Anson, Sir William Reynell, third baronet 1843-1914, warden of All Souls College, Oxford, was born at Walberton, Sussex, 14 November 1843, the eldest son of Sir John William Hamilton Anson, second baronet, by his wife, Elizabeth, daughter of Major-General Sir Denis Pack [qv.]. After three years at a private school at Brighton he went to Eton in 1857, becoming there after a time the pupil of Edmond Warre [qv.], afterwards head master. From Eton he passed in 1862 to Balliol College, Oxford, and after taking first classes in classical moderations and the final classical school he was elected to a fellowship at All Souls College in 1867, an event which was to determine his subsequent career. For a few years after this he read for the bar and practised on the home circuit; but in 1874, within a year of succeeding to the baronetcy, he returned to Oxford as Vinerian reader in English law. In 1881 he was elected warden of his college, the first layman to hold that office.
Anson's election occurred at a difficult moment in the history of All Souls. The Statutory Commission of 1877 had recently introduced far-reaching reforms in the tenure of fellowships and the disposal of college revenues, and it seemed doubtful how far the historic continuity of All Souls could be retained. For Anson the duty of his college was clear; it lay in the loyal acceptance of the new order, combined with the preservation of what was permanently valuable in the spirit of the old. He believed, and he set himself as warden to prove, in words which he had used himself in speaking of his friend and colleague, John Andrew Doyle [qv.], that there was room for a college of an exceptional type, devoting itself through its professoriate and its library to university purposes, encouraging advanced study by the endowment of research, securing through a system of prize fellowships the continued interest in academic life of men engaged in public work, and yet retaining its old character as a collegiate society. His own temperament, which was cautious without being obstructive, made him admirably qualified to be the leader of such a policy. How well he succeeded in it can be fully appreciated only by the members of the college that he guided so wisely during the thirty-three years of his wardenship.
It was characteristic of Anson that he at once recognized that the exceptional opportunities attaching to the headship of All Souls laid peculiar obligations upon him. He possessed just the qualities necessary to give him a commanding position in university affairs. A man of real learning, he was also a man of affairs, with a wide knowledge of the world outside Oxford; holding strong opinions himself, he was invariably courteous and tactful in expressing them, and patient of those who honestly differed from him; precise and orderly in his habits of mind, he was completely free from pedantry. For the first eighteen years of his wardenship he was a resident in Oxford, a frequent speaker in congregation and convocation, an active member of numerous boards and delegacies, a sincere, if cautious, friend of university reform. In addition to the multifarious duties of his office he voluntarily undertook from 1886 to 1898 the tuition, in law, of undergraduates of Trinity College. It was also during these busy years that he produced the works of legal literature which are his chief claim to public remembrance; he published The Principles of the English Law of Contract in 1879; part I of The Law and Custom of the Constitution in 1886; and part II of the same work in 1892.
In 1898 Anson became vice-chancellor of the university, but he held the office for six months only; for in April 1899 a vacancy occurred in the parliamentary representation of the university, and his friends urged him to come forward in the unionist interest. He had already made one unsuccessful attempt to enter parliament, as liberal candidate for West Staffordshire in 1880; but even at that time his liberalism had been rather that of Lord Hartington and Mr. Goschen than that of Mr. Gladstone, and in 1886 he had been one of the minority who seceded from their party on the question of Home Rule. Anson had abandoned his political ambitions, though not his keen interest in contemporary politics; and he saw that at the age of fifty-four a political career of the first rank was hardly open to him. He was elected without opposition, and continued to represent the university in parliament until his death. He proved himself an ideal university member, and was moreover admirably equipped, by his researches into the history of parties and by his unrivalled knowledge of the working of the constitution, to play a useful part in the counsels of his party; but he lacked some of the qualities necessary to the successful party leader. His voice was somewhat weak for public speaking; his physique had never been robust; his political opinions, though strong, were never extreme. Certainly his best parliamentary work was done on subjects that fall more especially within the province of a university burgess rather than on general political questions; and on the former, as the House soon recognized, he spoke with authority.
In the summer of 1902 Anson was appointed parliamentary secretary to the Board of Education, a position which at once brought him into the forefront of the controversy aroused by Mr. Balfour's Education Bill of that year. In retrospect it is now generally admitted that this Bill laid well and truly a foundation for the subsequent development of public elementary education; but at the time certain proposals in it, particularly those for giving rate-aid to the voluntary schools, were bitterly resented by a large number of nonconformists in the country, and were opposed with all the arts of parliamentary obstruction by a section of the opposition in the House. The controversy was discreditable to the extreme partisans on both sides, who displayed a narrow sectarian rancour in which the real interests both of religion and of education seemed to be forgotten. Anson, though he enjoyed the administrative work of his office and entered with zest into the parliamentary struggle, could not be altogether happy in such an atmosphere. Moreover his office was a subordinate one without a seat in the Cabinet; and the policy for which he was responsible in the House of Commons was not in all respects what he would have framed himself; indeed the Bill was already in committee when he took office. In the following year his principal business was the London Education Bill, with which also he was far from satisfied. He remained at the Board of Education until the resignation of the Balfour ministry in 1905, engaged mainly in the work of administrative reorganization entailed by the new Acts, and in the ungrateful task of dealing with the passive resistance movement which followed the attempts to enforce the Act of 1902 in some parts of the country. By the time he left office he had rendered services of great value to the country and to his party, for which, by an oversight of the party leaders, resented more by his friends than by himself, he received no public recognition; and it was not till 1911 that he received the belated honour of a privy councillorship at the coronation of King George V.
During the remainder of Anson's life his party was in opposition. He took a prominent part in the debates on the abortive liberal Education Bills of 1906-1908; but after that his interventions became rarer. He was, however, in full sympathy with his party in the bitter constitutional struggle that arose out of Mr. Lloyd George's Finance Bill of 1909; he lent the support of his authority as a constitutional lawyer to the action of the House of Lords in rejecting the Bill; and he deeply resented what he regarded as the mutilation of the constitution by the passing of the Parliament Act of 1911, and the policy of Mr. Asquith's government in forcing their Home Rule Bill through parliament under the powers obtained under that Act. He died at Oxford after a short illness 4 June 1914. He never married.
Anson found time for many forms of public service outside the academic and the political fields. He was chancellor of the diocese of Oxford (1899-1912), chairman of the Oxfordshire Quarter Sessions (1894-1914), a trustee of the British Museum, and of the National Portrait Gallery, a bencher of the Inner Temple, fellow of Eton College, and chairman of the council of Oxford House in Bethnal Green. But a mere recital of his activities gives a very imperfect idea of his personality; a churchman, a scholar, a lawyer, a politician, he was above all a friend; his courtesy and sympathy made young and old feel at home in his company; his humour left no sting except when it was pointed at what seemed to him low or mean; his generosity, often exercised anonymously, seemed to have no limits.
In his Principles of the English Law of Contract Anson set himself to delineate the general principles which govern the contractual relation from its beginning to its end. He asked and answered with admirable lucidity just those questions that an intelligent student would ask about the subject. The book possesses two eminent merits: it directs the student's attention to general principles, avoiding doubtful or exceptional rules and the peculiarities of the special contracts; and it teaches him method. It has remained the indispensable introductory text-book on the subject. Sixteen editions have been published in this country, it has been translated into German, and an American edition has been widely used. But the book is also memorable because it heralded a new conception of legal education. The scientific study of English law dates practically from the latter half of the nineteenth century; when Anson began to lecture on it, he was the only teacher of English law in Oxford; and, in spite of Blackstone's example, almost all books on English law were then written with a professional and not an educational, purpose. Anson himself was one of a band of pioneers who by their own personal teaching and by their admirable text-books dealt a mortal blow to the superstition that English law cannot be taught; and to help in ending the centuries-old divorce between English law and the English universities was no slight service to both. His Law and Custom of the Constitution has the same merits of orderly arrangement and perfectly lucid expression, but its aim is different. It is not primarily a book for the beginner, but a full and accurate description of the constitution from a special point of view carefully chosen and continuously adhered to by the author. The two parts of the work deal respectively with Parliament and The Crown; in each his attitude is that of a scientific inquirer investigating and demonstrating the anatomy of a highly complex organism; yet he never allows the reader to forget that what he is examining is not a piece of dead mechanism, but a living body with a history of past development and a future of which the trend can sometimes be dimly forecast. It was the actual working of the constitution in the present that he had set himself to describe, and he strictly subordinated to this its other aspects; yet he well knew that it is only for purposes of analysis and exposition that the law and the history of the constitution can be dissociated. No other writer on the constitution has chosen to observe it from exactly the angle chosen by Anson; and his work has therefore a distinctive object and method, which, together with its admirably thorough execution, ensure it a place in the permanent literature of the English constitution. Five editions of it have appeared. Besides his legal works, Anson published in 1898 the Autobiography and Political Correspondence of Augustus Henry, 3rd Duke of Grafton.
Anson's portrait, painted by Sir H. von Herkomer in 1895, hangs in the hall of All Souls, and a recumbent effigy by John Tweed has been placed in the college chapel.
A Memoir of Sir William Anson, edited by H. H. Henson, 1920
The Times, 5 and 6 June 1914
Contributor: J. L. B. [James Leslie Brierly]