Continuing our recent focus on the personalities and campaigns associated with ‘votes for women’, our MP of the Month highlights the remarkable career of Henry Fawcett, husband of the leading suffragist Millicent Fawcett (1847-1929), whose statue was unveiled in Parliament Square earlier this year.
Henry Fawcett is best remembered today as the first completely blind MP. An advanced radical on most issues, he became an increasingly outspoken critic of the Liberal leadership after 1868, before Gladstone judiciously persuaded him to accept junior office as postmaster-general in his second ministry, severely curbing his tongue. Fawcett’s activities in this role included introducing a parcel post service and oversight of the early telephony system.
Our current research on the 1832-68 Commons only covers the initial three years of Fawcett’s career – he was an MP from 1865 until his death in 1884 – but this early period was no less striking. The son of a Salisbury draper, Fawcett lacked both the élite connections and financial resources conventionally required for a parliamentary seat. Instead it was his talent for mathematics and entry to Cambridge University, where he became a fellow of Trinity Hall and the first professor of political economy aged just 29, which provided him with a public platform and a new route into national politics via academic celebrity. The success of his lectures to the Social Science Association on issues such as labour relations and strikes, and the huge popularity of his accessible guides to the theories of Charles Darwin on evolution, Thomas Hare on electoral reform, and J. S. Mill on political economy (to name but a few), made him a household name before he even set foot near a hustings.
What really made Fawcett famous, however, was being blind. Aged just 25, he had been shot accidentally by his poorly sighted father during a partridge shoot. Although he was saved from a serious chest injury by a thick coat, stray pellets destroyed his eyes. The way in which he carried on with his academic career at Cambridge and maintained an active lifestyle – walking, fishing, rowing, riding and even skating – made him an inspirational figure to many. It also seemed to tally perfectly with the liberal self-help attitudes and associated laissez-faire philosophy running through so much of his writing and speeches.
How did he manage? Before his marriage to Millicent (right), Fawcett relied on his family, a group of extraordinarily devoted friends at Cambridge (including his biographer Leslie Stephen), and paid secretaries to help him read and write. The tapping of his stick became a ‘familiar sound’ in Trinity Hall, where his night-time meanderings often kept students awake. The college servants also helped, but it was his employment of a ‘personal attendant’, a 14 year old ‘intelligent boy’ named Edward W. Brown (1844-71), which really made it possible for Fawcett to function as he did and remain so independent. Fawcett and his ‘lad’ became a regular sight travelling together to meetings, conferences and debates, and eventually in the corridors of the Commons.
Getting into Parliament, however, was far from easy. Despite Fawcett’s accomplishments as an academic and speaker, serious concerns existed about his ability to perform the duties of an MP. At all four of his attempts to get elected, at Southwark in 1860, Cambridge in 1863, and Brighton in 1864 and 1865, his blindness not only attracted much-needed attention and public sympathy – here after all was a candidate without money or connections – but also incredulity and opposition. ‘How is it possible for a blind man to be a Member of Parliament?’, demanded one newspaper:
How can he catch the Speaker’s eye, know when another MP rises to explain, receive deputations, or introduce them to … ministers? A Member of Parliament thus afflicted must necessarily become an impediment to business and a bore to those around him, or else he must become a nullity. (Evening Mail, 30 Nov. 1860)
Two features stand out in Fawcett’s early election campaigns. First, there was a gradual shift away from disability-based objections and a growing appreciation of Fawcett’s abilities, aided by his extraordinary talent for public speaking and regular references to the successful career of a blind representative in the Belgian assembly, Alexander Rodenbach. Second, Fawcett could be surprisingly cautious for an ‘advanced radical’ on some political issues, such as manhood suffrage, owing to his Millite concerns about democratic despotism.
This may explain why, once elected for Brighton in 1865, Fawcett initially kept his head down and didn’t rock the boat, remaining ‘comparatively quiet’ and backing the moderate Liberal leadership on many issues. Indeed, of the 224 votes he cast during his first Parliament, only 24 saw him take a radical line against Gladstone, mostly on matters relating to Dissenters’ rights and improvements to the electoral system.
One of his earliest and most famous disagreements with Gladstone, of course, was over votes for women. In June 1866 Fawcett helped J. S. Mill organise and present the first mass petition calling for women’s suffrage, signed by almost 1,500 females. The following year, on 20 May 1867, he spoke and voted in support of Mill’s unsuccessful attempt to enfranchise women, paying tribute to Mill as the ‘teacher’ from whom ‘he had learnt all his lessons of political life’. By now he had been married for almost a month to Millicent, who became his ‘eyes and hands’ and a familiar sight around Westminster. Noting how she always guided him to the Commons, one observer later described how:
A tall, fair-haired young man, evidently blind [is] led up to the door by a youthful petite lady … The British Constitution would be quite upset were a woman to invade the floor of the House of Commons … so she has to consign him to a youth who stands waiting to lead the blind member to his place … As she trips lightly up the stairway leading to the Ladies’ Cage, near the roof of the House … [a] whisper passes round, “One day, perhaps not far off, she will take her seat beside her husband, and remain there”. (Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, vol. i (1875), pp. 352-6)
For further information about Fawcett see:
Lawrence Goldman (ed.), The Blind Victorian: Henry Fawcett and British Liberalism (1989)
Lawrence Goldman, ‘Henry Fawcett’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
Leslie Stephen, Life of Henry Fawcett (1886)