Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

William Edward Forster

William Edward Forster (July 11, 1818 - April 6, 1886), British statesman, was born of Quaker parents at Bradpole in Dorsetshire.

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 to enter a brewery and became involved in woollen manufacturer in a large way at Bradford, Yorkshire, 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 school. 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. There were no children of hue 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 Hugh Oakeley Arnold-Forster (1855-1909), a Liberal-Unionist member of parliament, who eventually became a member of Arthur Balfour's cabinet.

W.E. Forster gradually began to take an active part in public affairs by speaking and lecturing. 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 undersecretary 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.

Directly the Reform Bill had passed, Mr Eorster and Mr Cardwell, 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 was introduced on February 17 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 March 14, 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. The bill of 1870, imperfect as it was, established at last some approach to a system of national education in England.

Forster's next important work was in passing the Ballot Act of 1872. In 1874 he was again returned for Bradford. In 1875, when Gladstone "retired," he was strongly supported for the leadership of the Liberal party, but declined to be nominated. In the same year he was elected to the Royal Society, and made Lord Rector of Aberdeen University.

In 1876, when the Eastern question was looming large, he visited Serbia and Turkey, and his subsequent speeches on the subject were marked by moderation. On Gladstone's return to office in 1880 he was made chief secretary for Ireland. He carried the Compensation for Disturbance Bill through the Commons, only to see it thrown out in the Lords. On January 24, 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. 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 to oppose this act, and Forster was kept constantly on the move between Dublin and London, conducting his campaign and defending it in the House of Commons. 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 October 13 Charles Stewart Parnell was arrested, and soon after the Land League was proclaimed. From that time Forster's life was in danger, and he had to be escorted by mounted police in Dublin. Several plans to murder him were frustrated by the merest accidents.

On May 2 Gladstone announced that the government intended to release Parnell and his fellow-prisoners in Kilmainham, and that both Lord Cowper and Forster had in consequence resigned; and the following Saturday Forster's successor, Lord Frederick Cavendish, was murdered in Phoenix Park.

During the remaining years of his life, Forster's political record covered various interesting subjects, but his efforts in Ireland throws them all into shadow. He died on the eve of the introduction of the Home Rule Bill, to which he was completely opposed.

This entry was originally from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.