Webb, Sidney and Beatrice

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Webb, Sidney and Beatrice



Sidney and Beatrice Webb formed one of the most remarkable married partnerships in British history; they deeply influenced the social thought and the social institutions of their country.

They were born in very different social environments. Beatrice, the older, was born in January 1858 at Standish House near Gloucester, the eighth daughter of Richard Potter and his wife, Laurencina Heyworth, the daughter of a well-known Liverpool merchant. Richard Potter’s grandfather was a self-made man who started as a small draper in Tad-caster, Lancashire. His sons, “the radical Potters,” played a large part in the movements for reform of Parliament, reform of the Poor Law, and repeal of the Corn Laws and in the development of the Manchester Grammar School and the ManchesterGuardian. Richard Potter himself, after some vicissitudes, became an important Victorian entrepreneur. Beatrice, a lonely and delicate child with a constant tendency to dyspepsia and insomnia, received practically no formal education but taught herself by extensive reading at home and discussion with her father’s visitors, particularly with the philosopher Herbert Spencer, who was a guide and friend for much of her early life. After her mother’s death in 1882 (and the marriage of her seven sisters to men of standing and distinction), Beatrice became her father’s companion and part-time secretary and mistress of his household, responsible for the entertainment of his many distinguished guests. It was in this connection that she came close to being the third wife of Joseph Chamberlain—a romance terminated, not without pain, by her realization of the dominating character of the man.

Sidney, born in July 1859, came, by contrast, from the lower middle class. His father was an accountant who had been one of John Stuart Mill’s committee members in the famous Westminster election of 1865, and his mother kept a dress shop in Cranbourne Street, Leicester Square. They struggled to give their children an education, and Sidney went to the City of London School and also to schools in Germany and Switzerland. At 15 he left school and became a clerk in the City, continuing to educate himself by evening classes, principally at Birkbeck College (which was not then part of the University of London). In 1881, after three years in the civil service, he excelled in a qualifying examination and eventually selected the Colonial Office.

It was not until 1890 that Beatrice and Sidney met, and it was concern with the problems of society which brought them together. Beatrice, weary and critical of the round of London “society” and of what she felt to be the fruitless efforts of the Charity Organisation Society and other such bodies to relieve and improve the condition of the vast numbers of the poor, had, incognito, visited relatives of her family who had not risen in the world, the Akeds of Bacup in Lancashire. There she discovered the “respectable” working class and its organizations, particularly the cooperative societies which, as a social phenomenon, excited her imagination and led eventually to her first published book, The Co-operative Movement (1891). Before writing the book, however, and shortly after her break with Chamberlain, she had been invited to take part in the immense and important inquiry which her shipowner cousin, Charles Booth, was making into the life and labor of the people of London [see the biography of Booth; see also Booth et al. 1889-1891]. To this she contributed personal research into the conditions of labor for outworkers in the East End garment trade, and her research led to her giving evidence in 1888 before the House of Lords Select Committee on the Sweating System. It also led her to the conclusion that “the whole nation is the sweater.” From her study of the cooperative movement, she had gone on to study another form of native-grown organization of the working class, the trade unions, with whose membership she had also made acquaintance in Lancashire. She termed the trade unions the “democracies of producers,” in contrast to the “democracies of consumers” which made up the cooperative movement. She attended the Trades Union Congress in 1889—the year of the great “dockers’ tanner” strike. However, the task of gathering information about trade unions proved immensely more complicated than the job she had already done for cooperatives, and, casting around for help, she was recommended to a man named Sidney Webb “who literally pours out information.”

By that time the name of Sidney Webb was becoming moderately well known in circles interested in social reform. In 1884 he had been introduced by his journalist friend Bernard Shaw to a newly formed body called the Fabian Society and shortly afterward began his fifty-year tenancy of a seat on its executive committee. At once he started to write and to lecture for it; in 1887 he wrote the most famous of all its pamphlets, Facts for Socialists; and at the end of the following year he delivered one of the lectures (given by the seven members of the executive committee) which were published in 1889 as Fabian Essays in Socialism. The book immediately became a best seller—it was reprinted as recently as 1962—and gave immediate prominence to the infant society. Beatrice had read and appreciated Webb’s lecture before she met its author; they were married in June of 1892 and at once set off to hunt up records of early trade unions in Glasgow and Dublin. Sidney had already left the civil service for journalism. Now his wife’s income of a thousand pounds a year permitted him to devote his time to social research and investigation, propaganda for socialism through the Fabian Society, and public and political work. In the same year as his marriage he was elected to the London County Council (created in 1888) as member for Deptford and at once became the guide, particularly on educational matters, of the Progressive majority, whose election program was, in fact, largely drawn up by himself.

The immediate fruits of the “partnership” were in the field of research in economic history. Their great classic, The History of Trade Unionism, which Beatrice had begun, was completed and published in 1894. It was followed in 1897 by Industrial Democracy, and the Webbs then turned to the history and problems of English local governing bodies, which they were later to christen “democracies of citizens.” This tremendous study, which for many years stood alone in its field, was begun in 1899 and resulted in ten large volumes containing in all over four thousand pages. These were published at intervals between 1906 and 1929, in addition to some half-dozen smaller books on specialized local-government problems.

This research and the task of writing it up were a continuous preoccupation, but practical political work proceeded simultaneously. At first, and for some time thereafter, it was Sidney who was chiefly in the public eye, Beatrice being more of a background influence, “permeating” their London friends and professional acquaintances with the Webb ideas and plans. Sidney’s results were spectacular. Apart from his work on the London County Council (which included laying the foundation for the system of secondary-school education as well as for technical education in London), during the first ten years of his marriage he was responsible, with his wife’s assistance, for the creation of the well-known London School of Economics, for the reorganization (with R. B. Haldane) of the University of London, and for the proposals to reshape state education in England that became, almost without amendment, the fundamental Education Acts of 1902 and 1903. Beatrice became active as a politician only after producing for the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws, which sat from 1905 to 1909, the remarkable document known simply as the Minority Report (see The Break-up of the Poor Law 1909), which anticipated most of the social legislation brought finally into effect by the Labour government of 1945. Aided by the radical revival of 1906, the Webbs, with the assistance of the Fabian Society, ran a nationwide campaign for the abolition of the Poor Laws, but when that failed, they gave up hope of influencing the older parties and gradually turned toward the young Labour party. Just before World War i, they had founded the New Statesman and the Fabian Research Department—the latter, under guild socialist influence, eventually broke away from Webbian control, though not from the Webbian tradition of practical fact finding.

During the war, the Webbs found themselves at the center of the problems created by war conditions and prospective postwar reconstruction. Both became members of many committees, for one of which Beatrice wrote a minor classic on equal pay (1919). Immediately after the war was over, Sidney was appointed by the miners as one of their representatives on the famous Sankey Commission on the Coal Mines. His most lasting contribution after World War I, however, was as Fabian representative on the Executive Committee of the Labour party, for which, in close consultation with its secretary, Arthur Henderson, he drafted both the new constitution of 1918 and the statement of policy on which it appealed to the country, Labour ε the New Social Order. The constitution has endured with scarcely a change, and the basic policy, notwithstanding all that has happened since, has not really altered very greatly.

Thereafter the new contributions to thought and action made by the Webbs began to decrease, though they wrote many more books and continued to write and to lecture. Their reputations remained high. Sidney’s tenure of office in the two minority Labour governments was undistinguished, and after the ignominious fall of the second one, their interest shifted to the Soviet Union, which they visited in 1932 and found—more or less—a Fabian paradise. Their last large-scale book, Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation? (1935), was an enormous encomium that raised few questions; after it was finished, they retired altogether from London life. Beatrice died in 1943 and Sidney (who had earlier suffered a serious stroke) in 1947. They are buried in Westminster Abbey.

The social contribution of the Webbs to British life can be read even more clearly in their deeds than in the immense mass of words that they produced. Their social philosophy was basically simple; it rested upon the following convictions:

(1) The principle of utilitarianism, “the greatest happiness of the greatest number,” is correct.

(2) This utilitarian goal, under modern conditions, can be reached by the expropriation of private, profit-making capital and its replacement, in the major part of the economic life of the country, by communalized institutions controlled either by the national state or by local authorities, such as county councils, or by cooperative enterprise. Neither the Webbs nor their Fabian colleagues advocated universal nationalization.

(3) Any such enterprises should be conducted democratically but efficiently; by this they originally meant conducted by persons adequately trained for their posts and selected by democratic process, but later, under guild socialist pressure, they were induced to allow some place to representatives of the interests of the participating workers, acting either through trade unions or professional organizations.

(4) There should be established a “national minimum of civilised life,” including, along with incomes, standards of health, housing, and the like, below which no one should be allowed to fall.

(5) Equality, or at least an approximation to equality, in the conditions of existence is the proper ultimate goal.

These principles seemed so obviously true that when they were explained with sufficient clarity and the results of failure to apply them described in irrefutable detail, no one with a reasonably open mind could fail to be convinced. “Measurement and publicity” was the phrase they coined to describe this process of producing in others convictions akin to their own.

As a corollary to their basic outlook and to their belief that the forces of history were working on their side (see Webb 1889), they insisted on “the inevitability of gradualness,” a phrase used by Webb in his presidential address to the Labour Party Conference (see The Labour Party on the Threshold 1923a); that is to say, the socialist state would be brought about not by any single and violent convulsion but by stages, by piecemeal legislation and piecemeal changes in administration, so that in the end the country would have become a socialized economy painlessly and almost without being aware of it. For this reason, the propaganda and work of the Fabian Society, which was so long the main vehicle of the Webbs’ thoughts on social change, was directed mainly toward the advocacy of specific reforms and the conversion of specific groups of persons, rather than toward an emphasis on the need for root-and-branch revision—though ultimate radical revision was always the underlying aim. The Webbs did not believe in trying to go further than they could foresee at any given moment. It is now clear enough that their analysis assumed an orderly development which has not in fact happened, that it was overly intellectual and overly rational and omitted too many factors. They themselves, after 1931, became more receptive to the idea of catastrophic change, as had occurred in Russia, though they never thought it probable in Great Britain. Although their long-run prognosis was not entirely correct, the influence of their pragmatic socialism, coupled with their immense industry and flair for purposeful and detailed research, has deeply influenced the development of society and social legislation within their own country.

Margaret Cole

[See alsoEconomicThought, article on SocialistThought; Socialism; and the biography ofWallas.]


(1887) 1938 Webb, SidneyFacts for Socialists, From the Political Economists and Statisticians. 14th ed., rev. Fabian Tract No. 5. London: Fabian Society.

(1889) 1962 Webb, Sidney The Basis of Socialism: Historic. Pages 28-57 in Fabian Essays. 6th ed. London: Allen & Unwin.

(1891) 1899 Webb, BeatriceThe Co-operative Movement in Great Britain. London: Sonnenschein; New York: Scribner.

(1894) 1950 The History of Trade Unionism. Rev. ed. London and New York: Longmans.

(1897) 1920 Industrial Democracy. New ed. 2 vols. in 1. London and New York: Longmans.

1903 The History of Liquor Licensing in England: Principally From 1700-1830. London and New York: Longmans.

1906 The Parish and the County. London and New York: Longmans. → Volume 1 of the authors’ English Local Government.

(1908) 1963 The Manor and the Borough. 2 vols. Ham-den, Conn.: Shoe String Press. → Volumes 2 and 3 of the authors’ English Local Government.

1909 Webb, Sidney; and Webb, Beatrice (editors) The Break-up of the Poor Law. London and New York: Longmans. → This volume is Part 1 of the Minority Report of the Royal Commission on Poor Laws and Relief of Distress. Part 2 was published under the title The Public Organisation of the Labour Market.

(1913) 1963 The Story of the King’s Highway. London: Cass. → Volume 5 of the authors’ English Local Government.

1919 Webb, BeatriceThe Wages of Men and Women: Should They Be Equal? London: Fabian Society. → Beatrice Webb’s Minority Report to the Government Committee on Equal Pay.

1920 A Constitution for the Socialist Commonwealth of Great Britain. London and New York: Longmans.

1921 The Consumers’ Co-operative Movement. London and New York: Longmans.

1922a English Prisons Under Local Government. London and New York: Longmans. → Volume 6 of the authors’ English Local Government.

1922b Statutory Authorities for Special Purposes. London and New York: Longmans. → Volume 4 of the authors’ English Local Government.

1923a Webb, SidneyThe Labour Party on the Threshold. Fabian Tract No. 207. London: Fabian Society. → The chairman’s address to the annual conference of the Labour party, June 26, 1923.

1923b The Decay of Capitalist Civilisation. London: Fabian Society; Allen & Unwin.

(1926) 1950 Webb, BeatriceMy Apprenticeship. London and New York: Longmans.

1927-1929 English Poor Law History. 2 vols. in 3. London and New York: Longmans. → Volume 1: The Old Poor Law. Volume 2: The Last Hundred Years. The work constitutes volumes 7 and 9 of the authors’ English Local Government.

1928 Webb, Sidney Reminiscences. St. Martin’s Review[1928]:621-626.

1932 Methods of Social Study. London and New York: Longmans.

(1935) 1947 Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation? 3d ed. New York and London: Longmans.

Diaries, 1912-1924. Webb, Beatrice Edited by Margaret Cole. London and New York: Longmans, 1952.

Diaries, 1924-1932. Webb, Beatrice Edited by Margaret Cole. London and New York: Longmans, 1956.

Our Partnership. Webb, Beatrice Edited by Barbara Drake and Margaret Cole. New York: Longmans, 1948. → A sequel to My Apprenticeship (1926).


Booth, Charles et al. (1889-1891) 1902-1903 Life and Labour of the People in London. 17 vols. London: Macmillan.

Cole, Margaret 1945 Beatrice Webb. London and New York: Longmans.

Cole, Margaret (editor) 1949 The Webbs and Their Work. London: Muller.

Cole, Margaret 1961 The Story of Fabian Socialism. Stanford Univ. Press. → A paperback edition was published in 1961 by Wiley.

Fabian Essays. 6th ed. (1889) 1962 London: Allen & Unwin. → First published as Fabian Essays in Socialism, by G. B. Shaw, Sidney Webb, and others.

Hamilton, Mary A. 1933 Sidney and Beatrice Webb: A Study in Contemporary Biography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

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