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Fawcett, Henrylocked

  • Lawrence Goldman

Fawcett, Henry (1833–1884), economist and politician, was born on 26 August 1833 in Salisbury, Wiltshire, the third of four children of William Fawcett (1793–1887), a draper, and his wife, Mary Cooper (d. 1889), the daughter of a local solicitor. Henry's brothers, William and Thomas, were born in 1828 and 1839; his sister, Sarah Maria, in 1830. His father, originally from Kirkby Lonsdale in Westmorland, had prospered in Salisbury, and in 1832 was Liberal mayor of the town. His mother's father had been the local agent for the whigs. In 1843, when Richard Cobden and John Bright campaigned in rural England against agricultural protection, they stayed with the Fawcetts, who had a farm at Longford, near Salisbury. Henry Fawcett's political Liberalism thus had firm roots in his family and upbringing.

Education and blindness

Fawcett was educated at local dame-schools and at Queenwood College, Hampshire, before being sent to King's College School, London, in 1849. His talent was for mathematics rather than classics. In October 1852 he entered Peterhouse, Cambridge, but migrated to Trinity Hall in the following year where he judged there would be less competition for a fellowship. A tall, thin figure at 6 feet 3 inches in height, long of limb and with a commanding physical presence, Fawcett was a keen sportsman and rower, and a notable figure among his contemporaries. He was disappointed to be classed seventh wrangler in the mathematical tripos in 1856, but it was enough to secure him election as a fellow of Trinity Hall that Christmas. He remained a fellow of the college until his death. In 1854 he had set out to win a place in parliament by a traditional route and had entered Lincoln's Inn. His career at the bar was cut short by a shooting accident on 17 September 1858 which left him totally and permanently blind. William Fawcett failed to see his son in advance of a shooting party, fired at some partridges, and sent two pellets through both of Henry's eyes. Fawcett later told a friend that he decided that very night that the loss of his sight would make no difference to his life (Strachey, 23) and he came to terms with his blindness remarkably quickly. It did not alter his taste for vigorous exercise, nor his plan to enter parliament. Rather, with the law now closed to him, he struck out on a more individual path, and a relatively new one at the time: to build a political career from an academic base by writing, speaking, and becoming widely known. In this strategy it would not be cynical to conclude that blindness was no disadvantage: it brought him attention, it made audiences more ready to listen, and it forced Fawcett to develop talents of concentration, organization, and memory that made him highly effective as a writer, speaker, and debater. Yet there was inevitable sadness and handicap in his life. He was dependent on his friends and secretaries; he was always asking for descriptions of his wife's face and dress; his capability in professional and public life was sometimes doubted, though he proved equal to any challenge; and blindness was used as the convenient excuse for his exclusion from the cabinet in 1880, for it was held that his reliance on secretaries would breach cabinet confidentiality. Fawcett was the best-known blind person in British public life. He advanced the cause of blind people by advocating a royal commission on the blind in 1883, supported by Gladstone but not established until 1885, after Fawcett's death (Gladstone, 28 Aug 1883).

Professor of political economy

Fawcett returned to Cambridge early in 1859. It was at this stage that his friendship with Leslie Stephen deepened, for Stephen, also a fellow of Trinity Hall, showed great solicitude and loyalty towards Fawcett. The friendship endured, though by the 1870s the two were far apart spiritually: Stephen could not tolerate Fawcett's forthright opinions, set out with characteristic stridency, and his biography of Fawcett, written at the request of Millicent Garrett Fawcett and published in 1885, reflects some reserve on Stephen's part. In an age of change in the ancient universities, Fawcett was in the party of university liberals seeking to open Cambridge to all sects and classes, and build a new academic profession based on merit. As befitted a radical Liberal, Fawcett believed in open competition in all things. He began to make himself known in public, addressing the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1859 and 1861 and the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science (known as the Social Science Association) in 1859 and 1860. Fawcett made a great impression at the latter, coming to the notice of its president, Lord Brougham. His academic interests, meanwhile, were turning to political economy. In 1861 he was elected to membership of the Political Economy Club, and that autumn he began work on his Manual of Political Economy which was published early in 1863. The timing was opportune, for the Cambridge chair of political economy became vacant that summer. In an exciting university contest, Fawcett was narrowly elected in November 1863, beating one of his later friends and political allies, Leonard Courtney. As professor of political economy, Fawcett secured prestige and doubled his salary to £600 a year. As the subject then attracted few undergraduates of quality, and was not central to the curriculum, Fawcett had little difficulty lecturing in Cambridge and pursuing a political career in London.

Fawcett's Manual was a successful textbook, running to eight editions, the last published in 1907. It was modelled on John Stuart Mill's Principles of Political Economy, presenting the orthodox economic doctrines of the age, to which Fawcett subscribed, in an uncomplicated style, and filling them out with illustrations based on contemporary economic life. Fawcett made no significant theoretical contribution to economics; rather, he was a gifted popularizer, interested in questions of policy, and in the application of principles to actual economic life. In Fawcett's view, 'the leading principles of political economy and those which were really valuable, were few, simple, and therefore capable of exposition on the level of average intelligence' (Stephen, Life of Henry Fawcett, 124). His published lectures and articles, generally dealing with prominent economic issues of the moment, such as Pauperism: its Causes and Remedies (1871), Free Trade and Protection (1878), and State Socialism and the Nationalisation of the Land (1883), probably provide a better indication of his interests and strengths as an economist than the Manual. At a time when the place of organized labour in British society was at the centre of political debate, Fawcett made the labour question his special study, publishing The Economic Position of the British Labourer in 1865. He examined strikes and the processes of wage bargaining, and recommended forms of industrial co-operation between employers and workers, including co-partnerships and profit sharing, to build amicable relations between them, and to increase both profits and wages. In the 1860s he emerged as one of a group of intellectual and political ‘friends of labour’, adopting a sympathetic approach to trade unions and their request for legal and social acceptance, though unlike many of his contemporaries, and unlike Mill in particular, he continued to believe in the classical wage fund doctrine with its intrinsic limitations on the efficacy of trade union action. Fawcett was one of the last of the amateurs among political economists: he combined his academic vocation with political life and other social causes; his researches were very limited after the initial stages of his career; he remained loyal to ideas he had learned as a young man; and he showed no interest in, or understanding of, the theoretical developments of the 1870s and 1880s that heralded marginalism and the neo-classical synthesis. He may be contrasted with his highly professional and academic successor as professor of political economy in Cambridge, Alfred Marshall.

Liberal politics and marriage

Around the time of his election to the Cambridge chair, Fawcett was also fighting parliamentary elections. In 1860, unknown and with only a letter of recommendation from Brougham to commend him to the Liberals of Southwark, he presented himself for selection as a candidate there in a by-election. He was not chosen by the local constituency organization, but his audacity drew the attention of the press. In 1863 he came close to election for the city of Cambridge. In 1864 he finished second in a field of four candidates at Brighton. And at the general election of July 1865 he was elected for that constituency. He represented Brighton until defeated in the general election of February 1874, when he was immediately nominated and elected for the safe Liberal seat of Hackney, which he represented until his death.

In parliament, Fawcett was classed as an ‘advanced Liberal’ and was noted for his initial co-operation with John Stuart Mill, also elected in 1865. Like many of his generation in the English universities, Fawcett was strongly influenced by Mill, and brought himself to Mill's attention in letters dating from 1859. He not only subscribed to Mill's political economy, but shared Mill's enthusiasm for feminism, and for Thomas Hare's proposals for electoral reform, under which the whole electorate was to be organized as a single constituency, and candidates elected by securing a pre-designated quota of votes. Fawcett seconded Mill's amendment to the second Reform Bill in May 1867 that would have extended the franchise to women. Mill was never intimate with Fawcett, but saw him as an ally and referred to him as 'one of the successors' (Collected Works, 15.686). Fawcett's interest in women's causes, meanwhile, seems to have drawn him to seek a marriage partner from among the ranks of mid-Victorian feminists. In 1859 he proposed unsuccessfully to Bessie Rayner Parkes, the editor of the English Woman's Journal. In 1865 his proposal to Elizabeth Garrett, later Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the first female physician to train and practise in Britain, and the daughter of Newson Garrett, merchant and shipowner from Aldeburgh, Suffolk, was also declined. In between, in the autumn of 1864, he was briefly engaged to Eleanor Eden, daughter of the bishop of Bath and Wells. But in October 1866 Fawcett became engaged to Millicent Garrett (1847–1929) [see Fawcett, Dame Millicent Garrett], one of Elizabeth's younger sisters, and they were married on St George's day 1867. The couple had met at a party in London in May 1865 and it is said that Fawcett was initially attracted by the sweet voice of a young lady expressing her dismay at the recent assassination of President Lincoln. There is evidence that Fawcett's difficulties in finding a wife were related to concerns about the prospects of a blind man with a relatively modest income. There were initial objections to the marriage of Millicent and Henry from the Garretts, though it was an entirely happy union, and one of the most celebrated marital partnerships of the era.

Millicent was at first Fawcett's secretary; she was always his intellectual companion. In 1872 they published together a collection of their articles entitled Essays and Lectures on Social and Political Subjects. In time, Millicent played a leading role in the campaign for women's suffrage, and became a public figure in her own right. The couple maintained two households in Lambeth and in Cambridge. In 1868 their only child, Philippa Fawcett, was born. As a student at Newnham College, Cambridge, which her parents had helped to establish, Philippa Fawcett excelled in the mathematical tripos of 1890 and was unofficially placed ahead of that year's senior wrangler, though women were not officially classed at this time. It was a familial triumph, and a famous coup for the women's movement. Fawcett's feminism antedated his marriage and grew out of his general political liberalism: women were one of several groups in mid-Victorian Britain whom he believed to be unjustifiably denied full participation in civic and political life. But Millicent's views influenced him: he had initially favoured the special protection by legislation of employed women, but by the 1870s was advocating the view prevalent in the women's movement that such regulation limited opportunities for them. The threat of competition from cheaper female workers was opposed by the Trades Union Congress, and Fawcett found that his feminism had compromised his position as an advocate of organized labour; his relations with the trade union movement suffered accordingly.

An independent back-bencher

As a Liberal MP, Fawcett always championed merit over birth. He opposed abuses of government patronage; he sought to remove inconsistencies in public administration. He was a member of a Cambridge dining circle, the Republican Club, which professed opposition to the ‘hereditary principle’ and when this came to the attention of the electors of Brighton in 1871, he was forced to explain himself before them. He opposed ‘over-legislation’ and put his faith in individual self-reliance using the conventional arguments of this period that individuals are best able to judge their interests for themselves, and that too much state intervention undermines individual initiative, the mainspring of social development. This strict adherence to laissez-faire may suggest insensitivity in a man who might have known from his own experience that fate can be capricious, and that people may fail to thrive through no fault of their own. But like many Liberals of this period, Fawcett recognized elementary education as an exception to his general rule, and was an advocate of state involvement in its provision. Yet unlike those of many Liberals, Fawcett's politics owed nothing to religion. He never talked of his faith, and seems to have been a non-believer with little tolerance for matters of conscience or denomination, hence his frustration not only with Anglican exclusivism in the state and universities, but with the sectarianism of the many nonconformists in his own party. Fawcett was an early example of a secular radical. By the end of the 1860s he had emerged at the head of a group of maverick Liberal MPs sometimes referred to as ‘Fawcettites’, and notable for their university background, radical individualism, and independence of party managers. They included Charles Dilke, Auberon Herbert, Walter Morrison, and Lord Edmond Fitzmaurice.

Fawcett had been a keen admirer of Gladstone as chancellor of the exchequer in the early 1860s, and expected much from the Liberal administration he formed at the end of 1868. But Gladstone's caution, combined with tenderness for his own and others' religious scruples, disappointed Fawcett. He criticized the administration from the back benches in an attempt to force it on to radical deeds. He took issue with excessive government expenditure; with the 1870 Elementary Education Act which failed to end denominational grievances and enforce compulsory school attendance; with the compensation paid to Irish landowners under the Irish disestablishment settlement in 1869; with the delay in abolishing university tests which debarred nonconformists and atheists from fellowships in the universities. His article in the Fortnightly Review in November 1871 entitled 'The present position of the government' summarized his objections and expressed Fawcett's fundamental criticism that the administration lacked confidence in Liberal principles and was failing to educate the nation in the case for reform: Gladstone was following rather than shaping public opinion.

Fawcett's opposition to the ministry led to withdrawal of the whip in 1871. But the strength of his case was to result in the administration's defeat in March 1873 over the question of Irish university reform. Fawcett had introduced several bills to abolish the remaining religious tests in English universities before the administration legislated on the question in 1871. From 1867 he had been campaigning to have the tests abolished at Trinity College, Dublin, as well. Early in 1873 the government introduced a bill drafted by Gladstone himself. Whereas Fawcett merely sought to remove the tests at Trinity that restricted fellowships and scholarships to Anglicans, Gladstone's bill was more ambitious: it sought to construct a federal university in Ireland to which denominational colleges would affiliate, but to minimize friction between the sects there were to be no chairs or university examinations in the controversial subjects of theology, philosophy, and modern history. This was anathema to Fawcett, whose Liberal principles led him to favour a single university, without denominational distinctions, and without restraints on free expression and intellectual enquiry. In Fawcett's view, Gladstone was more concerned to appease religious intolerance and obscurantism than to enshrine the historic tenets of Liberalism. In his most effective and significant parliamentary speech on 3 March 1873, he pulled the bill apart and led a group of forty-three Liberals, largely composed of radicals and Irish members, to vote against their party. With Liberal abstentions in addition, the bill was lost by 287 to 284. After the Liberal electoral defeat in the following year, Gladstone was to complain to his brother of 'a class of independent liberals … who have been one of the main causes of the weakness of the government … We have never recovered from the blow which they helped to strike on the Irish Education bill' (Gladstone MSS, BL, Add. MS. 44762, fol. 37).

During the years of opposition which followed, Fawcett was able to repair his relations with his party. He took a leading role in the early stages of the agitation over the Bulgarian atrocities of 1876, and found it easy to fall in behind Gladstone's criticism of the morality of Conservative foreign policy. He also took up issues that did not cause conflict with other Liberals. One, the preservation of common land from transfer to private ownership, was a favourite radical cause in the 1870s, and Fawcett, as a member of the Commons Preservation Society, was able to lambast the landowning class who sought to deprive the people of access to the remaining commons of England: in particular he helped to save Epping Forest and the New Forest as open spaces. Fawcett's other concern—the administration of British India—was his own independent interest. He never visited India, nor learned much about its culture and history. But noting that Indian affairs excited little interest in parliament, Fawcett was determined that in line with Liberal principles as they applied to domestic affairs, the government of India should be efficient, cheap, and fair to the native population. He became known as the ‘Member for India’, scrutinizing policy, suggesting improvements, and enjoining colleagues to take imperial administration seriously. In Fawcett's view, a well-run empire was justifiable and defensible. A generation later such an attitude was common; in the 1870s Fawcett was a lone but increasingly influential voice. Though he did not live to see Gladstone's introduction of the Home Rule Bill in 1886, he was opposed to any measure of independence for Ireland.


Fawcett's temperament was best suited to opposition and the pursuit of unfashionable causes. But he accepted office outside the cabinet as postmaster-general when Gladstone formed his second administration in May 1880. He was joined in junior ministerial positions by the other radicals, Dilke and Joseph Chamberlain, in what was probably a deliberate ploy to limit their potential to damage the government. As postmaster, Fawcett was conscientious, successful, and popular. He introduced the parcel post; reduced the cost of telegrams and postal orders; improved facilities for small savers and investors in the Post Office Savings Bank; and opened a number of positions in the Post Office to women. But he had his differences with the administration, none the less. He strongly opposed the poorly kept secret of the early 1880s that the letters of Irish MPs were being opened as they passed through the Post Office. He abstained in July 1883 when the government proposed charging the cost of Indian soldiers garrisoned in Egypt on Indian funds. In the following year he abstained again when instructed to vote down William Woodall's amendment to the third Reform Bill which would have enfranchised women. For this he incurred the prime minister's censure, though his resignation was not requested.

Yet resignation was in Fawcett's mind. He was antagonized by Gladstone's policies and high-handed methods, and frustrated by his enforced silence as a minister. There is evidence that he contemplated leaving the administration on the pretext that the Reform Bill did not include measures for the reform of voting: his last public address in October 1884 in the Shoreditch Town Hall restated his devotion to Hare's scheme. But his plans were cut short by untimely death. A cold developed into pneumonia with coronary complications, and Fawcett died at his Cambridge home, 18 Brookside, after a brief illness, on 6 November 1884. He was buried in Trumpington churchyard on 10 November 1884. Something approaching national mourning followed, for Fawcett was said to have been the most popular man in England after Gladstone. There were tributes in parliament, the press, from the queen (who had followed his final illness with mounting concern), and from many of her subjects.

Fawcett was much honoured towards the end of his life. He was elected FRS in 1882 and lord rector of Glasgow University in 1883; he received an honorary DCL from Oxford in 1880, and was made a corresponding member of the Institut de France in 1884. Despite his independence, he was also a representative figure. His career was coextensive with the Liberal Party in its heyday, and his attitudes were shared, to a considerable extent, by a group of academic Liberals who entered politics in the 1860s from a base in the reformed universities. If Fawcett's strict adherence to the principles of classical economics owed much to the spirit of the early Victorians, his feminism and secularism point forward to a later age. His success in securing a place within an essentially landed and monied political culture on the basis of an academic position and frequent presentation of his opinions in public, make him a pioneer of an increasingly common model in British politics. He was one of the first to realize the full implications of the popularization of politics in mid-Victorian Britain and turn these to his advantage. But for his contemporaries, it was the triumph over handicap of the first blind man who, it was believed, had ever been elected to parliament, which was Fawcett's greatest achievement. His life was understood to exemplify virtues like courage, fortitude, and optimism, and was presented as an inspiration for others. Leslie Stephen's inscription on the memorial to Fawcett in the chapel of St George in Westminster Abbey, set up by national subscription, thus paid tribute to 'a memorable example of the power of a brave man to transmute evil into good and to wrest victory from misfortune'.


  • L. Stephen, Life of Henry Fawcett (1885)
  • L. Goldman, ed., The blind Victorian: Henry Fawcett and British liberalism (1989)
  • R. Strachey, Millicent Garrett Fawcett (1931)
  • The collected works of John Stuart Mill, ed. J. M. Robson and others, 33 vols. (1963–91)
  • W. Holt, A beacon for the blind, being a life of Henry Fawcett, the blind postmaster general (1915)
  • M. G. Fawcett, What I remember (1924)
  • L. Stephen, ‘Henry Fawcett: in memoriam’, Macmillan's Magazine, 51 (1884–5), 130
  • F. W. Maitland, The life and letters of Leslie Stephen (1906)


  • Women's Library, London, MSS of speeches
  • BL, letters to Sir Charles Dilke, Add. MSS 43909–43911
  • BL, corresp. with W. E. Gladstone, Add. MS 44156
  • BL, corresp. with Macmillans
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters to Sir William Harcourt
  • Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Lord Kimberley
  • CUL, letters to Sedley Taylor
  • UCL, Brougham MSS, letters
  • University of Sheffield, letters to A. J. Mundella


  • J. Brown, stipple, 1855, NPG
  • double portrait, photograph, 1868–1869 (with his wife Millicent), Mary Evans Picture Library, London
  • F. M. Brown, double portrait, 1872 (with his wife Millicent), NPG; see illus. in Fawcett, Dame Millicent Garrett (1847–1929)
  • Lock & Whitfield, woodburytype photograph, 1876, NPG
  • H. S. Rathbone, portrait, exh. 1885, Trinity Hall, Cambridge
  • M. Grant and B. Champneys, brass relief and fountain, 1886, Victoria Embankment Gardens, London
  • H. von Herkomer, portrait, 1886, FM Cam.
  • A. Gilbert, bronze medallion, 1887, Westminster Abbey, London
  • H. R. H. Pinker, statue, 1887, Market Place, Salisbury, Wiltshire
  • G. Tinworth, terracotta statue, 1893, Vauxhall Park, London
  • Bassano, two cabinet photographs, NPG
  • F. M. Brown, chalk study, Wightwick Manor, Wolverhampton
  • H. R. H. Pinker, plaster bust, NPG
  • H. von Trosh, portrait, Salisbury Corporation, Wiltshire
  • cartes-de-visite, NPG
  • cartoon, repro. in Punch (15 April 1882)
  • chromolithograph cartoon, repro. in VF (21 Dec 1872)

Wealth at Death

£9535 7s. 2d.: probate, 13 Dec 1884, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

W. E. Houghton, ed., , 5 vols. (1966–89); new edn (1999) [CD-ROM]
, 3rd ser. (1830–91)
W. E. Gladstone , ed. M. R. D. Foot & H. C. G. Matthew, 14 vols. (1968–94)