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William Edward Forster (1818-1886)

This article was written by Thomas Humphry Ward and was published in 1889.

ForsterWilliam Edward Forster, statesman, born at Bradpole, Dorsetshire, on 11 July 1818, was the only son of William Forster (1784-1854) and of Anna, sister of the first Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton. He was thus not a Yorkshireman by descent, though often taken for a typical Yorkshireman. He was brought up in the discipline of the Quaker body, and being the only child of parents who had passed their first youth, he early showed signs of a serious habit of mind. ‘The simplicity of the Quaker style of living,’ says his biographer, ‘was at all times characteristic of the ways of the little household,’ and the boy acquired a ‘certain quaint formalism of manner and speech,’ and talked politics with his parents before he had learnt to play with children of his own age. His father's long absences on missionary expeditions threw him very much into the society of his mother, whose ‘bright and vivacious temperament’ acted as some corrective to the severity of a Quaker education. In August 1831 he was sent to school at Fishponds House, Bristol, and after a year to Mr. Binns's school, at Grove House, Tottenham, both kept by Friends. Here he remained until the close of 1835, receiving what must be considered a very fair education, and not only studying English and other history independently, but ‘setting himself for his leisure time in the evening, two evenings for themes, two for mathematics, one for Latin verse, and one for Greek Testament and sundries’ (letter to his father dated 8th month, 31 day, 1834). Other letters written about the same time show his interest in political movements, especially those with which his uncle Buxton was associated.

While capable of quick and firm resolution in matters of religious duty, the elder William Forster was curiously unsettled about his son's career. He was oppressed by ‘a leaden-weighted lethargy.’ Moreover, when the decision had been given in favour of a business career, as that which would most certainly tend to worldly prosperity, he discouraged by every means in his power his son's attempts to change this for an opening offered into public life. Finally, through his Norfolk connections, a place was found for Forster in the manufactory of Mr. Robberds at Norwich, where handloom camlets were made for export to China. Here he remained for two years, and in July 1838 he left Norwich for Darlington to learn other branches of the wool business with the Peases of that town. He worked for twelve hours a day in the woollen mill, and for several hours in the evening he studied mathematics and politics. At the same time he began to take some part in public life. His uncle offered to take him as private secretary, and after his father had put a veto on this plan, he himself offered to join the Niger expedition. But neither project came to anything, and in 1841 he entered the woollen business at Bradford. In 1842 he became the partner of Mr. William Fison, woollen manufacturer, and this partnership continued to the end of Forster's life. They began on borrowed capital, and had to meet, during many years, innumerable difficulties, but in due time took a place among the most prosperous houses of the district. Forster joined various committees, took a share in the battle of free trade, and formed a number of acquaintances of all sorts, not excluding such extreme men as Robert Owen, the socialist, and Thomas Cooper, the chartist. He also became acquainted with Frederick Denison Maurice, John Sterling, and, above all, with the Carlyles, with whom for several years he kept up an intimate acquaintance.

Forster paid two visits to the famine-stricken districts of Connemara in 1846 and 1847. He, with his father, was distributor of the relief fund collected by the Friends, and of the second of these visits he wrote an account, which was printed at the time. His descriptions, besides being vivid and truthful pictures of terrible scenes, show that extraordinary kindliness which in him always underlay the somewhat rough exterior. He was much occupied by the revolutions of 1848, especially that in France, with its echoes among the chartists of this country. A strong liberal, he was for meeting the chartists halfway, and his efforts in Bradford are believed to have had no little effect in preventing the extreme men among the chartists of that town from resorting to violence. He even attended a great meeting of chartists at Bradford, and, in his own words, ‘roared from the top of a wagon to six or eight thousand people for nearly three quarters of an hour, and pushed a strong moral force resolution down their throats, at the cost of much physical force exertion’ on his own part. In May 1848 he visited Paris. In the autumn of the same year he made a great impression in Bradford by a course of lectures on ‘Pauperism and its proposed Remedies.’ Next year his quakerism was roused by Macaulay's attacks on the character of William Penn, and he published a new edition of Clarkson's ‘Life of Penn,’ prefacing it by a long and able defence against the historian's charges.

WharfsideIn 1850 he left the Society of Friends, on marrying Jane Martha (1821-1899), eldest daughter of Dr. Arnold. For eighteen months they lived at Rawdon, and after that time moved to Burley-in-Wharfedale, where he and his partner had bought an old cotton mill, which they intended to convert into a worsted manufactory. Here, overlooking the beautiful river, he built a house, Wharfeside, which he always regarded as his home till the end of his life. In the ten following years Forster frequently appeared on platforms at Leeds and Bradford, discussing the interests of the working classes, parliamentary reform, or American slavery. After the dissolution in 1859 he was invited by the liberals of Leeds to come forward with Mr. Baines. Forster, though afterwards regarded as par excellence the conservative type of liberal, was chosen as the candidate of the advanced party. The numbers at the poll were: Baines, 2,343; Beecroft (conservative), 2,303; Forster, 2,280. A little later a vacancy occurred in the representation of Bradford, and, in spite of the distrust of moderate liberals and the leading dissenters, he was chosen by a large majority of liberal electors as their candidate, and was returned without opposition (Monday, 11 February 1861). He continued to represent Bradford until the end of his life. He was returned without opposition at the general election of 1865. In 1868 he was at the head of the poll, after a contest in which all the three candidates, himself, Mr. Ripley, and Edward Miall, were liberals. In 1874 he was again returned at the head of the poll, although the dissenters, who felt bitterly towards him on account of the Education Act, strongly opposed him. Again in 1880 he was returned, also at the head of the poll, and finally, in the election of November 1885, he was returned for the central division of Bradford by a majority of over fifteen hundred.

Forster at once made his mark in the house, and quickly came to be recognised as one of the chief representatives of the advanced liberal party. He took every opportunity of speaking upon reform, which was then exciting little interest, and made effective utterances upon the American civil war. During its course he may be said to have been second only to Bright and Cobden in opposing all attempts to recognise the south or to put obstacles in the way of the union. Especially did he in 1863 denounce the imprudence of permitting Alabamas to be built in English dockyards; but at the same time he was ready enough to defend England against such attacks as the celebrated one delivered by Mr. Charles Sumner. When in 1865 Lord Palmerston died, the government was reconstructed under Lord Russell, and Forster was invited to take office as under-secretary for the colonies. He was at the colonial office eight months under Mr. Cardwell, and among the difficult problems in the solution of which he had to take part was the Jamaica question. Two days after his entry into the colonial office (27 November) he noted in his diary, ‘Very bad news from Jamaica of slaughter by the troops, and under martial law.’ Had he been out of office he would have been one of the most active members of Mr. Mill's and Mr. Charles Buxton's Jamaica committee; but he probably did still more effective work by urging the despatch of a commission of inquiry to the island, and by influencing the action of the government. To the varied experience gained during these eight months Forster used to attribute much of his deep and lifelong interest in all colonial questions. In the session of 1866 he took an effective part in the great debates on reform. He had made it a condition of his entry into the government that the question should be dealt with immediately. His speech in the great eight nights' debate on the second reading of the bill was of great weight, for the house recognised in him a man who had lived in the midst of a great working population, and who was entitled from his own experience to give utterance to the wishes of the north of England. In the session of 1867 he contributed not a little to the liberalising of Mr. Disraeli's Reform Bill, and he rejoiced as much as any one when that measure passed into law as an act for conferring household suffrage in the boroughs.

In 1867 he made his first visit to the East; he saw Constantinople, Smyrna, Athens, and Corfu, and formed opinions to which he gave utterance when the Eastern question once more became acute. After the general election of November 1868 Mr. Gladstone became prime minister, and Forster was appointed a privy councillor and vice-president of the council. This imposed upon him the main responsibility for carrying the measure for establishing a national system of education, which formed a principal part of the government programme. Before parliament met he successfully defended his seat against a petition, to the great satisfaction of his constituents. In the session of 1869 he took no great part in the debates on the disestablishment of the Irish church, but he gave much time and attention to the successful conduct of the Endowed Schools Bill through the House of Commons. This was a bill which raised no great parliamentary issues, but its importance may be shown from the fact that it dealt with three thousand schools with a gross income of £592,000. He had also to conduct the preparation of measures against the cattle plague. He was meanwhile carefully considering the measure for providing a national system of elementary education. Various bodies throughout the country concentrated themselves into two, the National Education Union and the League, which met at Birmingham. The Union ostensibly advocated the spread of the voluntary school system, and the League the provision of schools at the cost and under the control of the public authorities. In reality, however, the desire of the Union was to guard the interests of certain dominant religious bodies, especially that of the church of England, and the desire of the League was to secure a fair field for the dissenters. Forster endeavoured to steer an even course between these two opposing theories, adopting a plan which he traced originally to Mr. Lowe. Places where additional school accommodation was required were to be discovered and the accommodation supplied through the agency of a newly constituted public authority.

In the third week of February 1870 Forster introduced his Elementary Education Bill. His speech, long and full of detail, was at the same time very careful in form, well arranged, abounding in evidence of a thorough study of the question, conciliatory, and warmed by enthusiasm for the cause of education. He pointed out the great deficiencies of the existing schools, and declined to adopt either the continental method of state education or the opposite policy of increasing the bonus upon voluntary schools. He therefore proposed to create an entirely new local authority called the School Board. The board was to have the power of providing necessary school accommodation, and of directing its own schools, subject to the ultimate control of the education department. At first Forster proposed that school boards should be chosen by popular election in London, and elsewhere by town councils and vestries, but he soon adopted direct popular election in all cases. Thus far all parties were ready to accept Forster's proposals; but the jealousy between the church and dissenters soon produced discord. The Birmingham League settled down upon the religious shortcomings of the measure, and around these there speedily arose a controversy which, by the time of the debate on the second reading, 14 March, had assumed the most threatening proportions. An amendment was moved to the second reading by Mr. George Dixon, liberal member for Birmingham and chairman of the Education League, to the effect ‘that no measure for the education of the people could afford a permanent satisfactory settlement which left the important question of religious instruction to be determined by the local authorities.’ In the end the amendment was withdrawn, and three months later the government accepted the amendment of Mr. Cowper-Temple, the effect of which would be ‘to exclude from all rate-aided schools every catechism and formulary distinctive of denominational creed, and to sever altogether the connection between the local school boards and the denominational schools, leaving the latter to look wholly to the central grant for help.’ As a consequence of this, the share of the total cost of education payable by the central department — the grant as distinct from the education rate — which had been originally fixed at one third, was raised to one half, and on this basis the question was settled. The bill passed without much further difficulty, although not without having to undergo much invective both from extreme churchmen and from the nonconformists and their allies. The principle of compulsion was not as yet admitted. Forster struggled hard in 1873 to carry a compulsory act, sufficient school accommodation having in his opinion been provided for an effectual application of the principle; but though he at first won the struggle within the cabinet, the compulsory clauses of the amending bill had afterwards to be withdrawn. For some years after 1870 a fierce controversy raged round the twenty-fifth clause, which enabled the local authorities to pay the fees of needy children at denominational schools. This clause was thought by the nonconformists to give an unfair advantage to the church schools in places where board schools did not exist, and especially in the rural districts. It was seriously maintained that Forster, instead of founding a national system of education, had really hindered its establishment.

Forster, while president of the council, had the conduct of the Ballot Bill, which passed the House of Commons in 1871, was lost in the House of Lords, and finally carried in the session of 1872. In 1872 Forster took the keenest interest in the Geneva arbitration, as tending to remove the estrangement between this country and the United States.

After the dissolution of 1874, and the accession of Mr. Disraeli to power, Forster carried out his long-cherished wish of visiting the United States, and immediately on his return he was proposed as the successor to Mr. Gladstone, who had resigned the leadership of the liberal party. The proposal shows how little he had been injured by the denunciation of his educational policy. It is a curious fact that at the preliminary meeting of the prominent liberal members all the aristocratic whigs present voted for Forster, and all the radical manufacturers and men of business voted for Lord Hartingon. Forster, in a letter which was universally thought to have done him great honour, withdrew in Lord Hartington's favour. On 5 November 1875 he delivered an address on ‘Our Colonial Empire’ at the Philosophical Institution at Edinburgh, which is interesting as containing the views which afterwards took shape in the programme of the Imperial Federation League; and about the same time he was elected lord rector of Aberdeen University.

During the bitter party disputes which marked the years 1876-8, between the outbreak of the revolt in Herzegovina and the signature of the Berlin treaty, Forster held a somewhat middle position, and was blamed by both extremes. In the autumn of 1876 he paid a visit to Servia and Turkey, and on his return he made an important speech to his constituents. While denouncing Turkish maladministration, he insisted upon the objections to English interference. His positive proposal was that the concert of Europe should be used to obtain from the sultan a constitution similar to that of Crete for the Christian provinces of Turkey. Then the Russo-Turkish war broke out, and from that time to the conclusion of the Berlin treaty Forster's unceasing efforts were devoted to keeping England from any part in such a war.

At this time the extreme liberals were beginning to organise the so-called Caucus. The old dispute between Forster and Birmingham broke out again. He declined to submit his political destiny to the judgment of a committee of the party in Bradford, and declared that he should offer himself to the constituency at the next election whether the association chose him or not. After some display of feeling the association accepted him. On the formation of Mr. Gladstone's ministry in 1880 he would have preferred to be secretary of state for the colonies, but, in the extremely threatening state of the Irish question, felt bound to consent to the prime minister's request that he should become chief secretary, with Lord Cowper as lord-lieutenant. The winter had been marked by something approaching to a famine in the west of Ireland, and the Land League agitation, headed by Mr. Parnell, had grown to formidable dimensions. The question immediately arose whether the government should attempt to prolong the existing Coercion Act, which was to expire in a very few weeks. The cabinet, however, determined to attempt the government of the country under the ordinary law. In June Forster persuaded Mr. Gladstone to allow the introduction of a temporary bill providing compensation for evicted tenants, and to appoint a strong commission to inquire into the working of the Land Act of 1870. The new bill, known as the Compensation for Disturbance Bill, was carried in the House of Commons in spite of the vigorous opposition of the conservatives, but on 2 August 1880 it was rejected in the House of Lords by an immense majority. Forster was indignant and dismayed by this, as he thought, desperate act of the landlord party, which immensely increased the difficulty of his task in governing Ireland. The Irish party instantly proceeded to identify the lords who had rejected the Compensation for Disturbance Bill with the government which had brought it in, and to stir up popular feeling throughout Ireland against the whole English connection.

The autumn and winter were marked by one continuous struggle between Forster and the Land League on the one hand, and Forster and the more ‘advanced’ section of his colleagues in the government on the other. The machinery of the ordinary law was strained to the uttermost, and to no purpose, as was shown by a number of abortive trials of persons believed to be guilty of outrages, and, above all, by the equally abortive state trial in Dublin, in which fourteen leading members of the league, Mr. Parnell, Mr. Dillon, Mr. P. J. Sheridan, and others, were prosecuted for conspiracy to prevent the payment of rent and other illegal acts. Forster wished to summon parliament in the autumn, but this was refused, and only when it met on 7 January 1881 was it announced that the government had decided to ask for fresh powers. Long and angry debates followed, and, after unprecedented scenes, caused by the obstructive action of the Irish members, the bill was passed. Forster said in introducing it: ‘I never expected it, and if I had thought that this duty would have devolved on me, I certainly should not have been Irish secretary. Indeed, I think I may go further, and say that if I had foreseen that this would have been the result of twenty years of parliamentary life, I think I should have left parliamentary life alone. But I never was more clear in my life as to the necessity of a duty.’ The essence of the bill was the clause which enabled the Irish government to imprison men without trial ‘on reasonable suspicion’ of crime, outrage, or conspiracy. In consequence of this clause within a short time some nine hundred men were imprisoned, most of them of the class whom Forster had described as ‘village ruffians,’ who were really well known to be guilty of crime or planning crime, but whom no jury of their neighbours dared to convict. With them were imprisoned a certain number of men of a superior class, who were believed, on evidence sufficient to convince the government, to be guilty of incitement to murder and of organising intimidation. In Ireland Forster had to face the performance of what he believed to be a duty, but of the most distressing kind. He had to hurry backwards and forwards between London and Dublin, and within a few hours of giving his instructions in Dublin Castle to face the fire of hostile ‘questions’ in the House of Commons. His health suffered under the strain. Moreover he had to follow and take part in the intricate debates on Mr. Gladstone's Land Bill of 1881, and especially to watch the interests of the labourers. When parliament rose there was no rest for him, for the headquarters of the agitation were transferred from Westminster to the rural districts of Ireland, and incendiary speeches followed by outrages came in constant succession. On 13 October 1881, at the Guildhall, Mr. Gladstone announced the arrest of Mr. Parnell, and this was followed by the suppression of the Land League as an illegal and treasonable association. Meantime plots began to be formed against Forster's life, and during the winter of 1881-2 several attempts were made upon him, his escape under the circumstances, subsequently made public, appearing little less than miraculous. In March 1882 he took the bold step of personally visiting some of the worst districts, and at Tullamore he addressed a crowd from a window of the hotel, impressing even the hostile peasantry who heard him with admiration for his pluck and character. Two months later he and Lord Cowper had resigned, the occasion being his refusal to countenance the celebrated Kilmainham ‘treaty’ by which Mr. Parnell and his colleagues were to be released from prison after they had privately and, as Forster thought, far too vaguely promised to support the government. On Thursday, 4 May, Forster made a memorable speech in the House of Commons, explaining the reasons of his resignation. Stated shortly they were to the effect that one of the following three conditions was, in his view, indispensable to the release of the prisoners: ‘A public promise on their part, Ireland quiet, or the acquisition of fresh powers by the government.’ As none of these three conditions was, in his opinion, satisfied, Forster resigned with Lord Cowper, and their places were taken by Lord Spencer as lord-lieutenant, and Lord Frederick Cavendish as chief secretary. On the following Saturday (6 May 1882) Lord Frederick Cavendish and Mr. Burke were murdered in Phoenix Park. Forster at once offered to take up his old post, and ‘temporarily to fill the vacancy which had been caused by the loss of Mr. Burke, the man who, next to himself, was the most intimately acquainted with the existing condition of things in Ireland.’ The offer was not accepted, and he did not again return to Ireland. It was not till the following winter, when the informer, James Carey gave evidence at the trial of the Phoenix Park assassins, that the country learned how imminent had been the personal danger to which for many months Forster had been exposed. But he himself knew it well, though he never allowed himself to be influenced by it.

Forster took comparatively little part in Irish debates during the remaining years of his life, but one notable exception to this was during the debate on the address at the beginning of 1883, when he charged Mr. Parnell and other members of parliament connected with the league with conniving at crime. Meantime he devoted his public efforts to the furthering of other causes, especially to the interests of the colonies and to the settlement of Egyptian difficulties. He was the chairman of the newly formed Imperial Federation League, which hoped to carry out his old idea of bringing the colonies into closer and more formal connection with the mother-country. He followed with profound interest the course of events in South Africa, and strongly supported such measures as the appointment of Mr. Mackenzie as resident in Bechuanaland and the despatch of Sir Charles Warren's expedition. He was a severe and unsparing critic of the blunders of the government in relation to Egypt up to the time of the fall of Khartoum, declaring that the battle of Tel-el-Kebir ought not to have been fought unless we were prepared to accept its logical consequences. Only once, however, did he actually vote against the government, on 27 February 1885 in the debate on Sir Stafford Northcote's motion censuring the government for the death of General Gordon, when the ministry was only saved by fourteen votes. He cordially supported the County Franchise Bill, and was present at the great open-air meeting at Leeds on 6 October 1884, called to condemn the action of the House of Lords in rejecting the bill. During the last half of the session of 1885 a very arduous piece of work was imposed upon him when he was asked to be chairman of the small committee that had to decide the fate of the Manchester Ship Canal Bill. This was the determining cause of his last illness. The session over, feeling weary and ill, he went to Baden-Baden, but even there he could not rest, and some imprudent overexertion brought on the illness from which, on 5 April 1886, at 80 Eccleston Square, London, he died. His death was greatly mourned, and even at a time of bitter political antagonism, when old ties were being broken in all directions, and when many of those who had once worked with him regarded him as their most formidable political opponent, it was admitted on all sides that a man of lofty character had passed away. The funeral service was read over his remains in Westminster Abbey, and the body was buried at Burley-in-Wharfedale. His widow died 21 October 1899.

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