Pethick-Lawrence, Frederick William

Frederick William Pethick-Lawrence
Frederick William Pethick-Lawrence

Frederick William Pethick-Lawrence (December 28, 1871-September 10, 1961), suffragist and Labour  politician, was a member of the British Cabinet following World War II who worked to prepare for the independence of India.

Frederick was born into a wealthy family of London Unitarians, who were major house builders at the time of the capital’s great expansion. His grandfather William Lawrence, founder of the business and an alderman and Sheriff of London, was the first committed Unitarian in the family. Because Frederick’s father Alfred died when he was three, his uncles, all baronets and Members of Parliament—Sir William, Sir James and Sir Edwin—dominated his early life. William and James served as Lord Mayors of London. All were active, generous, and prominent Unitarians who supported, in particular, the work of Robert Spears. Frederick’s mother, Mary, was the granddaughter of the prominent Unitarian minister Robert Aspland.

After boarding at Wixenford, a prep school in Wokingham, Frederick attended Eton College, 1895-91. His uncle Edwin registered him at Eton as a Unitarian. He won every prize there and at Trinity College, Cambridge where he studied mathematics and natural sciences, graduated with firsts, became President of the University Union, played billiards for the university, and in 1897 was appointed a College Fellow. He did not take up the fellowship, but instead went on a world tour.

In the 1890s, while developing his skill in mathematics and economics, Frederick gained a social conscience and worked for the poor and disadvantaged in East London. He became a barrister in 1899 but practised only when necessary, for by 1900 the deaths of his elder brother and two of his uncles had made him wealthy. This gave him an independence that helped him carry forward his subsequent career.

In 1901 Frederick married Emmeline Pethick (1867-1954), a philanthropist and social worker who had helped organize the Espérance Working Girls Club. They had no children. This union was celebrated both for its romance and for the independence retained by the partners within marriage. Frederick and Emmeline each adopted the name Pethick-Lawrence. Under Emmeline’s influence, Frederick, initially a supporter of the Liberal Party, gradually moved left in politics.

The Pethick-Lawrences became powerhouses for reform in the poorer areas of London, working to better conditions for Chinese labour and to increase representation for the working-class in Parliament. From 1907 they both worked with Christabel Pankhurst in the Woman’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), seeking votes for women. Pankhurst and the Pethick-Lawrences were the Union’s directing force. Emmeline was the treasurer. Pankhurst called Frederick their ‘godfather’. He represented suffragettes in the law courts and used his money to stand bail for many of them. In 1907 the three founded the seminal periodical Votes for Women, which supported extreme agitation. The Pethick-Lawrence home was used as a hospital for suffragists recovering from their prison experiences. Emmeline was imprisoned six times between 1906 and 1912. During her 1909 imprisonment, Frederick was made the Union’s joint treasurer. His presence in the inner circles of the WSPU helped make suffrage seem less a conflict between women and men.

In 1912, convicted of conspiring to incite Union members to smash shop-windows, the Pethick-Lawrences were sent to prison for nine months. When they went on a hunger strike, Frederick had to be force-fed. Public outcry led to their release after five weeks. They were assessed the costs of the trial. When Pethick-Lawrence refused to pay, he was, for a brief time, declared bankrupt.

During his incarceration Frederick was visited by Fred Hankinson (1875-1960), a Unitarian minister who made the rounds of suffragettes in prison. This led to a life-long friendship. Hankinson became Pethick-Lawrence’s source of contact with Unitarianism in later years. The imprisonment also led to a reconciliation with Frederick’s last living uncle Sir Edwin, a father figure in his youth. Although Sir Edwin greatly disagreed with his nephew’s stand, he visited him in prison and gave him moral support.

Not long after their release from prison, the WSPU became even more militant than before. The Pethick-Lawrences, no longer in accord with the Union’s current arson strategy, were expelled. Building upon their base as editors of Votes for Women, they organized a new suffragist group, the Votes for Women Fellowship, which in 1914 became the moderate, but still militant, United Suffragists.

During World War I Pethick-Lawrence opposed imperialism in most forms and pressed for an early peace. He stood for Parliament in 1917 on a peace ticket but was roundly defeated. In 1918, at 46, Fredrick was conscripted into war service as a conscientious objector. ‘I came to the conclusion that I could not very well refuse to help to grow food for the nation,’ he wrote. ‘I got a job as a labourer at a wage of 27/6 a week on a farm found for me by my friend Hankinson.’
He intended to stand for peace again in 1918 but, because he was known as a conscientious objector, he had to withdraw.

Following the war Pethick-Lawrence wrote the first of his books on economic policy, A Levy on Capital (1918) and Why Prices Rise and Fall (1920). This gave him a solid entry into party politics. In 1923 he was elected to Parliament at West Leicester, defeating Winston Churchill. Pethick-Lawrence represented this constituency until 1931. He served as Financial Secretary to the Treasury in the second Labour government, 1929-31, but resigned when Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald formed a National Government and cut unemployment benefits.

Following his defeat in the 1931 general election, Pethick-Lawrence resumed his worldwide travels. In 1932 he, like many socialists, found ‘much to admire’ in the U.S.S.R. Because of the rise of fascism he abandoned pacifism and began to place his hopes for peace in the League of Nations. Re-elected to Parliament, for Edinburgh East, in 1935, he became the Labour Party’s principal speaker on financial affairs. An early supporter of Keynesian economics, he recommended that the government abandon the balanced budget during the depression in order to stimulate the economy.

In 1940, under Churchill’s National Government, Pethick-Lawrence served as unofficial deputy leader of the opposition and, for a short time, leader. With the return of a Labour Government in 1945 independence for India was a top priority. As a Labour MP in the 1920s Pethick-Lawrence had championed Indian self-government and rights. He served as Secretary of State for India, 1945-47, with a seat in the Cabinet. In 1946 he led a cabinet mission to Delhi which helped to smooth the way for Indian independence.

In 1945 he was made Baron Pethick-Lawrence, a member of the House of Lords. He spoke there regularly on national finance issues. He opposed the Suez invasion in 1956. A Labour radical of the older variety, he displayed remarkable energy until his death. He did not accept the divisions associated with class or money and tried to feel at home with whomever he met. He was seen by many as eccentric and old-fashioned in his views. In part because of deficiencies in his oratorical style, he did not rise as high as his abilities might have suggested.

Pethick-Lawrence’s childhood Unitarianism formed part of his life philosophy. ‘Each one of us is a composite fragment of the Great Life. Within ourselves are diverse and divergent passions,’ he wrote in his autobiography. ‘Some of these are part of our ancestral heritage, some are derived from our environment and early and forgotten childhood, others are the result of more recent and remembered experiences . . . it is part of our education to learn to harmonise these warring elements within ourselves and to integrate our personality. This is no easy task.’

For a few years while at Cambridge, he had financed and edited the Christian Freeman, a Unitarian popular monthly newspaper founded by Spears. Although he did not belong to any specific Unitarian church after the 1890s, he was associated with the broader movement. In 1900-01 he was Dunkin Lecturer on economics at Manchester College, Oxford, the theological college for Unitarian ministers. Over the years he intermittently gave legal advice to Unitarian organisations and trusts, and kept family tradition alive by subscribing to Unitarian charities.

‘My family,’ wrote Pethick-Lawrence, ‘being Unitarians, had made contact with the Brahma-Samaj movement in India.’ Until 1923 he had provided a regular letter for Annie Besant’s journal New India. He sympathized with theosophy and melded Hinduism into his own theology. In his autobiography he wrote, ‘According to the wisdom of the East, cause and consequence form the basis of the whole spiritual and natural world and Karma is the working out of this fundamental law in the infinite vicissitudes of life. The central doctrine of the Christian faith is the Forgiveness of sins. To many it seems that these two doctrines are mutually exclusive and that they have to make their choice between them. But I do not see it that way; for I do not regard Karma as a punishment, nor Forgiveness of sins as an escape from consequences.’


There are Pethick-Lawrence papers and correspondence in the British Library, Trinity College Cambridge and the Bodleian Library Oxford. Among Pethick-Lawrence’s writings, not mentioned above are Unemployment (1922), The National Debt (1924), National Finance (1929), and The Gold Crisis (1931). He is one of the authors gathered in Mahatma Gandhi, Father of Modern India (1986). His autobiography Fate has been Kind (1943) is most useful, less so is Vera Brittain’s Pethick-Lawrence: A Portrait (1963). For background on the Lawrence family, see A. Gordon, The Lawrences of Cornwall Family History (1915, there is a copy in Dr Williams’s Library, London) and on their Unitarian background, A Ruston, ‘The Lawrence family: 19th century Unitarian Forsytes?’, Transactions of the Unitarian Historical Society (1992). Sir Brian Harrison has written a superb entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004)

Article by Alan Ruston
Posted May 6, 2007