William Edward Forster, 1818-1886

W. E. Forster was a typical nineteenth century Radical: a successful self-made businessman of nonconformist origins who was driven by his conscience to work for the less well-off in the community. His great achievement was the successful creation of the framework for a state education system which is still recognisable today. His ill fortune was to take the post of Chief Secretary for Ireland at a time when Irish discontent found its most effective voice in Parnell. A tough policy of coercion earned him the nickname Buckshot, but Ireland broke his career and his health.

William Edward Forster was born on 11 July 1818, the only son of William Forster and Anna Buxton, at Bradpole, Dorsetshire. A serious child, who was reputed to have talked politics with his parents before he learnt to play with children of his own age, he was brought up a Quaker at schools in Bristol and Tottenham. After some delay in choosing a career for his son, William Forster Sr. settled on business. Initially employed in the manufacture of hand loom camlets in Norwich, Forster moved to Darlington in 1838 to learn more of the textile trade under the Pease family. In 1841 he entered the woollen business in Bradford, a town with which he was associated for most of his political life. In 1842 he formed an ultimately successful partnership with William Fison.

At about this time, he began to take an active interest in politics, joining the campaign for free trade and making the acquaintance of Robert Owen, the pioneer of cooperatives, and Thomas Cooper, the Chartist. During the Irish famine of 1845 he visited distressed districts such as Connemara as almoner of a Quaker relief fund, together with his father, and published an account of the suffering he encountered. As an advanced Liberal he was willing to compromise with the objectives of the Chartists but cautioned the Bradford Chartists to keep to peaceful campaigning.

In 1850 Forster married Jane Martha, the eldest daughter of Dr. Arnold of Rugby, leaving the Quakers and settling in Burley-in-Wharfedale. Over the next few years he appeared regularly on Radical platforms in Yorkshire, speaking in favour of parliamentary reform and on behalf of the working classes. Unsuccessful in the 1859 election in Leeds, he became Liberal MP for Bradford in 1861 and held the seat until his death. Allying with Cobden and Bright, he spoke out on reform and resisted attempts to recognise the South in the American Civil War. In Russell’s government of 1865 he served as Under-Secretary to the Colonies under Cardwell, dealing with the aftermath of the murderous suppression of the Jamaican riots by Governor Eyre. Russell’s government failed to carry a moderate Reform Bill but Forster helped in liberalising Disraeli’s 1867 bill which brought household suffrage to the boroughs.

Out of government, Forster was able to visit Greece and parts of the Turkish empire. In Gladstone’s government of 1868 he rose to cabinet rank. As Vice-President of the Council he held responsibility for education and in 1870 carried the Elementary Education Act for which he is best known today. Until the Forster Act, education was not provided systematically but through a mixture of private enterprise, voluntary organisations, charitable foundations and the churches. Dissenters campaigned for publicly funded secular education, while the Church of England defended one of its key functions. Forster’s solution accepted the role of the church schools but provided for the establishment of schools run by directly elected school boards, funded from the rates. Nonconformists were dissatisfied by the compromise, contributing to the defeat of the Liberal government in the 1874 general election, but campaigning for representation on the new school boards inspired the formal organisation of the Liberal Party in many areas.

If the education controversy damaged the Gladstone government, it did no lasting harm to Forster’s reputation. When Gladstone resigned the leadership, Forster was the chief rival to the successful Hartington, though perhaps reflecting the character of his compromise, he drew his support from the Whigs rather than the Radicals. Indeed he had to defy the Caucus in securing the nomination to Bradford for the 1880 election. Drawing on the experience of his 1867 visit, he denounced Turkey for the Bulgarian atrocities but campaigned to keep Britain out of the subsequent Russo-Turkish war.

Under the Gladstone administration of 1880, Forster was Chief Secretary for Ireland, with Lord Cowper as Lord Lieutenant. The timing was unfortunate. Parnell had galvanised the Home Rule Party with disruptive tactics in the Commons and allied himself to the Land League’s effective campaign of agrarian agitation. With poor harvests leaving Ireland close to starvation, discontent was not hard to find, but Parnell and his allies were able to substitute social ex-communication (soon known as the boycott) for the more familiar Irish rural violence. Forster’s response was to seek a remedy for tenant grievances while cracking down on disturbances in the countryside. In 1880 a commission was established to inquire into the 1870 Land Act, but the temporary Compensation Bill for evicted tenants was resisted by the Lords. The 1881 Land Bill gave greater security to tenant farmers and introduced rent control. It tended to cut the ground from under the rural agitation and was subject to fierce resistance by Irish MPs.

When the ordinary law was insufficient to break the rural crime wave, Coercion Acts of growing severity were introduced, eventually allowing the government to arrest Parnell and other Irish leaders on suspicion. Forster was attacked unceasingly in Parliament by the Irish members, and his life was threatened. Without the restraint of its parliamentary leadership the violence in the Irish countryside grew and Forster increasingly lost the support of his colleagues. The stress and continual travelling between London and Dublin damaged his health. Chamberlain opened indirect negotiations with Parnell and in April 1882 a majority of the Cabinet determined to release the suspects under the Kilmainham Treaty. Forster and Lord Cowper resigned.

Out of office, Forster remained a critic of Irish and colonial policy but only voted against the government once, in the censure debate over the death of Gordon. Over-exertion while chairing the committee on the Manchester Ship Canal has been blamed for his final illness and he died on 5 April 1886 at 80 Eccleston Square, London. He had no children of his own, but had adopted the two sons and two daughters of his wife’s youngest brother, William Delafield Arnold, who had died on his way back from India in 1859.

The main biography is the Life of the Rt Hon W. E. Forster by T. Wemyss Reid, first published in 1888 and reprinted in 1970. A more recent study is Patrick Jackson, Education Act Forster: A Political Biography of W. E. Forster 1818-1886 (Fairleigh Dickinson University, 1997). A statue of Forster, commemorating his achievements for elementary education, stands in the Embankment Gardens, east of the National Liberal Club.


Tony Little is a pension fund manager and has been a student of Victorian politics for more than thirty years. He is Chairman of the Liberal History Group.