Snell was educated at the local school until he reached the age of twelve when he was hired at Newark Fair as an indoor servant for a farmer named Doncaster. Snell disliked his employer and left to work as a farm labourer.
After a while Snell found employment as a french-polisher in Nottingham. Although lacking education, Snell was intellectually curious and in 1881 Snell heard Charles Bradlaugh speak at a National Secular Society meeting in Nottingham. He later recalled that: "The impact of his personality reached me just at the moment when I was ready to respond to any plausible call to service, and my capitulation to his resounding appeal was immediate and enduring. I have never been so influenced by a human personality as I was by Charles Bradlaugh." Snell joined the National Secular Society and became an avid reader of the National Reformer.
Snell no longer believed in the "verbal inspiration of the Bible, in miracles, the biblical story of creation" but he retained a strong interest in religion. Snell was now attracted to the the local Unitarian chapel because of its "scholarly approach" to these issues. Snell also admired "its tolerance for those other faiths and its record as a progressive force in the civic life of the town". He attended the Unitarian Sunday School where the teacher, John Kentish-Wright, a local solicitor, introduced him to the work of Thomas Carlyle, Lord Byron and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Snell was also a member of the Nottingham Temperance Society where he met John Anderson, a local businessman. Anderson lent him books and helped him find temporary work during long periods of unemployment. Eventually, a contact at the Unitarian Sunday School, obtained work for him as a clerk at the head office of the Midland Institution for the Blind in London.
Living in London gave Snell the opportunity to study. He joined the Mechanics' Institution and used the University College reference library. Books that deeply influenced him at this time included books The Age of Reason by Tom Paine, Progress and Poverty by Henry George and Towards Democracy by Edward Carpenter. Other writers that impressed him included William Morris, John Ruskin and John Stuart Mill.
Snell attended lecturers given by leaders of the National Secular Society in London. This gave him the chance to hear and meet national figures such as Annie Besant, George Holyoake and Edward Aveling. Snell was particularly impressed by Besant who he later described as his "spiritual mother". Besant converted Snell to socialism and as a result of her influence joined the Social Democratic Federation. He was especially impressed with John Burns and helped him in his unsuccessful attempt to become elected as the MP for Nottingham West in the 1885 General Election.
Snell gradually became an orator of some talent and every Sunday morning would speak on the same platform in Beresford Square with H. H. Hyndman, John Burns, Tom Mann, Ben Tillett, Will Thorne, Eleanor Marx, Edward Aveling and Harry Quelch. Snell like the others gave support to the important industrial disputes that took place during that period such as the 1888 Matchgirls Strike and the 1889 London Dockers Strike.
In 1894 Snell joined the Fabian Society. As a result of money made available by the Henry Hutchinson Trust, Snell joined Ramsay MacDonald, Graham Wallas, Catherine Glasier and Bruce Glasier in travelling around the country giving lecturers on subjects such as 'Socialism', 'Trade Unionism', 'Co-operation' and 'Economic History'. Snell was also employed as a lecturer by the British Ethical Union.
Snell was also a early member of the Labour Party and made several attempts to represent the party in the House of Commons. After failing to be elected in Huddersfield in 1910 and 1918 he was eventually elected to represent Woolwich in London in the 1922 General Election.
Ramsay MacDonald granted Snell a title in March 1931 and asked him to serve as Under Secretary of State for India in his government. Although asked to continue in this post when MacDonald formed his National Government six months later, Lord Snell refused. Snell continued in politics and between 1935 and 1940 was leader of the Labour Party in the House of Lords.
Henry Snell died on 21st April 1944.
My parents were agricultural workers, and the household in which I was reared was composed of two sets of children; for my mother, who was a widow, had married a neighbour with a large family. I was eight years of age when I began to work in the fields, and the tasks through which I first began to experience the "dignity of labour" were the care of grazing cattle, and the frightening of rooks and pigeons from newly-sown fields of corn or peas, or from the ripening crops.
Among the recollections of my childhood are those worthy old men and women, friends and neighbours of my parents, who, after perhaps fifty or sixty years of labour, had been compelled to take the dreaded journey "over the hill to the poorhouse". No human institution was ever more hated and feared by free men than the English workhouse of sixty years ago was hated and feared by those proud peasants, and no one without personal knowledge of them, and without experience of the conditions under which they lived, can appreciate the stern thrift, born of fear and the pride of independence, with which a few coppers were preserved from each week's scanty income for payments to the Friendly Society, the pig-club, or the savings bank. The aged and sick would forgo every comfort, cling despairingly to their damp and often derelict cottage, and pray that death would save them from the crowning indignity of the workhouse.
Another abiding memory concerns the tireless industry of these agricultural workers. I doubt whether men and women ever worked harder, and I do not believe that necessary and honourable toil was ever more inadequately rewarded. They had no recreation beyond a perhaps weekly and half-ashamed visit to the public house, or an occasional social event at one of the local chapels.
If the position of the agricultural labourer today is an improvement upon the prevailing fifty years ago, it is in no small degree due to the organization started by Joseph Arch. The farm labourer today enjoys the full rights of British citizenship; he can take part in the local or national government of his country; he is, in so far as he is organised, a part of the labour movement; his social status has been raised; he is entitled to receive compensation for accidents; he has the consoling assurance of the old-age pension; he enjoys some little improvement in housing and sanitation, medical treatment, and sick pay for himself, though not for his wife and children.
The instruction given at the village church school, during the short time that I attended it, was of course helpful, but it was far inferior to that which children of the present day enjoy. The idea that the children of the workers should be educated for the nation's good had not at that time been widely accepted. The general attitude towards such education was that voiced by the pious Hannah More, who "wished the poor to be able to read their Bibles, and to be qualified for domestic duties, but not to write or be enabled to read Tom Paine. or to be encouraged to rise above their station".
Among the influences which gave to the village something of an independent and radical tome, were three or four small workshops in which baskets were made. These were the political centres of the place, and those employed in them were Liberals and Radicals to a man. Some of them were local preachers, Sunday School teachers, and choir-leaders, and their work was frequently accompanied by the singing of favourite hymns and ballads. I spent many profitable hours in listening to their talk, and they counted among the influences which later turned my mind towards political and social ideas.
At twelve years of age I had to leave the parental home and face life on my own account, I stood for hire in the market-place at Newark-on-Trent, at the Michaelmas Fair in the year 1877, hen I was engaged as an indoor servant by a farmer named Doncaster, who lived at the village of Caunton.
The controversy which had arisen over the question of Charles Bradlaugh's claim to be admitted to Parliament had made his name a household word throughout the country, and when it was announced that he would shortly visit Nottingham I determined that I would try and see him and hear him speak. The subject of his lecture was Ireland. Bradlaugh was already speaking when I arrived, and I remember, as clearly as though it were only yesterday, the immediate and compelling impression made upon me by that extraordinary man. I have never been so influenced by a human personality as I was by Charles Bradlaugh. The commanding strength, the massive head, the imposing stature, and the ringing eloquence of the man fascinated me, and from that hour until the day of his death, ten years later, I was one of his humblest but most devoted of his followers.
Taking him all in all - as man, orator, as leader of unpopular causes, and as an incorruptible public figure, he was the most imposing human being that I have ever known, and I do not expect to look upon his like again. I have seen strong men, under the storm of his passion, rise from their seats, and sometimes weep with emotion. Like a prodigal he threw away with both hands the energies of a precious life, and he died, exhausted, by the early age of fifty-seven.
Although I had become a member of the National Secular Society, and no longer believed in the verbal inspiration of the bible, in miracles, the biblical story of creation, or several other orthodox doctrines, I had arrived at no settled opinions concerning the mystery of life, or of the origin, nature, and government of the universe. Consequently, the Unitarian chapel with its scholarly approach to these great problems, with its tolerance for those of other faiths, and with its record as a progressive force in the civic life of the town, made a quick and strong appeal to me, and I entered into its gates with thanksgiving.
It was William Morris who first made me consciously aware of the ugliness of a society which so arranged its affairs that its workers were deprived of the beauty which life should give. I remember him as a bluff, vital, and challenging personality, whose influence upon those who knew him was both marked and lasting.
I was one of the many thousands of young men whose political and social views were greatly stimulated by Henry George's famous book Progress and Poverty, which, if measured by the breadth and the depth of its influence on the thoughtful workmen of the eighties, must be considered as one of the greatest political documents of that generation.
The Independent Labour Party was avowedly and uncompromisingly Socialist, and those of us who were its advocates attacked capitalism in every speech that we made. The Sunday meetings of the I.L.P. held in a thousand halls, suggested religious revival meetings rather than political demonstrations. The fervour of the great audiences that assembled in centres like Glasgow, Bradford, Leeds, Huddersfield, Birmingham, and Bristol, was quite without precedent in British political history. Men who had grown old in years had their youthful enthusiasms renewed under the glow and warmth of a new spiritual fellowship. They were born again; they joyfully walked many miles to listen to a favourite speaker; they sang Labour hymns; and they gave to the new social faith an intensity of devotion which lifted it far above the older political organizations of the day.