Henry Fawcett, husband of Millicent Garret Fawcett, scholar, politician and Postmaster General, was born and raised in Salisbury, Wiltshire, with a statue of him standing in Salisbury's Market Square where he spent so much of his childhood.
It was also in Salisbury that he suffered the terrible accident which would leave him blind for life, making his achievements all the more remarkable.
There are several places in Salisbury connected with his life, including where he was born, where the accident happened overlooking his cherished views of the cathedral, and other places of significance to his life, which you can visit and even combine together in a walk around the city (click here to go to the map of the locations and walk).
Point 1 - St. Thomas' Church
At the age of 22, Henry's father, William Fawcett, had settled in Salisbury, marrying Mary Cooper in 1827 at St. Thomas' Church. William Fawcett was the Mayor of Salisbury in 1832, the year before Henry was born.
William was a staunch liberal; a keen supporter of the Reform Bill which was passed in 1832 and allowed more men to vote. It also completely removed the vote from women however, as the Act defined a voter as a male person - women had previously been allowed to vote in a few, rare circumstances.
Nevertheless, the Reform Act was a considerable achievement for the time, and William Fawcett was a popular mayor in the town.
There has been a church on this site for over 800 years, it being built for the builders of the cathedral to worship in. The existing building is much as it would have been when Henry Fawcett's parents got married here, although its most impressive feature - the Doom Painting, was still under whitewash at that time.
The medieval Doom Painting is the largest and most complete in the UK, but it was whitewashed over in 1593 during the Reformation, and not uncovered until 1881, just 3 years before Henry died. The church is well worth a visit to see this incredible painting. It is usually open 9am - 5pm and is free to visit, although donations are welcome.
Point 2 - Statue to Henry Fawcett
The statue to Henry Fawcett stands in the Market Square, a life-size bronze on a marble plinth overlooking Blue Boar Row.
Many visitors wonder why the statue has him standing with his back to the square, but he is facing the house in Blue Boar Row where he was born, "in a wonderful Elizabethan room", in 1833.
Point 3 - Blue Boar Row
Blue Boar Row would have looked somewhat different at the time of Henry's birth, although some of the buildings you see today have been there for centuries.
The impressive building which is now Lloyds Bank wasn't built until 1869, many years after he had left Salisbury, and the large department store was once a range of 3 houses built in the 18th century - he lived in one of these, but the modern shop frontage has removed any vestige of the place he would have called home, which was described as an "old low red-brick house overlooking the market-place."
Point 4 - St. Edmunds Church
St. Edmunds church on nearby Bedwin Street was where Henry was christened on 18th September 1833.
This 15th century church now serves as Salisbury Arts Centre, with a café, art exhibitions, music, shows, films and workshops.
It is free to visit, and a lovely place to eat while listening to a lunchtime band, and still retains many of its loveliest features.
The churchyard has the World War I memorial and wide open spaces to sit and enjoy the peace.
Point 5 - The Market Square
The young Henry loved to visit the market place right outside his front door, and would frequently spend his time there, making friends with the country folk, talking of their crops, apparently fascinated with the rising and falling prices.
The market square has long been the place where travelling funfairs and circuses are held, a source of much excitement to Henry and his siblings. "Sometimes the circus spread its mysterious tents, and when the children were dragged away from the wild beasts and the seductive freaks and put to bed, the little Fawcetts would stealthily creep to the bedroom window overlooking the market and see the lights shining on all the wonderful but forbidden marvels, and hear the hurdy-gurdy and the band mix their triumphal blare with the solemn striking of the clock in the near-by cathedral."
There has been a market held in the square for over 800 years, although the area was once much bigger than the square you see today. The lime trees which surround the Market Square were planted in 1887, a few years after Henry's death, to commemorate the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria. Markets are held every Tuesday and Saturday, with regular visiting markets on other days. The square is lined with pubs and cafes as well as shops.
Point 6 - The Guildhall
On the south side of the Market Square is the Guildhall, which was completed in 1795. This is the home of local government, headed by Salisbury's Mayor, so a young Henry would have been very familiar with this building. The Guildhall is usually open to visitors and is worth a visit, as you can see displays of silverware, the banqueting hall lined with portraits of previous mayors, the oak courtroom which is a replica of the Old Bailey, and sometimes the tiny jail cells are available to view. Entrance is free.
Point 7 - Queen Street
This small street which lines the market square overlooking the Guildhall is still very similar to how it would have been when William Fawcett worked as a Haberdasher and Draper in a shop on this street. Many of the buildings are medieval and have been there for centuries. Have a look inside the top floor of Crew Clothing for the original wattle and daub walls, and walk into the entrance of Cross Keys Mall to see the 17th century Jacobean wooden staircase which once led to the Victorian Turkish Baths.
In 1841, the family moved to a farm on the Longford Estate, 3 miles outside Salisbury. At the same time, Henry started at a local dame school in nearby Alderbury, before moving on to a school in Hampshire and then one in London, ending up at Cambridge University, being elected to a Fellowship at Trinity Hall in 1856. His plan was to enter parliament, using a career at the Bar as a way in, and he worked at Lincolns Inn.
Fawcett developed problems with his eyes in 1857 when overwork caused him difficulties and after a while he went to stay at his parents house in Longford to convalesce.
Point 8 - Harnham Hill
In 1858 while convalescing at his parents house, he went on a partridge shoot with his father and brother. "Together they climbed Harnham Hill. Fawcett turned to look back at the glorious view, bathed in an autumn light, the trees, already turning to gold, the village nestled in the valley through which the river Avon wound, the spire of the great cathedral touched with glory by the setting sun. To Fawcett this was one of the loveliest views in England: he looked on all this beauty for the last time."
As they were crossing a field, he walked ahead of his father. William, who was suffering from cataracts, did not see his son, and as a partridge rose, he fired, hitting the bird but also his son, with stray shot going into both his eyes, blinding him instantly.
He was taken home on the back of a cart to his mother, his father distraught at the accident he had caused. Fawcett's first words to his father were said to be "This shall make no difference" and he remained stoic and calm throughout. About 6 weeks later he was able to see light for about 3 days, but then darkness fell forever and his sight was never recovered.
Henry returned to Cambridge, and in November 1863 was appointed Professor of Political Economy at Cambridge, a post he held until his death. He resumed his activities such as walking, mountain climbing, horse riding and even skating.
He gave up the Law and went into politics as a Liberal. In 1865 he was elected as an MP for Brighton, helping to get the Reform Act of 1867 carried. He advocated the abolition of religious tests at universities, he supported various measures of social reform, especially the extension of the factory acts to the agricultural labourers, and he regularly spoke in the commons about the helping the poor. He fought against land inclosure, once quoting this from the 1700s:
The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
But leaves the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from off the goose
In 1867, he got married. He had initially proposed marriage to Elizabeth Garrett, the first English woman doctor, 13 years his junior, and a great admirer of his.
However, in her biography she described Henry as “very tall with a massive head and ugly”.
The engagement did not proceed, but Henry, on hearing Elizabeth’s 18 year old sister Millicent speaking, wanted to meet, “the owner of that voice”, and they married on 23rd April 1867.
Henry supported her work for women’s rights, and he became president of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, a position she later held herself.
In 1880 he was made Postmaster General in Gladstone's government, unable to be given a ministerial post as there were concerns that someone having to read him confidential documents would be a security risk.
He devoted himself to the task, starting the PO Savings bank, parcel post, cheap telegrams, the 'Fawcett disc' - an engraved disc on a post box to aid blind people 'feel' the time of the next collection, and life insurance, which made saving accessible to the poor. Amongst other achievements, he was a Privy Counsellor, the Lord Rector of Glasgow and the author of eleven books.
Point 9 - 27, The Close
This was the home of Henry's parents in their later years. The census of 1871 shows Henry and his 23 year old wife Millicent staying on the night of 2 April. Henry is described as ‘Professor of Political Economy’ but Millicent has no occupation. Millicent and Henry’s daughter, Philippa, who was two years old, had been left at home in London. Ten years later, they were once again staying here for the census on 3 April 1881. Henry's occupation is ‘Postmaster General and MP’, Millicent is ‘Authoress’.
Salisbury's Cathedral Close is the largest in the country and is a beautiful place to visit. Number 27 is a private house so cannot be visited, but there are plenty of other places to see. Surrounding the cathedral, the Close is lined with incredible old houses, large green spaces to sit and watch the world go by, various cafes, two museums and a National Trust property. Read more about Salisbury's Cathedral Close and a walk around it >>
Point 10 - Salisbury Museum
Salisbury Museum is in the King's House in the Cathedral Close, and is filled with the history of Salisbury and the surrounding area, from the Neolithic to modern times.
Photographs © Salisbury Museum
The museum's collection includes a set of playing cards which were owned by Henry Fawcett, each card with a different braille pattern so he knew which was which.
The museum also has a purple wool cape worn by Millicent Fawcett. The cape is dated 1868, when she was just a newly-wed, and was donated to the museum by her niece Charlotte Fawcett in 1934.
Neither object is currently on display, but they do swap around display objects so may well be in the future, and the museum is well worth a visit anyway.
Point 11 - Salisbury Cathedral
In 1882 Henry contracted diphtheria and typhoid fever, which resulted in a weakness to his lungs and heart. Seriously ill, he took some time to recover, and spent some time in Salisbury in early 1884 with his parents and his sister.
"The two sauntered together into the near-by cathedral where, as a tiny, half-scared boy, Harry had gone clinging to his big sister’s hand. Now the tall blind man held her arm, and his cane on the pavement was echoed by the high arches; suddenly a great glory of music broke forth from the organ, magic uplifting notes shook the walls, and piercing with gladness the shadows of centuries, rehallowed the old sanctuary with melody.
Fawcett stood leaning slightly against a column, his heroic head uplifted as if he were looking through the vaulting, his whole being suffused with an inward light, and his sensitive ear revelling in the lovely harmonies. The voices of men and women raised in chorus burst forth in a mighty Hallelujah; the organ thrilled in glorious fulness, and again the voices repeated the refrain until it echoed from the wall like a song of triumph of good over evil, of light over darkness. A glad smile broke over the blind man’s face as, pressing his dear companion’s hand, he exclaimed: ‘Oh, how beautiful that is!’"
On 6th November 1884 at home in Cambridge after a few days spent in bed, his illness worsened and his doctors realised there was no hope of his recovery.
"When his hands began to grow cold, he said: ‘The best things to warm my hands with would be my fur gloves. They are in the pocket of my coat in the dressing-room.’ He never spoke again. In the quiet room, the dull autumn afternoon darkened as his wife and daughter sat by the bedside. Very gently, his brave fight won, the tired blind man’s unquenchable spirit left them in the twilight and passed to find the light."
He was aged just 51, the cause of death being heart failure, pleurisy and pneumonia.
Salisbury Cathedral now has a plaque to both Henry and his sister (photo coming).
All quotes are from 'A Beacon for the Blind' a biography written about Henry Fawcett in 1915 by Winifred Holtby, which is available to read on Project Gutenberg.
If you choose to do this as a walk around Salisbury, I recommend starting at St. Edmunds (top of the map) and ending at Harnham Hill - it is a straightforward linear walk which can fill a full day if you choose to visit St. Thomas', the Guildhall, Salisbury Museum and the Cathedral. Ending up on Harnham Hill can give you lovely views over the cathedral as the sun is setting.
Victorian Post Boxes in Salisbury
There are only three remaining Victorian post boxes in Salisbury which date from the era of Henry Fawcett. The first one is in Greencroft Street, next to the church where Henry was christened - it is marked on the map if you fancy a quick diversion to see it as it is less than a minutes walk away and it dates from around the 1870s.
The other is in Atwell Street, up near Victoria Park and the Spitfire Memorial, and the third is in Manor Road. All three have the distinctive 'VR' intertwined on the front, for Victoria Regina (Queen Victoria). Sadly none of them have the disc with the collection times in braille which he introduced when he was Postmaster General.
The famous red post boxes were introduced when Victoria was on the throne, with the first ones being trialled in the Channel Islands in 1852. Before that, people had had to post their letters at the Post Office, or wait until the 'Bell Man' came round, walking the streets and ringing his bell to alert them of his presence.
The first boxes were red, until people complained they were too garish, so they were painted green, but then people complained that they couldn't find them, so they returned to the red.
You can learn more about post boxes and how to identify them at the Postal Museum in London.