Frederick Lawrence, the son of Alfred Lawrence, the owner of a building company, was born in London on 28th December 1871. His wealthy parents were Unitarians and members of the Liberal Party. Frederick was educated at Eton (1985-1891) and one of his teachers wrote: "He is certainly a real good sterling lad full of every manly quality. Wherever he goes he will do honour to himself and to all who who are for him among whom I reckon myself one of the first."
Lawrence also did well at Trinity College. After three years studying maths, he stayed on for a further three to read natural sciences. Eventually he achieved a Double First and became President of the Union. According to Fran Abrams: "In 1897 he was made a fellow of his college and seemed set for an academic career. But other influences were already at work. Fred's political consciousness was being honed through the contacts he was making at Cambridge." This included Alfred Marshall, who argued that the knowledge of economics should be applied to help the poor. While studying to become a lawyer, Lawrence gave free legal advice at the Nonconformist settlement Mansfield House in the slums of East London. He also worked with Charles Booth collecting information on poverty in the area (Life and Labour of the People, Volume IX).
Lawrence was called to the bar by the Inner Temple in 1899. The death of his elder brother in 1900 made him wealthy, and in the following year he was selected as the Liberal Party candidate for North Lambeth. While working with the poor Frederick Lawrence met the social worker, Emmeline Pethick. The couple fell in love but Emmeline refused to marry Frederick because he did not share her socialist beliefs. It was not until 1901, when Frederick had been converted to socialism, that Emmeline agreed to marry him. On marriage, he added his wife's name to his own and joined the Labour Party.
Soon after her marriage Emmeline thought she was pregnant. Frederick wrote that the birth "will make us both extra happy". He added: "Isn't it splendid dear. My heart just singing and singing and won't keep quiet." However, Emmeline suffered a miscarriage and received news that she could not have children. Frederick wrote to her: "I am to you a splendid husband and you to me a splendid wife and it is enough!"
Pethick-Lawrence became a close friend of James Keir Hardie. He later commented: "He was, in fact, the exact opposite of the uncouth and unpractical iconoclast, which those whose privileges he threatened painted him. He was the most sensitive person I have ever known in my life, and if he was unconventional it was because he had to be, in order to achieve his purpose."
In 1901 Frederick Pethick-Lawrence became the owner of The Echo, a left-wing evening newspaper. He recruited friends from the socialist movement such as Ramsay MacDonald and H. N. Brailsford to write for the newspaper. Frederick also published and edited the monthly, Labour Record and Review (1905-07). Emmeline later argued: "His outstanding qualities of intellect, balanced judgment and practical administration in business and finance became the rock upon which I have built, since then, the structure of my life."
In 1906 James Keir Hardie introduced Frederick and Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence to Emmeline Pankhurst. As a result Emmeline joined the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). The organisation did not allow men to become members but Frederick used his legal training to represent the WSPU in court. He later stated that he did this to prevent a "sex war". According to his biographer, Brian Harrison: "He provided much needed level-headed financial, organizational, and legal expertise, and published extensively for the cause. Already in 1906 he was supporting suffragettes in the law courts, guiding them in self-defence, and standing bail for more than 100 of them." Pethick-Lawrence also pledged £1,000 a year to the WSPU.
In 1907 Frederick and Emmeline started the journal Votes for Women. Between 1908 and 1909 the circulation of the newspaper to 30,000. The Pethick-Lawrence's large home in London became the office of the WSPU. It was also used as a kind of hospital where women made ill by their prison experiences could recover their strength before embarking on further militant acts. Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence served six terms of imprisonment for her political activities during this period.
In 1912 the WSPU organised a new campaign that involved the large-scale smashing of shop-windows. Frederick and Emmeline both disagreed with this strategy but Christabel Pankhurst ignored their objections. As soon as this wholesale smashing of shop windows began, the government ordered the arrest of the leaders of the WSPU. Christabel escaped to France but Frederick and Emmeline were arrested, tried and sentenced to nine months imprisonment. They were also successfully sued for the cost of the damage caused by the WSPU.
They both went on hunger strike and had to face the full rigours of forcible feeding twice a day for several days. He later recalled the experience in his memoirs, Fate Has Been Kind (1943): "The head doctor, a most sensitive man, was visibly distressed by what he had to do. It certainly was an unpleasant and painful process and a sufficient number of warders had to be called in to prevent my moving while a rubber tube was pushed up my nostril and down into my throat and liquid was poured through it into my stomach. Twice a day thereafter one of the doctors fed me in this way. I was not allowed to leave my cell in the hospital and for the most part I had to stay in bed. There was nothing to do but to read; and the days were very long and went very slowly."
Christabel Pankhurst later recorded: "Mother and Mr. and Mrs. Pethick Lawrence went on hunger-strike. The Government retaliated by forcible feeding. This was actually carried out in the case of Mr. and Mrs. Pethick-Lawrence. The doctors and wardresses came to Mother's cell armed with forcible-feeding apparatus. Forewarned by the cries of Mrs. Pethick-Lawrence Mother received them with all her majestic indignation. They fell back and left her. Neither then nor at any time in her log and dreadful conflict with the government was she forcibly fed."
After Frederick and Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence were released from prison they began to speak openly about the possibility that this window-smashing campaign would lose support for the WSPU. At a meeting in France, Christabel told Emmeline and Frederick about the proposed arson campaign. When Emmeline and Frederick objected, Christabel arranged for them to be expelled from the the organisation. As Brian Harrison has pointed out: "The Pethick-Lawrences, concealing their private bitterness at how they had been treated, continued to edit Votes for Women, gathered the Votes for Women Fellowship around it, and in 1914 eventually merged it with the United Suffragists, a bridge-building body aiming to draw together suffragists of both sexes, and to unite militants with non-militants."
Fran Abrams the author of Freedom's Cause: Lives of the Suffragettes (2003) wrote: "Even the split with the WSPU did not end of this agony - the Pethick-Lawrences were still facing bankruptcy proceedings. An auction of their belongings was held at The Mascot, but raised only £300 towards their £1,100 court costs even though many friends arrived to buy personal possessions and give them back to the couple. Even the auctioneer returned to them a trinket he had bought as a keepsake. The rest of the costs were later taken from Fred's estate, plus a further £5,000 for repairs to shop windows damaged in the raids. Fortunately he had deep pockets and did not have to sell his home."
At the end of July, 1914, it became clear to the British government that the country was on the verge of war with Germany. Four senior members of the government, David Lloyd George (Chancellor of the Exchequer), Charles Trevelyan (Parliamentary Secretary of the Board of Education), John Burns (President of the Local Government Board) and John Morley (Secretary of State for India), were opposed to the country becoming involved in a European war. They informed the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, that they intended to resign over the issue. When war was declared on 4th August, three of the men, Trevelyan, Burns and Morley, resigned, but Asquith managed to persuade Lloyd George, his Chancellor of the Exchequer, to change his mind.
The day after war was declared, Charles Trevelyan began contacting friends about a new political organisation he intended to form to oppose the war. This included two pacifist members of the Liberal Party, Norman Angell and E. D. Morel, and Ramsay MacDonald, the leader of the Labour Party. A meeting was held and after considering names such as the Peoples' Emancipation Committee and the Peoples' Freedom League, they selected the Union of Democratic Control (UDC).
Pethick-Lawrence was also opposed to Britain's involvement in the First World War and joined the UDC. He later recalled: "I joined the Union of Democratic Control and became its treasurer. As its name implies, it was founded to insist that foreign policy should in future, equally with home policy, be subject to the popular will. The intention was that no commitments should be entered into without the peoples being fully informed and their approval obtained. By a natural transition, the objects of the Union came to include the formation of terms of a durable settlement, on the basis of which the war might be brought an an end."
Other members of the UDC included Arthur Ponsonby, J. A. Hobson, Charles Buxton, Norman Angell, Arnold Rowntree, Philip Morrel, Morgan Philips Price, George Cadbury, Helena Swanwick, Fred Jowett, Ramsay, Tom Johnston, Philip Snowden, Arthur Henderson, David Kirkwood, William Anderson, Isabella Ford, H. H. Brailsford, Israel Zangwill, Bertrand Russell, Margaret Llewelyn Davies, Konni Zilliacus, Margaret Sackville and Morgan Philips Price.Over the next couple of years the UDC became the leading anti-war organisation in Britain.
Pethick-Lawrence was treasurer of the Union of Democratic Control(UDC) and in the spring of 1917 was chosen as the organisation's candidate in the South Aberdeen by-election. Pethick-Lawrence obtained only 333 votes whereas the government representative won with 3,283 votes. Although he was forty-six years old, the government attempted to conscript Pethick-Lawrence in 1917. He refused but instead of being imprisoned he was assigned to a farm in Sussex until the end of the war.
In the 1923 General Election Pethick-Lawrence won the Leicester seat for the Labour Party. He had the satisfaction of beating his old political opponent, Winston Churchill. Although an expert on economics, Pethick-Lawrence was a poor orator and he failed to shine in debates in the House of Commons. As a result, he was not given a post in the 1924 Labour Government.
After the Labour Party victory in the 1929 General Election, Ramsay MacDonald appointed Pethick-Lawrence as Financial Secretary under Philip Snowden. Pethick-Lawrence disagreed with Snowden's decision to cut public spending and in 1931 resigned from the government. Like most Labour MPs who opposed MacDonald's National Government, Pethick-Lawrence lost his seat in the 1931 General Election.
In 1931 G.D.H. Cole created the Society for Socialist Inquiry and Propaganda (SSIP). This was later renamed the Socialist League. Pethick-Lawrence joined the organisation and other members included William Mellor, Charles Trevelyan, Stafford Cripps, H. N. Brailsford, D. N. Pritt, R. H. Tawney, Frank Wise, David Kirkwood, Clement Attlee, Neil Maclean, Frederick Pethick-Lawrence, Alfred Salter, Jennie Lee, Gilbert Mitchison, Harold Laski, Frank Horrabin, Ellen Wilkinson, Aneurin Bevan, Ernest Bevin, Arthur Pugh, Michael Foot and Barbara Betts. Margaret Cole admitted that they got some of the members from the Guild Socialism movement: "Douglas and I recruited personally its first list drawing upon comrades from all stages of our political lives." The first pamphlet published by the SSIP was The Crisis (1931) was written by Cole and Bevin.
According to Ben Pimlott, the author of Labour and the Left (1977): "The Socialist League... set up branches, undertook to promote and carry out research, propaganda and discussion, issue pamphlets, reports and books, and organise conferences, meetings, lectures and schools. To this extent it was strongly in the Fabian tradition, and it worked in close conjunction with Cole's other group, the New Fabian Research Bureau." The main objective was to persuade a future Labour government to implement socialist policies.
Pethick-Lawrence concern at the emergence of Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany resulted in rejecting pacifism in favour of collective security through the League of Nations. As Labour candidate for Edinburgh East at the General Election of 1935 he won 43 per cent of the votes cast in a three-cornered contest. On his arrival in the House of Commons he immediately attacked the Hoare–Laval pact.
Pethick-Lawrence won his seat in the 1945 General Election and the new British prime minister, Clement Attlee, appointed him as Secretary of State for India. Along with Stafford Cripps, Pethick-Lawrence was involved in the negotiations that took place in India during 1947. When Indian Independence was achieved, Pethick-Lawrence served as chairman of the East and West Friendship Council.
According to his biographer, Brian Harrison: "His mind combined opposites: on the one hand rationalistic and in many respects radical, he was at the same time highly sentimental (especially in religion and personal relations) and also traditionalist - proud of British institutions, eager to keep up with old friends, and an enthusiast for commemorating anniversaries. His mathematical mind might have led him to take black and white views in politics, and yet he was a lifelong enthusiast for compromise and for the British institutions which encouraged it."
Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence remained active in politics until 1950 when she had a serious accident that left her immobilized. Frederick looked after Emmeline until she died of a heart attack at her home at Gomshall, Surrey, on 11th March 1954. He wrote to a friend: "I feel a bit dazed. It is as though I was at a violin concerto with the violinist absent."
Pethick-Lawrence married Helen Craggs, a former leading figure in the WSPU, in February 1957. He wrote to a friend, that Emmeline had told him the greatest compliment a man could pay to his dead wife was to marry again, "so I feel I have her blessing in advance".
Frederick Pethick-Lawrence died on 10th September, 1961.