MP of the Month: Henry Fawcett (1833-84)

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.

Prof Henry Fawcett MP

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.

Millicent helping Henry write © National Portrait Gallery, London

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)

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Voice and Vote: behind the scenes

Our editor Philip Salmon and assistant editor Kathryn Rix, together with our colleague Emma Peplow, share some highlights of our involvement with the Voice and Vote exhibition currently running in Westminster Hall.

The History of Parliament

This blog looks at how the History of Parliament has been involved behind the scenes with the Voice and Vote exhibition which opened in Westminster Hall last week. Dr. Philip Salmon and Dr. Kathryn Rix of the Victorian Commons project share their contributions to the reconstructions of the ‘ventilator’ and the ‘cage’, where women could listen to parliamentary debates in the nineteenth century, while Dr. Emma Peplow highlights the ways in which our Oral History project has shed light on the experience of female MPs in the twentieth century.

DSC_1186 Nancy Astor’s suit

The Voice and Vote exhibition, which runs until 6 October, has been organised by the UK Parliament’s Vote 100 project, led by Melanie Unwin and Mari Takayanagi. Marking the centenary of the 1918 Representation of the People Act, it looks at the campaign for votes for women, as well as the role women have played in the House…

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MP of the Month: The ‘strange career’ of John Townsend (1819-1892)

Once a successful auctioneer and undertaker, Townsend’s short and controversial parliamentary career as MP for Greenwich ended in 1859 after a protracted struggle to escape bankruptcy. His ‘strange career’ was, however, far from over and he subsequently found fame in North America, where he established himself as ‘one of the most popular actors of the day’, and became the manager of a pioneering Canadian theatre company.

John-Townsend-low-223x300

John Townsend MP. Image credit.

Born in Deptford, Townsend worked in his father’s prosperous and well-established undertaking business until 1843, when he established his own estate agency. His funeral orations were said to have had no equal, and his ‘fluent and copious addresses’ to bidders ensured his success as an auctioneer. These talents had been honed on the stage: Townsend had begun his career in the theatre at the age of 12 with Edmund Kean’s company. In 1842 he leased the theatre in Richmond, Surrey, under the pseudonym John Tamworth, but by 1844 his activities as an actor-manager had brought him to the verge of bankruptcy. He subsequently recovered his fortunes in the property business, however, and developed an interest in politics, becoming agent to the successful Liberal candidate at the 1852 general election for Greenwich.

Apparently ambitious to establish himself as the borough’s ‘Member Maker’, he unwisely handled the campaign of an impecunious and unsuccessful ‘ballot candidate’ known as Colonel Sleigh at the Greenwich by-election in February 1857. Undaunted, he founded a Liberal Association in the borough at that year’s general election and announced his candidature two days before the nomination. To the surprise of many, his support for the ballot and a wide extension of the franchise secured him second place in the poll.

Unfortunately Townsend’s political activities not only cost him a great deal of money, much of it borrowed, but also caused him to neglect his business. An attempt to replenish his coffers by raising £5,000 from his constituents brought in only a few hundred pounds, and in July 1857 his newly-acquired business partner called in the receivers. Found bankrupt that September, he managed to persuade his creditors to allow him time to liquidate their claims, but after failing to do so he was bankrupted again in March 1858. However, his case was not brought to the notice of the House until 15 June, by which time Townsend had unwittingly cast illegitimate votes in important divisions on the ballot, the abolition of church rates and the county franchise bill. These votes were subsequently disallowed, and he was deemed incapable of sitting and voting in the House. However, as a bankrupt he was allowed to remain a Member for twelve months to afford an opportunity to satisfy his creditors.

Facing debts of £5,000 with assets of £87, and with his ‘legislatorial powers in abeyance’, it was widely anticipated that Townsend would retire from the Commons. After further appearances in the court of bankruptcy he secured only the lowest class of certificate, the judge concluding that his election spending had been ‘a wanton and shameful waste of assets’. Publicly accused of having ‘aimed too soon and shot too high’, he was widely criticised for having sought parliamentary honours when he could hardly meet the property qualification. When it emerged that his family had been compelled to pawn household goods in order to ‘procure their daily bread’, Townsend was condemned by the Morning Post for ‘his absurd vanity in seeking to fill a position for which he was neither qualified by intellect, by fortune, by birth, nor by position’.

To satisfy his creditors Townsend pluckily returned to the stage, which he had abandoned in 1852 to take on his late father’s business. He played leading roles in several London playhouses and is thought to have been the last actor to perform Shakespeare’s Richard III on horseback. Shortly after reciting the four-hour play from memory to an appreciative audience at the Greenwich Literary Institution, he announced his resignation from the Commons and took the Chiltern Hundreds, 8 Feb. 1859. He retained the sympathy of the borough’s working men, however, and played a significant part in getting a progressive Liberal elected in his place. In a further attempt to clear his debts Townsend became manager of the Theatre Royal in Leicester, before emigrating to Upper Canada in 1862.

Settling near Kingston, Townsend returned to the stage in 1864 and, along with his family, all of whom had been trained for the stage, formed a troupe which toured southern Ontario and became one of the first Canadian-based companies ‘that dared swim in the sea of American touring’. Remembered as ‘a capital tragedian’, who possessed a sonorous voice and a robust style, he retired from the stage in 1877, and after some years working as a respected teacher of acting and elocution he died at Hamilton, Western Ontario, in December 1892.

Further reading: D. Gardner, ‘Townsend, John’, Dictionary of Canadian Biography (1990)

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Club Government: How the Early Victorian World was Ruled from London Clubs

Earlier this year we were delighted to attend the launch of Seth Thévoz’s first book, Club Government: How the Early Victorian World was Ruled from London Clubs, published by I. B. Tauris. This book is based on research undertaken for Seth’s PhD thesis on ‘The political impact of London Clubs, 1832-68’, which was jointly supervised by Dr. Sarah Richardson, of Warwick University, and our editor, Dr. Philip Salmon, and funded by a PhD scholarship from the History of Parliament Trust. Part of Seth’s work included compiling a database of the club membership of every MP who sat during this period, which we are using in our biographies of the 2,590 MPs we are covering in our project.

As this summary of the book explains, Seth’s work provides important new insights into the political impact of London’s clubs.

Club Government: How the Early Victorian World was Ruled from London Clubs (20171221) by [Thevoz, Seth Alexander]The phenomenon of ‘Club Government’ in the mid-nineteenth century, when many of the functions of government were alleged to have taken place behind closed doors, in the secretive clubs of London’s St. James’s district, has not been adequately historicized. Despite ‘Club Government’ being referenced in most major political histories of the period, it is a topic which has never before enjoyed a full-length study. Making use of previously-sealed club archives, and adopting a broad range of analytical techniques, this work of political history, social history, sociology and quantitative approaches to history seeks to deepen our understanding of the distinctive and novel ways in which British political culture evolved in this period. The book concludes that historians have hugely underestimated the extent of club influence on ‘high politics’ in Westminster, and though the reputation of clubs for intervening in elections was exaggerated, the culture and secrecy involved in gentleman’s clubs had a huge impact on Britain and the British Empire.

Many congratulations to Seth on his publication.

 

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The 1868 Boundary Act: Disraeli’s attempt to control his ‘leap in the dark’?

As part of our series on the 1867 Reform Act, we are reblogging this piece from Martin Spychal on an important associated measure, the 1868 Boundary Act.

The History of Parliament

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the 1868 Boundary Act. As Martin Spychal of the Commons 1832-68 Section discusses in today’s blog, the oft-neglected story of the Act provides several key insights into Britain’s second Reform Act and, in particular, the intentions of Benjamin Disraeli, the Conservative Prime Minister in 1868…

Leap in the Dark The 1867 Reform Act, or Disraeli’s leap in the Dark

It is often forgotten that Benjamin Disraeli intended to mitigate the democratising impact of the 1867 Reform Act’s borough householder franchise through boundary changes and the redistribution of seats. For Disraeli, boundary reform also offered an opportunity to increase Conservative influence over the English electoral system, and the chance to put his increasingly ambitious electoral intelligence network to the test.

The 1868 Boundary Act provided new boundaries to 59 English boroughs as well as 10 Welsh borough districts, and altered the temporary limits that had been assigned…

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MP of the Month: Lord Hotham (1794-1870)

Beaumont-Hotham-3rd-Baron-Hotham

Beaumont Hotham, 3rd Baron Hotham (1794-1870) (c) National Portrait Gallery

Our MP of the Month, Lord Hotham, is one of a small number of individuals who sat for the entire period covered by our 1832-68 project. A Waterloo veteran, he had first been elected to the Commons in 1820 as a Tory MP for Leominster, which he represented – with a brief gap in service in 1831 – until 1841. He then sat for the East Riding of Yorkshire, where he owned extensive estates, until retiring in 1868.

Given his political longevity, it was hardly surprising that Hotham became a well-known character in the Commons. One reason he stood out was his ‘curious and quaint attire’. His old-fashioned clothes included ‘his favourite blue broad cloth coat’ with ‘shining gilt buttons’, ‘a buff waistcoat’, ‘low shoes and gaiters’ and a hat with a curled brim.

Contemporary observers also commented on Hotham’s diligent attendance at Westminster, even into his seventies. William White, the Commons doorkeeper, wrote of Hotham in 1868 that ‘he is as erect as he was when he marched with his regiment of Guards at Waterloo; and to see him run when a division is called you would not deem him to be more than fifty’. In his penultimate Commons speech, Hotham was scathing in his criticism of fellow MPs who did not live up to his standards, objecting to a proposal that Members should be allowed to correct their vote if they had accidentally entered the wrong division lobby:

‘It argued very little for the competence of Members if, when they were told “Ayes to the right, Noes to the left,” they did not know which way to go. If hon. Members were asleep, or on the terrace smoking, or reading newspapers in the vicinity of the House, or, in short, doing anything except what they ought – attending to the Business of the House in their places – that was their own fault, and the matter was, in his opinion, not of such importance as to require special legislation’.

Despite his emphasis on the importance of attending to parliamentary business, Hotham had a lengthy spell of absence from the Commons in the early 1840s. His election address, seeking the votes of the East Riding’s electors in 1841, was written on his sick-bed, and he did not appear on the hustings that July. This did not, however, prevent him being elected unopposed in his absence alongside a fellow Conservative. Hotham’s health worsened after the election and he did not take his seat in Parliament until 1843, when he was still convalescing. Not until 1844 did his name appear again in the division lists.

Hotham later told his constituents that although he had considered resigning his seat when he was ill, he felt that the relative position of the two parties was such that ‘a vote on two on either side was of no importance whatsoever’. Having switched from Leominster to the East Riding, Hotham had the major advantage of representing a seat where he never faced an election contest. Although his political sympathies lay with the Conservatives, he prided himself on his ‘independence’ from party, voting in Parliament on the basis of ‘measures, not men’. He turned down an invitation from Lord Derby to join his ministry in 1858, and was not afraid to vote against his leaders, being one of a handful of Conservatives who divided against the Derby ministry’s reform bill in March 1859.

As an army veteran, who had served in the Coldstream Guards, Hotham took a perennial interest in military matters, where no detail was too small to escape his attention. In 1857 he raised concerns that the families of recipients of the Order of the Bath were expected to return their relatives’ insignia after their death. He also complained that the ‘star’ which formed part of this insignia was of poor quality, made of ‘pasteboard, tinsel and spangles’. Hotham did not let this matter drop, and in 1859 received assurances from the Secretary for War that the star would in future be made from silver, rather than embroidered, and would not have to be surrendered when the holder died. More significantly, Hotham served on several committees on military questions, and chaired the royal commission on army recruitment which sat in 1859-60 and made an extensive set of recommendations in 1861.

Hotham’s parliamentary interests went beyond his obvious expertise in military matters, especially as he became one of the longer-serving members of the House. ‘Precise and somewhat punctilious, but always courteous’, he often intervened on procedural points, and was concerned about issues which might affect the dignity and reputation of the Commons. He formed an unlikely alliance with the Radical MP Joseph Hume in 1840 to ensure that in future the judge of the admiralty court would not be allowed to be a Member of Parliament. The holder of this post, Stephen Lushington, was MP for Tower Hamlets, and Hotham felt it was inappropriate for him to be sitting as a judge one day, and ‘on the next engaging as a partisan in the House of Commons’. Hotham and Hume failed in a later attempt to prohibit other judges, including the master of the rolls, from being MPs. Hotham did, however, score another success in 1858 when he carried a motion to prevent MPs from promoting or advocating any measure or proceeding in the Commons for which they had received ‘any pecuniary fee or reward’. Essentially this was an attempt to tackle the problem of lobbying.

Having spent almost half a century in the Commons, Hotham retired at the dissolution in 1868, at the age of 74, concerned that he might no longer be able to offer the ‘close and constant attention’ which his parliamentary duties deserved. He died in December 1870, when he was remembered as ‘a most devoted, independent, influential representative of the people’.

Further details of Hotham’s pre-1832 career can be found in our 1820-32 volumes, available here. His 1832-68 biography will be available shortly on our preview site.

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Call for papers: ‘From “Old Corruption” to the New Corruption? Public Life and Public Service in Britain, c. 1780–1940’

Our assistant editor, Kathryn Rix, will be one of the keynote speakers at a 2 day conference entitled ‘From “Old Corruption” to the New Corruption? Public Life and Public Service in Britain, c. 1780–1940’, to be held at Oxford Brookes University, 24-25 January 2019. The conference is also supported by Newman University, Birmingham, and the History and Policy Unit, King’s College, London.

Further details can be found in the call for papers. The deadline for the submission of abstracts is 27 July 2018.

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