Thomas Henry, 1st Baron Farrer (1819-1899)

Secretary to the Board of Trade, Alderman of London County Council and Liberal Intellectual

Thomas Henry Farrer, 1st Baron Farrer by Lombardi & Co, albumen cabinet card, 1892 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Thomas Henry Farrer, 1st Baron Farrer by Lombardi & Co, albumen cabinet card, 1892
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Thomas Henry Farrer, ‘one of the pillars of mid-Victorian civil service’ (‘Oxford Dictionary of National Biography’), followed a long career as a public servant, at the Board of Trade (1850-1886), and subsequently as an alderman of the newly formed London County Council, from which he retired as chairman in 1890. At his death memorialised as both ‘one of the most distinguished British authorities on trade and finance’ (‘New York Herald‘), and as ‘the free trade controversialist’ (‘Commercial New York‘, SHC ref 9792/box 6), Farrer thrived amongst the most important politicians and thinkers of his age.

Known as ‘Theta’ by many of his family and close friends (after the Greek letter for his initials), Farrer’s childhood had been marked by the early death of his father Thomas in 1833, which left the family in difficult financial circumstances, struggling to support the children through an education ‘as good & liberal as possible’. Thomas Henry ‘always liked intellectual society’, and at Oxford University moved away from the ‘rather narrow evangelism in which we were brought up’, influenced by his reading of German literature and by his Liberal political and religious free-thinking Bailliol College friends including Arthur Penrhyn Stanley (dean of Westminster), Sir Benjamin Collins Brodie and the Rev Hugh Pearson (memoir by his sister Mary Hobhouse, SHC ref 9792/box 6). Emerging as a convinced Liberal intellectual, he would remain forever strongly attached to the classical Liberal principles of individual freedom and free trade.

After a legal training in the Farrer family tradition, he settled as a civil servant at the Board of Trade, which he described as ‘a sort of waste paper basket into which matters are thrown which are not wanted elsewhere, [which] is perhaps from its multifariousness one of the most interesting of the offices’ (SHC ref 9792/box10), which brought him into contact with men eminent in many fields of knowledge, and affirmed his close bonds with his university peers including his brothers in law Sir Stafford Northcote and Sir Arthur Hobhouse, and political friends such as William Ewart Gladstone, A J Mundella, Joseph Chamberlain, Granville Leveson-Gower, 2nd Earl Granville, Archibald Primrose, 5th Lord Rosebery, 1st Earl of Midlothian, and Robert Lowe, 1st Viscount Sherbrooke. Over his years of service, he is said to have played an important role in the development of commercial law. The Board expanded during his tenure from 48 staff in 1850 to 362 in 1886.

Thomas Henry married Fanny Erskine in 1853, and their children Ida, Thomas Cecil, Claude and Noel were born between 1854 and 1867. Abinger Hall in rural Surrey was purchased at the end of 1869 as a country home suitable for Fanny’s poor health. Although he seems initially to have envisaged remodelling of the mid 18th century house, it was soon decided that it was unsuited to his requirements, and Alfred Waterhouse was engaged to design a completely new structure in an altered position, with extensive views across the Tillingbourne Valley and the Greensand Hills. The noted architect (of among others Manchester Town Hall and the Natural History Museum, London) would later comment ‘I never had a pleasanter piece of work than Abinger Hall’ (SHC ref 9609/4/1/57). Sadly Fanny had died before the newly built house there was completed in 1872.

Thomas Henry re-married, to Katherine Euphemia Wedgwood known as Effie (of the eminent pottery family), in 1873. Abinger Hall became famed for its congeniality among the Farrers’ social circle, a remarkable company, including friends and relatives such as the Wedgwoods and Darwins, politicians, scientists and artists. In August 1877, the Darwins visited Thomas Henry and Effie at Abinger Hall and in November 1877 Thomas Henry and Effie visited the Dawins’ home at Downe, Kent. Read more about this in the Surrey History Centre Marvel: A visit to Mr Darwin. The archive of Theta’s in-correspondence (SHC ref 9609 and SHC ref 9792) is illustrative of his widely engaged and influential life: alongside family and social matters, key issues of Victorian politics and thought are addressed, in particular the highly divisive Irish Home Rule question and free trade.

Latterly Farrer published quite extensively on subjects associated with Victorian classical Liberal causes, including contract and labour law as well as trade (‘What shall we do with Foreign Brushes?’), also memoirs and reflections on his political contemporaries and friends (‘Mr Gladstone’, a fallen hero for his support for Home Rule). His intense enthusiasm for concerns such as currency and the gold standard even led to a long article discussing bimetallism in the curious local publication ‘Abinger Monthly Record’. Farrer’s library, including a full set of the works of the great political philosophers Voltaire and Rousseau, as well as the works of Darwin, is now held in the Special Collections of the University of Surrey Library.

‘Free Trade Farrer gobbles up de Worms’ Pall Mall Budget cartoon, 1889. SHC ref 9792-box10-part.

‘Free Trade Farrer gobbles up de Worms’ Pall Mall Budget cartoon, 1889. SHC ref 9792-box10-part.

By the end of his career, Farrer’s adherence to free trade principles brought him into conflict with colleagues on London County Council who wished to introduce social policies. His sister Cecilia Northcote would later affirm that ‘Mr Benn and others of his stamp’ on the Council (Sir John Benn, 1st Bart, of the Progressive Party) ‘ spoke of you with the greatest affection and respect..you are well beloved by many of these rougher men’ (SHC ref 9609/4/1/45); however, he chose to step down in 1890.

Having already been made a baronet in 1883, he was created 1st Baron Farrer in 1893. Farrer died in 1899, leaving the Abinger Hall Estate to his eldest son Thomas Cecil Farrer, 2nd Baron Farrer. Thomas Henry, 1st Baron Farrer is buried in Brookwood Cemetery.

Written by Isabel Sullivan

Further sources:

For Surrey History Centre catalogues relating to the Farrer family, see 2572, 9609, 9792, and 9793
For records relating to Thomas Henry Farrer at London School of Economics, see https://archiveshub.jisc.ac.uk/search/archives/2572a351-66d1-303b-a962-8f695478e04a
For the Wikipedia page on Thomas Henry Farrer see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Farrer,_1st_Baron_Farrer
For Farrer peerage and family details see http://www.thepeerage.com/p23403.htm

The T H Farrer Library is held at the University of Surrey https://www.surrey.ac.uk/library/archives-and-special-collections/our-collections. This rare books collection was the personal library of Thomas Henry Farrer (1819-1899), of Abinger Hall in Surrey, 1st Baron Farrer and permanent secretary to the Board of Trade. The collection is made up of over 2,000 volumes including a set of works by Charles Darwin (a personal friend of Farrer), full sets of Voltaire and Rousseau, historically important first editions, and texts dating as far back as the 1600s. Art, literature, history, travel, politics and science are all well-represented as was requisite in a well-rounded education of that era.

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