Born at Bishop Wearmouth, Sunderland on 16 May 1830, he was the younger son of the Rev. Joseph Fowler, and was educated at Woodhouse Grove School. When his father's death in 1851 precluded his going to Oxford and reading for the Bar, he became a solicitor. For many years he was a member of the Council of the Incorporated Law Society. He moved to Tettenhall, Wolverhampton in 1855, where he took a particular interest in the working classes and in the Working Men's College. He became a councillor in 1858 and alderman in 1860, working to improve the town's sewage and water supply. He was elected mayor in 1862 (the youngest in England at that time) and became chairman of the first School Board in 1870. He was MP for the town in 1880-1908 and joined the Cabinet in 1892 as President of the Local Government Board. He married Ellen Thorneycroft, the daughter of a local ironmaster. They worshipped at Trinity, Wolverhampton, which he had helped to build and where he was chapel steward for many years. The fact that Trinity was a 'Morning Prayer chapel' for many years reflected his affection for the Anglican Prayer Book. A lecture he gave in Wolverhampton on 'the Institutes of Wesleyan Methodism' was published in 1858.
He was Secretary of State for India 1894-95, was considered a possible successor to Gladstone as leader of the Liberal Party, and was Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster 1905-1908 and Lord President of the Council 1908-1910. From 1876 he was a partner of Robert Perks in a London-based legal firm. As Viscount Wolverhampton (1908) he was the first Methodist to sit in the Lords and the first to become a Cabinet minister. He was instrumental in getting the Old Age Pensions Bill through the Lords that year. He received an honorary LLD from Birmingham University in 1909. He died at Wolverhampton on 25 February 1911.
His daughters, Ellen Thorneycroft Fowler' (Mrs A.L. Felkin, 1860-1929) and Edith Henrietta Fowler' (Mrs W.R. Hamilton, 1865-1944) were both novelists. The earliest publications of the former were in verse (1891, 1895). It was said of her novels that 'She had wit, imagination, much skill in dialogue and a sure sense of character,' though she lived long enough to see them go out of fashion. Concerning Isabel Carnaby (1898) was partly autobiographical and gives an interesting insight into upper middle-class Victorian Wesleyanism. 'Her conversation was witty without malice; she was full of kindness and good nature, and she was a great reader who remembered what she read.' In 1903 she married A.L. Felkin, a schools inspector, and lived at Eltham, Kent until moving to Bournemouth in 1916, where she died on 22 June 1929, following an operation. Her sister Edith wrote their father's biography (1912).
'I can recall Mr. Fowler's appearance at this time very clearly, his powerful and interesting face with deep-set grey eyes, and firm and well-formed mouth and chin. His habitual expression was grave almost to melancholy. At times he looked as tough he was weary of life or even bored by it. But all came right the moment he smiled. … No one could be more charming in conversation, and he knew how to make use of a pleasant vein of railery, and was endowed with a keen sense of humour. He had a beautiful voice, clear and penetrating, with a great variety of modulation and expression, and persuasive charm. … Mr Fowler held his own opinions with tenacity, but he accorded to others the same liberty. His was, I think, a distinctively argumentative mind and he heartedly enjoyed a good-humoured mental conflict. He pleased us very much by his willingness to discuss a subject with us young girls, as though we were grown-up women; he never quenched us because of our youth. He could hold three of us at bay at once, in our spirited encounters.' Louisa Macdonald (Mrs. Alfred Baldwin), quoted in Edith Henrietta Fowler, The Life of Henry Hartley Fowler, first Viscount Wolverhampton (1912) pp.88-89
'[Ellen Thorneycroft Fowler] had wit, imagination, much skill in dialogue, and a sure sense of character, though her construction perhaps left something to be desired... Her conversation was witty without malice... and she was a great reader who remembered what she read.' (Times, 24 June 1929)