Braille Monitor                                                                                July 1986


Gladstone's Postmaster-General

(The following article by Kenneth R. Whitton appeared in the November, 1984, New Beacon.)

When the post was abolished in 1969, there had been over a hundred Postmasters-General, and one of them was more remarkable than any of the others. Sot, of course, the last of them all, the ill-starred John Stonehouse; not Sir Rowland Hill, nor Anthony Trollope, for neither was ever Postmaster-General; and not the only woman to hold office, Catherine, created Countess of Chesterfield, the widow of Daniel O'Neale, Postmaster-General from 1663 to 1664, who herself succeeded him in the post.

A clue is to be found in an enlightened appeal used by the London Association for the Blind a few years ago, which began: "Why did Gladstone's Postmaster-General need a little help?" For Gladstone's Postmaster-General, who died in office a hundred years ago this month, was Henry Fawcett, who was blind.

Fawcett was born in Salisbury on 26 August, 1833, graduated in mathematics at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, and became a Fellow. He had some trouble with his sight, and was advised to rest his eyes. On 17 September, 1858, when he was twenty-five, he was out shooting and was instantly blinded by a stray shot (the accident happened because Fawcett's father fired carelessly as a result of incipient cataract).

Within ten minutes he had made up his mind that he would stick to his pursuits as much as possible. But there was a period of depression, which was brought to an end when he received a remarkably perceptive letter from his former mathemathics tutor, William Hopkins--a letter very unlike the numerous exhortations to resignation to a ruined life. He returned to Trinity Hall and studied political economy, which had long interested him. He became a reckless ice skater (liking the first day of a thaw), and it was a long standing tradition in the Cambridge livery stables that he was charged extra because he took so much out of the horses he hired.

His attitude to blindness was that it was an inconvenience, which is much like Sir Arthur Pearson's advice to a Saint Dunstaner: "Call it a beastly nuisance, and then carry on and forget about it." Life to Fawcett was fun. He had a strong sense of humor, practical jokes appealed to him, and he loved to gossip. A servant described him as "a happy noisy man." He never learned an embossed system of reading, but at the end of his life, he played cribbage, ecarte, and loo with marked cards, and he spoke in favor of one embossed type instead of the nine or ten then current.

In 1863 he published A Manual of Political Economy, and in the same year (still only thirty) he was elected professor of political economy at Cambridge. Since boyhood he had cherished an ambition to enter parliament, and although he recognized the difficulties created by his blindness and his lack of means and distinguished background, he would not be deflected by his friends' efforts to dissuade him. Just before he lost his sight, he wrote that he could "in the House of Commons exert an influence in removing the social evils in our country, and especially the paramount one--the mental degradation of millions." After three unsuccessful attempts he was elected for Brighton as a liberal in 1865 at the age of thirty one. His friends wished to see him become a member of the Reform Club, but the committee was reluctant. Fawcett received the news without fuss, but Thackeray was outraged and soon secured his election. Fawcett was just as calm about his exclusion from the Cabinet when he became Postmaster-General. He wrote to his father and mother: "I shall be a Privy Councillor but shall not have a seat in the Cabinet. I believe there was some difficulty caused about my having to confide Cabinet secrets; this objection, I think, time will remove." He was a disciple, although by no means a slavish one, of John Stuart Mill and was therefore a radical, but he was an Anti-Socialist--although he strongly supported the Co-operative Movement and believed that the state ought to encourage thrift and might legitimately take action towards improving the dwellings of the poor. Those who could help themselves should do so, and the state should do nothing to discourage self help, but throughout his parliamentary career Fawcett was concerned to improve the lot of those least able to fight for themselves--slaves, children, agricultural laborers, and the people of India. Education was one of his foremost interests. He was a staunch free-trader. He was in favor of reform of the House of Lords and advocated proportional representation and votes for women, not because he thought they were the equals of men but because they were entitled to equal opportunities. His opposition to a measure to limit the working hours of women must have seemed uncaring even in 1874, but it was based, in part at least, on the belief that the measure was aimed less at safeguarding their health than at reducing their opportunities to work. Fawcett believed that women's lack of political influence was the reason for their unsatisfactory position in the labor market, and that he must speak for them. His view that married couples need not be separated in work houses if they were over sixty (although he could not wish the work houses to be converted into breeding establishments) probably tells us more about the age in which he lived than about him.

At some time Fawcett had proposed to Elizabeth Garrett, later Elizabeth Garrett Anderson. She consulted her elder sister Louisa, known has Louie, and then followed her advice to refuse him, but the decision cost her much heartache. Later, by chance, Fawcett met her younger sister Millicent. He proposed to her, and she accepted. Elizabeth was incredulous, and then appalled and angry. Millicent turned to Louie, who approved of the match and, not long before she succumbed to appendicitis, persuaded Elizabeth to accept Henry Fawcett as a brother. Henry and Millicent were married on 23 April, 1867--he was thirty-three and she nineteen. Millicent later became a leader of the Non-Militant Suffragettes. As Dame Millicent she survived until 1929, having seen the vote granted to women on the same terms as men in 1928 and the first woman cabinet minister appointed only weeks before her death. Their only child, Philippa, achieved great distinction as a mathematician, being placed 400 marks above the senior wrangler in the first part of the mathematical tripos at Cambridge in 1890.

Fawcett played a considerable part in getting the Reform Bill of 1867 passed, was very actively concerned in preserving the commons against enclosure, played a major part in saving Epping Forest for the nation, worked against measures that would have ruined the New Forest and took so much interest in the Indian people that he was known as the "Member for India." Although he could make no use of notes, Fawcett prepared his speeches very systematically, and they were remarkably fluent and impressive. On one occasion he made a speech on India that lasted nearly two hours and included many complicated statistics.

Fawcett lost his Brighton seat in 1874, but within a few months he was returned for Hackney. He was fearless in opposing policies of his own party of which he did not approve, and he was largely responsible for the fall of Gladstone's Ministry in 1873. Nevertheless, when Gladstone formed his administration in April 1880, he offered the Postmaster-Generalship to Fawcett. He was forty-six. Fawcett took no major part in blind welfare, but he was a member of the General Council of the then Royal Normal College for the Blind and naturally supported its objective of promoting the independence of blind people. He was in favor of a Royal Commission on the Blind, and one was appointed after his death. He was strongly opposed to segregating blind people in institutions, and believed that as far as possible they should act and be treated like seeing people. But he recognized that blind people need help, and was deeply grateful for the assistance he received.

Fawcett's period of office as Postmaster-General was by any standards a notable one. He introduced the parcel post, postal orders, and a postal savings facility using postage stamps. He made it possible for small sums to be invested in government securities, and increased the facilities for life insurance and annuities. He did a great deal of prepatory work for cheaper telegrams, which were introduced by his successor, and almost his last official act was to approve the terms of a license for the telephone companies. When he was appointed postmaster general, he made an agreement with Gladstone that he would be allowed to use freely the excess of net revenue over the average of the three preceding years, and he improved the pay and prospects of some post office workers. He provided more employment opportunities for women, and appointed women medical officers in London, Liverpool, and Manchester. When postal concessions for

Braille letters and books were being discussed early in the twentieth century, it was claimed that Fawcett had granted some when he was Postmaster General, but C.K. Lysons, a very thorough researcher, can say no more than that "No trace of any concessions having been made by Fawcett could be discovered by post office officials, though there was a general impression that something of the kind was done." (Dr. Lysons was also unable to trace the origin of an amendment, introduced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer himself, to what became the Customs and Inland Revenue Act 1878, designed to excuse a blind person from having a license for a dog kept and used solely for his guidance. So it can be taken as unlikely that Fawcett had any part in achieving the provision.)

In 1882, Fawcett was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. He was well known in the country--featuring not infrequently in Punch--as well as being admired and popular, and when he was seriously ill with diphtheria and typhoid in 1882, great concern was shown among all classes of the population. It would have been surprising if it had been otherwise, for had not a cab driver steadfastly refused to take his fare, saying: "No, Mr. Fawcett, no, sir. You have done too much for the working man."? With the help of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and other doctors he recovered, but in the autumn of 1884 he became ill in Cambridge and developed pneumonia. On November 6, Elizabeth was sent for and arrived with her own physician, Sir Andrew Clark, but they could do nothing. That night she wrote: "Our dearest Harry is gone."

He was fifty-one. Had he lived, might not that appeal have read: "Why did Gladstone's Secretary for India need a little help?" Or even, with Fawcett's phenomenal memory, perception, and reliance on his judgment: "Why did Gladstone's Chancellor of the Exchequer need a little help?"


If you or a friend would like to remember the National Federation of the Blind in your will, you can do so by employing the following language:

"I give, devise, and bequeath unto National Federation of the Blind, 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21230, a District of Columbia nonprofit Corporation, the sum of $ _________ (or "percent of my net estate" or "The following stocks and bonds:") to be used for its worthy purposes on behalf of blind persons."