George Fowlds was born at Fenwick, Ayrshire, Scotland, on 15 September 1860. He was the youngest son of Agnes Craig and her husband, Matthew Fowlds, a Covenanter descendant and one of the last of the hand-loom weavers, whose modest cottage was a rendezvous for liberal and radical politicians. George attended Hairshaw School, Waterside village. In 1874 he was apprenticed to Stewart Brothers, a firm of clothiers in Kilmarnock. He later worked for a soft-goods firm in Glasgow, while attending evening classes at the Andersonian Institution. In 1882, by which time he was employed as a traveller in Kilmarnock, he decided to emigrate to a drier climate, and chose South Africa.
In Cape Town he worked as a stonemason's labourer and a cleaner of railway carriages. In search of better prospects he moved to the Kimberley diamond fields, where he found work as a bookkeeper in a general store at Bultfontein. In 1884 he was joined by his fiancée, Mary Ann Fulton, also of Fenwick; the couple were married at the Congregational church in Cape Town on 5 September 1884. They signed an 'anti-nuptial' [ sic ] contract, of which the most important clause was: 'there shall be no Community of Property'. They settled in Beaconsfield, where George Fowlds set up in business as a bookkeeper.
Mary Fowlds's health suffered from the climate of Cape Colony, however, and so the couple decided to move on to Auckland, New Zealand. They arrived in the Coptic in April 1885, and stayed at first with George Fowlds's cousin, William Forrest, in Freemans Bay. Their seven children – four daughters and three sons – were all born in Auckland. Fowlds worked as a labourer and then as a mercery salesman until he was able to purchase a small mercer's and clothier's business in Victoria Street. In 1888 he bought the stock and fittings of a bankrupt clothier in Queen Street and the family went to live in Ponsonby. The business, in which he introduced a form of profit sharing, flourished. In 1890 a large house in Mount Albert was purchased in the name of Mary Fowlds; it was named Greystone Knowe after George Fowlds's home in Fenwick. Their eldest son, George Matthew, joined the business in 1905 and a branch shop was opened in Wellington in 1907. Having become a man of property, and with his son assuming some of his business responsibilities, Fowlds was able to devote more time to public affairs.
Fowlds's concern about the social problems of his time was rooted in his religious beliefs and the teachings of John Stuart Mill and Henry George. He believed that the answer to social and economic problems lay in the adoption of the so-called single tax advocated by Henry George – a tax which would supposedly recover the unearned increment in land value and render all other forms of taxation unnecessary; this would usher in free trade and cause poverty and other social evils to disappear. In practical political terms this meant increasing the land tax, levying local rates on the unimproved value of land, and lowering customs duties. Fowlds was also a crusader for a host of what were then progressive measures, including cremation, town planning, equality for women, temperance, state banks, proportional representation, the elective executive, the initiative, referendum and recall, and measures to ensure pure food. His apprenticeship as a debater and lay preacher and experience on local school committees and the Mount Albert Road Board, together with his conviction of the need for reform and his sheaf of political ideas, led him to enter politics.
After standing unsuccessfully as an independent prohibition candidate in 1896, he was elected to Parliament for City of Auckland in 1899 on the Liberal ticket. From 1902 to 1911 he was MP for Grey Lynn, earning a reputation as a left-wing Liberal, along with Robert McNab and W. A. Chapple, for seeking a more progressive policy than that being pursued by the Liberals' leader, Richard Seddon. In 1905 Seddon was reported to have said that Fowlds was 'the strongest man in the party & would make a strong Minister' but for his advocacy of the single tax. That subject provoked opposition leader W. F. Massey to claim to Parliament, 'The Ethiopian may change his skin and the leopard change his spots, but the single-taxer never changes his opinions.'
On the death of Seddon in 1906, Fowlds was appointed minister of education and minister of public health in the Ward cabinet. Among the achievements during his term of office were improvements in staffing of schools, teachers' salaries and superannuation; the introduction of university bursaries; free textbooks in primary schools; the expansion of free places in secondary schools; the founding of the School Journal; improvements in the administration of public health, hospitals and charitable aid; and a pure food measure, the Sale of Food and Drugs Act 1907. He was minister in charge of the New Zealand International Exhibition (1906–7), and represented the New Zealand government at the opening of the Parliament of the Union of South Africa in 1910. In 1909 he exchanged the public health portfolio for immigration and customs. In spite of gibes against his so-called fads, which he had to hold in abeyance on joining the ministry, Fowlds proved to be a capable minister and a vigorous defender of the government against the attacks of Massey. Not all the comments on his administration were laudatory. He was accused of robbing education boards of their powers, 'with himself and the fad-ridden Mr Hogben as twin Caesars'.
In 1911 Fowlds resigned from the Ward ministry, frustrated by the premier's lack of consultation with cabinet, the loss of impetus of the government and the lack of progress in reform – 'the weakness of Sir Joseph's leadership'. His defection was a factor in the fall of the Ward government in 1912. Fowlds was unable to regain his seat in Parliament, in spite of his 'New Evangel' programme and his attempts to rally moderate Labour and 'true liberals' under the banner of the United Labour Party. Instead he turned his skills to other forms of public activity.
During the First World War he was a leader in patriotic work in Auckland with the New Zealand Branch of the British Red Cross and Order of St John, and for this work was made a CBE in 1919. He was also one of the organisers of the campaign which almost succeeded in carrying the referendum for prohibition in 1919. He had a notable career as an educational administrator: he was chairman and then president of Auckland University College from 1920 to 1933, a member of the senate of the University of New Zealand from 1921 to 1933, and was largely responsible for the founding of Massey Agricultural College. His career as a university administrator is best remembered, however, for his authorship of the 'Fowlds memorandum', and the subsequent debate over the principle of academic freedom which culminated in the effective dismissal of J. C. Beaglehole from a temporary lectureship at Auckland University College in 1932.
Fowlds was also a leading Congregationalist and a benefactor of many organisations, achieving prominence in the Jubilee Institute for the Blind, the Auckland branch of the New Zealand Society for the Protection of Women and Children, the New Zealand Alliance, the Freemasons, the Rotary movement, the Workers' Educational Association and the single tax movement, among others. His many and diverse interests also included phrenology and chiropractic. In 1928 he was made a Knight Bachelor.
In the 1930s the family firm went into liquidation and George and Mary Fowlds were forced to leave Greystone Knowe and move to a smaller house in Mount Albert. George Fowlds died at Auckland on 17 August 1934; his ashes were later interred at Fenwick. Mary Fowlds continued to live in Auckland, where she died on 16 April 1941.
George Fowlds was a generous, affable man with a great capacity for work, a forceful public speaker and preacher, and a staunch Christian. Although of humble origins he became a leader in his trade, an effective cabinet minister in education and public health, a leader in a large number of community organisations and an activist for many progressive causes. In 1940 his papers, about nine linear metres of material including over 30,000 letters, were presented to the library of the University of Auckland by his eldest son. They provide a unique primary source of information about the Liberal period in New Zealand history.