Lawes, William George (DNB12)

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LAWES, WILLIAM GEORGE (1839–1907), missionary, son of Richard Lawes by his wife Mary, daughter of Joseph Pecover of Reading, was born at Aldermaston, Berkshire, on 1 July 1839. After education at the village school, he entered at fourteen a Reading house of business. In 1858 his thoughts turned towards missionary work. He was accepted by the London Missionary Society, and after training at Bedford was ordained to the congregational ministry on 8 Nov. 1860. A few months' voyage brought him to Niué (Savage Island) in the South Seas in August 1861, and he worked on the island until 1872. Besides general work in the mission and the industrial training of the people, he engaged in linguistic study, and in 1886 completed the task begun by others of rendering the New Testament into Niué. In 1872 he came home on furlough, taking with him corrected versions of Exodus, the Psalms, and the New Testament in the vernacular. Whilst at home he was appointed to the New Guinea mission, for which he sailed in April 1874. He settled first at Port Moresby, and again devoted himself to labours of translation. He reduced the Motu language to writing, prepared simple books in the language, set himself to the translation of the New Testament, and founded a training institution for New Guinea natives. When the British protectorate over New Guinea was proclaimed in 1884, Lawes, with James Chalmers [q. v. Suppl. II], gave much help to the British authorities. For twenty years his home was at Port Moresby, but on the training institution being moved to Vatorata, Lawes made that his centre. His position among both the settlers and the natives enabled him to give much help to the British administration—help gratefully acknowledged by Sir William Macgregor, ‘first ruler of British New Guinea’ (Life, p. 289). By the influence of Sir William, Lawes received the degree of D.D. from Glasgow University in April 1895. In the following year he visited Australia, and during his stay in Sydney saw through the press several works in Motu—selections from Old Testament history, a collection of 204 hymns, a catechism, forms of service, a Motu grammar and dictionary, and a manual of geography and arithmetic. In 1901 he took to England a revised Motu version of the New Testament.

In 1898 Lawes explored the mountainous region at the back of Vatorata. In 1905 he marked on a map ninety-six villages with the inhabitants of which he had been friendly. On his leaving New Guinea in March 1906, an address signed by the acting lieutenant-governor and the chief commercial men in the island noted his services to geographical and philological science, as well as to the missionary cause. Lawes settled at Sydney, and died there from pneumonia on 6 Aug. 1907. He married, in November 1869, Fanny Wickham, who proved a zealous co-worker both in Niué and New Guinea, and survived him. They had four sons and one daughter. Lawes, though to some extent obscured by the more striking achievements of his colleague Chalmers, efficiently helped to set the New Guinea work on firm foundations and to secure for it the general respect of the official and commercial communities.

[King's W. G. Lawes of Savage Island and New Guinea; Lovett's James Chalmers: his Autobiography and Letters; Lindt's Picturesque New Guinea, 1887 (portrait); Lovett's Hist. of the London Missionary Soc., vol. i.; Canton's Hist. of the Brit. and Foreign Bible Soc., vol. v.; private information.]

A. R. B.