Fowler, Henry Hartley (DNB12)

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FOWLER, Sir HENRY HARTLEY. first Viscount Wolverhampton (1830–1911), statesman, born in Sunderland on 16 May 1830, was the second son of Joseph Fowler, a Wesleyan minister, who was secretary of the Wesleyan conference in 1848, by his third wife, Elizabeth McNeill, daughter of Alexander Laing of Glasgow, and step-daughter of John Hartley of Smethwick and Hunslet.

Educated at Woodhouse Grove school, a school for Methodist ministers' sons near Bradford, and at St. Saviour's grammar school, Southwark, he was intended for the university and the bar; but the premature death of his father made other plans necessary. Articled to Messrs. Hussey of London, he was admitted a solicitor in 1852. Meanwhile his mother on his father's death had settled in Wolverhampton, where her step-brother, John Hartley, was then living. There in 1855 Fowler joined her, and his long association with that city began. Next year he was taken into partnership there by Charles Corser, and remained a member of the firm until 1908. In 1876 he also entered into partnership with Sir Robert William Perks, becoming senior partner of the firm of Fowler, Perks & Co., London.

Fowler first showed his capacity for public life in municipal affairs. Owing to his vigour and grasp of business, he quickly made his mark in local administration, becoming mayor of Wolverhampton in 1863, and chairman of the first school board in 1870. Several important municipal schemes were carried largely owing to his zealous advocacy; he was also successful in opposing the introduction of politics into the municipal elections of the town. In 1892 his services to Wolverhampton were acknowledged by his being enrolled as the first freeman of the borough.

In addition to his municipal work Fowler took an active part in politics. A non-conformist liberal, he soon came to be recognised as a powerful representative of the party. At the great meeting which Gladstone addressed on the Eastern question at Birmingham on 31 May 1877 he was chosen to move one of the resolutions. His speech on that occasion deeply impressed Gladstone. It was not till 1880, however, that he entered parliament, when he was returned for Wolverhampton in the liberal interest as colleague of Charles Pelham Villiers [q. v.]. In 1885, when the borough was divided into three divisions, Fowler was re-elected for the eastern division, for which he sat until he was raised to the upper house in 1908.

In addition to his business capacity and masculine commonsense, he had a ready command of well-chosen language and the gift of lucidly presenting a complicated case. These qualities, combined with his straightforwardness and his moderation, gained for him with exceptional rapidity the ear of the house. It soon became clear that he was marked out for office. A strong party man, yet moderate and cautious in the expression of his views, a good Wesleyan, yet one who, after the custom of the early methodists, always remained in communion with the Church of England, he was respected and trusted by both sides of the house. On 25 July 1881 he seconded the liberal amendment to Sir Michael Hicks-Beach's vote of censure on the government's conduct after Majuba. In 1884 he became under-secretary for home affairs in Gladstone's second administration, and two years later financial secretary to the treasury. On assuming the latter office he was sworn a member of the privy council.

When, in 1886, Gladstone took up the cause of home rule, it was thought that Fowler would follow Lord Hartington and Mr. Chamberlain in their opposition to the measure. In the event, however, possibly with some searchings of heart, he remained faithful to his chief; and in the debates on the second reading (29 May 1886) he made 'an admirably warm and convinced defence of the policy of the bill.' Lord Morley described him at the time as 'one of the best speakers in the house' (Life of Gladstone, iii. 336).

During the six years of opposition which followed the rejection of the home rule bill (1886-92), Fowler, by his keen criticism of the financial policy of the unionist government, strengthened his position not only as an authority on finance but as an excellent debater.

When Gladstone returned to office in Aug. 1892, Fowler became president of the local government board with a seat in the cabinet for the first time. To him fell the duty of piloting the parish councils bill through the house. This was his greatest legislative achievement. From the first he determined to secure as far as possible the co-operation of both sides of the house in improving the bill. He knew his subject thoroughly, and was at the same time fair, courteous, and conciliatory; and in the end he carried a most complicated measure without once himself moving the closure.

On the reconstruction of the ministry in 1894 by Lord Rosebery, Fowler received promotion, becoming secretary of state for India. The appointment excited some cavil, but no previous secretary of state was in greater sympathy with her interests and the imperial questions involved. The chief events of his short tenure of the Indian secretaryship were the Chitral campaign in April 1895 and the revolt of the Lancashire members, led by Sir Henry James, against the reimposition of duties on cotton goods imported into India. In the debate on these duties Fowler made the speech of his life (5 Feb. 1895). He explained that the duties would not be protective because they would be accompanied by a countervailing excise, and he pleaded that parliament in adopting the duties would be acting for the people of India who could not act for themselves. The speech, which contained the memorable phrase 'Every member of this house is a member for India,' was one of those rare displays of argument and eloquence which affect votes. The cabinet was tottering when he rose to speak; when he sat down the situation was saved, and the government had a majority of 195. When asked subsequently whether he knew, while speaking, the effect he was producing, he replied 'The best part of that speech was never spoken; I saw that I had the house with me — and I sat down!' In June 1895 the government resigned after being defeated on the cordite vote, and Fowler received the G.C.S.I., in accordance, it is understood, with the wishes of Queen Victoria.

During the ten years of opposition which followed, Fowler was not a frequent speaker in the house. He devoted himself to his private affairs, and interested himself especially in the development of the telephone system. He was appointed director of the National Telephone Company in 1897, becoming president in 1901. Yet when Sir William Harcourt [q. v. Suppl. II] retired from the leadership of the liberal party in the House of Commons in Dec. 1898 Fowler's claims to the succession were seriously urged. The 'Spectator' (17 Dec. 1898) described him as 'a man thoroughly capable of directing the policy of his party, and, what is more, able, if need be, to govern the country with power and discretion.' In the distracted councils of the liberal party which followed. Sir Henry was a strong supporter of Lord Rosebery, and was one of the vice-presidents of the Liberal League. He refused to join in the strictures of Sir Henry Campbell Bannerman on the conduct of the Boer war, declaring that the war was ' just and inevitable.' While thus strengthening his position with, moderate men on both sides, he incurred the hostility of the extreme radicals. But it was argued by many of the party that had he been ten years younger and 'inoculated with a dash of audacity' he would have been chosen to supersede Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman (Lucy's Balfourian Parliament, 93). When Mr. Chamberlain startled the country with the tariff reform proposals in 1903, and thereby closed up the ranks of the liberal party, Fowler, as was natural in an old colleague of Villiers, joined heartily in the defence of free trade.

In the liberal ailministration which was formed in Dec. 1905, Sir Henry, feeling the burden of his seventy-five years, waived his claim to a secretaryship of state, and accepted the comparatively light office of chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster. His inclusion in the cabinet was welcomed by moderate men, who hoped that he would exercise a moderating influence on his younger and less cautious colleagues. But though, in Lord Rosebery's words, he probably gave the cabinet 'the soundest and most sagacious advice,' it is doubtful to what extent it was followed. He took little part in debate. The strain of constant attendance in the House of Commons told on him, but his business-like administration of the affairs of the duchy met with the warm approval of the sovereign. In March 1908, on Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman's resignation, Mr. Asquith formed a ministry in which Fowler retained his former post. But he took the opportunity of leaving the lower house. On 13 April 1908 he was raised to the peerage as Viscount Wolverhampton, taking his seat in the upper house on the same day as his old friend, John Morley. Later in the same year (14 Oct.) he became lord president of the council. This was the culminating point of his political career, and was a remarkable position to have been won by a man who, aided by no adventitious circumstances, did not enter parliament until he was fifty, and owed everything there to intellect, resolution, and character.

Beyond taking charge of the old age pensions bill during 1908, Lord Wolverhampton took little part in debate in the House of Lords. In Oct. 1909 he received the honorary degree of LL.D. from the University of Birmingham, together with Mr. Balfour and other distinguished men, on the first occasion when the university conferred these degrees. Early in 1910 there were signs that his health was failing; both mind and memory were affected. With much in the advanced policy of the cabinet he was out of sympathy. But he retained his post until his medical advisers insisted on his taking a prolonged holiday. He resigned on 16 June 1910.

With complete rest his health greatly improved, but the death of his wife at Woodthorne, Wolverhampton, on 6 Jan. 1911 completely prostrated him. He died at Woodthorne on 25 Feb. 1911, and was buried in Tettenhall churchyard.

Fowler married on 6 Oct. 1857 Ellen, youngest daughter of George Benjamin Thorneycroft of Chapel House, Wolverhampton, and Hadley Park, Shropshire. To her devotion and wise counsel he owed much. She was made Lady of the Order of the Crown of India in 1895. Lord Wolverhampton left one son, Henry Ernest, who became second viscount, and two daughters. The elder daughter, Ellen Thorneycroft Fowler (Mrs. Alfred Felkin), has under her maiden name won fame as the author of 'Concerning Isabel Carnaby' and other novels ; her sister, Edith Henrietta, wife of the Rev. WiUiam Robert Hamilton, is also a novelist of repute, and has written the biography of her father (1912).

There are portraits of Lord Wolverhampton, painted by A. S. Cope, R.A., in the Town Hall, Wolverhampton, and in the hall of the Law Society, London. A replica of the first is in the possession of his son. A cartoon portrait by 'Spy' appeared in 'Vanity Fair' in 1892.

[Private sources; Mrs. Hamilton's biography, 1912; The Times, 26 Feb. 1911; Burke's Peerage; Paul's History of Modern England.]

A. L. F.