Henry William Laws was born on June 15, 1876 in Peckham, London, the oldest son of Richard William Laws, an art metal worker (a skilled worker in architectural metal). He had two older sisters, Alice Louise Laws, named after her mother Louise Laws (née White), and Blanche Edith Laws.
By 1891, Henry was a 15 year old student living with his parents, his father now employing workers in his metal fabrication business. Also present were his two younger brothers, Ernest Francis Laws and Richard Arthur Laws, his two younger sisters Isabel Annie Laws and Maud Evelyn Laws, and a domestic servant. His eldest sister, Alice Louise Laws passed away when she was 10 years old.
Tin Mining in Northern Nigeria
The Protectorate of Northern Nigeria was added to the dependencies of the British Empire in 1900. Early in 1902 Sir William Wallace, a future Governor of Northern Nigeria, travelled to Bauchai and after subduing the Emir was able to trade for a small amount of tin sands that was locally produced close to the Naraguta river. He sent this to the Directors of the Niger Company who took out a prospecting license and sent Henry Laws out as their General Mining Manager and Engineer to investigate. In 1902-03 Laws led three prospecting expeditions to Bauchai province discovering large amounts of alluvial tin in the Gura Mountains (Naraguta and Shere Hills in the Badiko district). Based on his discoveries, the Niger Company applied for a number of mining leases in 1905 and despite the difficulties of extraction and commercialization in such a remote and undeveloped area they were able to produce 1 ton per day of tin. That same year, Laws erected a Mining Beacon, the first one in Nigeria, on the Jos Plateau which remains there today. Henry Laws spent a decade working in Northern Nigeria, his son Philip Saxelby Laws being born in 1907 in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. His work in Northern Nigeria made him prosperous and by 1911 his family were living at the Manor House, Newington with two domestic servants. By 1914 he had left the employ of the Niger Company and on July 1st formed his own company of Laws, Rumbold & Co., Mining & Consulting Engineers and Mine Managers, with partners William R. Rumbold and Howard Johnson.
Henry became an associate member (AIMM) of the Institution of Mining and Metallurgy (subsequently absorbed by the Institute of Materials, Minerals & Mining), in 1903 providing his address as “c/o The Niger Co. Ltd., Tilde, Northern Nigeria, via Keffi”. He became a full member (MIMM) in 1910 switching his contact address to his home in Newington. Henry remained a member of the Institution throughout his life.
Motor Owner Driver
Shortly after the outbreak of war, in September 1914, the Royal Naval Division Administrative Staff arranged with the Royal Automobile Club to obtain the services of 50 gentlemen, who were to bring their own cars and place them at the disposal of the Admiralty. These ‘Motor Owner Drivers’ were granted temporary commissions with pay of ₤1 a day with free petrol and tyres. These cars and their drivers proved very useful for transport of ammunition and wounded at Antwerp. Henry Laws was one such gentleman, providing the Admiralty with the use of himself and his 32 H.P. Cadillac and was granted a temporary commission as a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve (RNVR) and gazetted in the September 14, 1914 edition , (notwithstanding the fact that they got his middle initial wrong).
Medical Unit, Royal Marines
In November 1914, the Royal Marines formed a Medical Unit at Blandford. It consisted of 3 Field Ambulances and Temp Lieutenant H. W. Laws, R.N.V.R. was granted a temporary commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Royal Marines and appointed as the Unit’s Transport Officer, which carried the honorary rank of Captain. The Medical Unit, attached to the Royal Naval Division (RND), left England on February 28, 1915 sailing from Avenmouth en-route to Gallipoli with stops in Egypt and Lemnos. On board the HMS Minnetonka, Captain Laws, the Transport Officer of the Medical Unit was given permission to land the animals and vehicles of Field Ambulance No 2 at Cape Helles, on May 9th 1915. A month later they were involved in the 3rd Battle of Krithia and the men of the Transport Section, under Captain Laws, attached to the Advanced Dressing Station, (ADS), of the 2nd Field Ambulance, RND, were given a special mention for their work assisting the Stretcher Bearers of the ADS during the battle.
Gallipoli Mining Engineer
On June 7, 1915 the 8th Army Corps issued orders to their Divisions to organize mining parties, preferably made up of men who were miners in civilian life, and to begin both offensive and defensive mining activities. The war diary of the 42nd Division General Staff for June 14, 1915 notes that “Captain Laws (RND)” visited their trenches and reported that the Turks were engaged in mining operations, (at trench H.11), and the 8th Army Corps HQ consequently ordered the 42nd Division to start a counter mine and listening gallery opposite them. From this date forward Laws was attached to the 8th Army Corps HQ as the Assistant Staff Officer for Mining and relinquished his duties with the Royal Naval Division.
8th Army Corps Mining Company
Over the following weeks, the extent and importance of mining activity across the Allied front grew and so in order to provide continuity of effort across the frequent rotation of troops, a Corps Mining Company was formed on August 18, 1915, (under Corps Order No 21). Henry Laws was appointed as the Commanding Officer and although it was not clear at the time, (his impromptu move from the R.N.D. to Army Corps H.Q. two months earlier throwing the Admiralty’s administrative branch into some confusion), his temporary commission with the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve (RNVR) was terminated on August 17th and he was awarded a commission in the Royal Engineers with the temporary rank of Major, effective August 18th.
The 8th Army Corps Mining Company was made up of 4 platoons, each with one officer and two mining squads of 2 NCOs and 24 men each; the Corps’ Divisions each supplying one Platoon. Divisional commanders were also required to provide above ground fatigue parties as required, to remove dirt, etc., in order to maximize the efficient use of the Mining Company’s skilled personnel.
On October 13, the 8th Army Corps requested permission from G.H.Q. for an increase of 4 more subaltern officers (from England), one per section, to bring the Mining Company in line with Tunnelling Companies in operation in France. A week later, the 8th Army Corps recommended to G.H.Q. that officers of the Mining Company should be awarded temporary commissions in the Royal Engineers. By November, the extent of mining activity had grown further still; the 42nd Division reporting that 50 additional miners, (and a proportionate number of soil removers), had been requested by the Officer Commanding (O.C.) Mining Company for their section of the line alone. Additionally, the requested subalterns from England had not materialized and became critical and so on November 28 the 8th Army Corps directed all Divisions to furnish one officer and “such personnel as are required” to be attached to the Mining Company. Thousands of men were now directly and indirectly engaged in mining operations and, thanks in part to the skill and leadership of Major Laws, the tide had turned in favour of the Allied miners.
Earlier that month, on November 7th, the London Gazette published an award of the Companion of the Distinguished Service Order (DSO), in recognition of services in the Gallipoli operations to Lieutenant Henry William Laws, RNVR. In January 1916, the Admiralty and the Army Council retrospectively agreed that the DSO should have been treated as a Military award and that his name should be deleted from the Navy List of Naval Awards.
No 254 Tunnelling Company, Royal Engineers
Meanwhile, in England, the 254 Tunnelling Company, Royal Engineers was formed and sailed for Gallipoli arriving at Cape Helles on December 7, 1915. But their Commanding Officer did not have as much mining experience as Major Laws and so they were absorbed into the 8th Army Corps Mining Company as reinforcements, under his command. The situation remained this way until immediately before the evacuation of the peninsula when Major Laws returned to 8th Army Corps HQ and relinquished command of 254 Tunnelling Company.
The Gallipoli campaign over, he was granted two months leave in Cairo during which time he was mentioned in the despatches of General Sir Ian Hamilton. After his leave, he rejoined No 254 Tunnelling Company in Givenchy, France where they had moved to take over from No 176 Tunnelling Company, which they did on March 13, 1916. He resumed command but was frustrated with the position believing that as an experienced and widely respected consulting mining engineer he would be better employed as Controller of Mines for an Army Corps. On April 12, 1916 he met with the Inspector of Mines for the British Expeditionary Force in France and pleaded his case. Within a month he was called back to England to report to the War Office. He arrived back on May 22nd but no suitable post could be found and so he was compelled to relinquish his commission on June 6, 1916 and was placed on the General List. Undeterred, he wrote to the War Office on August 22nd stating that if the only position available was the command of a Tunnelling Company, then he would willingly take it and serve the country in any way he could.
Somewhat incongruously for a man the Army did not quite seem to know what do with, he was mentioned in despatches for a second time on July 12, 1916 in the despatch of General Sir Charles Monro.
No 250 Tunnelling Company, Royal Engineers
After returning to his family at the Manor House in Newington and resuming his consulting work at Messrs. Laws, Rumbold & Co., Salisbury House, London he was contacted by the War Office in mid-December and offered the command of No 250 Tunnelling Company. He jumped at the chance, passed his medical, was re-appointed as temporary Major in the Royal Engineers and embarked for France, leaving Southampton on December 30, 1916.
He joined No 250 Tunnelling Company on January 3, 1917 at La Clytte, Belgium, (now Klijte in Belgium), and took over command the following day. Core Company strength consisted of 23 Officers, 156 Tunnellers, 121 Tunnellers Mates and a plethora of temporarily attached troops filling a variety of supporting roles.
Battle of Messines, 1917
On June 7, 1917 the Allied mines at Messines were fired at the start of the Battle of Messines. Their joint explosion ranks among the largest non-nuclear explosions ever recorded and the sound of the blast was considered the loudest man-made noise in history. Contemporaneous reports indicated that the blast was heard in London and Dublin and at the Lille University geology department, the shock wave was mistaken for an earthquake.
The following mines of No 250 Tunnelling Company were fired on June 7, 1917: Petit Bois 1 and 2, Peckham 1, Spanbroekmolen and Maedelstede Farm.
After the battle, Major Laws proceeded on 10 days leave to Biarritz on July 24 returning on August 4. A couple of months later he was granted a month’s leave in the UK, leaving the Tunnelling Company on October 4 and returning on November 7, 1917. He was again awarded a short leave in France in early 1918 (January 18-25) but the strain of the previous year’s work caught up with him shortly after his return and he was admitted to No 8 BRCS (British Red Cross Society) Hospital, Boulogne on February 3 and upon discharge was granted two weeks medical leave in the UK.
Controller of Mines, 3rd Army Corps
He rejoined the 250 Tunnelling Company on March 14, 1918 and two days later was ordered to report to 3rd Army Corps HQ. On April 4, 1918 he was appointed Controller of Mines, 3rd Army Corps and made acting Lieutenant-Colonel. It had taken him two years, but he finally got the position he asked for after Gallipoli. Within 3 weeks he appointed his former colleague, Captain Harlow Alfred Taylor O’Callaghan Irwin, from No 250 Tunnelling Company, as his Assistant Controller of Mines.
In October 1918 he was forced to take a medical leave of absence in the UK for the surgical removal of an Ethmoidal Cyst in his left nostril that had been causing him severe headaches. The surgical procedure was successful and he returned to duty on October 31, 1918.
He was demobilised on January 22, 1919, relinquishing his commission at the completion of service, and was granted the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. A few months later he was made a Companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George, (CMG), for services rendered in connection with military operations in France and Flanders, in the King’s birthday honours list of June 3, 1919.
It was the end of a short but remarkable military career. With no prior military experience, he had been commissioned three times, into two separate branches of the military, played an important role in two major campaigns, rose to the rank of Lt.-Col., was mentioned in despatches twice, and awarded the DSO and CMG. All without firing a shot or receiving any formal military training of any kind. And it should not be forgotten that his 10+ years of mining experience in Nigeria, prospecting and then exploiting alluvial tin deposits, bore little resemblance to the engineering skills requiring for military mining.
Emigration to Canada
Lt.-Col. Henry William Laws, CMG, DSO, MIMM was now 43 years old and he resumed his professional consulting work at Messrs. Laws, Rumbold & Co. In June 1923 he was granted the Freedom of the City of London.
In 1928 he moved with his family to British Columbia, Canada to join his younger brother, Ernest Francis Laws, who had emigrated there after the war, working in real-estate. He settled at Saanich, Vancouver Island and in 1929 they formed the Queenswood Land Company, Ltd. to take advantage of the property development boom of the time. Unfortunately, the syndicate ran into financial difficulties and many of the parcels of land they purchased reverted to the city for unpaid taxes.
Lt.-Col. Henry William Laws, CMG, DSO, MIMM died at Saanich on December 19, 1954, his wife pre-deceasing him. He was 77 years old.
- Nigeria and its Tin Fields, Albert F. Calvert 1910.
- A List of Sites, Buildings and Other Antiquities Declared to be Monuments under the Antiquities Act from February 1956 to December 1964, K. C. Murray.
Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria, Vol. 4, No. 1 (December 1967)
- Britain’s Sea Soldiers: A Record of the Royal Marines During the War 1914-1919, Sir Herbert Edward Blumberg, 1927.
- War Diary. 8th Corps: General Staff (1915) (WO 95/4263-4359)
- War Diary. 250 Tunnelling Company Royal Engineers (WO 95/551)
- War Diary. 176 Tunnelling Company Royal Engineers (WO 95/244)
- Naval Service Record. Laws, Henry William (ADM 337/119/730)
- Army Service Record. Major Henry William Laws Royal Engineers (WO 339/54024)
Sincere thanks to the Institute of Materials, Minerals & Mining for their help uncovering the details of Lt.-Col. Laws’ I.M.M. membership.