William Edward Forster

(11 July 1818 – 5 April 1886)

Born to Quaker parents in Dorset, Forster was a textile industrialist and radical Liberal Party politician.

Forster was a passionate social reformer and an active member of the Anti-Slavery Society. Forster was the liberal MP for Bradford for 25 years from 1865 to his death. He is responsible for taking the 1870 Education act through parliament. This provided the framework for schooling of all children between the ages of 5 and 12 in England and Wales and is regarded as the major achievement of his career.

Forster’s next important work was in passing the Ballot Act 1872 which meant parliamentary and local government elections in the United Kingdom had to be held by secret ballot.

In 1865 Forster was made Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies. In this role he was strongly critical of the brutal suppression of the Morant Bay uprising in Jamaica. It was then that he first became a prominent advocate of an Imperial Federation which was proposed as a fairer and more representative system to replace the British empire and its colonies and an answer to the question of home rule for Ireland.

In 1880 Forster became chief secretary for Ireland and as a strong opponent of Irish Home Rule, he introduced a bill allowing the government to arrest without trial. For this he was criticised by Irish MPs, his life was threatened and he was nicknamed “Buckshot” by the Nationalists.

Forster remained a critic of Irish and colonial policy and died on the eve of the introduction of the First Home Rule Bill, which he opposed.

The Forster Statue

Forster Court, Bradford 1, Grade II listed, Bronze, Sculptor- J Harvard
The statue depicts Forster as an orator, standing to give an address

After Forster died in whilst still serving as an M.P for Bradford, it was decided that a statue should be placed in the town to honour all the work he did for the district. The cost was raised by public subscriptions. The statue was unveiled by the Marquis of Ripon in 1890 and the occasion was marked by a procession led by the Black Dyke Mills Band to Forster Square where a crowd of over 10,000 watched the unveiling.

Forster’s statue was moved to a different positon in Forster square in 1967 as part of the redevelopment of the City Centre and removed from Forster Square in 2004 to make space for the building of the Broadway Shopping Centre. After the shopping centre was completed in 2015 the statue was erected outside an entrance. This new position caused some controversy with local people as they felt his statue being positioned in a small space facing a shopping mall entrance did not give proper credit to this pre-eminent Bradford worthy.

There is a second bronze statue of Forster in London, Embankment Gardens with the inscription
“To his wisdom and courage England owes the establishment throughout the land of a national system of elementary education.

Forster Today

WE Forster is seen today as perhaps Bradford’s most celebrated worthy; a school, a railway station and a retail park as well as an area called Forster Square are named after him. He is remembered primarily for the introduction of 1870 education act and the benefits this brought particularly to poor children.

He is remembered in Irish history and the folk song ‘Monto’ as a villain in his repressive, authoritarian approach to protesters seeking home rule for Ireland and greater rights for tenant farmers.

WE Forster was a staunch abolitionist, spoke out against the evils of racism as early as 1865. He looked for a fairer answer to the failing colonial system. However, he strongly believed in the imperial model. And showed a paternalistic approach in his view that black tribal groups in South Africa should be protected by the British forces in the Boer War rather than considering that these ‘native’ people be freed from colonial rule to run their own country.