Robert Spence Watson (1837-1911), was a Liberal politician and educationist. Born in Gateshead on 6th June, 1837, the eldest of five sons and seven daughters born to Joseph Watson, a solicitor of Bensham Grove, Gateshead. In 1848 Robert Spence Watson started at York School, the Friends' School in York, before entering University College London in 1853. He was admitted as a solicitor in 1860 and entered into partnership with his father, and remained active within the profession throughout his working life.
In June 1863 Watson married Elizabeth Spence Watson, nee Richardson, of Newcastle upon Tyne, with whom he had one son and five daughters. was also active and heavily involved in women’s rights and educational reform and encouraged her daughters and acquaintances to become involved in the Suffragette movement. She was also a governess of local girls schools, a Guardian of the Poor Law at Gateshead’s Workhouse and active in helping and supporting poor children into education.
Watson played an energetic and influential part in public life both in his native Newcastle and nationally, taking an interest in political, social, and educational movements. In 1862, he became the honorary secretary of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle, serving for thirty-one years before becoming vice-president. Throughout this period, he gave numerous lectures to the society. He succeeded Lord Armstrong as President in 1900.
In 1871 Watson helped to found the Durham School of Science, later known as Armstrong College of the University of Durham, and ultimately as the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. He became the University's first President in 1910. He was also elected to the first Newcastle school board in 1871, a position he held for twenty-three years. Watson was a pioneer of university extension throughout the north of England and of the Newcastle free Public Library.
From 1885 to 1911 he was also the President of the Tyneside Sunday Lecture Society, and became chairman of Newcastle Grammar School in 1911.
Watson also had interests in travelling; an ardent mountaineer, he joined the Alpine Club in 1862. In 1870, he was invited by the Society of Friends to travel to Alsace-Lorraine as a commissioner of the War Victims Fund for the distribution of relief to the non-combatants of the Franco-Prussian War. He revisited France in early 1871 to oversee similar work in the Seine region, and was awarded the Legion d'honneur by the French Government in 1873, though he declined to accept. In 1879 Watson visited Wazzan, the sacred city of Morocco, being reportedly the first Christian European to do so. Watson obtained an introduction to the great sharif of the city and published an account of his journey, A Visit to Wazan, the Sacred City of Morocco, in 1880.
Throughout his life, Watson engaged in the political life of both his native city and of the wider nation. He was a lifelong adherent of the Liberal Party. First working as the election agent of Joseph Cowen in Newcastle, Watson founded the Newcastle liberal Association in 1874, serving as its President from 1874 to 1897. He was also one of the original conveners of the National Liberal Federation in 1877, serving as its President from 1890 to 1902. During this period he was among the most influential Liberal leaders outside Parliament, declining invitations to become a parliamentary candidate, and his political friends included Cowen, John Morley, John Bright, Lord Ripon, and Earl Grey. In 1907, Watson was made a privy councillor by Henry Campbell-Bannerman.
Though refusing to stand for Parliament, Watson was a prominent public speaker. He was a defender of home rule, and embraced the cause of international peace and the welfare of indigenous peoples under British rule. He served as President of the Peace Society for a number of years, and was active in the Indian National Congress movement. He was also interested in the development of free institutions in Russia and co-operated with a number of Russian political exiles in England, most notably Sergius M. Kravchinsky, known as Stepniak. He was President of the Society of Friends of Russian Freedom from 1890 to 1911. Watson was also a pioneer in the settlement of trade disputes by arbitration, first acting to arbitrate such a dispute in 1864 and acting in such a capacity on 47 further occasions between 1884 and 1894 on disputes in industries in the north of England.
Watson who suffered with ill health from 1905, died at his home in Bensham Grove, Gateshead, in March 1911. He had published ten books and around sixty pamphlets and articles on a range of subjects. These endeavours, in addition to his wide-ranging public activism, make his correspondence a valuable source of opinions on the social and political matters of the day from a wide range of prominent persons.