FISHER, Herbert Albert Laurens
21st March 1865 to 18th April 1940
Fisher was an academic historian who spent most of his career at Oxford, apart from a ten-year spell in parliament. He served as President of the Board of Education in David Lloyd George’s government, during which time he introduced the Education Act of 1918 making education compulsory for children up to the age of fourteen. He wrote a number of highly regarded books on European history.
Fisher was born in London on 21 March 1865. His father, a barrister, was at the time serving as private secretary to the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII), who was also Fisher’s godfather. He was educated at Winchester and then at New College, Oxford, where he gained a first in classical moderations in 1886 and then in greats in 1888. In the latter year he was elected a fellow of New College. As well as teaching history at Oxford, Fisher spent several periods abroad, studying in Paris and in Göttingen. He married Lettice Ilbert, the daughter of a barrister and herself a leading campaigner for women’s suffrage, in 1899. Fisher remained at Oxford in until 1912, writing a number of books including a highly regarded biography of Napoleon (published in 1913).
In 1912 Fisher was appointed vice-chancellor of the University of Sheffield, though he did not take up the post until 1914, having also been appointed to a commission investigating the public services in India. One of Fisher’s first acts was to set up a scientific advisory committee, the purpose of which was to help apply the university’s research in industry. After the outbreak of the First World War, Fisher worked with the Sheffield civic authorities to find ways of converting the city’s industries to wartime production. He also served on a commission investigating atrocities alleged to have been committed by the German army in Belgium. Fisher was not an enthusiastic supporter of the war, and recommended that Britain negotiate with Germany and attempt to find a peaceful settlement. This brought him into conflict with David Lloyd George, who backed firmly the government’s policy of non-negotiation.
Despite this dispute, Lloyd George clearly respected Fisher’s abilities, and in 1916 invited him to become president of the board of education in the coalition government. Fisher accepted, to the surprise of those who knew him; up to that point, he had evinced little interest in politics. Ryan (2004) quotes the view of a contemporary that Fisher was like ‘a good man who had inadvertently entered a brothel – and rather enjoyed it.’ Fisher entered parliament that same year, elected in the Liberal interest in a by-election in Sheffield Hallam. He seems to have been a success as both a minister and an MP, though as Ryan (2004) also notes, ‘given good relations with one’s permanent civil servants, the life of a cabinet minister need not be very burdensome…and Fisher did not find it so’, suggesting that Fisher left the running of the department up to others and concentrated on policy.
The result was the Education Act of 1918, also known as the Fisher Act. This act made education compulsory for children up to the age of fourteen. It also established the principle of central government control over the financing of schools; by its provisions, central government would pay 60 per cent of teachers’ salaries, with local education authorities making up the rest. This had the effect of transferring much of the power over the education system from the LEAs to the board of education. Fisher also established the University Grants Committee to provide state funding to universities, though he was generally unsuccessful in his attempt to bring the universities under greater state control. Fisher also served as a delegate to the League of Nations from 1920-22.
The collapse of Lloyd George’s government in 1922 deprived Fisher of his cabinet post, though he continued as an MP until 1926. He returned then to academia as warden of New College, which post he held until his death in 1940. He received the Order of Merit in 1937, soon after the publication of his last major work, A History of Europe.
Fisher was no more enthusiastic about the prospect of the Second World War than he had been about the first, and supported Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement; this brought him into conflict with Alexander Lindsay, the influential master of Balliol College, who opposed Chamberlain. In 1939 Fisher became chairman of the Appellate Tribunal for Conscientious Objectors in England and Wales. In mid-April 1940, on his way to a session of the tribunal in London, Fisher was knocked down by a lorry. He died of his injuries on 18 April 1940.
Fisher was a liberal who supported many progressive causes including women’s suffrage and educational reform, but he shied away from more radical forms of liberalism, and at times his views on foreign policy were quite conservative. He saw Napoleon as an inheritor, in part, of the republican ideals of Revolutionary France, and there is at times a rather idealistic quality to his historical writing. One of his best books, A History of Europe, while it has whig overtones, is a more measured and neutral account of the political development of Europe up to his own time.
Fisher’s views on education reflect his own liberal philosophy. He thought it wrong that some children should be disadvantaged by not having access to education, and believed that a sound education was the most important starting point a child could have in life. By centralising control of education, he sought to avoid inequalities and gaps in provision that he believed would inevitably occur if control remained devolved to a local level. He also believed strongly that education had a role to play in industry, and it was probably his work with business and civic leaders in Sheffield during the First World War that led Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree to invited him to lecture at Balliol.
Fisher’s first Rowntree conference lecture on ‘education and industrial efficiency’ offers a fairly simple argument that education is the best way of transforming young people into capable workers. The purpose of education, he says, should be to develop young people along three dimensions, the body, the mind and the character. The first makes people healthy and better able to withstand the rigours of work, and Fisher calls for more and better physical education in schools. In terms of the mind, he says, both teachers and businesses need to become better at distinguishing and developing people of high mental ability, though Fisher does not tell us what he thinks should happen to the remainder.
Fisher is particularly concerned about the development of the character of young people, particularly from age fourteen, when they are able to leave school, until eighteen many start technical training or go to university. He sees in many young people a kind of degradation of character caused by idleness, and argues there are only two remedies, work or further education. Continuation schools are one possibility, but he also offers the prospect of extending the Fisher Act to make education compulsory up to sixteen or even beyond. Going to work can help to discipline the mind and character, but Fisher lays a special charge of the foremen who employ young people: they must be careful to nurture and guide their young charges and shape their characters in the right way.
Fisher’s second, longer lecture in 1930 repeats some of the themes from the first. It focuses largely on the need for education to continue after the age of fourteen, and argues the case for businesses to provide education for their young workers in the form of day continuation schools run by employers. Fisher cites a number of schemes already in place around the country, together with the apparent benefits derived from giving boys and girls time off work to study. On the theme of cooperation between industry and education he says that, ‘industry in the past has been too neglectful of education, and…the great problem for the future is to bring the world of education and the world of industry into more harmonious contact.’ Business and education both have a great deal to learn from each other, and closer contact and cooperation is essential. ‘It is a problem’, he says, ‘upon the right solution of which the prosperity of this country and of the Empire will very largely depend.’
The Medieval Empire, 1898.
Studies in Napoleonic Statesmanship, 1903.
The History of England, from the Accession of Henry VII to the Death of Henry VIII, 1485-1547, 1906.
The Republican Tradition in Europe, 1911.
Studies in History and Politics, 1920.
The Common Weal, 1924.
Paul Vinogradoff: A Memoir, 1928.
Our New Religion, 1929.
A History of Europe, 1935.
An Unfinished Autobiography, 1940.
Morgan, K.O., Consensus and Disunity: The Lloyd George Coalition Government, 1918-1922, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979.
Murray, G., ‘Herbert Albert Laurens Fisher, 1865-1940’, Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society 3 (10:, pp. 518-26, 1941.
Ryan, A., ‘Fisher, Herbert Albert Laurens’, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
‘Education and industrial efficiency’, 29 September 1927, Balliol College
‘Education’, 28 September 1930, Balliol College