Henry Fawcett

Reading for Year 10 St Osmund’s Assembly 17/11/2023

There are four main uses for large statues as plinths in town centres. The publicly-approved use is to commemorate the locally or nationally acclaimed dignitary – for example, the statue of Oliver Cromwell outside the Houses of Parliament, or that of Queen Victoria close to Buckingham Palace. The second major use is to impede the traffic flow – so, there is Nelson on his column, and Eros in Piccadilly. The third is as a pigeon roost, causing endless frustration for councils and their workmen, who become expert on removing guano from the most inaccessible crevice. And the fourth is as a butt for practical jokes – Winston Churchill acquired a Mohican hairstyle after May Day disturbances in Westminster and even the statue of Henry VIII over the High Street gate here in Salisbury, which mysteriously acquired a Coke can in one hand one April 1st.

It was this last use that jogged my memory recently when I was walking through the Market Square – because I happened to catch sight of the statue on Blue Boar Row. I remember, seeing the statue when I first came to Salisbury in 1997. It was October, and Salisbury Fair was in full swing. Walking through the tacky stalls and sideshows, my eyes came to rest on the statue of Henry Fawcett, resplendent and dignified on his 15 foot high plinth – dignified, that is, apart from the fact that he was wearing a back-to-front baseball cap….

Why is the statue there in the first place? The most pragmatic reason is that Henry’s dad worked in Debenhams (now Bradbeers) – or the shop that was on that site – in the menswear department. So, when Henry’s statue was put up at the end of the 19th century to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, they made sure that the son faced the place where Dad worked in the shop.

Henry Fawcett

But why is the statue there really? The real reason is to commemorate a life of achievement, and one in which Henry Fawcett overcame tragedy to hold one of the most important political posts in Britain. Henry was born here in Salisbury in 1833. He had a brilliant career ahead of him, studying at Cambridge and becoming a prominent political activist. All this nearly came to an end, however, when at the age of 25 he was accidentally shot in the face by his father while hunting on Harnham Hill. Blinded in both eyes, Fawcett continued to make his mark both at Cambridge and in politics, becoming a professor of Pol. Economy at 30, and Liberal MP for Brighton just two years later.

Despite his blindness, Fawcett continued to make political waves. He ran a long campaign to get women the vote, clashing with Gladstone (who was Prime Minister) in the process. He became a member of a group of radical MPs, leading the campaign for women’s suffrage during the 1860s, 70s and 80s which pre-dated the Suffragette movement of the early 20th century. He was helped in his political campaigning by his wife Millicent, who was also later to become prominent in the women’s movement at the end of Victorian times.

Despite the arguments with his boss, Henry was appointed as Postmaster General in 1880. While he was doing the job, he brought in parcel post, postal orders, and the sixpenny telegram. He also invented the “Fawcett Disc” – the metal plate which fits into post boxes to show what time the next collection of letters will be. Interestingly, the figures on the disc were raised, to enable blind people to read them well before braille was around.

So, Henry Fawcett does deserve his place on the plinth, though perhaps the adornment of the baseball cap was not quite so fitting. There is a sad epitaph to all this, too – the Fawcett Discs have recently all disappeared from letter boxes “because the Post Office can no longer guarantee collection times.” 140 years of progress. Henry’s still there, but there’s now an element of guesswork as to whether the post will arrive or not… And then, of course, there is his political legacy, and his example of overcoming adversity. Despite his disability, Fawcett rose to high political office, establishing the precedent that is followed by the likes of Jack Ashley and David Blunkett, and Marsha de Cordova - Labour MP for Battersea. Because of this persistence in the face of determined opposition, the movement to give women in Britain political rights was established, paving the way for Emmeline Pankhurst and others to gain the vote and more employment rights 30 years later.

So next time you’re at that bus stop on Blue Boar Row, or out in the Market Square on a Thursday evening, just take a moment to look up at Henry – he deserves a bit of time from all of us.