Political Change
Social change


Early Life

John Passmore Edwards was born in Cornwall in 1823. His father, William Edwards, was a carpenter and his mother, Susan Passmore, the daughter of a Newton Abbott saddle maker. He was one of four brothers that survived infancy.

The family at first lived in a small four-roomed cottage in the village but his father borrowed money to build a larger cottage on the other side of the village. Here he obtained a beer licence and brewed and sold beer, both direct and to other beer houses in the area.

The boys were educated at the local dame school, at 2d per week but William was one of the few people in the village to take a weekly Newspaper and Passmore Edwards would read this, and any other book or journal he could get his hands on, often by candle light.


On leaving school, at 12 years old, he helped his father in the brewery and in the cottage garden that had been developed around the house. He would tend and pick soft fruits, walking several miles to nearby towns to sell the fruit at market. The money he earned would be spent on buying second hand books.

He took his first, unsuccessful steps towards being a lecturer by speaking at a local Literary Institute and was likewise unsuccessful in his attempts to have his poetry published in the local newspaper. Becoming aware of the anti Corn League he distributed pamphlets across West Cornwall and when eighteen became a solicitor’s Under Clerk, in Truro.

In Manchester

Edwards’ ambition to ‘do something useful in life’ was developing and not being suited to being a solicitor’s Clerk, at the age of 21 he accepted a position with a radical London Newspaper, The Sentinel, as their Manchester Agent.


In Manchester he continued his education at the Mechanic’s Institute and met the reformers John Bright and Richard Cobden, and the preacher Dr Martineau. But The Sentinel was not successful and he received only £10 of the £40 a year promised.


By now being a more accomplished public speaker he kept himself from debt by giving lectures at Temperance halls and elsewhere, throughout Lancashire and Cheshire.

In London

In 1845 Edwards decided to move to London, ‘to try my fortunes on a wider sea’. Working by day as a publisher’s clerk, evenings and weekends were passed at the Birkbeck Institute, freelance writing, lecturing, or attending meetings of social and political reform groups.

He was a member of all of the major social and political reform associations and an active member of the Peace Society.

In 1850, with £50 savings, he set up as a publisher on his own account, publishing the Public Good, and when this did not return a profit, the Temperance Tract Journal, The Biographical Magazine, and several other magazines.

But the harder he worked the more his debts increased until he found himself physically exhausted, and bankrupt; his creditors receiving only 5/- in the £.



As soon as he was well he started writing again and purchased the Building News and English Mechanic, two weekly magazines, and through these established the Strand Newspaper Company.In 1866 he paid back his former creditors in full and in acknowledgement was invited to a dinner and presented with an inscribed gold watch. ‘At last he could look them in the eye’.

In 1876 he bought the London Echo, the first halfpenny daily newspaper, which he used to push his fiercely radical Liberal politics. Though he represented Salisbury from 1880 to 1885, his Parliamentary life was brief and disappointing and he never made a major speech.





And it was on leaving Parliament that the period for which he was to become most well known began. During his remaining years he funded over seventy public buildings -libraries, hospitals, schools, orphanages, art galleries and museums; gardens and drinking fountains; memorial busts; endowments to provide pensions; and 80,000 books were placed on library shelves throughout the country and on merchant ships throughout the world.

The value of the public library was uppermost in his mind. He had campaigned to support William Ewart and the first Free Library Act, in 1850, and had often written about the lack of library provision in the UK as compared to in Europe and the USA.



He offered to build a library in any Cornish town that would adopt the Free Library Act and as well as funding the building of fifteen free libraries in London he offered 1,000 books to any public library that was opened there.
Even when he fell ill in 1911 he longed to get better, saying my work is not yet done.

Though offered a knighthood by both Queen Victoria and King Edward he had declined, preferring to remain as he was born. However, he left a legacy greater than any title would have bestowed, greater even than the buildings that remain.

As the Times recorded He did more good in his time than almost any other of his contemporaries.