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Blue Plaque for Education Philanthropist Unveiled at Magee

5 May 2010

An Ulster History Circle commemorative plaque to honour Sir Henry Lawrence, a prominent 19th century colonial administrator and philanthropist, has been unveiled at the Magee campus of the University of Ulster.

Henry Montgomery Lawrence was born at Matara, Ceylon, on 28th June 1806, the fifth child of Alexander Lawrence of Coleraine and Catherine Letitia Knox of Strabane. The family returned to Coleraine in 1808 and Henry attended Foyle College from 1815 until 1819 where his maternal uncle, the Rev James Knox, was headmaster.

Henry’s brothers, Alexander W, George and John Laird Mair (the first Lord Lawrence) also attended the College and Lawrence Hill was named after the family. The former Foyle College school building, now known as the Foyle Arts Building, is home to the School of Creative Arts at the University of Ulster.

When he was aged just 16 years, Henry sailed to India to join the headquarters of the Bengal Artillery. He was subsequently appoint to the Punjab province where he and his wife Honoria - nee Marshall from Fahan in County Donegal - founded a boarding school at Kasauli for orphans and children of British soldiers who had served in India.

The Lawrence Asylum was a great success and later became known as the Royal Military School Sanawar. A second smaller asylum, run by military personnel, followed at Mount Abu in Southern Rajasthan. Sir Henry died on July 4 1857 but shortly before he died, he had put forward proposals for a further asylum. As news of his death spread, former pupils got together and agreed to honour his memory and implement his wish to provide for shelter and education for children of British soldiers serving in India.

The small school at Ootacamund was developed into Lawrence Memorial Royal Military School, Lovedale. A fourth Lawrence school at Ghora Gali College, Murree, now Pakistan, completed the tribute to Sir Henry and Lady Lawrence. Mount Abu closed soon after India's Independence in 1947, but the three remaining schools Sanawar, Lovedale and Ghora Gali are considered to be among the most prestigious and successful schools in the sub continent today.

A group from the Old Laurencians Association travelled to Derry to attend the unveiling of the plaque to honour Sir Henry. Among them was Xan Chacko whose family has a long association with Lawrence Schools in India. She attended Lovedale from 1992 – 2001 and is now Project Manager, Women in Science Programme, Royal Institution of Great Britain.

Welcoming the Ulster History Circle and the Old Laurencians to Magee, Professor Deirdre Heenan, Dean of Academic Development and Acting Provost at Magee said it was appropriate that a plaque dedicated to the memory of someone who made such an important contribution to the education of others, should be at the Magee campus and she complemented the Ulster History Circle on their work.

Paying an emotional tribute to Sir Henry, Belfast man Derek Gaw, who is chairman of the Northern Ireland branch of the Old Lawrencians’ Association said: “The compassion and understanding of the needs of the homeless orphans of British soldiers in India motivated Sir Henry and Lady Honoria to set out to provide shelters for the children's basic care and education.

“In the course of time, these schools were to develop into highly rated establishments where many generations of Lawrencians all over the world are indebted to Sir Henry Lawrence for their education and training at Sanawar, Mount Abu, Lovedale and Ghora Ghali.”

Wesley McCann, Chairman of the Ulster History Circle said: “The Ulster History Circle is pleased to erect this plaque to someone who made an outstanding contribution education in India. It is fitting that Sir Henry Lawrence is remembered in the city in which he himself was educated and this plaque will make his name known to generations to come.”

The Ulster History Circle is a voluntary organisation and dependent on the generosity of organisations like the Old Lawrencians Associations who sponsored the commemorative plaque for Sir Henry.  The distinctive blue commemorative plaques are erected on buildings associated eminent men and women to raise awareness of the important contribution the people honoured have made to Ulster’s rich and diverse history. Musicians, shipbuilders, poets, writers, patriots, radicals, philanthropists, sportsmen and men and women of the cloth have all been honoured in this way.

In 2008, an Ulster History Circle plaque honouring the vision of Magee campus founder Martha Magee was unveiled at the campus. Martha Magee was the widow of a Presbyterian minister who in 1845 bequeathed the princely sum of £20,000 to establish a college for Theology and the Arts in Ireland. Her action paved the way for the success that the University of Ulster enjoys at the Magee campus today.