Sir John Forster (1888-1972)

Sir John Forster

Written by Kevin Grice

Occupation: Judge
Location: Carlisle

Background and early career

John Forster was born in Carlisle on 15th September 1888. It has been said that he came from humble Cumberland stock but this may be considered a little misleading, at least in relation to his father. He was the younger son of John James Forster OBE (1852-1933), a solicitor, and Barbara Forster (1857-1924). His paternal grandparents were Joseph Forster (1814-1871) and Mary Forster (1823-1890). Joseph was born a Quaker in Dalston and his wife in Longtown, both in Cumberland. They married in 1846 and in 1861 ran The Golden Fleece on Botchergate in Carlisle. By 1871 Joseph was a clerk in a printing office and they lived in Paradise Court in Carlisle. Joseph however died very shortly thereafter and his widow returned to the Longtown area where she died in 1890. John’s maternal grandparents were John Slack (1831-1898) and Ruth Slack (1832-1904). Both John and Ruth Slack were also born in Cumberland but they emigrated shortly after marrying in 1852 so Barbara was born in Canada. However the Slack family returned to Carlisle soon after her birth and by 1861 were living at 5, English Street, her father’s occupation then being given as bootmaker, a trade in which he continued until at least 1873.

 John Forster’s own parents married in Carlisle in 1877 and the Forster family in due course consisted of John James, his wife Barbara and their four children Ruth (born 1880), Joseph (born 1883), John and Dorothy (born 1895). John’s parents lived all their married lives in Carlisle, firstly at 22, Edward Street (1881), then The Hawthorns, 8, Norfolk Road (1884, 1891, 1894, 1897 and 1901), Coledale Hall, Newtown Road (1906), 11, Warwick Square (1910 and 1911), 116, Warwick Road (1921 and 1929) and finally Highgate in Harraby where John James Forster died in 1933, although by these later dates John had left home. John James Forster was initially a solicitor’s cashier or law clerk (1871 & 1881) then a solicitor’s clerk (1891) but then qualified as a solicitor prior to 1901, after which he practised in that profession in Carlisle until about 1930. His offices were in Lowther Arcade off Lowther Street in the city centre. He was awarded the OBE in the New Year’s Honours List 1919 for his work with the Carlisle Citizens League and the British Red Cross Society prior to and in particular during the First World War.

John Forster was educated at Sedbergh School between 1900 and 1907 and after enlisting as a gunner in the Royal Garrison Artillery in 1914, served in the Royal Artillery throughout the 1914-1918 War before being demobilised in early 1919 with the rank of Captain.[1] He had joined Gray’s Inn as a student in 1909 and after his demobilisation was called to the Bar there on 14th May 1919 and elected to both the Northern Circuit and the South-Eastern Circuit later that same year. He practised mostly on the latter however from Chambers at 2, Mitre Court, Temple EC4 (1919-1922) and then 1 Brick Court, Temple EC4 (1923-1957 as he remained on the door there after his first judicial appointment) and where he experienced the long, slow apprenticeship of the law which was the usual lot of the junior barrister building up a practice in those days. Gradually however his identification with the field of industrial relations emerged and in 1926 he was appointed a Deputy Umpire under the Employment Insurance Acts and in 1936 he was appointed as a member of the Committee on Road Transport Charges. The Chairman of that Committee was Sir James Baillie who had considerable experience as an arbitrator and conciliator in industrial disputes and this connection was to transform John Forster’s life.


On 4th September 1917 whilst on home leave John Forster married Muriel Vosper (born 18th September 1896), the elder daughter of Samuel Vosper of Stoke, Devonport, Hampshire. They lived at various addresses in Hampshire and London before settling in Kent where in 1939 they lived at 226, Bromley Road, Beckenham. They had one child a daughter Pamela (1921-2008) latterly known as Hon. Pamela Forster. The family later moved to ‘Broome’, 84, Albermarle Road in Beckenham where they lived with Pamela in 1964 & 1965 and where John and Muriel continued to live until their deaths in 1972 and 1987 respectively. Pamela worked under Constance Spry the well-known Mayfair florist and author and for many years then ran a society florist’s business with Lady Rose Paget, a daughter of the Marquess of Anglesey. Pamela won much admiration and appreciation for her flower arrangements at special occasions in Gray’s Inn Hall, not least during dinners for Benchers of the Inn and their ladies, a tradition introduced for the first time by her father as Treasurer of the Inn in 1958. Lydia Nicholson (1872-1954) was a domestic servant for the Forster family in Beckenham for many years and one measure of Sir John Forster was that he acted as her Personal Representative upon her death.

Judicial career

By 1937 John Forster was considered a leading authority on settling employment and related disputes as well as investigating and analysing their causes. This led to him undertaking numerous judicial and inquiring roles in that field for the Ministry of Labour alongside his work at the Bar and it was this which first brought his name to public attention. It was Coronation year and, just at the time when London was filling up with visitors for the celebrations of 12th May, there was a strike of London busmen over their working conditions. They claimed that these were too arduous and were unhealthy and they wanted a shorter working week in compensation. The strike was supported by their union, the Transport & General Workers Union, which was led at that time by Ernest Bevin. The Minister of Labour Ernest Brown promptly instituted a Court of Inquiry on 30th April 1937 and John Forster was nominated as its Chairman. He had with him Sir Arthur Pugh, who had come up on the trade union side of industry, and Mr. Basil Sanderson (afterwards Lord Sanderson of Ayot) who was an employer. The Court of Inquiry sat in public at the Middlesex Guildhall for four days from 3rd-6th May. Ernest Bevin argued the case for the busmen and Frank Pick put the case for the London Transport Board.

The public hearing, under John Forster’s chairmanship, was carried through with moderation, good will and cool temper on all sides according to contemporary accounts. It was indeed a model for such an inquiry which has seldom been matched since. Even more notable was that within three hours of the conclusion of the hearing, the Court had issued an interim report. This did not find the union’s case proved but it contained conciliatory suggestions as to how the differences between the Transport Board and the men might be resolved. These suggestions were reiterated and amplified in the final report published on 25th May. The executive council of the Union was in favour of ending the strike but the busmen’s committee still maintained a stubborn resistance. However, faced with the prospect of having to continue on an unofficial strike with no strike pay, the busmen yielded and London had its buses back again.

By his handling of this inquiry John Forster made his reputation and from that time onwards he never looked back. Later in 1937 he was made Chairman of the Trinidad Labour Riots Commission from which he produced the Forster Commission Report later that year. This was to enquire into the causes of the industrial disturbances on the islands of Trinidad and Tobago particularly the Oilfield Riots and it recommended amongst other matters the formation of a Labour Department in Trinidad and Tobago and the establishment there of an Industrial Court. This preceded the West India Royal Commission headed by Lord Moyne the following year which investigated living and working conditions more generally in the West Indian colonies and paved the way for independence there in the 1960’s.

John Forster was knighted in the Birthday Honours in 1939 and after the investiture at St James’s Palace he was known as Sir John Forster. He was Chairman of the Railway Staff National Tribunal from 1940, Chairman of the National Arbitration Tribunal from 1944 and was appointed President of the Industrial Court under the Industrial Courts Act 1919 in 1946, in all of which posts he continued until 1960. In these capacities he presided over innumerable arbitrations, courts of inquiry and the like both in this country and abroad. His skills were particularly evident in his swift resolution of disputes in the industries central to Britain’s war effort between 1940 and 1945. In this context he inquired into disputes on Liverpool Docks (1942), on Manchester Railways (1943) and in Newcastle Shipyards (1944) amongst others. After the Second World War when arbitration became less attractive to the big trade unions (who began to place greater reliance again upon different forms of industrial action such as strikes and lock-outs), Sir John Forster still dealt with smaller disputes involving vehicle builders, printers, airline pilots and even footballers. The pinnacle of this judicial work was his appointment as a Judge of the Administrative Tribunal of the International Labour Organisation (ILOAT) in 1957, a position he again held until 1960. This involved periodical visits to Geneva, meeting the need to provide members of the staffs of international bodies such as the World Health Organisation and the European Patent Organisation with a means of redress for grievances or troubles in connection with their contracts of employment, such matters being outside the jurisdiction of any national court or tribunal.

In recognition of his long career as a distinguished public servant in the field of labour relations, Sir John Forster was made a KC in 1946 and he was then made a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (KBE) in 1948 before being finally raised to the peerage as First Baron Forster of Harraby of Beckenham in the County of Kent in 1959. The style was firstly from his native county (the village of Harraby being on the outskirts of, and now almost part of, Carlisle) and since there was already a Lord Forster in the peerage, the qualification “of Harraby” was necessary. The territorial reference to Beckenham came from his residence of many years. His introduction into the House of Lords on 22nd July 1959 was very much a Gray’s Inn affair with Lord Kilmuir on the Woolsack and Lords McNair and Shawcross as his sponsors. His maiden speech to the House of Lords in 1962 was on his favourite topic of salmon fishing during a debate on the Sea Fish Industry Bill and he received that warm commendation for his contribution to the debate which the Lords reserve for those who speak well and with authority based upon personal knowledge of the subject under discussion. He also spoke upon such diverse subjects as water resources, the police and consumer protection as well as about labour relations and contracts of employment but ill-health was already beginning to curtail his active life and he had retired from all public service in 1960 aged 72. His skills as an arbitrator however remained much in demand and he fulfilled this role as far as his health allowed for several more years.

Recreation and Final Years

John Forster was an excellent golfer (playing at times to a single figure handicap) and he captained Dulwich & Sydenham Hill Golf Club in 1928 as well as organising meetings of the Gray’s Inn Golfing Society in the 1930’s. He was also a great fisherman and in this as well as shooting and in his garden he found much recreational satisfaction. In September 1951 he startled his family and friends by being cut off in bad weather while on a cormorant shooting expedition off Caithness and having to be rescued in highly unpleasant conditions from the Pentland Firth by the Wick lifeboat. He was however able to walk ashore despite his ordeal, remarking as he did so: ‘We had to swim for it’. He was elected a Bencher of Gray’s Inn in 1943 and chaired the Building Committee there from 1952-1958 during which time he oversaw the rebuilding of the Inn after the bombing devastation of the Second World War. He was Treasurer of Gray’s Inn in 1958-1959 and his initials appear over the entrance to the Library there as it was in that year that this part of the reconstruction of the Inn was completed.

Baron Forster died on 24th July 1972 aged 83 at 84, Albermarle Road, Beckenham. Probate was granted out of the London Registry on 26th September 1972 with an estate of £10,060 net. The Barony then became extinct and his Grant of Arms and Letters Patent were listed for sale in Hollett’s Christmas catalogue in 2012. His widow Baroness Muriel Forster died on 24th June 1987 at the same address. Probate for her was granted out of the London Registry on 28th January 1988 with an estate of £429,465 net.

His obituarist Geoffrey Tookey QC wrote in 1973 “John Forster was a man of imposing stature but this in no way indicated a severe or overpowering manner. On the contrary, he had a most kindly disposition and an ability to meet his fellow men on a level which inspired friendliness and co-operation. It was the same whether he was talking to a peer, a workman or a gillie. He could talk their language. He could understand and be understood by them all. Of his integrity and fairness and freedom from bias or preconceived and fixed notions bearing on his work there was never the slightest doubt. In relation to the problems with which he had to deal, and they were by no means easy, his approach remained simple and uncomplicated and his thinking was free from subtlety. For all these qualities, which were manifest to those who appeared before him or saw his work, he was trusted. From small beginnings his career was a long and notable success.”

An equally apposite epitaph might however be the one which reflects the motto with which John Forster’s own coat of arms is embellished – ‘Let peace follow my labour.’


  • Belfast Newsletter 7th May 1937
  • Bulmer’s History & Directory of Cumberland 1901
  • Census Registers for England & Wales 1841-1911
  • England & Wales Civil Marriage Index 1832-1911
  • England & Wales Civil Registration Birth Index 1837-1915
  • England & Wales Civil Registration Death index 1837-1915
  • England & Wales National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations) 1858-1995
  • England & Wales Quaker Births, Marriages & Deaths Register 1578-1877
  • England & Wales Register 1939
  • England Select Births & Christenings 1538-1975
  • England Select Marriages 1538-1975
  • Evening Chronicle December 9th 1944
  • Graya Volume 76 page 75 Obituary by Master Geoffrey Tookey Q.C of Gray’s Inn (1973)
  • Hansard 1803-2005
  • Kelly’s Directory of Cumberland & Westmorland 1873, 1897, 1910, 1921, 1925 and 1929
  • Kent Electoral Registers 1964 & 1965
  • Liverpool Echo 22nd September 1942
  • London City Directories 1736-1947
  • London Church of England Marriages & Banns 1754-1932
  • London Gazette 1st January 1919 no. 31907 p81
  • London Gazette 13th July 1939 no.34646 pp.4915/6
  • London Gazette 30th December 1947 no. 38146 p.14
  • London Gazette 5th June 1959 no. 41727 p.3697
  • London Gazette 17th July 1959 no.41768 p.4557
  • Manchester Evening News 2nd August 1949
  • Moss’s Carlisle Directory 1884
  • Newcastle Journal & North Mail February 13th 1940
  • Northern Circuit Directory 1876-2004 edited by Judge David Lynch
  • The Peerage
  • Slater’s Directory of Cumberland 1884
  • The Times 1st January 1919 & 26th July 1972
  • Trinidad and Tobago: Struggle for Independence University of the West Indies 2013
  • UK City & County Directories 1766-1946
  • Who’s Who 1970
  • Yorkshire Post September 24th 1951