LAW, ROBERT, army officer and colonial administrator; b. c. 1788 in England; d. 16 May 1874 in England.
When Robert Law was 20 years old he joined the British army in Spain as a volunteer just in time to take part in Sir John Moore’s action at Lugo and the retreat from Corunna. He returned to Spain and until 1814 fought in numerous campaigns, receiving several serious wounds. In July 1814 he was embarked for New Orleans, but was recalled and sent to Belgium where he served in the campaigns of 1815. He fought at Waterloo as a lieutenant in Sir Frederick Adair’s brigade, was again seriously wounded, and was awarded the Waterloo Medal. Law remained in France with the army of occupation until 1818, and subsequently served 15 years in the colonies, including the West Indies, before being sent to Newfoundland. He became a captain in October 1821, a major in August 1834, and was promoted lieutenant-colonel in 1844.
Robert Law probably came to Newfoundland in 1834, the same year as Governor Henry Prescott, for he was reported to have held the post of commandant of the garrison for 25 years when he departed in 1859. Regular troops had been withdrawn from Newfoundland in 1825 following the arrival of replacements in November 1824. These replacements were the Royal Veteran Companies formed in 1824 from former servicemen – outpatients of the Royal Hospital for Invalid Soldiers at Chelsea. In 1827 they were renamed the Royal Newfoundland Veteran Companies and, in 1843, the Royal Newfoundland Companies. The main duties of the garrison were to bring some pomp and ceremony to the colony – especially under the governorship of Sir Thomas Cochrane – and to assist the civil power. This assistance was most essential before the establishment of an armed police force in the colony in 1871. Troops were called out to protect the court house in 1835 at the height of a political crisis relating to Chief Justice Henry John Boulton*. They were often in demand during elections to quell riots, such as at St John’s in 1836 and during a by-election in Carbonear in 1840. In 1846 Law was commended for the part he and his men played in fighting the disastrous fire in St John’s and for their later work of reconstruction and maintaining law and order in the stricken community. The fire, which began at 8:30 AM on 9 June in the east end of the town at a cabinet maker’s shop, had by evening moved westward to destroy over one mile of shops, houses, and public buildings on the two main streets. The total loss was estimated at £890,000, and D. W. Prowse* considered it the worst of the great fires which devastated British North American towns such as Quebec and Saint John, N.B., during the period.
Apart from his military duties, which were only occasionally onerous, Law participated in the political life of the colony during different periods. When Governor Sir John Harvey* was transferred to Nova Scotia in August 1846, Law assumed the duties of administrator until the arrival of Sir John Gaspard Le Marchant in April 1847. Almost all of his tenure was taken up by the administration of relief. The problems of assistance and reconstruction after the June 1846 fire were compounded by a severe and destructive storm in September and by the blight that affected the potato harvest. Hence Law’s political duties were made increasingly difficult because of social and economic distress.
Law was disturbed by the unseemly competition for the £102,500 granted from outside Newfoundland to relieve the fire victims. In November 1846 he reported to the Colonial Office that the principal uninsured sufferers had now received almost the whole amount of their losses, and advised against continuing direct relief which, he believed, was having a demoralizing effect upon the recipients. The balance of the fund ought to be retained and administered by the secretary of state; a portion should be set aside to rebuild the Church of England Cathedral, otherwise the cost of this project would fall mainly on the shopkeepers and merchants of the city who had not been reimbursed for the full amount of their fire losses. By and large these recommendations were followed by Lord Grey, but not without a great deal of grumbling among those adversely affected. In December Law called the Amalgamated Legislature [see Prescott] into its final session to pass a loan bill for the relief of outport fishermen and to ease the financial burden of the Rebuilding Act. This act, passed by a special session of the Amalgamated Legislature in 1846, provided for the rebuilding of St John’s with the cost to be met by the legislature and the merchants and householders of the city. Subsequently, by the royal instructions of 19 July 1848, pertaining to another new constitution, Law was created president of the Legislative Council, which office he held until 1850, and again from 1853 to 1854.
On his promotion to major-general in 1859 Law was obliged to relinquish his command, and he returned to England. A subscription of £100 sterling was raised for a piece of plate which was presented to him by a group of prominent citizens with a commendation for his services to the colony. He was elevated to lieutenant-general in 1868.
PRO, CO 194/126. Royal Gazette (St John’s), 1834–59. Hart, New army lists, 1840–74. H. G. Grey, The colonial policy of Lord John Russell’s administration (2v., London, 1853; 2nd ed., with additions, 2v., London, 1853), I. Gunn, Political history of Nfld. Prowse, History of Nfld.