Laws Papers

Reference code(s): GB 0231 MS 3290
Held at: Aberdeen University, Special Libraries and Archives
Domain: archival
Title: Laws Papers
Date(s) of contents: c 1878 - c 1960
Level of description: Fonds
Extent and medium: 6 boxes of archival material, including some printed matter.


Name of creator(s):
Laws, Amelia Nyasa (b 1886, fl 1914-1918)
Laws, Robert (1851-1934)

Administrative/Biographical history: Robert Laws was born on 28 May 1851 at Mannofield, Aberdeen. He was the son of an Aberdeen cabinetmaker, was educated at the Free East Church School, Aberdeen, then became an apprentice cabinet maker while studying in the evenings to achieve university entrance qualifications. He read arts and medicine at the University of Aberdeen, 1871-73 (graduating MA 1872), then studied divinity at the United Presbyterian Theological Hall, Edinburgh, while taking medical classes at Glasgow University and Anderson College, Glasgow, qualifying in both disciplines in 1875. Between 1873 and 1875, Laws was an agent of the Glasgow City Mission in smallpox and fever hospitals in the Glasgow area. In 1875 he was ordained by the United Presbyterian Presbytery of Aberdeen, being awarded the MB ChB degree, and the same year was appointed as missionary of the Free Church of Scotland Mission, Livingstonia, Nyasaland (now Malawi).

Laws joined the new mission as a medical officer, and second in command to Lieutenant E.D. Young. Young left the mission after two years, and Laws replaced him as head of the mission in 1878. He remained in post until retirement in 1927, and during his fifty years of service built a solid and stable base from which many other local and regional church, educational and social projects were successfully initiated. For a time he was also Principal of the Overtoun College, Livingstonia, and in 1894 was sent as a deputy to begin the Hope Waddell Training Institution in Calabar, now in Nigeria. After the First World War he encouraged the mission's members to form Native Associations, which later, in 1938, became the Nyasaland African National Congress. During his career as a missionary, Laws developed a Christian community of some 60,000 including African pastors, and founded over 700 schools which, on his death, were educating 44,000 pupils. His success was officially recognised when he was appointed moderator of the General Assembly of the United Free Church in 1908.

Laws never entered into African culture and society to the extent of some of his colleagues but acquired a good knowledge of the local languages. He translated the New Testament into Nyanja, published an English-Nyanja dictionary, compiled a Gunda-English and English-Gunda vocabulary, and published works in the Tonga language. He spotted and encouraged many talented individuals including David Kaunda whose son Kenneth was Zambia's first president. He also encouraged the formation of native associations which, in 1938, combined to form the Nyasaland African National Congress. For three years from 1913 he was a senior unofficial member of the Nyasaland Legislative Council. Laws married Margaret Troup Gray at Blantyre in 1879 and they had a daughter, Amelia Nyasa, who was born in 1886 and who worked as a nurse in Europe during the First World War. He was awarded an honorary degree (DD) from Aberdeen in 1891 and received the LLD in 1925. He was elected FRGS in 1884 and FRSGS in 1900. He was awarded a CMG in 1923 and in 1928 received the Freedom of the city of Aberdeen. Robert Laws died in London on 6 August 1934 and was buried at Aberdeen.

See also:
William Pringle Livingstone, Laws of Livingtonia: a narrative of missionary adventure and achievement (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1921).
Robert Laws, Reminiscences of Livingstonia (Edinburgh, London: Oliver & Boyd, 1934).
John McCracken, Politics and Christianity in Malawi, 1875-1940: the impact of the Livingstonia Mission in the Northern Province (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977).
Hamish McIntosh, Robert Laws, servant of Africa (Carberry: Handsel, 1993).

Custodial history: The records were acquired by the Centre for the Study of Christianity in the Non-Western World, under the directorship of Professor Andrew Walls, Department of Divinity, University of Aberdeen. They were transferred to Aberdeen University, Special Libraries and Archives when the Centre moved to Edinburgh c1987.

Immediate source of acquisition: Deposited in the Aberdeen University, Special Libraries and Archives in Oct 1987, by the Centre for the Study of Christianity in the Non-Western World, University of Aberdeen (later, New College, Edinburgh) .


Scope and content/abstract: Personal papers of Robert Laws and his daughter, Amelia Laws, c 1878-c 1960. Much of the collection comprises correspondence relating to Laws' work at Livingstonia Mission, but there is also a large series of personal letters from his wife Margaret, and copy letters of Amelia Laws received whilst nursing in Europe during the First World War. Later items include printed papers and newspaper articles relating to Laws' work and the Mission.

System of arrangement: Listing in progress - papers sorted by subject and correspondence arranged by author.


Language: English.

Conditions governing access: Open, subject to signature accepting conditions of use at reader registration sheet.

Conditions governing reproduction: Subject to the condition of the original, copies may be supplied for private research use only on receipt of a signed undertaking to comply with current copyright legislation.

Permission to make any published use of material from the collection must be sought in advance from the Head of Special Libraries and Archives of Aberdeen University (e-mail: ) and, where appropriate, from the copyright owner. Where possible, assistance will be given in identifying copyright owners, but responsibility for ensuring copyright clearance rests with the user of the material.

Physical characteristics: No physical characteristics affecting use of collection.

Finding aids: A very brief collection level description is available on the Aberdeen University Library Catalogue.


Related material: Aberdeen University, Special Libraries and Archives also holds papers of the Reverend Alexander Caseby, missionary, 1908-1929 (GB 0231 MS 3289). These papers include Caseby's memoirs of Livingstonia mission, Malawi.

Edinburgh University New College Library holds papers relating to Robert Laws, including diaries, African language items, medical notes, notebooks, correspondence, personal papers, articles and photographs. A note in item Gen 563 of this collection states that Amelia Laws made donations of material to St Nicholson Church Aberdeen, Aberdeen Museum, the Royal Geographical Society and the Wellcome Library.

The National Library of Scotland, Manuscripts Division holds the Laws Papers, which include correspondence to and from Laws, and journals of mission stations (including meteorological, medical, and accounting records).

The Wellcome Library for the History and Understanding of Medicine holds Laws' list of medical stores at Livingstonia (MS 3187).


Note: Compiled using a collection level description from the Archives Hub.

Date(s) of descriptions: July 2002.

International conflicts
Medical missionaries
Medical missionary work
Missionary work
Newspaper press
Ordained missionaries
Press cuttings
Religious activities
Religious groups
World War One, 1914-1918
World war

Personal names
Laws | Amelia Nyasa | b 1886, fl 1914-1918 | Doctor | daughter of Margaret and Robert Laws
Laws | Margaret | née Troup Gray | wife of Robert Laws
Laws | Robert | 1851-1934 | Free Church of Scotland missionary

Corporate names
Livingstonia Mission | Malawi

Southern Africa