For good or bad, the family name Leonowens continues to be spoken in Thailand more than 150 years after Anna Leonowens and her son, Louis, first disembarked on the ship Chao Phaya in August 1862 here in Bangkok. If Louis’s mother is still reviled for her libel against the Kingdom through her two memoirs and further writings, then Louis Leonowens is still held in high esteem as one of the country’s most prominent and astute businessmen since his return to Thailand in 1881.
Louis Thomas Gunnis Leonowens was born on 25 October 1856 in Lynton, Western Australia. His parents were born in India. His mother had Anglo-Indian ancestry that she made great pains to hide for social reasons. His mother, Anna Edwards Leonowens, worked as a teacher; his father, Thomas Leon Owens (later spelled Leonowens) worked in the commissariat as a clerk. In 1857, the family moved to Penang where Thomas was a hotel manager. He died unexpectedly of a stroke in 1859, leaving the family impoverished. Anna returned to Singapore and started a school for the children of British Army officers until she was invited to come to Thailand to teach English to the wives and children of King Mongkut (King Rama IV) in 1862. Anna sent her daughter, Anna, to England to be educated and went to Bangkok with Louis, then five years old.
Louis was educated by his mother along with the other royal children in the Grand Palace for almost six years. While his mother and he were in England on a vacation in 1868, King Mongkut suddenly died. However, Anna was not invited to return to Thailand to teach again. Eventually she found her way to New York City while Louis continued his studies in England. By 1874 Louis had been reunited with his mother in the U.S. but soon he ran up some bills and fled the country leaving with his debts behind. He would not see his mother again for 19 years. In 1881, Louis returned to Thailand. He was 25 years old.
If there was ever the right person at the right place at the right time with the right skills – and the right connections in Thailand – it was Louis T. Leonowens. He spoke fluent Thai, has the closest connections with the royal family, was highly intelligent and extremely ambitious and Thailand trade was going to soon see a great expansion. He was immediately commissioned as a Captain with the Royal Siamese Cavalry by King Chulalongkorn (King Rama IV) and served until 1884. He entered the teak trade as a concessionaire just as the upcountry timber business was exploding. This was due to the accelerated demand for strong, rot resistant wood for Royal Navy ship masts, flooring, furniture and other crafted items.
Louis married Caroline Knox (1856-1893) in Bangkok. She was the youngest daughter of Sir Thomas George Knox, the British consul general to Thailand (1868-1879). Caroline’s mother was Prang Yen from a Thai noble family. It is interesting that Caroline’s older sister, Fanny, married into the royal family without permission. Thomas and Caroline had one son, Thomas Knox Leonowens (1888-1953) and a daughter, Anna Harriett Leonowens. Caroline died unexpected in 1893 and was buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Bangkok. Louis later remarried to Reta May (1880-1936) in 1900, but they had no children.
Louis quickly became one of the leading businessmen in Thailand. He eventually branched out into representing manufacturers of Champagne and whisky, typewriters, engineering products and building materials, insurance companies and handling general merchandise plus exporting other hardwoods. Louis finally consolidated all his business interests in 1905 into one company called Louis Thomas Leonowens Company, later called Louis T. Leonowens (Thailand), Ltd., an international trading company. However, after 1906 Louis became less involved with directly running his company.
In 1913 Louis eventually left Thailand for the U.K. in 1913. He died during the great influenza pandemic in 1919 and was buried in Brompton Cemetery in London along with his second wife. However, his company continues under the Getz Group.
Louis had a reputation for generosity and eccentricity. On the teak posts supporting the balcony of his home that still exists, he carved the heights and names of his visitors. Louis is also commemorated through one of Bangkok’s most noted landmarks, The Giant Swing (Sao Ching Cha). In 1920, his company donated the teak wood to reconstruct the swing after it had fallen into disrepair.