Biography Project


Will[iam Edward] Arnold Forster was the son of Liberal Unionist MP Hugh Oakeley Arnold-Forster and had three brothers, Merv[yn], John and Christopher [Kit].  Will was born in 1886.  Like his mother, Mary Story-Maskeline, he was artistic, and he studied at the Slade art school, where he won several prizes.  He then lived in Italy for two or three years, until the outbreak of the First World War brought him back to England.  He joined the Royal Navy and served with distinction in the Admiralty, where he helped to mastermind the blockade of Germany which eventually bought that terrible war to an end.

In 1918 he married Ka[tharine Laird] Cox, and in 1920 their only child, Mark was born.  Will and Ka lived in Cornwall in a house called The Eagle’s Nest, where Will planted a lovely garden.  He also devised the planting for the Memorial Garden in St Ives and advised Barbara Hepworth on the planting of her sculpture garden.

Photo courtesy of Vanda Morton

Will the gardener

Will was an active member of the emerging Labour Party and stood unsuccessfully in the General Election of 1929.  He was a strong advocate for the League of Nations, the forerunner of the United Nations, and desperately wanted to avoid the Second World War.  He spoke tirelessly at public meetings large and small, all over the country and abroad, and wrote many pamphlets and articles, as well as a seminal book on gardening, Shrubs for the Milder Counties.  He was also interested in the preservation of the countryside, votes for women,  modern education, and a host of other causes.

Ka Cox was the daughter of a Liberal stockbroker, whose mother died early.  Her father remarried, and Ka became something of a mother-figure to her younger half-sisters – a role she was to retain in many of her relationships throughout her life.  She was among the second generation of women to attend university, even though women were not awarded degrees at that time.  In 1906 she went to Newnham College, Cambridge, to study history, where she joined the Fabian Society.

Photo courtesy of Vanda Morton

Ka Cox

It was at Newnham that she fell in with a group known as the Neo-Pagans, which included artists like Jacques Raverat, Gwen Darwin (who later married Jacques after Ka turned down his frequent proposals), and poets like Rupert Brooke.  Ka had a disastrous affair with Rupert and became pregnant by him, but suffered a miscarriage.  While she was at Newnham she became friends with Virginia and Leonard Woolf, and she helped to nurse Virginia through the mental breakdown she experienced shortly after her marriage to Leonard.  They remained lifelong friends.

During the First World War Ka did outstanding work with Serbian refugees in Corsica, for which she was offered an MBE, but which she refused.  She later worked at the Admiralty, where she and Will met.  She shared Will’s interest in education, sending Mark to a radical new school in Germany, run by Kurt Hahn.  When in 1933 Hahn, a Jew, was forced to leave his homeland, she helped him to get to England where he founded Gordonstoun school, which Mark also attended.  Ka played an active role in public life in Cornwall and became the first woman magistrate in the county.

Ka died before her time in 1938, when Will was away in north America.  Many myths surround her death, but she died of a stroke, pure and simple.  After her death, Will married Ruth Turner, the widow of George Mallory, whose body was lost for many decades on Mount Everest.  Sadly, this second marriage lasted only four years, as Ruth succumbed to cancer.  Will spent the Second World War in the Home Guard.  He continued to paint and exhibit until his death in 1951.

As you can see, Will and Ka led rich and varied lives, and their biography will touch on many of the great themes of the first half of the 20th century.  However, there are many unanswered questions which I hope my research will finally answer.

In the meantime, please visit the questions page in case you can help to point me in the right direction.


Both photos courtesy of Vanda Morton