Fowler, Robert Nicholas (DNB01)

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FOWLER, Sir ROBERT NICHOLAS, first baronet (1828–1891), lord mayor of London, only child of Thomas Fowler, banker, of Cornhill, and Lucy (née Waterhouse of Liverpool), was born at Bruce Grove, Tottenham, on 12 Sept. 1828. He was educated chiefly at home, but was for a short time at Grove House school, Tottenham, under the head-mastership of Thomas Binns, a denominational school for the sons of the wealthier members of the Society of Friends, to which religious body Fowler's parents belonged. As a boy his chief characteristics were his fondness for the study of history, his keen interest in politics, and his extraordinary memory. Through life he was a perfect storehouse of quotations from orators and poets, Greek, Roman, and English, In 1846 he proceeded to University College, London. He took several prizes in the classes of the college, and graduated as B.A. in the university of London in 1848, taking a good place in the honours lists, both classical and mathematical. After an interval of travel and business he proceeded M.A. in mathematics in 1850.

Fowler had now entered the banking firm of Drewett & Fowler (since amalgamated with Prescott & Co.), in which his father was a partner. He soon devoted his spare time and energies to the chief work of his life, the reorganisation of the conservative party in the city of London. In the years between the passing of the reform bill and the Crimean war, the prevailing line of thought in city circles, and especially in those circles in which Fowler moved, was liberal (rather, however, of the whig than of the radical type); but young Fowler, partly from an enthusiastic admiration of his namesake, Sir Robert Peel, partly from prolonged study of Mitford's 'History of Greece,' but partly also from the original constitution of his mind, was an earnest, it might almost be said a fanatical, tory, for whom the newly coined word 'conservative' was all too mild to express the strength of his abhorrence for all demagogic ways.

In July 1865 Fowler stood as candidate for the representation of the city of London, but was defeated by a large majority. In the following year a vacancy occurred in the representation of Penryn and Falmouth, a borough with which Fowler was well acquainted, as he had married (on 27 Oct. 1852) a daughter of Mr. Alfred Fox, one of the well-known quaker family of that place. The Fox family were as a rule liberals in politics, and their influence could not be used in his support. Partly owing to this cause he failed in his first attempt; but two years after, at the general election of 1868, he was returned as member for Penryn and Falmouth along with Edward Backhouse Eastwick [q. v.] He held the seat till 1874, when he was defeated, and had temporarily to retire from parliament.

Meanwhile, however, Fowler and his friends had been patiently building up a strong conservative party in the city of London. He was now president of the City Conservative Association, and chairman of the City Carlton Club, and in 1878 he entered the corporation, being elected as alderman for the ward of Cornhill, in which his place of business was situated. In 1880 he was returned as member for the city along with Alderman Cotton and Mr. Hubbard, the fourth seat being occupied by a liberal. This seat he retained till his death. In the house he did not take a position as one of the front rank of debaters, but, he was intensely loyal to his party, and of the three traditional duties assigned to a junior lord of the treasury, 'to make a house, to keep a house, and to cheer the minister' he (though bound by no official ties) certainly discharged the last with sufficient ardour. His loud and ringing cheers, suggestive of the hunting-field, will long be remembered by his contemporaries in the House of Commons.

In 1883 Fowler was chosen lord mayor of London. His election, which, owing to special circumstances, came somewhat out of the usual course, and sooner than he or his friends expected it, was not altogether popular, and in his official progress through the city there were some unqualified expressions of disapprobation; but the genial and generous way in which he discharged the duties of his office earned the enthusiastic approbation of the citizens, as was clearly shown by their plaudits when the time came for laying down his office in 1884, and also by his unanimous re-election to the vacant chair in April 1885, when the death of his successor, Alderman Nottage, left the Mansion House tenantless.

The event which excited most attention during his first tenure of the mayoralty was his speech at the banquet in proposing the health of her majesty's ministers. As all men knew the intensity of his opposition to Gladstone's policy, there was a good deal of curiosity to see how he would fare in proposing his health; but happily the love of Homer, which was a common possession of host and guest, saved the situation. A quotation from the 'Iliad' (xvi. 550) did justice to the great orator's fighting powers, and won from Gladstone a hearty recognition of the lord mayor 'as a frank, bold, and courageous opponent in the House of Commons.'

In July 1885, during the short administration of Lord Salisbury, Fowler was created a baronet. Many years before this (in 1862) he had removed from Tottenham to Gastard, near Corsham in Wiltshire, an old property of his family, and there the rest of his life was spent, except for the periods of residence in London which were necessitated by his attendance in parliament, and for many long journeys to the Cape of Good Hope, to India, Japan, and the United States, which were the favourite pastime of his later years. He was a keen huntsman, but practised no other form of sport.

Both with reference to the traffic in opium and the protection of the aboriginal races, he was a warm advocate of the philanthropic side of the question, and here he sometimes found himself in opposition to the officials of his own party a severe trial to one so strongly imbued as he was with the ideas of party loyalty.

At the age of thirty-three he relinquished his connection with the Society of Friends, and was baptised into the church of England. He belonged to the evangelical school and was throughout his life a man of strong and deep religious feeling. Both during his mayoralty and in after years he often preached at the theatre services which were commenced at the instance of Lord Shaftesbury for the working men of London.

Fowler died of pneumonia at his London house in Harley Street on 22 May 1891. He was buried in the churchyard of Corsham. A portrait by Frank Holl and a marble bust are at Gastard; another portrait hangs in the Guildhall, London. He married, in October 1852, Charlotte Fox of Falmouth, a first cousin of Caroline Fox [q. v.] Mrs. Fowler died in December 1876, having been the mother of eleven children, of whom one died in childhood. The only son, Thomas, succeeded his father in the baronetcy.

Fowler's only contribution to literature was 'A Visit to China, Japan, and India,' published in 1877.

[Private information.]

T. H-n.