This blog was written by Richard Ward, Assistant Archives Officer.
Continuing our series of blogs on disability history, this is the life and times of Britain’s first blind MP. An inspiring story of determination, love and liberalism.
It was a late summer’s day in 1858, a tall young man was walking amongst the countryside of his native county of Wiltshire. He found himself ahead of a shooting party when accidentally one of its number fired awry at a flock of partridges and shot him in the eyes. The great tragedy of this episode was compounded by the fact that a father had blinded his own son. For many, the devastating effect of such a life-changing incident might have permanently derailed any personal dreams and aspirations but Henry Fawcett was different.
Our Esteemed Mayor
In the market town of Salisbury, the Fawcett’s were considered one of the most prominent families. Mary Fawcett was a solicitor’s daughter and her husband, William built up a successful drapery business while also becoming Mayor in 1832. Henry was born the following year, the third of four children. The issues of the day were never too far from their dining table with politicians like John Bright being invited to stay as house guests when visiting the South-West region to address public meetings on contentious subjects such as tariff reform. This would provide an early education on contemporary radical policies.
John Stuart Mill Fan Club
A dogged single-mindedness drove Henry Fawcett’s personality, and this was displayed when he was awarded a place at Peterhouse College, Cambridge. Two figures loomed large in his academic activities. The friendship of Leslie Stephen, a future biographer, was cemented by student politics and an appreciation of long walks. The two aspiring intellectuals were enamoured by the economic principles of philosopher John Stuart Mill joining a band of loyal supporters dubbed ‘Millians’. After the shooting accident that left Fawcett blind, he became ‘Chair of Political Economy’ a fellowship with a £600 a year salary. The university city was a hotbed for a new idealism fuelled by the social science theories professed by economist John Neville Keynes and his wife Florence Ada.
Fawcett on University Reform
What every University man felt particular pride in was this—that they elected the most distinguished students to fellowships. And they felt deeply pained when, in consequence of these religious restrictions, they were obliged to cast aside a distinguished man, and elect in his place one less distinguished. Then, with regard to the second ground on which they based their claims—namely, that so long as the restriction was retained the Universities would not do all the good they might do as national seats of learning.
(House of Commons – 25th April 1866 – University Test Bill)
The Garrett Sisters
1865 proved to be a good year for Henry Fawcett when he was elected MP for Brighton and met the love of his life, Millicent Fawcett The primary object of his affections had been the older Garrett sister, Elizabeth. But after being introduced to Millicent at a party, they made an immediate connection and a Victorian political power couple was born. Witness accounts of the time noted the pair attending the Commons together with Henry escorted to the chamber while his new fiancée had to accept the indignity of the Ladies Cage. Apart from providing a full-time secretarial service she was instrumental in enlightening her husband on the burgeoning women’s suffrage movement. This culminated in 1866 with the couple presenting to Parliament a petition signed by 1,499 signatories making a bold call for female enfranchisement. The same year they were married and two years later their daughter Philippa was born.
Fawcett on Agricultural labour
The most melancholy and startling facts had been disclosed; they must feel humbled until something was done. When they passed through the counties of Lincoln, Norfolk, Huntingdon, and Cambridge, and saw the beautiful fields of corn, they must remember that that admirable thing had been produced by sacrificing the minds and bodies of hundreds of children and bringing immense numbers of women to a state of perfect degradation. Were not those counties represented in that House? and how was it they had heard nothing of that before?
(House of Commons – 2nd April 1867 – Agriculture Women and Children Resolution)
All Things Suffrage
In a Parliamentary life spanning nineteen years Fawcett enjoyed a longevity that dwarfed his hero John Stuart Mill. However, when it came to a universal suffrage strategy Mill was at the forefront with his trusted prodigy backing him all the way. None more so than in the fractious 1867 Reform Bill debates when he seconded Mill’s seminal amendment to extend the franchise to women. In 1884 the same recommendation was laid on the table and again was unequivocally supported by Fawcett. In the subsequent debate Henry Raikes said that the now veteran Liberal was ‘one of two men who women can trust’. A reformist character trait steadfastly remained in place and led to a tempestuous relationship with Prime Minister, William Gladstone. This spirit of independence led to the popularisation of the term Fawcettism meaning to oppose the standard party line.
Fawcett on Women’s Suffrage
It has been contended that if women took an interest in political matters it would very much deteriorate from their character; but I challenge the hon. Members to prove that those women of their acquaintance who interested themselves in politics lost any of those qualities which entitled them to the admiration of the world any more than those who cared nothing about politics. It did not prevent them from performing all those social and domestic duties which it was their peculiar right and duty to perform.
(House of Commons – 20th May 1867 – Representation of the People Bill (Second Reform))
At no instance did Fawcett speak in the chamber about his blindness as the legend of the first blind MP grew throughout the land. Yet in 1874 he surprisingly lost his Brighton seat, but he dusted himself down and was returned as member for Hackney later that year remaining their representative for a decade. This stage of his career saw him advocate for the Commons Preservation Society, standing against converting common land into private property. One of his greatest achievements was helping to save Epping Forest from privatisation for the recreation of his working-class constituents. In this period, he was given the moniker ‘Member for India’ for his persistence in tabling Indian affairs into the daily business of the House.
Fawcett on India
Mr Fawcett asked the Under Secretary of State for India, What steps have lately been taken for the admission of a larger number of Natives of India to appointments in the public service; and, whether, if there has been any Correspondence on the subject, he will lay it upon the Table?
(House of Commons – 10th March 1879 – Civil Service (India) Admission of Natives - Question)
Many commentators stated that the Liberal Government were somewhat reluctant to reward Fawcett a cabinet position due to an assumption that his disability would be a hindrance for ministerial duties. But in 1880 he was appointed Postmaster General embracing innovation within the Post Office by introducing a savings bank scheme and parcel post. He extended recruitment in sorting offices to those believed to have learning difficulties and women now found greater employment opportunities as clerks or telegraphists. A directive that had the hallmark of his wife Millicent who was now a recognised critic of discriminatory practices. Despite failing health, he still made chamber contributions weeks before he died in November 1884. The nation mourned the passing of a great libertarian.
Fawcett on Post Office Employment
Mr C. S Parker asked the Postmaster General, Whether, as has been stated, it is intended to employ a certain number of deaf and dumb persons at the Post Office in the sorting of papers?
Mr Fawcett Sir, I am glad to be able to state that arrangements have been made for the employment, experimentally, of a certain number of deaf and dumb persons in the sorting of papers in the Post Office Savings Bank Department, and I can only express a hope that the experiment will turn out successfully.
(House of Commons – 9th May 1881 – Post Office (Savings Bank Department) – Employment of Deaf and Dumb Persons - Question)
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