1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Fawcett, Henry

FAWCETT, HENRY (1833–1884), English politician and economist, was born at Salisbury on the 25th of August 1833. His father, William Fawcett, a native of Kirkby Lonsdale, in Westmorland, started life as a draper’s assistant at Salisbury, opened a draper’s shop on his own account in the market-place there in 1825, married a solicitor’s daughter of the city, became a prominent local man, took a farm, developed his north-country sporting instincts, and displayed his shrewdness by successful speculations in Cornish mining. His second son, Henry, inherited a full measure of his shrewdness, along with his masculine energy, his straightforwardness, his perseverance and his fondness for fishing. The father was active in electioneering matters, and his wife was an ardent reformer. Henry Fawcett was educated locally and at King’s College school, London, and proceeded to Peterhouse, Cambridge, in October 1852, migrating in 1853 to Trinity Hall. He was seventh wrangler in 1856, and was elected to a fellowship at his college.

He had already attained some prominence as an orator at the Cambridge Union. Before he left school he had formed the ambition of entering parliament, and, being a poor man, he resolved to approach the House of Commons through a career at the bar. He had already entered Lincoln’s Inn. His prospects, however, were shattered by a calamity which befell him in September 1858, when two stray pellets from his father’s fowling-piece passed through the glasses he was wearing and blinded him for life. Within ten minutes after his accident he had made up his mind “to stick to his old pursuits as much as possible.” He kept up all recreations contributing to the enjoyment of life; he fished, rowed, skated, took abundant walking and horse exercise, and learnt to play cards with marked packs. Soon after his accident he established his headquarters at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, entered cordially into the social life of the college, and came to be regarded by many as a typical Cambridge man. He gave up mathematics (for which he had little aptitude), and specialized in political economy. He paid comparatively little attention to economic history, but he was in the main a devout believer in economic theory, as represented by Ricardo and his school. The later philosophy of the subject he believed to be summed up in one book, Mill’s Principles of Political Economy, which he regarded as the indispensable “vade mecum” of every politician. He was not a great reader, and Mill probably never had a serious rival in his regard, though he was much impressed by Buckle’s History of Civilization and Darwin’s Origin of Species when they severally appeared. He made a great impression in 1859 with a paper at the British Association, and he soon became a familiar figure there and at various lecture halls in the north as an exponent of orthodox economic theory. Of the sincerity of his faith he gave the strongest evidence by his desire at all times to give a practical application to his views and submit them to the test of experiment. Among Mill’s disciples he was, no doubt, far inferior as an economic thinker to Cairnes, but as a popularizer of the system and a demonstrator of its principles by concrete examples he had no rival. His power of exposition was illustrated in his Manual of Political Economy (1863), of which in twenty years as many as 20,000 copies were sold. Alexander Macmillan had suggested the book, and it appeared just in time to serve as a credential, when, in the autumn of 1863, Fawcett stood and was elected for the Chair of Political Economy at Cambridge. The appointment attached him permanently to Cambridge, gave him an income, and showed that he was competent to discharge duties from which a blind man is often considered to be debarred. He was already a member of the Political Economy Club, and was becoming well known in political circles as an advanced Radical. In January 1863, after a spirited though abortive attempt in Southwark, he was only narrowly beaten for the borough of Cambridge. Early in 1864 he was adopted as one of the Liberal candidates at Brighton, and at the general election of 1865 he was elected by a large majority. Shortly after his election he became engaged to Millicent, daughter of Mr Newson Garrett of Aldeburgh, Suffolk, and in 1867 he was married. Mrs Fawcett (b. 1847) became well known for her social and literary work, and especially as an advocate, in the press and on the platform, of women’s suffrage and the higher education and independent employment of women. And after her husband’s death, as well as during his lifetime, she was a prominent leader in these movements.

Fawcett entered parliament just in time to see the close of Palmerston’s career and to hail the adoption by Gladstone of a programme of reform to which most of the laissez-faire economists gave assent. He was soon known as a forcible speaker, and quickly overcame the imputation that he was academic and doctrinaire, though it is true that a certain monotony in delivery often gave a slightly too didactic tone to his discourses. But it was as the uncompromising critic of the political shifts and expedients of his leaders that he attracted most attention. He constantly insisted upon the right of exercising private judgment, and he especially devoted himself to the defence of causes which, as he thought, were neglected both by his official leaders and by his Radical comrades. Re-elected for Brighton to the parliament of 1868–1874, he greatly hampered the government by his persistence in urging the abolition of clerical fellowships and the payment of election expenses out of the rates, and by opposing the “permissive compulsion” clauses of the Elementary Education Bill, and the exclusion of agricultural children from the scope of the act. His hatred of weak concessions made him the terror of parliamentary wirepullers, and in 1871 he was not undeservedly spoken of in The Times as the most “thorough Radical now in the House.” His liberal ideals were further shocked by the methods by which Gladstone achieved the abolition of Army Purchase. His disgust at the supineness of the cabinet in dealing with the problems of Indian finance and the growing evil of Commons Enclosures were added to the catalogue of grievances which Fawcett drew up in a powerful article, “On the Present Position of the Government,” in the Fortnightly Review for November 1871. In 1867 he had opposed the expenses of a ball given to the sultan at the India office being charged upon the Indian budget. In 1870 he similarly opposed the taxation of the Indian revenue with the cost of presents distributed by the duke of Edinburgh in India. In 1871 he went alone into the lobby to vote against the dowry granted to the princess Louise. The soundness of his principles was not impeached, but his leaders looked askance at him, and from 1871 he was severely shunned by the government whips. Their suspicion was justified when in 1873 Fawcett took a leading share in opposing Gladstone’s scheme for university education in Ireland as too denominational, and so contributed largely to a conclusive defeat of the Gladstone ministry.

From 1869 to 1880 Fawcett concentrated his energies upon two important subjects which had not hitherto been deemed worthy of serious parliamentary attention. The first of these was the preservation of commons, especially those near large towns; and the second was the responsibility of the British government for the amendment of Indian finance. In both cases the success which he obtained exhibited the sterling sense and shrewdness which made up such a great part of Fawcett’s character. In the first case Fawcett’s great triumph was the enforcement of the general principle that each annual Enclosure Act must be scrutinized by parliament and judged in the light of its conformity to the interests of the community at large. Probably no one did more than he did to prevent the disafforestation of Epping Forest and of the New Forest. From 1869 he regularly attended the meetings of the Commons Preservation Society, and he remained to the end one of its staunchest supporters. His intervention in the matter of Indian finance, which gained him the sobriquet of the “member for India,” led to no definite legislative achievements, but it called forth the best energies of his mind and helped to rouse an apathetic and ignorant public to its duties and responsibilities. Fawcett was defeated at Brighton in February 1874. Two months later, however, he was elected for Hackney, and retained the seat during his life. He was promptly replaced on the Indian Finance Committee, and continued his searching inquiries with a view to promote a stricter economy in the Indian budget, and a more effective responsibility in the management of Indian accounts.

As an opponent of the Disraeli government (1874–1880) Fawcett came more into line with the Liberal leaders. In foreign politics he gave a general adhesion to Gladstone’s views, but he continued to devote much attention to Indian matters, and it was during this period that he produced two of his best publications. His Free Trade and Protection (1878) illustrated his continued loyalty to Cobdenite ideas. At the same time his admiration for Palmerston and his repugnance to schemes of Home Rule show that he was not by any means a peace-at-any-price man. He thought that the Cobdenites had deserved well of their country, but he always maintained that their foreign politics were biased to excess by purely commercial considerations. As befitted a writer whose linguistic gifts were of the slenderest, Fawcett’s English was a sound homespun, clear and unpretentious. In a vigorous employment of the vernacular he approached Cobbett, whose writing he justly admired. The second publication was his Indian Finance (1880), three essays reprinted from the Nineteenth Century, with an introduction and appendix. When the Liberal party returned to power in 1880 Gladstone offered Fawcett a place in the new government as postmaster-general (without a seat in the cabinet). On Egyptian and other questions of foreign policy Fawcett was often far from being in full harmony with his leaders, but his position in the government naturally enforced reserve. He was, moreover, fully absorbed by his new administrative functions. He gained the sympathy of a class which he had hitherto done little to conciliate, that of public officials, and he showed himself a most capable head of a public department. To his readiness in adopting suggestions, and his determination to push business through instead of allowing it to remain permanently in the stage of preparation and circumlocution, the public is mainly indebted for five substantial postal reforms:—(1) The parcels post, (2) postal orders, (3) sixpenny telegrams, (4) the banking of small savings by means of stamps, (5) increased facilities for life insurance and annuities. In connexion with these last two improvements Fawcett, in 1880, with the assistance of Mr James Cardin, took great pains in drawing up a small pamphlet called Aids to Thrift, of which over a million copies were circulated gratis. A very useful minor innovation of his provided for the announcement on every pillar-box of the time of the “next collection.” In the post office, as elsewhere, he was a strong advocate of the employment of women. Proportional representation and the extension of franchise to women were both political doctrines which he adopted very early in his career, and never abandoned. Honours were showered upon him during his later years. He was made an honorary D.C.L. of Oxford, a fellow of the Royal Society, and was in 1883 elected lord rector of Glasgow University. But the stress of departmental work soon began to tell upon his health. In the autumn of 1882 he had a sharp attack of diphtheria complicated by typhoid, from which he never properly recovered. He resumed his activities, but on the 6th of November 1884 he succumbed at Cambridge to an attack of congestion of the lungs. He was buried in Trumpington churchyard, near Cambridge, and to his memory were erected a monument in Westminster Abbey, a statue in Salisbury market-place, and a drinking fountain on the Thames embankment.

In economic matters Fawcett’s position can best be described as transitional. He believed in co-operation almost as a panacea. In other matters he clung to the old laissez-faire theorists, and was a strong anti-socialist, with serious doubts about free education, though he supported the Factory Acts and wished their extension to agriculture. Apparent inconsistencies were harmonized to a great extent by his dominating anxiety to increase the well-being of the poor. One of his noblest traits was his kindliness and genuine affection for the humble and oppressed, country labourers and the like, for whom his sympathies seemed always on the increase. Another was his disposition to interest himself in and to befriend younger men. In the great affliction of his youth Fawcett bore himself with a fortitude which it would be difficult to parallel. The effect of his blindness was, as the event proved, the reverse of calamitous. It brought the great aim and purpose of his life to maturity at an earlier date than would otherwise have been possible, and it had a mellowing influence upon his character of an exceptional and beneficent kind. As a youth he was rough and canny, with a suspicion of harshness. The kindness evoked by his misfortune, a strongly reciprocated family affection, a growing capacity for making and keeping friends—these and other causes tended to ripen all that was best, and apparently that only, in a strong but somewhat stern character. His acerbity passed away, and in later life was reserved exclusively for official witnesses before parliamentary committees. Frank, helpful, conscientious to a fault, a shrewd gossip, and a staunch friend, he was a man whom no one could help liking. Several of his letters to his father and mother at different periods of his career are preserved in Leslie Stephen’s admirable Life (1885), and show a goodness of heart, together with a homely simplicity of nature, which is most touching. In appearance Fawcett was gaunt and tall, over 6 ft. 3 in. in height, large of bone, and massive in limb.  (T. Se.)