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Commemoration of Benefactors - 4 February 2018

Dr Nigel Chancellor DL (1990)
Former Domus Bursar, Trinity Hall

Nigel ChancellorIn over twenty-five years listening to the Address at the Commemoration of Benefactors service, I cannot disassociate the well fed, robed, bewigged and enthroned portrait of Sir Nathaniel Lloyd hanging in its golden glory behind High Table as the archetypal image of the college benefactors we remember to-day. Nathaniel Lloyd spent his money beautifying the modest medieval brick facade of Dr Eden’s ‘poor college’. In return, he ordered that his portrait and the largest memorial in this chapel be put up in his honour. In these terms benefaction was a tradition of transactional self-aggrandisement.

Making gifts to the College is a deeply personal issue that reveals much about the donor, as the example of Nathaniel Lloyd shows. Others such as Dennis Avery, one of our most significant benefactors in modern times was motivated by his own experience as a student here for one year. His benefactions were full of altruism and empathy. He was motivated by a desire to give back and to encourage. Dennis and Dr Eden, 350 years earlier, both shared a desire to help sustain the College finances and improve the lives of its students, both gave generously and modestly; no self aggrandisement here. I remember that when the old South Court was changed to Avery Court, Dennis was emotionally overcome because, as he put it, ‘the name of a simple label maker from California would be incorporated into the fabric of this ancient college’. Today, we can give thanks especially for Dennis Avery’s generosity towards worship in this Chapel. His gift of the outstanding Carsten Lund organ, with funds for organ scholarships and our outstanding Director of Music continues to inspire members of the College and students from elsewhere to give their time and singing skills to the choir, adding so much to the quality of our worship in this place.

The motivation for these benefactions remains clear. But, what of other forms of giving where no material exchange is involved yet the College is clearly a substantial beneficiary?  I would like to suggest that Henry Fawcett and his wife Millicent Garrett Fawcett are a powerful story of ‘benefaction by example’. Their moving double portrait by Ford Maddox Brown, hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.

Consider our own striking portrait of Henry ‘Blind’ Fawcett which hangs adjacent to Nathaniel Lloyd in the Hall. Gone is the self-congratulatory image of power and wealth, and in its place a representation of heroic achievement in spite of the disability of total blindness. Fawcett was distinguished both as the leading academic in his field of Political Economy but  also as a Member of Parliament and senior member of Gladstone’s reforming governments. He supported the Trade Union movement legalised in 1872, and as Post-Master-General, introduced a national savings scheme which provided working families with the means to save for when they could no longer work through age, illness or injury.

Henry Fawcett was a brilliant mathematician who achieved distinction as the 7th Wrangler in the finals of 1856. This was followed immediately by the offer of a fellowship at Trinity Hall in the same year; he was 23. But, his life changed irrevocable when he was totally blinded in a shooting accident two years later in 1858. Notwithstanding this disaster, he became a leader in the philosophy of political economy, which the University recognised with a chair in 1863 at the age of thirty. Beyond academia, Fawcett had a driving desire for social reform and was determined to have a political career notwithstanding his disability. In Victorian terms, what he needed was a wife who would run two homes, one in Cambridge and one in London; a wife who would be his domestic manager, secretary, nurse, and mother to his children. What he found, was a woman of fierce independent spirit with a passionate cause equally absorbing as his own, who would also perform all the above. The story of the Fawcett’s and their significance as benefactors was as examples of individual commitment to a moral crusade of human rights no less powerful than their commitment to each other.

For his part, Fawcett had been a supporter of the suffragist movement from its earliest beginnings. Friendship with the political philosopher John Stuart Mill, the MP for Westminster, encouraged him into a career in Parliament.  He was elected as MP for Brighton in 1865 and subsequently for Hackney in 1874. Through Mill he was introduced to the remarkable sisters, Elizabeth and Millicent Garrett. He fell in love, and proposed to the eldest, Elizabeth. Fawcett was clearly a charismatic man.  His imposing figure, over 6ft 3in with angular features dominated by sightless eyes behind dark glasses that produced a dramatic and romantic appearance; some might say ‘cool’ in today’s idiom. He was an impressive figure when he rose to speak in the House of Commons, with his commanding voice and his stature augmented by a tall, black top hat (it was then the custom for MPs to wear top hats in the Chamber). You will find Fawcett towering over the other Trinity Hall Fellows in Robert Farren’s picture of Degree Morning (1863) which hangs in the Porters’ Lodge. For her part, Elizabeth Garrett was also a strong supporter of women’s suffrage but she was also a passionate student of medical science and practice. After an agonising deliberation, Elizabeth rejected Fawcett’s offer of marriage in order to concentrate her time and energy to be the first woman in Britain to qualify as a doctor, which she did in 1865.

Perhaps no-one other than Elizabeth’s younger sister was more aware of the pain attached to the decision to refuse Henry Fawcett. Perhaps no-one other than Elizabeth’s younger sister was more aware of the pain attached to the decision to refuse Henry Fawcett. But, it was this shared experience that brought Millicent and Henry together into a deep and lasting relationship; their individual achievements were always the result of mutual support and interaction. They never lost sight of each other’s ambitions. Their daughter Philippa was born in 1868.

Brilliant as his academic and reforming record is, Fawcett’s outstanding contribution to the emancipation of women which we celebrate in this centenary year, is of national and international significance. The Representation of the People Act 1918 gave most men and six million women the vote. He gains this accolade through partnership with his wife and their shared beliefs. 

Having joined the women’s suffragist movement in 1866 as its secretary at the age of 19, Millicent went on to become President of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies in 1898 and remained its national leader until after the achievement of qualified women’s suffrage in 1918.

The Fawcett’s had two homes, one in Cambridge which was the centre of their academic work together. Millicent shared her husband’s enthusiasm for Political Economy and together they published two works on the subject. In 1875, Millicent became the joint founder of Newnham College with the political economist Henry Sidgwick, a close colleague of Henry’s at Cambridge. The couple’s second home was in London from where they worked on Henry’s constituency business, first in Brighton and then in the London Borough of Hackney. It was also the centre of Fawcett’s parliamentary activity at Westminster where he used his powerful oratory and political influence to promote women’s suffrage and social reform. In turn, Millicent spoke persuasively on social issues in his constituencies. It was their joint decision to gain support for the suffragist movement through parliamentary and political processes, carefully avoiding the public’s mixed reactions to Emmeline Pankhurst’s street warrior ‘suffragettes’. Their marriage lasted from 1867 until Fawcett became ill and died from pleurisy in November 1884. Doubtless, Dr Elizabeth Garrett Anderson was close by giving advice on his treatment, and as a support to her sister and brother-in-law. Millicent was inconsolable when Henry died. She retired from all public work for a year, before returning to the cause which she and Henry had jointly championed. She became President of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies and was its leader when, almost one hundred years ago to the day, on 6th February 1918, the Representation of the People Act received Royal Assent, giving most men and six million women the vote. Henry and Millicent Fawcett were a true partnership of reforming minds. Together they are an early example of how professional men and women can successfully combine their public lives within a domestic framework. They joined their unshakeable wills to succeed in spite of physical disability and social prejudice. They are buried together in the cemetery at Trumpington.

In commemorating Trinity Hall’s Benefactors it is hard to find any whose achievements come close to the national significance of women’s suffrage. Clearly, Henry Fawcett is entitled to a substantial share of Millicent Fawcett’s fame as the national suffragist leader. This address suggests that it is the example of mutual love and support between two extraordinary people that informs the ethos of this ‘very friendly’ College and qualifies the Fawcetts as benefactors who gave by example. Tonight we give thanks for all Trinity Hall’s benefactors but especially for the lives and achievements of Henry and Millicent Fawcett.

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