By Ciara Griffiths
In 1865, Brighton elected its new MP, Henry Fawcett. He was a Member of the Liberal Party, he campaigned for women’s suffrage and supported the 1867 Reform Act (the second of five). In taking his seat in Parliament, he became the first blind man to do so.
He was born on the 26th of August in Salsbury in 1833. The family were well-off and politics was a regular discussion at the dinner table. After being educated in King’s College School in Wimbledon, he attended the oldest college in Cambridge, Peterhouse, to read economics and mathematics. He performed well at university, graduating with high honours. When he was 25, he was out shooting with his father. When his father became excited at the sight of a flock of partridges, he misfired, accidently shooting his own son in the face. This left Fawcett blind. It changed his life, but although he had just lost his sight, he was not about to lose his ambition. He initially wanted to become a lawyer, and his academic achievements at Cambridge enabled his entry into Lincoln’s Inn. His mother was the daughter of a lawyer, after all. However, upon realising that his heart had always been politics, he dropped out and set off on the unpredictable road that was Parliament.
While the road to becoming a Member of Parliament is not an easy one, it is important to stress that in Fawcett’s time, it was a financial commitment which was only possible for the wealthy. Until 1911, MPs were unpaid. Running for Parliament was an expensive business which meant that MPs were well-off. This was a heavily criticised element of Britain’s democracy in the 19th century which many demanded to reform: the House of Commons, which should have represented the British people, was represented only by the wealthy few. As mentioned before, Fawcett was of good family, so a political career was not financially unreasonable.
In the meantime, he became the Chair for Political Economy of Cambridge in 1863. The salary of £600 a year would have helped finance his political aspirations, which he certainly needed after several failed elections. He ran for the Liberal Party (they had succeeded the Whigs) and in 1865, he was finally elected as a Liberal MP for Brighton. A Parliamentary seat was not the only incident of note to occur that year.
In 1865, Fawcett met Millicent Garret – the suffragist – at a party. They broke into a discussion of the American Civil War and Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, demonstrating a mutual interest in politics and current affairs. Millicent’s sister, Elizabeth, who Fawcett had also met and become close to, was the first woman in Britain to get a medical degree. So dedicated was she to her medical aspirations that she turned down Fawcett’s proposal. A year later, Fawcett proposed to the 21-year-old Millicent. They had their only child, Philippa, in 1867.
Despite the age-gap, their marriage was to have a significant effect on both their lives. It also seems to have been a happy one. Marriage not only brought Fawcett a companion and a secretary that helped with his essays and correspondences, but it also allowed Millicent to enter Westminster as a political wife and to gain valuable insight into the workings of politics, which would kickstart her journey towards campaigning for women’s suffrage. This issue was also close to Fawcett’s heart.
Until 1918, women were not allowed to vote. The Great Reform Act of 1832 clearly stated that all voters were male. Though women achieved the vote in 1918, they had to be 30 while the male voting age was 21; it was not until 1928 when women had the same voting rights as men, and even their fight for the vote had been a long one. In the leadup to the 1867 Reform Act which sought to address the issues that remained of the previous Reform Act (1832 had given the voting rights to the middle class, but still restricted the working class), there were arguments to extend the franchise to female voters.
One such advocate was John Stuart Mill, who I studied at university. His essay, On the Subjection of Women, tackled the issue. A caricature dubbed him as A Femimine Philosopher because of this. What, I hear you ask, does this have to do with Fawcett? Let us briefly revert to Fawcett’s time in Cambridge. He was among intellectuals who studied the philosophers of the day, including Mill. Mill’s work on political economy was of particular interest of Fawcett and his circle – they were studying economics, after all. Fawcett eventually met his idol and became close friends with him, and they continued on friendly terms in Parliament. Both were Members of the Liberal Party (Mill was the Member for the City of Westminster). Mill was the first to raise the matter of women’s suffrage in Parliament, and Fawcett backed him all the way. Even when Mill was no longer a Member, Fawcett ensured the House did not forget the issue. However, although the Second Reform Act of 1867 doubled the electorate to two million men, women were still excluded from voting.
Fawcett served a successful nineteen years in Parliament. His Brighton seat lasted until 1874 but he spent the remaining years representing Hackney. He advocated for universal suffrage, India, agriculture, and the people’s right to keep common land from becoming privatised by upper-class developers. In 1880, he was appointed Postmaster General, a former Cabinet position. Ever the liberal reformer, he made changes to the recruitment of postal positions, advocating for the employment of women, people with learning difficulties and the deaf. Though he never publicly mentioned his blindness in the Commons - perhaps to say that the accident should not and did not define his character -, he did not forget the needs of the disabled who often faced exclusion.
The Third Reform Act of 1884 went through two proposals. For a bill to become law, it must first pass in the Commons, then in the Lords, and finally onto the monarch who grants their royal assent (the monarch was Queen Victoria at this time). The first proposal was rejected by the Lords. In that year, Fawcett was struck with pleurisy (an inflammation of the lungs). Keeping to that determined political spirit, he continued to attend Parliamentary proceedings which were dominated by the question of reform. However, Fawcett succumbed to the disease on the 8th of November 1884. He was 51. A month later, the Third Reform Act was granted royal assent. This would pave the way for women being granted the vote in 1918, and then for the final Representation of the People Act in 1928.
Henry Fawcett campaigned for issues we take for granted now but in the late nineteenth century would have been radical. Many believed the Reform Act of 1832 to have drastically rewritten the Constitution enough, but 1832, despite its faults, proved that change was possible. It paved the way for people like Fawcett to continue the campaign and make the Britain we know today. Fawcett did not live to see the Third Reform Act or women being granted the vote, but he would have died knowing that he had made his opinions known. After the accident, he could have given up and chosen a different path, but he did not, for which we ought to be grateful.
Crawford, E. and Terras, M. (2022) Millicent Garrett Fawcett. UCL Press, UK.
Hurd, G and Young, E. (2013). Disraeli or The Two Lives. Orion Books Ltd. London, Great Britain.
Niyogi, S. (1980) Henry Fawcett and the Foundation of the Radical Club in London. Indian History Congress. Vol. 41 pp. 861-865
Ward, R. (2020) The Talented Mr Fawcett. Parliamentary Archives.