Fowler, Sir Robert Nicholas, first baronet
- H. L. Malchow
Sir Robert Nicholas Fowler, first baronet (1828–1891)
Fowler, Sir Robert Nicholas, first baronet (1828–1891), banker and politician, was born at Bruce Grove, Tottenham, Middlesex, on 12 September 1828, the only child of Thomas Fowler (d. 1851) and his wife, Lucy Waterhouse. His father, a well-connected member of the Society of Friends, was an amiable London banker who enjoyed hunting, while his mother, more severe in her religion, came from a prosperous family of Lancashire Quakers.
Tottenham was known for its active meeting, and the nonconformist Grove House School was attended by Fowler for a short time. As a boy he was renowned for his interest in history and politics, and he was endowed with an excellent memory. Throughout life he was a perfect storehouse for quotations from Greek, Roman, and English orators and poets. In 1846 he went up to University College, London, where he took firsts in mathematics and classical honours (BA 1848, MA in mathematics 1850). On graduation he went into the family bank, Drewett and Fowler, in the City of London and became a senior partner only three years later on the sudden death of his father. The following year he negotiated a merger with Barnard, Dimsdale, and Dimsdale, also a family firm founded by Quakers. The success of Dimsdale, Fowler, Barnard, and Dimsdale rested on its appeal to a clientele which was largely upper-middle-class, nonconformist, and often related by blood or marriage to the partners. It weathered the financial crisis of 1866, moved to a more prestigious location in Cornhill, prospered, and gave Fowler the comfortable means to pursue both an active political career and the Badminton hunt. Unlike some businessmen who turned to politics, however, he never delegated to other partners his central role at the bank. From the late 1860s to the end of the bank's existence as a family firm in 1890 he took an active interest in its daily affairs—even while serving as lord mayor—and presided, as dominant partner in the 1870s and 1880s, over its continuing role as a sound, solidly based, and increasingly profitable private bank at a time when the tide was turning against small houses.
Fowler's marriage on 27 October 1852 to Sarah Charlotte Fox (1834/5–1876) of Falmouth was within the extended Quaker commercial and financial world. Nevertheless, neither he nor his bride considered themselves ‘strict Quakers’, and in 1858 they left the Society of Friends and later joined the Church of England. Fowler belonged to the evangelical school and was throughout his life a man of strong and deep religious feeling. Both during his mayoralty and in the years following he often preached at the theatre services which were begun at the instance of Lord Shaftesbury for the working men of London.
Inheriting his paternal grandfather's farm near Corsham in Wiltshire, Fowler extended the estate, rebuilt Gastard House, and established his family there, though business required that he keep a residence for himself in London's West End. He cultivated the brusque mannerisms and old-fashioned dress of a country squire, and his passion for hunting contrasted oddly with his support for Quaker causes and the Evangelical Alliance. His energetic toryism was also unusual in a former Quaker.
Fowler made his first, unsuccessful, attempt to enter parliament in the general election of 1865, standing as a Conservative for the then Liberal stronghold of the City of London. Another chance presented itself soon afterwards in the Cornish constituency of Penryn and Falmouth where his wife's family were prominent (though Liberals). He failed in his first attempt but succeeded in 1868. It was his fate, however, to get into parliament just as the Conservatives were swept from power, and to lose his seat in 1874 when they returned to office under Disraeli. When he re-entered the house in 1880 (for the City) the Conservatives were once again in opposition. These circumstances naturally affected the prospects and character of his parliamentary career; he settled into the style of a confirmed opposition back-bencher, became an inveterate writer of letters to the papers, was assiduous in attendance at late-night sittings, and jealously guarded the diminishing prerogatives of the private member. Not a good speaker, 'his voice being rough and uncultured and his delivery impeded by a stammer' (ILN), he none the less rose often. His maiden speech on the enslavement of Kaffir children by Boer farmers in South Africa (19 February 1869) signalled a dominant object of his public life, the protection of ‘natives’ throughout the British empire, a commitment which, like his lay preaching in London, reflected a Quaker belief in the 'stewardship of wealth'.
In spite of his support for causes strongly associated with Liberal nonconformity, Fowler was a flamboyant tory, vigorous in local party organization in London. In 1878 he was returned unopposed as alderman for Cornhill, the ward in which his bank was located. President of the City Conservative Association and chairman of the City Carlton Club, he was well positioned to stand successfully for the City in 1880. Immediately on taking his seat his evangelical and tory principles were joined in the passionate struggle to prevent the Liberal radical and atheist Charles Bradlaugh from taking the oath. Active in the anti-Bradlaugh campaign in both the house and the City, he was personally involved in the forcible ejection of Bradlaugh into Palace Yard in August 1881.
Fowler rose within City affairs amid anxious anticipation of radical municipal reform. These fears helped create a defensive and stridently partisan undercurrent in his own mayoralty in 1883–4 and 1885. Custom prescribed elevation to the office by seniority, but in the autumn of 1883 the aldermanic court chose Fowler over the Liberal next on the list. The result was to cast a shadow over Fowler's election, though in the event he served a second term in 1885 when his successor died in office.
The event which excited most attention during Fowler's first tenure of the mayoralty was his speech at the banquet in proposing the health of her majesty's ministers. As all men knew the intensity of his opposition to Gladstone's policy, there was a good deal of curiosity to see how he would fare in proposing his health; but happily the love of Homer, shared by Fowler and Gladstone, saved the situation. A quotation from the Iliad (xvi.550) did justice to the great orator's fighting powers and won from Gladstone a hearty recognition of the lord mayor 'as a frank, bold, and courageous opponent in the House of Commons' (DNB).
The issue of ‘the City in danger’ touched both Fowler's self-interest as a City banker and his nostalgic toryism. A vow 'not to abandon an ancient and a venerable institution in the hour of her danger and her need' (The Times, 26 Jan 1884) led him to make questionable use of the resources of his office in a covert campaign against Sir William Vernon Harcourt's London Government Bill (8 April 1884). The seeming victory of the anti-reformers was followed by a personal triumph for Fowler in the general election of 1885, when he kept his seat with the largest majority in the country. He received a baronetcy from Lord Salisbury in 1885, a common honour for a former lord mayor, and in the next election, in July 1886, he was returned unopposed.
Years spent in opposition, a quirky independence bred by his devotion to out-of-doors causes, and, beneath his coarsely effusive bonhomie, an underlying lack of self-confidence conspired, however, to keep Fowler on the periphery of politics once his party came to power in 1886. Moreover, the last years of his life were overshadowed by the belated scandal of his partisan abuses while lord mayor. In 1887 a campaign in the Liberal press, led by the radical Henry Labouchere, greatly embarrassed Fowler and, though the select committee appointed by the Conservative government shielded him from criminal prosecution for ‘malversation’, the allegations of dirty tricks paid for by corporation funds were clearly substantiated.
Beyond parliament and the City there remained Gastard House in Wiltshire, which the railway made easily accessible for fox-hunting and, perhaps a secondary consideration, weekend visits to the large family which he insisted live there in rural seclusion. He and his wife, Sarah, had ten daughters and one son. After her eleventh child was born she became a semi-invalid and died at the age of forty-one a few days before Christmas 1876. Subsequently their many children were cared for by the eldest daughter, Lucy Charlotte. He never remarried.
Fowler came to enjoy the kind of foreign travel which his wealth could provide. On his return from a tour of the Far East in 1877 he published a conventional memoir, full of haphazard reflections and casual condemnation of aspects of colonial society which irritated his evangelical sensibilities. He made another world tour in 1886 with his son, Thomas, who had finished at Harrow School. It was intended that Tom take a position in the family bank, but the rapidly consolidating world of London finance dictated otherwise. In 1890 Fowler reluctantly allowed the firm to be merged with Prescott's Bank into a joint-stock business. Though he managed to get a place for his son among the many partners, there was inevitably a sense of loss and closure. The following spring he caught a bad case of influenza in Cornwall at the funeral of one of his daughters. This was compounded by his stubborn insistence on travelling back to London for the annual spring meeting of the Aborigines Protection Society. By the day of the meeting his flu had developed into pneumonia, and on 22 May 1891 he died of heart failure at 137 Harley Street, London. He was buried in the churchyard at Corsham.
Fowler died a wealthy man. Beyond the shares in Prescott's there were investments in railways, insurance, and electrical supply. But much had been poured into the Gastard estate, where he was determined to establish his son as a member of the landed gentry. Thomas was, however, unmarried when he was killed in one of the last engagements of the South African War in 1901. There was to be no landed dynasty built on a City fortune.
Lord Onslow once complained that Fowler 'had peculiar views on many subjects' (Hansard 3, 300, 1885, 1415). Seeming contradictions ran through his public and private worlds. On the one hand there is the tender and anxious conscience confided to his diary, and his daily meditation and prayer; on the other a bluff and consciously anachronistic churchman-and-tory persona which, with his large, loose frame and full beard, rough, loud voice, and cigars and good stories, led even his admiring son-in-law and biographer to assert, approvingly, that his 'talents were all of the solid kind: of what is called brilliance of intellect he possessed almost nothing at all' (Flynn, 28). Some of Fowler's opinions that seem to run counter to his philanthropic principles, such as his surprising defence of Governor Eyre or his praise for the Congo regime of Leopold II, king of the Belgians, stem from his need to discover virtue in prescriptive authority, as did the childlike joy he took in the social condescension of the duke of Beaufort. It is a mentality he shared with many other successful businessmen.
- J. S. Flynn, Sir Robert N. Fowler, bart., a memoir (1893)
- H. L. Malchow, Gentlemen capitalists: the social and political world of the Victorian businessman (1991)
- L. C. Fowler and J. E. Fowler, A short account of the Fowler family from 1550 to 1891 (1891)
- Memoirs of Robert and Rachel Fowler (1863)
- R. N. Fowler, A visit to Japan, China and India (1877)
- ILN (30 May 1891)
- Hansard 3 (1885), 300.1415
- CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1892)
- Bodl. Oxf., corresp.
- Bodl. RH, corresp.
- J. Sperling, chalk drawing, 1840, priv. coll.
- F. Holl, portrait, 1885, Pitlochry
- Sheldon?, bust, 1886, Guildhall, London
- H. Manesse, etching, NPG
- T. [T. Chartran], caricature, watercolour study, repro. in VF (25 June 1881)
- marble bust, Gastard, near Corsham, Wiltshire
- wood-engraving, NPG [see illus.]
Wealth at Death
£114,046 5s. 7d.: resworn probate, June 1892, CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1891)