Born on 24 June 1825, the son of Methodist parents of Duke Street, Grosvenor Square, London. The family worshipped at Great Queen Street chapel, where they became acquainted with the Fowlers. The son reacted against the 'stern and irritable' personality of his father. Baulked by parental opposition to his preparing for the Church at Oxford, he joined the family business in the Strand, became a junior partner in 1846 and developed it into the leading firm of newsagents in the country, by exploiting the growing demand for station bookstalls and recognizing the potential for public advertising. His other innovations included cheap reprints and circulating libraries. His conservatism led him to refuse to allow Hugh Price Hughes' Methodist Times to be sold on his bookstalls, and his policy of boycotting 'pernicious literature' earned him the sobriquet of 'the North-Western Missionary'. He entered Parliament in 1868 as MP for Westminster and became a member of the first London school board in 1871. His career was marked by integrity rather than brilliance. He served as First Lord of the Admiralty (1877) under Disraeli and as First Lord of the Treasury and Leader of the Commons (1886) in the Salisbury administration. He is said to have inspired W.S. Gilbert's words in HMS Pinafore: 'Stand by your bed and never go to sea, And you shall be ruler of the Queen's Navy.' Punch dubbed him 'Old Morality' and a solleague described him as 'a straightforward, honest man [who] won the confidence of all by his character & not genius. He was wise in Council & prudent'. Financial success enabled him to be generously benevolent. Among his philanthropic activities he was treasurer of the SPCK. In 1890 he was appointed Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports. He died on 7 October 1891.
His sister Caroline married the son of Richard Reece.