Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Forbes, William (1739-1806)

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FORBES, Sir WILLIAM (1739–1806), of Pitsligo, banker and author, was born in Edinburgh 5 April 1739. His father, although heir to a Nova Scotia baronetcy, was an advocate, being constrained to follow a profession, as the family estate, Monymusk, Aberdeenshire, had been sold by his grandfather. Forbes's maternal grandmother was a sister of Lord Pitsligo, whose activities in 1745 led to the forfeiture of his estate, also in Aberdeenshire. His mother, Christian Forbes, was a member of a collateral branch of the Monymusk family, and was left a widow when William, the elder of two surviving boys from a family of five, was only four years old. She settled in Aberdeen in 1745 for the education of her children, who were brought up as Scottish episcopalians. The younger boy died in 1749, and in October 1753 Lady Forbes, with her surviving son, settled in Edinburgh. A staunch friend of the family, Sir Francis Farquharson of Haughton, had arranged with Messrs. Coutts, an eminent firm of bankers in Edinburgh, to admit Forbes as an apprentice, and he entered their service at Whitsunday 1754. The apprenticeship lasted four years, then he was clerk in the counting-house for two years more, at the end of which he got a small share in the business as a partner. Meanwhile his mother and himself lived strictly within their limited means, though their society was still in keeping with their birth.

In 1761 John Coutts, the principal partner of the firm, died, and as his brothers, who had settled in London, severed their connection with the business, a new partnership, considerably to the advantage of Forbes, was proposed and established in 1763. After seven years (in 1770) he married Elizabeth Hay, eldest daughter of Sir James Hay of Smithfield, bart., and then separated from his mother, who died in 1789. In the ‘Narrative of the last Sickness and Death of Dame Christian Forbes,’ 1875, Forbes pays a tribute to his mother's worth with pathetic earnestness.

From 1763 to 1773 the active members of the firm, still under the original name, were Sir Robert Herries, Sir William Forbes, and James Hunter, afterwards Sir James Hunter Blair. The name of the Messrs. Coutts was retained till 1773, when a new contract was made, and the firm was designated Forbes, Hunter, & Co., Sir William Herries having settled in London to conduct in St. James's Street the business afterwards notable as Herries & Co. Forbes now being at the head of his firm resolved to confine the transactions of the house to banking alone. The house speedily became one of the most trusted in Scotland, and proved its claim to public credit by the excellence of the stand it made during the financial crises and panics of 1772, 1788, and 1793. In 1783 the firm, after difficult preliminaries, began to issue notes, and the success of the experiment was immediate, decided, and continuous. Forbes had now come to be regarded as an authority on finance, and in this same year he took a leading part in preparing the revised Bankruptcy Act. Pitt used to consult him, and adopted in 1790 several of his suggestions regarding augmentation of the stamps on bills of exchange. In 1799 Pitt offered him an Irish peerage, which he declined. The company in 1838 became the Union Bank Company.

Forbes early aspired to win back some of the alienated possessions of his ancestors. Lord Pitsligo's only son, the Hon. John Forbes, had bought Pitsligo. William Forbes bought about seventy acres of the upper barony (the lower barony having passed by purchase to a stranger), and on the death of John Forbes he succeeded in 1781 to the whole. He improved the estate exceedingly; laid out the village of New Pitsligo, Aberdeenshire, in 1783, and did much in subsequent years to advance the interests of the villagers as well as of the tenantry. Forbes became known for his public spirit in Edinburgh. The High School, the Merchant Company, the Morningside Lunatic Asylum, and the Blind Asylum all owe much of their present excellence to his sagacity. Forbes shares with his partner, Hunter Blair, the credit due for the formation of the South Bridge. He also succeeded in giving the Scottish episcopalians a real and sure standing in Edinburgh. Archibald Alison (1757-1839) [q. v.] was brought to the city at his suggestion, and in Alison's published discourses there is a touching funeral sermon to his memory.

Forbes steadily declined invitations to stand for parliament. His refined literary tastes brought him into contact with the best society of the time both in Scotland and in London. He was a member of Johnson's literary club, and he receives honourable mention in Boswell's ‘Tour to the Hebrides.’ His long and familiar friendship with the poet Beattie enabled him to produce ‘An Account of the Life and Writings of James Beattie, LL.D., including many of his Original Letters.’ This appeared in two quarto volumes in 1806, and was republished in three octavo volumes the following year. Forbes had written before this the tribute to his mother, which remained in manuscript till 1875, another portion of the same manuscript, not hitherto printed, being devoted to the memory of his wife. Lady Forbes, for the benefit of whose health he made his only lengthened visit to the continent in 1792–3, died in 1802, and he was never the same man afterwards. He died 12 Nov. 1806, a few months after the appearance of his ‘Life of Beattie.’ This work, in spite of Jeffrey's strictures in the ‘Edinburgh Review’ for April 1807, is a valuable record of the times, though too ponderous. Jeffrey's article as it originally appeared in the ‘Review’ was about three times longer than in the collected ‘Essays,’ and opened with a lofty and eloquent tribute to the worth of Forbes. Scott speaks of him with equal warmth in the introduction to the fourth canto of ‘Marmion.’ Forbes left four sons and five daughters. To his eldest son, William, who succeeded him in the baronetcy, he addressed in 1803 his interesting autobiographical work, ‘Memoirs of a Banking House.’ The second son, John Hay Forbes [q. v.], rose to be a judge in the court of session as Lord Medwyn; the third was named George, and went into his father's business; and Charles, the fourth son, was in the navy.

[Forbes's Works, as above; Edinb. Rev. vol. x.; Marmion, introd. to canto iv.; Boswell's Tour to the Hebrides; Memoirs of Lord Kames, ii. 212; Life of Scott, ii. 50, 152; Chambers's Eminent Scotsmen; Life of J. D. Forbes, by Principal Shairp, and others.]

T. B.