|Trumpington Local History Group
Henry Fawcett, Man of Vision
|Picture a fine September day in 1858. Three men are out shooting pheasant. They’re in a thick
covert. One sees a movement, takes aim quickly and fires. There’s a cry of pain! A father, who
suffers from cataracts, has accidently shot one of his sons. By a cruel twist of fate, of the
multiple pellets that have struck the young man, only two have caused injury – one in each eye,
rendering him permanently, totally blind. But this was no ordinary man. Once realisation had set
in, with courage and determination which were to be the hallmarks of his amazing career, he
declared, “Well it shan’t make any difference in my plans of life!” His name – Henry Fawcett.
Let me take you back 25 years from that fateful day. The father, William Fawcett, a draper who
became Mayor of Salisbury in 1832, was a supporter of the Reform Bill and the Anti-Corn Law
League. He later became a farmer. Henry was born in that city on 26th August 1833. Their
house looked onto the market-place, a source of great fascination to young Henry. Here were
sown the seeds of his later ambitions.
He learned his letters at a dame school where the teacher claimed, “I never has so troublesome a
pupil – his head was like a colander.” In 1841 he was sent to a school at Alderbury, near
Salisbury, kept by a Mr Sopp, where, being an athletic lad, his heart lay more in the countryside
than in the classroom. However, in 1847 Henry entered Queenwood College, recently opened as
an innovative agricultural school, where he learned chemistry and surveying and was encouraged
to write essays on economical and other questions. Local people thought him mad as he
wandered around reciting poetry.
In 1849 he was sent to King’s College School, London. His interest in politics was encouraged
by a Mr Fearon with whom he lodged and who was an office keeper in Somerset House. This
enthusiasm was further inspired by visits to the Public Gallery at the House of Commons. Henry
did not especially distinguish himself at school but won prizes and was recommended by the
Dean of Salisbury for a Cambridge career.
He entered Peterhouse in 1852, migrated to Trinity Hall the following year and graduated BA in
1856 achieving seventh place in the Mathematical Tripos. His childhood desire for a political
career was stimulated by active participation in debates at the Union and the influence of radical
political views of the likes of John Stuart Mill and others. He didn’t allow his skills at games of
chance and his athleticism interfere with serious study.
Henry entered as a student at Lincoln’s Inn in 1854. Two years later he was elected to a
fellowship at Trinity Hall. He lived in London from 1856 until the shooting accident after which
he returned to Cambridge making rooms in Trinity Hall his headquarters for some years. Here he
studied political economy and joined the Political Economy Club. He was regarded as a brilliant
liberal speaker, his reputation being raised by the publication in 1863 of his “Manual of Political
Economy”. In spite of his radical opinions and blindness, that year he was elected Cambridge’s
first Professor of Political Economy and lectured regularly until his death.
In the 1860s he was to be struck again by two missiles – fortunately nothing more dangerous
than Cupid’s arrows. Firstly, he proposed marriage to Elizabeth Garrett, the first English woman
doctor, 13 years his junior but a great admirer of his keen mind, zest for living and his
determination to get into the House of Commons. She was impressed too by what she called “his
gift for good talk and incapacity for being awed by differences in status”. However, in her
biography she pulled no punches, describing Henry as “very tall (he was 6ft 3ins) with a massive
head and ugly”.
For whatever reason, there was to be no engagement, perhaps because her elder sister Louisa
advised against it. They remained close friends and Elizabeth went on to achieve greatness
herself in the field of medicine. She married James Skelton Anderson and later, in Aldeburgh,
became the first woman mayor in England in 1908 at the age of 71.
Romance was still in the air, however, when Henry, on hearing Elizabeth’s younger sister
Millicent speaking, wanted to meet, as he put it, “the owner of that voice”. They married on
23rd April 1867. She supported his principles, shared his intellectual and political labours and
was the main source of his happiness and success in later life. Millicent, in turn, was encouraged
by her husband to pursue her own career as a writer. Henry supported her work for women’s
rights, becoming president of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, a position later
held by Millicent herself.
His wife continued with her good works for many years, helped to found Newnham College and
was made a Dame of the British Empire in 1925. She died in 1929 aged 82.
In 1875 they took a house in London where Henry stayed during parliamentary sessions but also
had a house, where he resided when lecturing, at no. 18 Brookside, just off Trumpington Road
Henry’s political career began in earnest when, in 1860, encouraged by Mill, he proposed himself
as parliamentary candidate for Southwark. Although unknown to the constituency, his brilliant
oratory brought crowds from all over London and, although he had to withdraw his candidacy,
his fame was spreading, particularly among politicians. He stood for Cambridge in 1863 but was
beaten by a small majority. The next year he stood for Brighton, was narrowly beaten again but
was elected there to Parliament as a Liberal in 1865 aged 32.
He quickly established himself as a vigorous MP, advocating votes for women and the abolition
of religious tests at universities. He supported social reforms for factory and agricultural workers.
Re-elected for Brighton in 1868 he joined a group of radicals, became a conspicuous critic of the
Liberal government and eventually alienated himself from the party. In 1873 he helped to defeat
Gladstone when opposing the Prime Minister’s scheme for dealing with university education in
Ireland denominationally instead of by united education.
Henry lost his Brighton seat in 1874. There was widespread regret, evidence of the respect he
had earned through his independence. Later that year he was elected as member for Hackney.
Although blind, his love of the countryside motivated his energetic campaign to save common
land, including Epping Forest and the New Forest, from enclosure.
He also championed the cause of the depressed people of India, astonishing listeners to his
speeches by his amazing command of complex facts and figures. He became known as “the
Member for India”.
During the 1874-1880 Parliament Fawcett became reconciled to his party, his geniality and
independence having gained great respect.
In view of today’s international events it is intriguing to know that Henry Fawcett joined the
Afghan Committee in the 1870s to help rouse public opinion against the war in Afghanistan.
Re-elected for Hackney in 1880, he became Postmaster-General in Gladstone’s government, but
a seat in the cabinet was withheld, partly on account of his blindness. This position prevented
him from criticizing the government but, on another topical note, he was utterly opposed to
Home Rule for Ireland.
As Postmaster-General he introduced many new measures – the establishment of parcel post in
1882, the introduction of postal orders, cheap telegrams, terms for telephone companies and
Post Office Savings schemes.
He proved to be an efficient administrator, conscientious and good-natured, who sought to
protect the welfare of his employees. Moreover, he employed women medical officers and
continued to clash with Gladstone over his refusal to give women the vote.
His connection with Cambridge had always remained strong – he came close to being elected
Master of Trinity Hall.
In November 1882 Henry Fawcett suffered an attack of diphtheria. His sister-in-law, Elizabeth
Garrett Anderson, helped to nurse him and he apparently made a complete recovery only to
catch pneumonia in October 1884. He died in Cambridge, after a short illness, on 6th November
aged only 51. He was buried in Trumpington Churchyard on 10th November in the presence of
a great crowd of friends, colleagues and representatives of many public bodies. Their carriages
stretched right back to Cambridge. His wife Millicent and their only child Philippa, then aged 16,
led the mourning.
Henry Fawcett had many honours bestowed on him. He was created Doctor of Political
Economy by the University of Würzburg, was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, a Member
of the Institute of France and given an honorary degree by the University of Glasgow where he
was elected Lord Rector.
In Westminster Abbey there is a monument to Fawcett, raised by national subscription. From
this fund a scholarship tenable by the blind of both sexes was founded at Cambridge and a
playground provided at the Royal Normal College for the Blind, Norwood. In Salisbury, a statue
to him was erected in the market place and a memorial placed in the Cathedral. A drinking
fountain commemorating his services to the rights of women was erected on the Thames
In Trumpington the village school is named after Henry Fawcett and the Church has its very fine
stained glass window in memory of this remarkable man. Is it not sad then that his grave, with its
rusting wrought iron surround and modest stone bearing the barely legible inscription “Speak
unto the people that they go forward”, should be in so neglected a state [in 2001]?
Throughout his life Henry Fawcett, from all accounts, displayed many great qualities: his kind-
heartedness, independent spirit, chivalrous nature, strong principles and tireless energy were
always in evidence. He had a wide circle of friends, being a genial companion at ease with people
of all ranks.
Despite his blindness he remained remarkably active. While at Cambridge he rowed in a don’s
crew named “The Ancient Mariners”. He was a strong walker and enjoyed walking on the Gogs.
He was also a powerful skater, could skate to Ely at 15 mph and was able to skate 50 or 60
miles in a day even towards the end of his life. He would ride at the gallop on Newmarket Heath
and was a skilful angler and, perhaps above all, never lost that love of the countryside which, all
those years before, had so frustrated a bright-eyed young boy gazing out wistfully through a
dame school window.
In 2004 Trumpington Local History Group sought permission for a blue plaque in Henry
Fawcett’s honour and raised the necessary money. The blue plaque was unveiled in a ceremony
in Trinity Hall and later affixed to Number 18 Brookside. The Group then turned its attention to
the grave and again Peter Dawson led the fund raising. The renovation was finally completed in
October 2008 and there was a simple rededication service on 1st April 2009.
|Copyright © Trumpington Local History Group, 2018. Updated 21 May 2018.
|Mr and Mrs Fawcett, engraving from a
painting by Ford Madox Brown (1872).
Transcript of one of a series of talks titled Trumpington Worthies, given
at the Local History Group meeting on 29 November 2001. There are
also pages about the funeral of Henry Fawcett, notes about Henry
Fawcett, and Millicent Garrett Fawcett and Women's Suffrage.
|Henry Fawcett’s grave, before and after renovation,
completed in 2008.
Rededication of Henry Fawcett’s grave: Graeme Minto,
Reverend Dr Jeremy Morris and Dr Clare Bartlett, 1 April
Photos: Stephen Brown.
|The grave was again renovated in early 2018, when the headstone was adjusted to make it more
visible (The Trumpet, April-May 2018, p. 21).
|The refurbished grave and memorial stone to Henry Fawcett,
Trumpington Church. Photo: Andrew Roberts, 6 April 2018.