Annie Pitcairn Robley

Portrait of Annie Pitcairn Robley, contributed by her grandson, David G. Colwell

Annie Pitcairn Robley was born on 2nd January 1866, the eldest daughter of Harrington Robley, a Ship's Stores Merchant of Robley & Co.,and Isabelle Pitcairn. She had 3 brothers and 3 sisters, but her younger brother, Harrington, died in 1874 when he was 6 years old.

At the time of the 1881 census the family were living at 46, Colquhoun St. Row, Dumbarton. Annie's eldest brother, Christopher, was absent in Glasgow, where he was employed as a mercantile clerk, but the rest of her family were recorded at Row. These were her father, Harrington (56), her mother, Isabella,(45); one brother, William Pitcairn (17), and 3 sisters, Isabella (10), Margaret (9) and Josephine (7). Annie herself was 15.

Although brought up in Scotland, and descended from a Scottish mother, Annie’s ancestors on the paternal side came from across the border, in the County of Cumberland.

William Pitcairn Robley writing from Surrey in 1935, said: "My father was Harrington Robley, he died in 1895 at the age of 75. I always knew that he and his father came from Cumberland and I think from a little place called ‘Carleton’. I know he called a very nice place he had in Helensburgh, Dumbartonshire by that name and we all lived in it during my childhood."

It is of interest how Harrington, as a Christian name, came to be used in that branch of the Robley family. As in the case of William Robley and Margaret Nevinson, who introduced Nevison into the family tree, it was due to a marriage.

On 7th May 1808 at St. Cuthbert’s Church, Carlisle, Annie’s grandfather Robert Robley married Ann Harrington, and they named the seventh of their nine children Harrington. Robert’s father-in-law, James Harrington, was a calico printer in a firm situated near Carlisle and he took Robert into the business. Further back, Robert’s family had lived in Wetheral Parish, and he was the first cousin of Christopher Robley who was transported to Australia in 1810 after being found guilty of grand larceny.

Harrington began his working life as a print-cutter, but he had moved to the Glasgow area before his marriage. At the time his daughter, Annie, met Andrew Bonar Law, they were living in Helensburgh. She was eight years younger than Bonar, of a more sociable disposition and with a love of dancing. Biographers of Bonar Law speak of her beauty, her charm and the warmth and sweetness of her personality.

"Anne Pitcairn Robley, at twenty-four, with dark hair and large brown eyes and a lively manner, was considered quite a local beauty, and Bonar Law – a man whose frivolity had hitherto found its outlet in tennis and golf – seems to have fallen in love with her immediately." (Adams, p. 17.)

They met in 1890, and on March 24th 1891 they married in the West Free Church, Helensburgh. A short paragraph in the Glasgow Herald advertised the marriage.

LAW-ROBLEY.-In the West Free Church, Helensburgh, on the 24th inst., by the Rev. William Leitch, B.A., Andrew Bonar Law, iron merchant, Glasgow, to Annie Pitcairn, eldest daughter of Harrington Robley.

There were four bridesmaids, "three Miss Robleys and Miss Janet Law." Miss Janet Law was Bonar’s half-sister from Canada, and it seems likely that the three Miss Robleys were Annie’s younger sisters, Isabelle, Margaret and Josephine. The honeymoon was in Paris, and in spite of the disparity of character they suited each other, and the marriage was a harmonious and happy one.

The couple started their married life in a house called ‘Seabank’, which had originally belonged to Bonar’s aunt, Janet Kidston, but on the death of Harrington Robley they bought his home ‘Kintillo’, which had a large garden and was near the sea. They had seven children, although the first was stillborn. The surviving six were: James (Jim) born 1893, Isabel (Tizzie) b. 1896, Charles (Charlie) b. 1897, Harrington (Tony) b. 1899, Richard Dick b. 1901 and Catherine (Kitty) b. 1906. (Adams)

Annie with her family, 1908.

Left to right: James, Bonar, Isabel, Harrington, Charles, Annie holding Catherine and Richard.

Bonar travelled daily between Helensburgh and Glasgow, and later when his parliamentary career took him to London, they rented a furnished house for the session. It was only in 1909, the year of Annie’s death, that the pressure of commuting became too much for them, and they sold ‘Kintillo’ and moved to ‘Pembroke Lodge’. Annie decorated and furnished the house, which was situated just of Edwardes Square in South Kensington, in what was to be the last months of her life.

That summer Annie became very tired, weak and unwell. They took a house at Moncton, on the Ayrshire coast for the holidays and she rested every afternoon, and tried to carry on until the children were back at school. On her return home, specialists were consulted and advised the removal of her gall-bladder. Annie had the operation, went through a convalescence and apparent recovery and then on Sunday, October 31st she collapsed and died. She was only forty two.

All her biographers say that she was universally loved. Her brother, William Pitcairn Robley speaks of his sorrow at her death, and her husband was "devastated . . . Annie had been his only love." (Adams. p.35.). She was buried in Helensburgh.

"Many hundreds came to pay their respects to the popular wife of a local hero, and the sad and stately procession stretched for some two miles from Ferniegar to the churchyard where she was laid to rest. Bonar Law said many times thereafter that he never forgot a single sad detail of that day."(Adams. p.35)

Their six children aged between sixteen and four were left without a mother. Bonar’s sister, Mary Law, heroically moved in, took the household cares off his shoulders and began the task of bringing up their large family. She reluctantly agreed also to act as hostess at Pembroke Lodge, although her eldest niece Isabel gradually took over that duty.

Mary Law with her brother, Bonar Law

"---she was not, and never pretended to be, fond of children. --- At first her nephews and nieces were a little frightened of her, but they soon came to regard her with deep affection." (Blake. p.62.)

Isabel was like her mother in that everyone expressed affection for her. Her uncle, William Pitcairn Robley, wrote in 1935: "Isabel my niece was married to Sir Frederick Sykes in 1920. She often comes to see me here from London as I have been an invalid for 18 months and is a perfect dear." Kitty needed a firm hand, when she was growing up, but was"the apple of her father’s eye." (Adams, 1999) She married an American investment banker, Kent Galbraith Colwell, and emigrated to the United States. Their two children, Ann Catherine and David Colwell, are living in America.

Catherine herself returned to the UK in 1946, after the end of W.W.II and after her divorce. Her son, David recalls a visit to her in the summer of 1947.

"I travelled tourist class on the Queen Mary, or the Queen Elizabeth, I don't remember which. We arrived at Southampton and standing up on some high deck, I looked down to see if I could see mother among the hundreds of people waiting on the dock. Finally I saw her with Aunt Isabel and cousin Bonar. I yelled 'Mother' a few times in a very loud voice from where I was, and finally she saw me. (Unfortunately - sometimes, I have a very strong voice). They heard me.

We met and then drove to Isabel's house in Wiltshire where Uncle Sykey waited for us, and where we stayed a couple of days. Things were, as you will remember, a little tough in 1947 in the U.K. Isabel had some chickens which she was taking care of to supplement the meat ration. She had a chicken named Eisenhower, another named Montgomery, perhaps one named Churchill. The other names I don't remember. We might have had one for dinner that night. Mother and I subsequently took our trip around the U.K.and, before I returned to the U.S., we paid a last visit to Uncle Sykey and Aunt Isabel. She had then a new chicken named 'Motherrrr'."

Isabel died in 1968 or 69, and Catherine in 1992.

Two of Annie and Bonar's sons had much shorter lives.Tragedy struck twice in 1917. On April 19th their second son Charles was reported missing following the battle of Gaza. Then, only five months later, on September 21st Captain James Kidston Law, their eldest son, died after his plane was shot down in combat. Harrington survived the war, but he "never enjoyed robust health, never married, and led a life away from the public eye."(Adams.). Richard followed his father into politics, and became the 1st Baron Coleraine.

Annie’s husband Bonar survived her by 14 years. He went on to hold high office under Lloyd George, and succeeded him as Prime -Minister. After 200 days he tended his resignation to the King, because of ill health, and died of throat cancer on 30th October 1923. It was his wish that he be buried beside Annie in Helensburgh, but in the event he was offered the honour of internment in Westminster Abbey. The stone in the centre of the Nave reads:

Andrew Bonar Law


Sometime Prime Minister

Marian Robley, 2001. Revised October, 2005.

Quotations from "Bonar Law" by R.J.Q. Adams are by permission of John Murray (Publishers) Ltd.. The text is copyright and must not be used without the publisher’s permission.

Quotations from the letter, written in 1935, by William Pitcairn Robley to Mary Robley, on the occasion of her engagement to Major General Sir John Ponsonby, are by permission of John Robley, Lesmurdie, W. Australia. The letter is copyright.


1.Adams, R.J.Q.: Bonar Law.(London:John Murray, 1999).

2.Blake, Robert: The Unknown Prime Minister. (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1955).

3.Taylor, H.A.: Strange Case of Andrew Bonar Law. (London: Stanley Paul.)