FOWLER, Sir Henry
29th July 1870 to 14th October 1938
Fowler was one of the leading railway engineers of the pre-war and inter-war years. He served with the Ministry of Munitions during the First World War.
Fowler was born in Evesham on 29 July 1870, the son of a Quaker furniture maker. He was educated at Prince Henry’s Grammar School, Evesham and then at Mason Science College in Birmingham (a precursor of the University of Birmingham), where he received a junior engineering diploma in 1887. From 1887-91 he was an apprentice at the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway’s Horwich depot, under the direction of John (later Sir John) Aspinall. In 1891 he moved to the railway’s testing department where he worked under George Hughes, another eminent railway engineer of the period. In 1895 Fowler became a gas engineer with the railway, and in that same year he married Emma Needham Smith.
In 1900 Fowler took a post as gas engineer with the Midland Railway in Derby. Here he rose through the ranks, becoming assistant works manager in 1905, works manager in 1907 and chief mechanical engineer in 1909.
Upon the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Fowler was seconded to the Ministry of Munitions, initially as secretary to the railway munitions committee. In 1915 he was appointed director of production at the Ministry of Munitions. In 1916 he was appointed superintendent of the Royal Aircraft Factory at Farnborough, and additionally became assistant director of aircraft production at the Ministry in 1917. During 1918-19 he was a member of the Munitions Council. Fowler was awarded the CBE in 1917, and knighted KBE in 1918.
After the war Fowler returned to the Midland Railway. In an attempt to rationalise the industry and cope with the mounting losses suffered by many railway companies, in 1921 Lloyd George’s government introduced the Railway Act (also known as the Grouping Act) which combined over a hundred railway companies into six regional groups. Fowler became deputy chief mechanical engineer of the new London, Midland and Scottish Railway; again serving under George Hughes. He succeeded Hughes as chief mechanical engineer, and was responsible for introducing many new models of locomotive, although he once quipped that he had no interest in locomotives and had never designed one in his life. His policy was to manage and organise his design teams so that they could carry on their own work more effectively, overseeing rather than becoming directly involved in design.
Fowler retired in 1933. He died on 14 October 1938 at his home in Derby.
Fowler held four patents, and produced a number of articles and papers on locomotives and engineering more generally for variety of technical journals. He left behind no writings on management, despite his clear interest in the subject, and so his two Rowntree lectures are the only source for his thinking. He clearly followed ideas in management closely, however; he makes reference to the work of other management writers including the American railway engineer Harrington Emerson, and internal evidence suggests he also attended other Rowntree conferences as a delegate rather than a speaker.
Fowler’s first paper is on the nature of leadership. He interprets successful leadership as being largely a matter of character, and looks at the traits a successful leader should possess. The first of these is strength, though he cautions against excessive strength, ‘which is as fatal in leadership as it is in fishing.’ Strength of character and courage, he says, are very important in a leader; equally, it is important to have the strength to acknowledge when one is wrong. Tactfulness, loyalty and hard work are also highly important, and ‘with industry should go concentration. The job that one is dealing with is the job for the time being…divided attention means a divided mind.’
Other key attributes are imagination and ‘quickness of view and of thought’. Fowler is of two minds over the importance of technical knowledge. Clearly some technical knowledge is essential, but ‘too great a knowledge of detail tends to make one endeavour to handle things in such a way that the broader view is lost, and the larger questions are not so adequately handled.’ It is interesting to hear Fowler, speaking at a time when discussions about the nature of leadership in business were only just beginning to be addressed systematically, speculating on the possibility of a division between leadership and management.
Moving on, Fowler stresses the importance of honesty of purpose, and an ability to empathise with employees: ‘every effort should be made to try and place one self as far as it is possible in their position.’ Fowler ends by commenting on where these characteristics come from, and on the question of whether leaders are born or made, edges towards the latter position:
I shall probably be told the qualities I have enumerated cannot be acquired, but a man must have them within himself. I would point out, however, that here, as everywhere else, we must not only strengthen our own characters but assist in strengthening the characters of those around us.
Fowler’s short paper in 1924 is more of a comment than a lecture, and addresses single theme; the need for ‘sincerity’ in relationships between management and labour. By this term he means honesty and fair dealing, though there is also an element of what might in modern terms be called ‘authenticity’. Fowler believes that there is more sincerity in workplace relationships now than there was formerly, ten or fifteen years earlier, but nevertheless more can be done. ‘We ought to maintain an atmosphere of perfect sincerity when we are dealing with those whom we meet on the other side of the table’, he urges. ‘When we believe that the man on the other side of the table is sincere, from his point of view, and we know that we are sincere from our point of view, there should be no reason why our differences should involve the bitterness which has been so pronounced in the past.’
As noted above, Fowler wrote a number of papers on locomotive design for various engineering journals, a complete list of which can be found at http://www.steamindex.com/people/fowler.htm#pap457
Carpenter, G.W., ‘Fowler, Sir Henry’, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Chacksfield, J.. Sir Henry Fowler: A Versatile Life, Usk: Oakwood, 2000.
‘Leadership in industry’, 24 September 1921, Balliol College
‘The relationship between management and labour’, 27 September 1924, Balliol College