Fletcher, George (1862–1934), civil servant, was born on 8 June 1862 in Derby, England, the son of George Fletcher, a coal dealer, and his wife, Jane, widow of William Marsden; he had two Marsden stepsisters and two stepbrothers. Educated in Derby, he was apprenticed at age 14 to a printer. He became a telegraphist with the Midland Railway Company and by attending night school qualified as an electrical engineer. At Derby technical school he took courses in science and, due to his ability and genial temperament, gained promotion and became headmaster of Derby Central School of Science and later (after reformulation) of Derby Technical College. In 1893 he was appointed an inspector with the Science and Art Department, South Kensington. It was from this post that he was recruited in 1901 to join the staff of the recently established Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction (DATI) in Dublin, as senior inspector in charge of technical instruction at a salary of £700 per annum. When Robert Blair, the first assistant secretary of technical education resigned in 1904 to become the chief executive officer of the education committee of London County Council, Fletcher was promoted to assistant secretary, a post he held for the next twenty-three years. At first he lived in Dawson Court, Mount Merrion Avenue, Blackrock, Co. Dublin, and in 1907 moved to 53 Pembroke Road, nearer to the DATI offices.
In 1904 the DATI consisted of two main branches, agriculture and technical instruction, each with it own staff. There were seven inspectors of technical instruction and by 1911 an administrative staff of thirty. Fletcher was answerable to the vice-president, first Sir Horace Plunkett (qv) and then Thomas Wallace Russell (qv), and to the secretary, Thomas Patrick Gill (qv). He was advised by a board of technical instruction, which consisted of representatives of the county boroughs and county councils and of the National Board of Education and the Intermediate Education Board for Ireland (IEB).
The DATI had an endowment fund of £55,000 per annum, used to support the technical education schemes of the local county authorities. There was also a fund consisting of the previous South Kensington Science and Art Department grants, transferred to the DATI in 1900, which could be used to support science and art in secondary schools. In the early years, Fletcher made full use of it to support the teaching of science and worked closely with the IEB to develop joint curriculum programmes for science and art. Secondary schools were able to receive grants from the IEB 'payment by results' examinations, plus 'capitation efficiency grants' for science teaching from the DATI.
In 1911 the DATI moved its offices to the new, purpose-built Royal College of Science building in Upper Merrion Street, indicative of the department's public standing. However, through the years, the agriculture branch of the DATI was more generously funded and more prestigious, and the relationship between the two branches was not close.
Fletcher's chief task as head of the technical instruction branch was to encourage and support the local authorities to establish technical schools, which would offer courses in 'the principles of art and science to industries'. Agricultural education was the remit of the agricultural branch, so the technical branch could concern itself only with ancillary activities, such as cookery, domestic economy, hygiene, home nursing, and other rural home industries. Fletcher travelled widely across the country advising the new local technical instruction committees. His relationships with them were cordial and his easy genial manner and experience of night school and the limited resources available for technical education gave him insight into and patience with the slow progress of some local county councils. Only in Dublin city was there a long-standing dispute of over ten years between the DATI and Dublin Corporation on the development by the latter of monotechnic rather than polytechnic colleges. In 1903 Fletcher himself wrote a Memorandum on a scheme of technical education for the city of Dublin, in which he recommended the establishment of monotechnical colleges. When its advice was ignored, the DATI withheld its grants, but plans for the new Bolton Street College for engineering and building trades went ahead.
Fletcher also worked to set up day training preparatory schools, intended to offer a bridge between leaving a national school at 14 and entering a trade or technical college. However, by 1919, only fourteen had been established, and the scheme was a success. The idea of day continuation vocational schools on a county council basis was recommended by the Ingram committee on technical education in 1927 and was incorporated into the Vocational Education Act, 1930.
The most serious challenge, which Fletcher faced in the first ten years of office, was the parliamentary Digby committee of inquiry into the work of the DATI (1907), set up after criticism by nationalists of the role of Vice-President Sir Horace Plunkett. Fletcher was interviewed over four days and strongly defended the DATI policy of paying grants for the teaching of science in secondary schools and of encouraging technical instruction to support local industries. Although the report vindicated the work of the DATI, Plunkett had already resigned, and some of the initial sense of purpose and pioneering vision of the department was lost.
Much of Fletcher's practical vision and ideas is contained within the thirty articles he wrote for the DATI Journal. These covered most of the activities of the technical branch, beginning with an article entitled 'The place of science in education' (1906) and concluding with 'Water power in Ireland and in France' (1923). Much influenced by the work of H. E. Armstrong, professor of chemistry at Finsbury Technical College, London, who advocated the heuristic method in science teaching and the importance of experimental laboratory work, Fletcher also encouraged the teaching of domestic economy, first aid and hygiene for girls. In an article in 1911, 'School work in relation to public health', he stressed the importance of education and public health in the prevention of tuberculosis. His main platform was the role of technical education in developing Ireland's national resources, including the use of water power and exploitation of peat bogs.
Fletcher was an examiner in science for the IEB, a member of the first teachers' registration council (1914), and served on the Molony committee of inquiry into intermediate education (1918–19) and the committee appointed to draft the ill-fated education bill of 1919. During the first world war he was involved in first aid and medical work at the Royal College of Science and was a member of two government war committees. His final contribution was to the influential two reports on Irish power resources – the Irish peat inquiry (1917) and the water-power resources inquiry (1921) – both chaired by Sir John Purser Griffith (qv). Fletcher edited and contributed to a series of five books published by Cambridge University Press (1921–2) for the general reader and senior forms of secondary schools, one for the entire country, entitled Ireland, and one for each of the four provinces.
The first world war brought personal disillusionment and sadness. Two of his sons, Arnold and Donald, were killed serving with the British army in 1917, and Fletcher began to find himself out of place in an increasingly nationalist Ireland. After the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922 he had to face the dismemberment of the DATI into two separate ministries, Agriculture and Education. His authority was diminished and he was passed over for promotion by younger Irishmen. He finally resigned in 1927 when the commission on technical education was set up, chaired by one of his senior inspectors, John Ingram (qv). That year the University of Dublin awarded Fletcher an honorary MA degree in recognition of his services to technical education. He had laid the foundations of a system of technical education in Ireland, which survived to be built on by his successors, and was known simply as 'Mr Fletcher of the Department'. He would have asked for no better epitaph.
Fletcher married (20 January 1886) Henrietta Maria Clark, daughter of Henry and Mary Ann Clark, of 15 Friargate, Derby; they had six children, one daughter and five sons: Constance (1886), Arnold (1889), Kenneth (1891), Donald (1897), Gilbert (1899) and Lynton (1903). The eldest, Constance, became the famed floral designer Constance Spry. Fletcher and his wife had a full social life in Dublin and entertained regularly. In 1923 they purchased a house, 'Mona', in Shankill, Co. Dublin. Fletcher was a member of the United Services Club, United Arts Club and the Royal Automobile Club, London. He was an MRIA, fellow of the Geological Society, chairman of the Geographical Association, and member of the council of the RDS and chairman of its committee of science and industrial applications. Through his work in public health, he became a close friend of the vicereine, Lady Aberdeen (qv), and his daughter Constance worked with Lady Aberdeen in her public hygiene campaign. In Fletcher's obituary in The Times, Sir Robert Blair wrote that he 'was almost an Irishman in the persuasiveness of his tongue, sense of humour, quick repartee, and facility as a raconteur. These qualities were to be of great service to an Englishman in Ireland, and created a favourable atmosphere for the more solid work of technical education of which he was one of the creators' (25 September 1934).
In retirement in England, Fletcher retained his interest in Ireland and continued to give lectures for the Irish Tourist Association. He died on 20 September 1934 in Great Hallingbury, Hertfordshire.