Webb, Beatrice Potter

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WEBB, BEATRICE POTTER (1858–1943), British socialist.

Best known as a leader of the British Fabian Society in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Beatrice Potter Webb was also an early empirical sociologist, the author of important works of social and political history, and a brilliant diarist and autobiographer. The daughter of Richard Potter (1817–1892), a railway magnate and lumber merchant, and Lawrencina Heyworth Potter (1821–1882), a bluestocking and would-be novelist, she was raised with her eight sisters by nannies and governesses on a Gloucestershire estate and in a London flat during the Season. Her grandfathers, businessmen who made their fortunes in cotton and trade in the north of England, were Radicals and Nonconformists. In rebellion against the privileged and yet constraining social ethos of her immediate family, she invoked the political and religious dissent of her Lancashire ancestry as her true heritage. As a young woman she chafed at the idea that an advantageous marriage was the only imaginable vocation for a woman of her class and sought refuge in the intellectual tutelage of her mother's friend Herbert Spencer (1820–1903), the Potter family's "philosopher on the hearth." She surprised both Spencer and her family when she married the socialist Sidney James Webb (1859–1947), the son of a milliner and hairdresser, in 1892. Together, along with colleagues George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950), Sydney Olivier (1859–1943), Graham Wallas (1858–1932), Edward Reynolds Pease (1857–1955), and William Clarke (1852–1901), they led the Fabian Society in its early years.

Webb's autobiography, My Apprenticeship (1926), tells a story that is in many ways paradigmatic of the spiritual struggles, political transformations, and personal conflicts of many members of her generation. She describes the first half of her life as a search for "creed" and "craft" carried out within the context of what she called the "mid-Victorian Time-Spirit," an ethos in which, as she put it, "the impulse of selfsubordinating service was transferred, consciously and overtly, from God to man" (My Apprenticeship, pp. 142–143). As a protégée of Spencer, the individualist philosopher, and daughter of laissez-faire capitalists, she questioned the principles of self-interest that left vast numbers of citizens in poverty and was drawn to a collectivist approach to economic and social organization. As a religious spirit, she moved away from Christian orthodoxies and gravitated to the "religion of humanity" of Auguste Comte (1798–1857) and the beliefs of English positivists like Frederic Harrison (1831–1923). As a woman, she railed against the marriage market of the London Season, rejected the idea of a husband who would completely eclipse her and her own aspirations, and sought a vocation outside of wedlock. During the 1880s, Webb considered the possibility of marriage to Joseph Chamberlain (1836–1914), then a leader in the Radical Party. Webb resisted Chamberlain's political ideas, then more radical than her own, and his imperious personality, even as she felt deeply drawn to him. In the end, she wrote in her diary, marriage to someone like him might be disastrous: "I shall be absorbed into the life of a man whose aims are not my aims; who will refuse me all freedom of thought in my intercourse with him; to whose career I shall have to subordinate all my life, mental and physical" (Diary, vol. 1, p. 111).

Webb was saved from the depressing aftermath of her failed relationship with Chamberlain and her stultifying life as dutiful, unmarried daughter by an invitation from her cousin Charles Booth (1840–1916) to assist him in his mammoth survey of poverty in London. Booth, himself influenced by positivism and moved by current debates about the extent of poverty in England, left his work as a Liverpool shipowner and devoted himself to a project that lasted over fourteen years. If Comte and Spencer led Webb to an interest in the study of society, Booth gave her the opportunity to practice—and partly to invent—the craft of social investigation. Her contributions to Booth's Life and Labour of the People in London (1889–1903) consisted of empirical studies of three metropolitan groups: dock laborers, sweatshop workers, and Jewish immigrants. At times using disguise and the technique of what would come to be known as participatory observation, Webb was able to produce both vivid accounts of East End life and analyses of the structure of labor.

Why this demand for State intervention from a generation reared amidst rapidly rising riches and disciplined in the school of philosophic radicalism and orthodox political economy?… The origin of the ferment is to be discovered in a new conscious ness of sin among men of intellect and men of property; a consciousness at first philanthropic and practical …; then literary and artistic …; and finally, analytic, historical and explanatory…. The consciousness of sin was a collective or class consciousness; a growing uneasiness, amounting to conviction, that the industrial organization, which had yielded rent, interest and profits on a stupen dous scale, had failed to provide a decent livelihood and tolerable living conditions for a majority of the inhabitants of Great Britain.

Beatrice Webb, My Apprenticeship (pp. 178–180).

Now embarked on a craft, Webb began to move toward the creed of socialism. She was drawn to Fabianism because of her experiences with research, interest in the cooperative movement,

and growing belief in the need for state regulation of labor, as well as by reading Fabian Essays, edited by Shaw and published in 1889. Although the origins of the Fabian Society were utopian and quasi religious, its leading members had, by this time, become gradualists committed to a scientific understanding of the historical evolution of society and to the propagation of state socialism, beginning with municipal collectivism. Sidney Webb's own contribution to the Essays, on the "historic basis" of socialism, relied on theorists like Spencer and Comte, as well as John Stuart Mill (1806–1873). When Beatrice married Sidney Webb, she embraced a political and intellectual way of life that combined belief, work, and what she called a "loving partnership."

As co-authors, husband and wife produced many tomes of political and economic history, among them The History of Trade Unionism (1894), Industrial Democracy (1897), and the nine-volume English Local Government (1903–1929). They also founded the London School of Economics and launched The New Statesman. In 1905, Webb was appointed by Arthur James Balfour (1848–1930) to the Royal Commission on the Poor Law that investigated the state and efficacy of relief in Britain. Ultimately she and Sidney crafted and then campaigned for a minority report. The report dissented from the majority view that destitution could be alleviated through reform rather than, as the Webbs believed, wholly abolished. Sidney Webb joined the Labour governments of 1924 and 1929, while Beatrice engaged in campaigning and Labour Party politics and embarked on the writing of her autobiography. After the defeat of the second Labour government the Webbs turned their investigative attentions to the Soviet Union, which seemed to them to represent a "new civilization" that could enact the social, economic, and political principles for which they had long worked. Of all the aspects of the Webbs' long careers, this idealization of Soviet communism was the most controversial and the most criticized.

The Webbs have often been caricatured as Gradgrinds and ultra-rationalists. H.G. Wells (1866–1946), their colleague in the Fabian Society, satirized them in The New Machiavelli (1911). Virginia Woolf (1882–1941) wrote with bemusement of the Webbs' visits to her home to discuss politics with her husband, Leonard, also a Fabian, and famously recorded in her diary that Beatrice declared marriage to be "necessary as a waste pipe for emotion" (Woolf, p. 196). Since the mid-1990s or so the Fabians—and the Webbs in particular—have warranted a second look from theorists in search of non-communist strains of socialism. Reevaluations of Webb have regarded her as a figure in her own right and have often focused on the literary dimensions of her work, her contribution to sociology, and her exemplary struggles with the constraints of Victorian femininity.

See alsoFabians; Shaw, George Bernard; Socialism; Spencer, Herbert.


Primary Sources

Webb, Beatrice. Our Partnership. Edited by Barbara Drake and Margaret I. Cole. London, 1948.

——. My Apprenticeship. Cambridge, U.K., 1979.

——. The Diary of Beatrice Webb. Edited by Norman and Jeanne MacKenzie. 4 vols. Cambridge, Mass., 1982–1985.

Webb, Sidney, and Beatrice Webb. The Letters of Sidney and Beatrice Webb. Edited by Norman MacKenzie. 3 vols. Cambridge, U.K., 1978.

Woolf, Virginia. The Diary of Virginia Woolf. Edited by Anne Olivier Bell. Vol. 1. London, 1977.

Secondary Sources

Adam, Ruth, and Kitty Muggeridge. Beatrice Webb: A Life, 1858–1943. London, 1967.

Caine, Barbara. "Beatrice Webb and the 'Woman Question."' History Workshop Journal 14 (Autumn 1982): 23–43.

Hynes, Samuel. "The Art of Beatrice Webb." In Edwardian Occasions, 153–173. New York, 1972.

Lewis, Jane. Women and Social Action in Victorian and Edwardian England. Stanford, Calif., 1991.

Nord, Deborah Epstein. The Apprenticeship of Beatrice Webb. London, 1985.

Deborah Epstein Nord

Beatrice Potter Webb

views updated May 23 2018

Beatrice Potter Webb

The English social reformer Beatrice Potter Webb (1858-1943) was a leading Fabian socialist and a partner with her husband, Sidney Webb, in their projects for social and educational reform and in their research into the history of political and economic institutions.

Beatrice Potter was born on Jan. 2, 1858, at Standish House near Gloucester. Her father, Richard Potter, was a man with large railroad interests and many contacts among politicians and intellectuals. She was educated at home by governesses and also by extensive travel, wide reading, and direct contact with many of the leading figures of politics, science, and industry. Herbert Spencer in particular gave her the attention and encouragement that she thought denied to her by her family.

Potter's involvement with social problems began in 1883, when she became a rent collector in London. This work, in turn, led to her participation in Charles Booth's survey published as Life and Labour of the People in London. In 1887 the results of her inquiries into dock life in the East End of London were published in Nineteenth Century, soon followed by other articles and studies of sweated labor.

Increased confidence and deeper study culminated in Potter's The Co-operative Movement in Great Britain (1891). It was in connection with this that she met Sidney Webb. They were married in 1892, and their life together became one of single-minded dedication to research and social reform. Together they produced a veritable torrent of books, pamphlets, essays, and memoranda amounting to over a hundred items.

Until 1906 Potter's role in the partnership was primarily that of researcher, writer, and hostess for gatherings of Cabinet ministers and members of Parliament who came to hear the Webb opinion on social legislation. At the end of 1905 Beatrice was appointed a member of the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws, which sat from 1906 to 1909. The minority report, drafted by the Webbs, played an important role in the dismantling of the old Poor Law and in its replacement by the new systems of social insurance.

In the period after 1910 the Webbs abandoned their nonpartisan stance and became an important force in building the Labour party. Another cornerstone of their earlier philosophy was abandoned with the publication of their Soviet Communism: A New Society? (1935). They, who had always held that social change cannot come about by the violent destruction of existing institutions, endorsed the Russian Revolution in spite of its totalitarianism. Beatrice Webb died at Liphook, Hampshire, on April 30, 1943. In 1947, shortly after Sidney's death, their ashes were buried in Westminster Abbey.

Further Reading

The two volumes of Beatrice Webb's Diaries, 1912-1924, edited by Margaret Cole (1952), with an introduction by Lord Beveridge, offer many insights missing from the standard biographies. Beatrice Webb's memoirs are My Apprenticeship (1926) and Our Partnership (1948). One of the best books on Beatrice Webb was written by her niece, Kitty Muggeridge, and Ruth Adam, Beatrice Webb: A Life, 1858-1943 (1967). Margaret Cole, ed., The Webbs and Their Work (1949), is a collection of appraisals of the Webbs written by acquaintances and colleagues. Margaret Cole, Beatrice Webb (1945), is also well written, informative, and accurate. Mary Agnes Hamilton, Sidney and Beatrice Webb (1933), is an interesting account of the Webbs' activities up to the early 1930s.

Additional Sources

MacKenzie, Jeanne, A Victorian courtship: the story of Beatrice Potter and Sidney Webb, New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.

Muggeridge, Kitty, Beatrice Webb: a life, 1858-1943, Chicago: Academy Publishers, 1983, 1967.

Nord, Deborah Epstein, The apprenticeship of Beatrice Webb, Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1985.

Radice, Lisanne, Beatrice and Sidney Webb: Fabian Socialists, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1984.

Seymour-Jones, Carole, Beatrice Webb: a life, Chicago: I.R. Dee, 1992.

Webb, Beatrice Potter, My apprenticeship, Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979. □

Webb, Beatrice (née Potter) and Webb, Sydney James

views updated Jun 11 2018

Webb, Beatrice (née Potter) and Webb, Sydney James (1858–1943; 1859–1947) Noted authors of a definitive History of British Trade Unionism, and leading thinkers and activists of the so-called Fabian socialist movement, who made a distinguished contribution to the development and characteristic outlook of the British Labour Party. The Webbs' work on trade unions shows a distaste for the strong craft tradition in Britain and looks forward to a time when state regulation of minimum wages, together with social insurance, will make unions obsolete. Their socialism was distinguished for its advocacy of building democratic socialist institutions by steady accretion. The welfare consensus between the political parties of post-1945 Britain owed much to their ideas.

Webb, Beatrice

views updated Jun 11 2018

Webb, Beatrice (1858–1943) British social historian and politician. Beatrix Webb (née Potter) and her husband, Sidney Webb (1859–1947), founded the London School of Economics (1895) and helped to found the New Statesman magazine (1913). Sidney Webb was one of the founders of the Fabian Society.

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Beatrice Potter Webb