Henry Fawcett, son of a Salisbury draper, came up to Cambridge in 1852. He entered Peterhouse but after a year migrated to Trinity Hall. This was a time when many students still idled their way through university, but Fawcett pursued the serious studies necessary to take the Mathematical Tripos and graduated in seventh place (Seventh Wrangler) in 1856. He was elected into a Fellowship at Trinity Hall, with the intention of going into law. His early interest in politics and economics continued to grow, and he was developing radical views, under the influence of John Stuart Mill and others.

In 1858 a tragic accident with a shotgun left him blind, but he was determined that this should make no difference to his plans in life. He returned to Cambridge to resume his studies and teaching, and in 1863 was appointed to a new chair as Professor of Political Economy. His interest was practical as well as theoretical, and two years later he entered Parliament as a member for Brighton. During his political career he advocated social reforms for factory and agricultural workers, votes for women, the abolition of religious tests at Oxford and Cambridge and reforms to aid the peoples of India. He was an impressive orator and his independence of thought made him respected by many, if not always by his own party.

As a participant in the women’s suffrage movement, he met the lively and talented Garrett sisters. Though Elizabeth turned down his proposal, to pursue a career as a doctor (against heavy odds), Millicent agreed to marry him, despite his handicap, in 1867. In partnership they supported each other’s work. Millicent gave Henry much secretarial assistance, and Henry encouraged Millicent in her writing and in public speaking. He had published a Manual of Political Economy in 1863, and encouraged Millicent to write and publish Political Economy for Beginners in 1870.

At this time the Fawcetts lived at 18 Brookside, when in Cambridge, and in Lambeth when Fawcett needed to attend parliament. (From 1874 he was member for Hackney.) The house in Brookside was host to many eminent visitors and it was here that the plans that led to the founding of Newnham College were laid. (Their daughter Philippa became a student there in 1887, and astounded conservative opinion by coming top of the University maths list in 1890, ahead of all the men.)

Fawcett had always been a vigorous sportsman and never allowed his blindness to limit his participation. He continued to row regularly with a dons’ boat, to swim (and dive) and even to skate. When the Cam froze over, he skated to Ely, heedless of the dangers of a plunge into the icy waters.

In 1880 Gladstone formed a Liberal government and appointed Fawcett Postmaster General. In this role he was immediately active, seeing the potential for new services that would aid small businesses in particular, and contribute to the national economy. He introduced the parcel post, postal orders and the sixpenny telegram and Post Office Savings schemes. At the same time he looked after the welfare of the Post Office’s employees, who included numbers of women. He also introduced female medical officers

Fawcett had not long to make improvements, for in 1882 he fell ill with diphtheria and was left much weakened. He continued to work, and to support the cause of women’s suffrage, even though Gladstone ignored the movement in the Parliamentary Reform Act of 1884.

In November of the same year Henry Fawcett died of pneumonia at his Brookside house. His funeral saw an unprecedented display of mourning from the many groups of people from very varied walks of life with whom he had worked. Mourners came from parliament and the government, from the University and Trinity Hall, from many branches of the Post Office and its employees, from his constituency and other political groups. The wreaths and flowers covered his coffin and filled another carriage. The long procession that set off for Trumpington church was a witness to the love and admiration felt for his kindliness and his strong principles, his independence and his energy.

He was buried in Trumpington churchyard. The music for the funeral service was played by Villiers Stamford.