Sir Ernest Arthur Gowers GCB GBE (2 June 1880 – 16 April 1966) is best remembered for his book Plain Words, first published in 1948, and for his revision of Fowler's Modern English Language. However, before making his name as an author he had a distinguished career in the British civil service, which he first entered in 1903. His final full-time appointment was as Senior Regional Commissioner for Civil Defence, London Region (1940–45). After the second world war he was appointed chair of numerous government inquiries, including the 1949 Royal Commission into Capital Punishment. He was also chairman of the Harlow New Town Development Corporation.
- 1 Life and career
- 2 Honours
- 3 Family
- 4 Bibliography
- 5 Notes
Life and career
Gowers was born in London, the younger son of neurologist Sir William Richard Gowers and his wife Mary (daughter of Frederick Baines, one of the proprietors of the Leeds Mercury). The family lived in Queen Anne Street, W1. Ernest followed his elder brother, William Frederick (1875-1954) to Rugby School, where he shone academically and as sportsman. At Rugby Ernest was also noted as an outstanding organist, an accomplishment which became a life-loing hobby. Both boys won scholarships to read Classics at Cambridge (William Frederick to Trinity College and Ernest to Clare College). His sisters, Edith and Evelyn, mainly schooled at home, both lost their sight after developing retinitis pigments in early adult life.
In 1905 Gowers married Constance Greer, daughter of Thomas Macgregor Greer (member of the North of Ireland Senate, and a Deputy-Lieutenant for Co. Antrim). They had two daughters and one son. Gowers's elder brother, William Frederick Gowers, went to Africa, and in due course joined the colonial civil service, ultimately becoming Governor of Uganda.
Civil service career
In 1902 Ernest Gowers graduated from Cambridge with a First in the Classical Tripos, and attended Wren's, a civil service 'crammer' in London, to study for the highly competitive Civil Service Examination. He also enrolled for the Inner Temple Bar exam, which he passed in 1906. In December 1903 he passed the Civil Service Examination, and embarked on the carerr that would lead to the claim that he 'may be regarded as one of the greatest public servants of his day.
Gowers entered the home civil service as an upper division clerk in the Department of Inland Revenue. He moved to the India Office in September 1904, and from March 1907 to October 1911 he acted as private secretary to successive Parliamentary Under-Secretaries for India, most notably Edwin Montagu. In October 1911 he was promoted to HM Treasury as private secretary to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George, at a time when Lloyd George was introducing his controversial National Insurance Bill. In November 1912 Lloyd George appointed him to the National Health Insurance Commission, as one of a team of promising young civil servants (including John Anderson, Warren Fisher, Arthur Salter, and Claud Schuster) nicknamed the 'Loan Collection' as they had been hand-picked from across the civil service. Gowers wrote later 'This gigantic task of bring the National Health and Unployment Insurance Acts into operation taught the Service what it could do, and the control of the whole of the social and economic life of the nation during the war drove home the lesson'. The members of the loan collection were deployed to other departments during the first world war. While nominally continuing to hold his post, Gowers was attached to the Foreign Office working under Charles Masterman MP at Wellington House, Britain's top secret wartime propaganda unit.
Grappling with the coal industry
In 1917 Gowers was appointed secretary of the Conciliation and Arbitration Board for government employees. In 1919 he began a 25-year involvement with the coal industry, joining the Board of Trade as director of production in the mines department. The following year he was promoted to head the department as permanent under-secretary for mines, a position he retained throughout the Miners' Strike. In 1927 he became chairman of the Board of Inland Revenue.
In 1930 Gowers was appointed chairman of the newly established Coal Mines Reorganisation Commission, set up under the Coal Mines Act of 1930, in an attempt to improve the efficiency of British coal mines, but deficiencies in the Act soon became evident. The Times commented: 'Sir Ernest Gowers and his colleagues struggled manfully with their difficulties, but Parliament had inadvertently tied their hands behind their backs.' A new and more powerful body, the Coal Commission, was set up in 1938, with Gowers as chairman. In July 1942 all unmined coal in Britain ceased to be the property of the colliery owners and was vested in the Coal Commission.
Senior Regional Commissioner for Civil Defence, London Region
Throughout the 1930s Gowers and his colleagues had also been involved in preparing for possible war, and invasion. From 1935 onwards he combined his frustrating work with the coal industry with civil defence planning, attached to the Department for the Co-ordination of Defence. John Anderson was given control of civil defence planning in 1938 and set up a network of civil defence regions. Euan Wallace MP was appointed head of London Region, but ill-health forced him to retire in 1940. Gowers, his deputy, became Senior Regional Commissioner for Civil Defence in London, running civil defence through the Blitz from a concrete bunker underneath the Natural History Museum, with deputies Harold Scott and Edward 'Teddy' Evans. 'In this post he showed his full powers as an administrator, and indeed as a leader. Energetic, forceful, always cheerful, with an unfailing eye for the essential, he gave the impression of being master of every unexpected development and, as a result, infused confidence into all who came in contact with him.' His wife became a member of the Women's Voluntary Service and ran the Gordon Services Club, a hostel for soldiers on leave in London.
After the war Gowers was appointed chairman of the Harlow New Town Development Corporation, one of several new towns being built to provide housing for people displaced by wartime bombing, but he fell foul of the bureaucracy in the Ministry for Town and Country Planning and his three-year contract was not renewed. He was told that he was too old. This did not prevent his being invited to chair a series of committees of inquiry:
- Women in the Foreign Service (1945);
- Closing Hours of Shops (1946);
- Houses of Outstanding Historic or Architectural Interest (1948);
- Foot-and-mouth Disease (1952).
In 1949 he was appointed chair of the Royal Commission on Capital Punishment (1949–53), set up by the Attlee government in an attempt to defuse the long-term political debate over capital punishment, but the terms of reference did not include provision for recommending its abolition. He was profoundly affected by the evidence presented to the Commission, and said later that what he learned as chairman of the commission converted him from vague support of capital punishment to strong opposition. As a result, he wrote A Life for a Life? The problem of capital punishment (1956), of which H L A Hart wrote: 'Certainly the publication of this report in England introduced altogether new standards of clarity and relevance into discussions of a subject which had too often been obscured by ignorance and prejudice.' However, the political debate dragged on and it was not until 1965 that capital punishment was effectively abolished in England.
Plain Words and Modern English Usage
Gowers first went into print on the subject of bureaucratic English usage in 1929 in an article entitled 'Mainly About the King's English', and he continued this crusade throughout his career. After the second world war the Treasury invited him to write a pamphlet on English usage for use in civil service training courses. Plain Words became an instant success, not only within the civil service, but internationally. It was followed by the ABC of Plain Words, and the two books were later combined to become The Complete Plain Words. This has been revised twice, by other authors.
In 1956, at the age of 76, he accepted a commission from the Clarendon Press to undertake the first revision of H.W. Fowler's Modern English Usage which had been in print since 1926 with only very minor changes. It took Gowers ten years to complete. In 1996 it was succeeded by a more controversial revision, by Robert Burchfield.
Gowers bought a house in Sussex in the 1930s, and it was there where he lived permanently after the war, writing his books, and managing a small farm. He became chairman of the board of the hospital where his father had worked, the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases (now the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery), Queen Square, and was on the board of Le Court Cheshire Home near Petersfield. In April 1966 He died at King Edward VII Hospital, Midhurst, Sussex at the age of 85, nine months after his revision of Fowler's Modern English Usage was published.
Gowers was created CB in 1917, Chevalier of the Order of the Crown of Belgium in 1918, KBE in 1926, KCB in 1928, GBE in 1945, and GCB in 1953. He was Gentleman Usher of the Purple Rod of the Order of the British Empire, 1952–60. He was a Freeman of Royal Borough of the Kingston-on-Thames.
Gowers received an honorary doctorate from Manchester University, was an honorary fellow of Clare College, Cambridge, and an honorary Associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects, and was elected president of the English Association (1956–57).
Ernest Gowers and Constance (Kit) had three children and six grandchildren, for whom they always offered an open house in the school holidays. When Kit died in 1952, one of their daughters, oboist Peggy Shiffner, gave up her career and moved in to look after him, also working as a volunteer at Le Court. The composer Patrick Gowers is his grandson, and mathematician Sir Timothy Gowers his great-grandson.
Books by Ernest Gowers
- Plain Words: A Guide to the Use of English. London: His Majesty's Stationery Office. 1948. OCLC 2602739.
- ABC of Plain Words. London: His Majesty's Stationery Office. 1951. OCLC 65646838.
- The Complete Plain Words. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office. 1954. OCLC 559778291.
- A Life for a Life? The Problem of Capital Punishment. London: Chatto and Windus. 1956. OCLC 1241240.
- H.W. Fowler: The Man and his Teaching. London: English Association. 1957. OCLC 3078213.
- Medical Jargon: The Osler Oration, 1958. London: Practitioner Ltd. 1958. OCLC 32987909.
- H.W. Fowler: A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (second edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1965. OCLC 334209140.
- Coal Mines Reorganisation Commission: Report to the Secretary for Mines. London: His Majesty's Stationery Office. 1933. OCLC 17858091.
- Closing Hours of Shops: Report by a Committee of Enquiry. London: His Majesty's Stationery Office. 1947. OCLC 39021698.
- Health, Welfare, and Safety in Non-Industrial Employment Hours of Employment of Juveniles: Report by a Committee of Enquiry. London: His Majesty's Stationery Office. 1947. OCLC 558981410.
- Report of the Committee on Houses of Outstanding Historic or Architectural Interest. London: His Majesty's Stationery Office. 1950. OCLC 29416569.
- Royal Commission on Capital Punishment, 1949–1953: Report. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office. 1953. OCLC 65416058.
- Scott, Ann, Ernest Gowers: Plain Words and Forgotten Deeds, Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.
- Scott, A, Eadie, M, Lees, A, William Richard Gowers: Exploring the Victorian Brain, Oxford University Press, 2012
- Burchfield, R W, ‘Gowers, Sir Ernest Arthur (1880–1966)’, rev. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 accessed 10 July 2013
- Gowers, E A, 'Administrative Drama: Lloyd George's Ambulance Wagon: the Memoirs of W J Braithwaite', The Economist, 7 September 1957.
- "Coal Mine Schemes – Reorganization Commission – Sir E. Gowers to be Chairman", The Times, 10 December 1930, p. 14
- 'Amalgamation of Collieries', The Times, 3 February 1938, p.8
- "Future Of Coal Mines – New Commission Chosen", The Times, 30 July 1938, p. 12
- Gowers, Sir Ernest. 'Coal A National Property', The Times, 1 July 1942, p.5
- Scott, H, Your Obedient Servant, Andre Deutsch, 1959.
- Obituary, The Times, 18 April 1966.
- Gowers, E A, A Life for a Life: the Problem of Capital Punishment, Chatto and Windus, 1956.
- Hart, H L A, 'Murder and the Principles of Punishment: England and the United States', Northwestern University Law Review, 1957 52, 433-61, p.545.
- Gowers, E A, Mainly about the King's English, Public Administration, 1929, 7, 2.
- Burchfield, R. W. "Gowers, Sir Ernest Arthur (1880–1966)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, accessed 5 June 2012 (subscription required)
- "Gowers, Sir Ernest Arthur", Who Was Who, A & C Black, 1920–2008; online edition, Oxford University Press, December 2007, accessed 5 June 2012 (subscription required)
- "Obituary: Sir E. Gowers, Author of 'Plain Words'", The Times 18 April 1966, p. 12