Henry Fawcett, the son of a draper, was born in Salisbury in 1833. While studying at Cambridge University he came under the influence of the radical political views of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. At the age of twenty-five Fawcett was accidentally blinded by a shot from his father's gun while the two men were out hunting.
This handicap did not stop Fawcett from being appointed Professor of Political Economy at Cambridge University in 1863. Two years later he was elected Liberal MP for Brighton. Once in Parliament Fawcett joined a group of Radicals led by John Stuart Mill and Peter Alfred Taylor.
Fawcett, Mill and Taylor attempted to persuade the House of Commons to grant women the vote. In the campaign for women's suffrage, Fawcett met Elizabeth Garrett. For a time it was thought that Fawcett would marry Elizabeth but she decided to concentrate on her attempts to become a doctor. Henry later became engaged to Millicent, Elizabeth's younger sister. Although warned against marrying a disabled man, fourteen years her senior, Millicent and married Henry Fawcett in 1867.
For the next few years Millicent Fawcett, the future leader of the NUWSS, spent much of her time assisting her husband in his work as a MP. However, Henry Fawcett encouraged Millicent to continue her own career as a writer. At first Millicent wrote articles for journals but later books such as Political Economy for Beginners and Essays and Lectures on Political Subjects were published.
In 1874 General Election Fawcett became MP for Hackney. The couple moved to a large house in Vauxhall. In 1880 William Gladstone, leader of the Liberal government, appointed Fawcett as his Postmaster General. Fawcett, who introduced the parcel post, postal orders and the sixpenny telegram, also used his power as Postmaster General to start employing women medical officers.
Fawcett continued to argue for equal political rights for women and clashed with Gladstone's over his refusal to give women the franchise in the 1884 Reform Act. As Fran Abrams, the author of Freedom's Cause: Lives of the Suffragettes (2003), has pointed out: "As a member of a government which opposed the measure he could not vote for it; as a keen supporter of reform he could not vote against it. In the end he abstained. The measure was roundly defeated but Gladstone was furious with Henry, and wrote to him saying his action had been tantamount to resignation. Henry was reprieved only because the Prime Minister wanted to avoid the bad publicity which would inevitably accompany a ministerial sacking."
In the summer of 1882 Fawcett was taken seriously ill with diphtheria and although he gradually recovered, his political career had come to an end. Henry Fawcett, severely weakened by his illness, died of pleurisy on 6th November 1884.
Henry Fawcett was out pheasant-shooting with his father. In a rather thick covert the father fired at a bird, unknowing that his son was standing in the line of fire. Two small shot struck the latter - one entering into each eye - a strange and fatal chance. It was his father who told me that as soon as Henry knew that he was permanently blinded he said "Well, it shan't make any difference in my plans of life!" And certainly it made very little.
As may be guessed from that, Fawcett was a man of astounding pluck and vitality - a vitality which would have been almost overbearing if it had not been tempered by extreme good nature - and his force of character, combined with very democratic sympathies, enabled him despite his blindness to do valuable work in Parliament and in connection with the Post Office. The adoring gratitude of the father at the public success of the son whom he had so badly crippled was most touching; and he would follow his son about the country and attend his public meetings for the mere pleasure of witnessing his success.
As Fawcett was member for Brighton - and my father lent his support to his candidature - he, and Mrs. Fawcett, used frequently to dine with us at Brunswick Square, and I saw a good deal of them both at Brighton and Cambridge.
In 1884 William Woodall proposed a women's suffrage amendment to an electoral reform bill, and Henry found himself caught between conviction and duty. As a member of a government which opposed the measure he could not vote for it; as a keen supporter of reform he could not vote against it. In the end he abstained. The measure was roundly defeated but Gladstone was furious with Henry, and wrote to him saying his action had been tantamount to resignation. Henry was reprieved only because the Prime Minister wanted to avoid the bad publicity which would inevitably accompany a ministerial sacking. The incident had far-reaching effects. First, according to Millicent, Gladstone's opposition caused real anger among the women campaigning for the vote. "That division probably sowed the seed of the militant movement," she wrote. Sadly, it may also have contributed towards Henry's early death. Still weakened by his illness two years earlier he decided to forgo a holiday to cope with the increasing demands of his political role - and possibly because of anxiety about his position. By the autumn he was exhausted and in early November he became ill again. A cold quickly developed into pneumonia and within days he was dead.