1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Forster, William Edward
FORSTER, WILLIAM EDWARD (1818-1886), British statesman, was born of Quaker parents at Bradpole in Dorsetshire on the 11th of July 1818. He was educated at the Friends’ school at Tottenham, where his father’s family had long been settled, and on leaving school he was put into business. He declined, however, on principle, to enter a brewery. Becoming in due time a woollen manufacturer in a large way at Bradford, Yorkshire (from which after his marriage he moved to Burley-in-Wharfedale), he soon made himself known as a practical philanthropist. In 1846-1847 he accompanied his father to Ireland as distributor of the Friends’ relief fund for the famine in Connemara, and the state of the country made a deep impression on him. In 1849 he wrote a preface to a new edition of Clarkson’s Life of William Penn, defending the Quaker statesman against Macaulay’s criticisms. In 1850 he married Jane Martha, eldest daughter of the famous Dr Arnold of Rugby. She was not a Quaker, and her husband was formally excommunicated for marrying her, but the Friends who were commissioned to announce the sentence “shook hands and stayed to luncheon.” Forster thereafter ranked himself as a member of the Church of England, for which, indeed, he was in later life charged with having too great a partiality. There were no children of the marriage, but when Mrs Forster’s brother, William Arnold, died in 1859, leaving four orphans, the Forsters adopted them as their own.
One of these children was Mr H.O. Arnold-Forster (1855-1909), the well-known Liberal-Unionist member of parliament, who eventually became a member of Mr Balfour’s cabinet; he was secretary to the admiralty (1900-1903), and then secretary of state for war (1903-1905), and was the author of numerous educational books published by Cassell & Co., of which firm he was a director.
W.E. Forster gradually began to take an active part in public affairs by speaking and lecturing. In 1858 he gave a lecture before the Leeds Philosophical Institution on “How we Tax India.” In 1859 he stood as Liberal candidate for Leeds, but was beaten. But he was highly esteemed in the West Riding, and in 1861 he was returned unopposed for Bradford. In 1865 (unopposed) and in 1868 (at the head of the poll) he was again returned. He took a prominent part in parliament in the debates on the American Civil War, and in 1868 was made under-secretary for the colonies in Earl Russell’s ministry. It was then that he first became a prominent advocate of imperial federation. In 1866 his attitude on parliamentary reform attracted a good deal of attention. His speeches were full of knowledge of the real condition of the people, and contained something like an original programme of Radical legislation. “We have other things to do,” he said, “besides extending the franchise. We want to make Ireland loyal and contented; we want to get rid of pauperism in this country; we want to fight against a class which is more to be dreaded than the holders of a £7 franchise—I mean the dangerous class in our large towns. We want to see whether we cannot make for the agricultural labourer some better hope than the workhouse in his old age. We want to have Old England as well taught as New England.” In these words he heralded the education campaign which occupied the country for so many years afterwards. Directly the Reform Bill had passed, the necessity of “inducing our masters to learn their letters” (in Robert Lowe’s phrase) became pressing. Mr Forster and Mr Cardwell, as private members in opposition, brought in Education Bills in 1867 and 1868; and in 1868, when the Liberal party returned to office, Mr Forster was appointed vice-president of the council, with the duty of preparing a government measure for national education. The Elementary Education Bill (see Education) was introduced on the 17th of February 1870. The religious difficulty at once came to the front. The Manchester Education Union and the Birmingham Education League had already formulated in the provinces the two opposing theories, the former standing for the preservation of denominational interests, the latter advocating secular rate-aided education as the only means of protecting Nonconformity against the Church. The Dissenters were by no means satisfied with Forster’s “conscience clause” as contained in the bill, and they regarded him, the ex-Quaker, as a deserter from their own side; while they resented the “25th clause,” permitting school boards to pay the fees of needy children at denominational schools out of the rates, as an insidious attack upon themselves. By the 14th of March, when the second reading came on, the controversy had assumed threatening proportions; and Mr Dixon, the Liberal member for Birmingham and chairman of the Education League, moved an amendment, the effect of which was to prohibit all religious education in board schools. The government made its rejection a question of confidence, and the amendment was withdrawn; but the result was the insertion of the Cowper-Temple clause as a compromise before the bill passed. Extremists on both sides abused Forster, but the government had a difficult set of circumstances to deal with, and he acted like a prudent statesman in contenting himself with what he could get. An ideal bill was impracticable; it is to Forster’s enduring credit that the bill of 1870, imperfect as it was, established at last some approach to a system of national education in England without running absolutely counter to the most cherished English ideas and without ignoring the principal agencies already in existence.
Forster’s next important work was in passing the Ballot Act of 1872, but for several years afterwards his life was uneventful. In 1874 he was again returned for Bradford, in spite of Dissenting attacks, and he took his full share of the work of the Opposition Front Bench. In 1875, when Mr Gladstone “retired,” he was strongly supported for the leadership of the Liberal party, but declined to be nominated against Lord Harrington. In the same year he was elected F.R.S., and made lord rector of Aberdeen University. In 1876, when the Eastern question was looming large, he visited Servia and Turkey, and his subsequent speeches on the subject were marked by studious moderation, distasteful to extremists on both sides. On Mr Gladstone’s return to office in 1880 he was made chief secretary for Ireland, with Lord Cowper as lord-lieutenant. He carried the Compensation for Disturbance Bill through the Commons, only to see it thrown out in the Lords, and his task was made more difficult by the agitation which arose in consequence. During the gloomy autumn and winter of 1880-1881 Forster’s energy and devotion in grappling with the situation in Ireland (see Ireland) were indefatigable, his labour was enormous, and the personal risks he ran were many; but he enjoyed the Irish character in spite of all obstacles, and inspired genuine admiration in all his coadjutors. On the 24th of January 1881 he introduced a new Coercion Bill in the House of Commons, to deal with the growth of the Land League, and in the course of his speech declared it to be “the most painful duty” he had ever had to perform, and one which would have prevented his accepting his office if he had known that it would fall upon him. The bill passed, among its provisions being one enabling the Irish government to arrest without trial persons “reasonably suspected” of crime and conspiracy. The Irish party used every opportunity in and out of parliament for resenting this act, and Forster was kept constantly on the move between Dublin and London, conducting his campaign against crime and anarchy and defending it in the House of Commons. His scrupulous conscientiousness and anxiety to meet every reasonable claim availed him nothing with such antagonists, and the strain was intense and continuous. He was nicknamed “Buckshot” by the Nationalist press, on the supposition that he had ordered its use by the police when firing on a crowd. On the 13th of October Mr Parnell was arrested, and on the 20th the Land League was proclaimed. From that time Forster’s life was in constant danger, and he had to be escorted by mounted police when he drove in Dublin. Early in March 1882 he visited some of the worst districts in Ireland, and addressed the crowd at Tullamore on the subject of outrages, denouncing the people for their want of courage in not assisting the government, but adding, “whether you do or not, it is the duty of the government to stop the outrages, and stop them we will.” Forster’s pluck in speaking out like this was fully appreciated in England, but it was not till after the revelations connected with the Phoenix Park murders that the dangers he had confronted were properly realized, and it became known that several plans to murder him had only been frustrated by the merest accidents. On the 2nd of May Mr Gladstone announced that the government intended to release Mr Parnell and his fellow-prisoners in Kilmainham, and that both Lord Cowper and Mr Forster had in consequence resigned; and the following Saturday Forster’s successor, Lord Frederick Cavendish, was, with Mr Burke, murdered in Phoenix Park. It was characteristic of the man that Forster at once offered to go back to Dublin temporarily as chief secretary, but the offer was declined. His position naturally attracted universal attention towards him, particularly during the debates which ensued in parliament on the “Kilmainham Treaty.” But Mr Gladstone’s influence with the Liberal party was paramount, in spite of the damaging appearance of the compact made with Parnell, and Forster’s pointed criticisms only caused thoroughgoing partisans to accuse him of a desire to avenge himself. It was not till the next session that he delivered his fiercest attack on Parnell in the debate on the address, denouncing him for his connexion with the Land League, and quoting against him the violent speeches of his supporters and the articles of his newspaper organs. It was on this occasion that Parnell, on Forster’s charging him, not with directly planning or perpetrating outrages or murder, but with conniving at them, ejaculated “It’s a lie”; and, replying on the next day, the Irish leader, instead of disproving Forster’s charges, bitterly denounced his methods of administration. Though, during the few remaining years of his life, Forster’s political record covered various interesting subjects, his connexion with these stormy times in Ireland throws them all into shadow. He died on the 6th of April 1886, on the eve of the introduction of the Home Rule Bill, to which he was stoutly opposed. In the interval there had been other questions on which he found himself at variance with Gladstonian Liberalism, for instance, as regards the Sudan and the Transvaal, nor was he inclined to stomach the claims of the Caucus or the Birmingham programme. When the Redistribution Act divided Bradford into three constituencies, Forster was returned for the central division, but he never took his seat in the new parliament.
Forster, like John Bright, was an excellent representative of the English middle-class in public life. Patriotic, energetic, independent, incorruptible, shrewd, fair-minded, he was endowed not only with great sympathy with progress, but also with a full faculty for resistance to mere democraticism. He was tall (the Yorkshiremen called him “Long Forster”) and strongly though stiffly built, and, with his simple tastes and straightforward manners and methods, was a typical North-country figure. His oratory was rough and unpolished, but full of freshness and force and genuine feeling. It was Forster who, when appealing to the government at the time of Gordon’s danger at Khartum, spoke of Mr Gladstone as able “to persuade most people of most things, and himself of almost anything,” and though the phrase was much resented by Mr Gladstone’s entourage, the truth that underlay it may be taken as representing the very converse of his own character. His personal difficulties with some of his colleagues, both in regard to the Education Act of 1870 and his Irish administration, must be properly understood if a complete comprehension of his political career is to be obtained. For an account of them we need only refer to the Life of the Right Hon. W. E. Forster, by Sir T. Wemyss Reid. (H. Ch.)