the children of the 8,000 workpeople in their employment, the organization and management of which gave Mr. Whitelaw much congenial occupation. He was equally interested in seeing churches and pastoral supervision provided for the grown-up people.

In ecclesiastical matters he was a staunch supporter of the Established Church of Scotland, valuing it chiefly as giving the opportunity of carrying out the principle of endowed territorial church work. What he desired to see was ministers faithfully bringing the Gospel home to the people of their parishes, and having consideration for them in everything. As to schools, while anxious to promote their efficiency in other respects, he gave special attention to the maintenance of religious instruction from the Bible and Shorter Catechism, according to "use and wont."

In 1873, when the Education Act came into operation, he was elected a member of the first School Board of Glasgow. It was in this work - in the organization, initiation and progress of the operations under the first School Board - that Mr. Whitelaw rendered the public service in Glasgow with which his name will remain chiefly associated. His zeal and previous exertions in the cause of education and his general business ability pointed him out as the fittest member of the Board to be placed in the chair, and accordingly he was elected to that post. He at once threw himself into the duties with characteristic thoroughness and energy. Everything had to be planned; there was nothing to guide the Board but the provisions of the new Education Act and the requirements of the city. The Chairman, however, at once laid down the general lines of procedure, and set himself with his colleagues to organize both the duties of the Board and the work to be undertaken under its direction. An office staff was appointed, a school census of the city was taken, sites were secured for new schools, building plans were obtained, methods were adopted for putting in exercise in the most considerate and yet in a firm way the compulsory powers conferred by the Act; teachers were selected, and regulations made for the conducting of the schools; and in all this work, although the Board was subdivided into committees for carrying out the details, the organization lay chiefly with the Chairman.

He was so interested in the subject and took so comprehensive a grasp of it in all its branches and bearings that he was ever ready with definite suggestions, founded upon a close study of the requirements of the case. In every question involving statistics or arithmetical calculations it was surprising how much personal trouble he took. Every statement of the kind seemed to pass his independent verification. It became evident that the hours spent at the Board offices were only a small portion of the time which he devoted to the duties. At the end of eight short months the Board were able to report that their work was fully organized; that they had ascertained that additional school accommodation was required for 22,000 children; that they had secured sites for fifteen out of the thirty new schools needed, and that they had made considerable progress with building plans. The tact and skill with which Mr. Whitelaw managed to keep the members of the Board working harmoniously together, notwithstanding wide differences of opinion on many subjects, was remarkable. He enjoyed their unanimous confidence and respect, and not the less so because he made no secret of his own decided opinions. The second School Board concluded a tribute to his memory in these words - "This community will never fully know how much they owe to Mr. Whitelaw for the efficient and rapid development of schools and of the school system in this city, under the Education Act of 1872."

At the General Election of 1874 Mr. Whitelaw was elected one of the members of Parliament for the city. He was a decided Conservative, but not a bigoted partizan. He was ready to give his services in any cause which commanded itself to his judgment, whether his political friends or his opponents were its foremost advocates. At the opening of the session of 1875 he seconded the Address on the Queen's Speech.

In the notice of Mr. James Baird reference has already been made in these pages to the Baird Trust - the offer of half a million sterling to promote evangelistic and church work in connection with the Church of Scotland. Mr. Whitelaw not only was appointed one of the trustees to administer the gift, but he had much to do with the formation of the Trust. He was his uncle's confidential counsellor in this as in other matters, and it was with his aid extending over a considerable length of time, that the lines of the famous Baird Trust were drawn.

Although somewhat stern in manner, Mr. Whitelaw was genial and kindly at heart. He was universally respected in Glasgow, as was testified by the subscriptions to a memorial portrait presented to the Corporation of the city after his death - the subscription list including many who differed from him in opinion on political and ecclesiastical matters. In private life he was much beloved - a devoted husband and affectionate father.

His death took place at the comparatively early age of fifty-six, on 1st July, 1879. He had had a paralytic seizure three years before, brought on by over-work.(*)

In 1859 he married Barbara Forbes, daughter of the late R. Lockhart, Esq. of Cambusnethan. Mrs. Whitelaw has survived him, with a family of four sons and five daughters.

(*) In early life he suffered from weak action of the heart, and had in consequence to spend two winters on the Continent, chiefly in Italy. While abroad he turned with characteristic energy to the study of languages, and became much interested in both German and Italian. Many years afterwards, when in London on public business, a friend who was staying with him in the hotel remarked that some former occupant of the room had left an Italian exercise in the blotting-book. Mr. Whitelaw explained that the exercise was his, and that he sometimes amused his leisure in that way. Alas, that the leisure came so seldom!

Back to Contents