Bruce, Henry Austin, first Baron Aberdare 1815-1895, statesman, born at Duffryn, Aberdare, Glamorganshire, on 16 April 1815, was second son of John Bruce (1784-1872), by his first wife Sarah, daughter of Hugh Williams Austin, rector of St. Peter's, Barbados. Sir James Lewis Knight Bruce [qv.], lord-justice, was his father's younger brother. The name of his father's family was originally Knight. This his father exchanged, on coming of age in 1805, for that of Bruce, after his mother, Margaret, daughter of William Bruce, high sheriff of Glamorganshire. The Bruce family was Scottish, but an ancestor had come south and bought, in 1747, the Duffryn estate in Glamorganshire, where John Bruce long lived, and which ultimately became his property and descended to his son. The old house, which Lord Aberdare rebuilt in 1870-1871, dated from Edward II. Bishop Copleston, writing of a three days' visit to the father, John Bruce, at Duffryn in 1834, says that the domestic scene realised his ideal picture of a highland chief among his vassals, all looking up to him with affection and veneration. The wild mountain scenery gave a charm to the kind hospitality and hearty good humour which pervaded the whole family. A more interesting and affectionate one I have never seen, and am not likely again to see (Cardiff Times, October 1872). Some years later the father became very rich. It was in 1837 that he became full owner of the Duffryn estate on the death of a cousin, Frances Anne, eldest daughter of Thomas Pryce of Duffryn, and first wife of the Hon. William Booth Grey, son of George Harry Grey, fifth Earl of Stamford. Thereupon the father assumed the additional surname of Pryce, but his sons did not follow his example in this regard. At the same period the Aberdare valley, of which the Duffryn estate formed part, which had long been a wild region of small value to its possessors, became, through the discovery of great beds of coal, a centre of industry and a mine of wealth. A great part of this valuable property passed to Lord Aberdare.
At six years old Bruce was taken by his parents to St. Omer, and remained there till he was twelve, when he returned to Wales and attended the Swansea grammar school. There he imbibed a liking for Latin verse, which remained with him to the end. Instead of proceeding to Oxford or Cambridge, Bruce left school for the chambers of his uncle, James Lewis (afterwards lord-justice) Knight Bruce. He was called to the bar from Lincoln's Inn in 1837, when only two-and-twenty, and began practice. At the same date his father came into his fortune, and six years later, in 1843, Bruce retired from the bar. For reasons of health he spent the next two years in Italy and Sicily, greatly to his physical and mental advantage in after years. In 1845, on returning to England, he married Annabella, daughter of Richard Beadon and sister of Sir Cecil Beadon [qv.]. In 1847 he was appointed stipendiary magistrate for Merthyr Tydvil and Aberdare, a position which he held until he entered the House of Commons. That event took place in 1852, when he was returned in the liberal interest for Merthyr Tydvil. He showed from the first that he meant to take his parliamentary duties seriously. In the same year his first wife died, and he married secondly, in 1854, Nora Creina Blanche, younger daughter of Sir William Napier [qv.], the historian of the peninsular war. In 1855 he became one of the Dowlais trustees, a position of great local importance, which enabled him to do much service to the iron industry of South Wales and to increase his influence in his native district [see Clark, George Thomas, Suppl.].
After ten years of independent membership of the House of Commons, Bruce was appointed under-secretary of state for the home department in November 1862, in Lord Palmerston's ministry, and remained in that office till April 1864. Sir George Grey [qv.] was his chief, and he fully appreciated the advantage of beginning official life under one so sagacious and experienced. In April 1864 he became vice-president of the committee of council on education in the same administration, and was sworn a member of the privy council. In the same year he was appointed a charity commissioner for England and Wales, and held that office until the fall, in the summer of 1866, of Lord Russell's government, which had succeeded Palmerston's on that statesman's death in October 1865. At the end of 1865 and for some months of the next year he was also second church estates commissioner. In these various capacities he gained much credit, and was marked out for higher office. He published in 1866 an address to the Social Science Association upon national education, and a speech on the education of the poor bill in 1867. Meanwhile in 1862 he sat on a royal commission which inquired into the condition of mines, and in 1865 on another which was occupied with the Paris Exhibition.
At the general election of November 1868 Bruce was defeated in his old constituency of Merthyr Tydvil, but he quickly found a seat in Renfrewshire on 25 Jan. 1869, on the death of the sitting member. He had already accepted Gladstone's invitation to join his cabinet as home secretary. Gladstone congratulated himself upon having found a heaven-born home secretary. Bruce discharged his duties with the utmost conscientiousness, and although his acts were subjected to rigorous criticism, they passed well through the ordeal. His tenure of the home office was mainly identified with a reform of the licensing laws, in which he sought a via media between temperance fanatics and the irreconcilable champions of the brewing interest. In 1871 he introduced a measure which tended to reduce the number of public-houses and subjected them to stricter supervision than before. The brewers and publicans raised an outcry which led to the withdrawal of the bill, but in the next session of 1872 Bruce brought it forward in a somewhat modified form, and it passed into law. The licensing power was committed to the care of magistrates, penalties for misconduct in public-houses were increased, and the hours during which public-houses might be kept open were shortened. Eleven at night was fixed as the closing time for public-houses in the country, and midnight for those in London. But the passing of the bill did not end the agitation either of those whose interests were affected unfavourably by it or of those who deemed it as offering inadequate encouragement to the cause of temperance. It contributed to reduce the popularity of Gladstone's government and to drive the brewers and their clients into the ranks of the conservatives, with disastrous result on the fortunes of the liberals at future polls. The conservative government of 1874 disappointed a very general expectation among its supporters that it would repeal Bruce's licensing laws, but only very slight modifications were allowed by Mr. (now Viscount) Cross's Licensing Act of 1874.
On the question of church disestablishment in England and Wales, which was always threatening to come, but did not come during Bruce's official career, within the liberal programme of legislation, Bruce's tone was somewhat uncertain. He held that the section of his party which pushed that question to the front was ill-advised, and that to raise it was merely to excite within the party discord, which would make it difficult for the government to carry measures of which all liberals approved. But a defiant attitude on his part on one side or the other would have done mischief. He knew well, thanks to his residence in Wales, the forces in favour of disestablishment that had to be reckoned with. Although tolerant and philosophic in matters of religion, he was personally a convinced member of the church of England. In the summer of 1873 the unpopularity which Robert Lowe (afterwards Viscount Sherbrooke) [qv.], the chancellor of the exchequer, then incurred led Gladstone to assume, in addition to the duties he was already discharging, those of Lowe's post, and to invite Bruce to make way for Lowe at the home office. Bruce was offered in exchange one of three appointments—the lord-lieutenancy of Ireland, the vice-royalty of Canada, and the lord presidentship of the council. He chose the last, and was immediately raised to the peerage (22 Aug. 1873) under the title of Baron Aberdare. He did not, however, hold this great office long; the cabinet determined upon a dissolution in the following January (1874), and their party was heavily defeated at the polls. Gladstone's government resigned, and Lord Aberdare's official political life ended.
Thenceforth Lord Aberdare's public career was devoted to educational, economic, and social questions, many of which had been pressed on his attention while at the home office. In 1875 he delivered an important address on crime and punishment at the Social Science Congress. On 20 Jan. 1876 he was elected F.R.S. In the same year he became chairman of the commission on noxious vapours, in 1882 of another on reformatory and industrial schools. But such topics did not exhaust his interests. In 1881 he became president of the Royal Geographical Society, in succession to Sir Rutherford Alcock [qv.], and he occupied from 1878 to 1892 the president's chair of the Royal Historical Society, in which he succeeded Earl Russell. In 1882 he became chairman of the National African Company, a politico-commercial company formed by Sir George Taubman Goldie for the purpose of organising and extending commerce, civilisation, and exploration in West Africa. With the development of West African commerce Aberdare was thenceforth closely connected. In 1886 the National African Company bought out two French companies which had tried to invade the territory in which it was working. An existing objection which was felt by the English government to giving a charter to a company whose territorial rights were disputed was thus removed, and the National African Company received a charter under the name of the Royal Niger Company. Over its operations Aberdare actively presided till his death, in alliance with Sir George Taubman Goldie (who was the moving spirit of the enterprise). The work proved congenial to Aberdare, and probably prolonged his life. In 1899 the Royal Niger Company was taken over by the government, and when the transfer was under discussion in the House of Lords on 24 May 1899, Lord Salisbury paid a handsome tribute to Lord Aberdare's high administrative ability in conducting the company's affairs. Subsequently Lord Salisbury pointed out that the efforts of Lord Aberdare and his fellow-founders of the Niger Company succeeded in reserving for England influence over a vast territory, full of wealth and full of inhabitants, which there is every prospect in the future will yield a rich harvest to the British empire. But for the Niger Company much, if not all, of this territory would have passed under another flag, and the advance that we have made in stopping inter-tribal wars, in arresting slave-raiding, and in diminishing the liquor traffic would not have come to pass
During the last years of Lord Aberdare's life he gave much time to the better organisation of education in Wales. He was chairman of the departmental committee appointed in 1880 to inquire into intermediate and higher education in Wales and Monmouth. It was on the report of that committee that the Welsh Intermediate Education Act of 1889 was founded. He became president of the University College at Cardiff on its foundation in 1883, and delivered the inaugural address there on 24 Oct. 1883, urging most strongly that the educational edifice in the principality should be crowned by the creation of a university of Wales. He presided in the next few years at gathering after gathering called to further this object, and when the charter had been at last obtained in 1894 he, as commander-in-chief of the Welsh educational army, was naturally elected by a unanimous vote the first chancellor of the new institution, 25 Jan. 1895 (cf. Address before the Welsh National Society of Liverpool, by Professor Viriamu Jones, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Wales, Cardiff, 1896).
Lord Aberdare had been made a G.C.B. on 7 Jan. 1885, and he adhered to Mr. Gladstone, to whom he was passionately loyal, when he adopted home rule in 1886. In 1893 he accepted his old chief's invitation to preside over the commission on the aged poor, which occupied him till near his death, which took place at 39 Prince's Gardens, London, on 25 Feb. 1895. He was buried at Mountain Ash, South Wales.
Aberdare had four children by his first wife, of whom three survived him—one son, Henry Campbell Bruce, his successor in the peerage, and two daughters. By his second wife, who died on 27 April 1897, he left two sons and six daughters.
Active and athletic, Bruce was devoted to field-sports, and owed to them more than one serious accident. When in the country he was fond of long rides among the hills. Well suited to be a great owner of coal property, he maintained excellent personal relations with his colliers. He was the most clubable of men. He was one of the first members of the Cosmopolitan Club. He was one of the twelve who formed the Breakfast Club in the spring of 1866, and attended a meeting of that society only nine days before his death. He was long a member, and latterly a trustee, of the Athenæum, and he was elected at Grillions in 1868.
Possessing a retentive memory, he knew by heart much poetry. To Dryden he was deeply attached, and he had a passion for military history. In 1864 he edited, with great diligence and care, the Life of his father-in-law, Sir William Napier. In 1894 he wrote an introductory notice to the Early Adventures of his friend, Sir Austin Henry Layard [qv.]. They had known each other intimately from 1848 onwards.
A statue of Aberdare has been erected at Cardiff. His best literary memorial is the fine poem On a Birthday, by his friend Sir Lewis Morris, which was written to commemorate Aberdare's seventieth birthday (Morris, Collected Works, p. 272).
Life and Letters, privately printed, Oxford, 1902
G. E. C[okayne]'s Complete Peerage, i. and viii.
Contributor: M. G. D. [Mountstuart Elphinstone Grant Duff]