Webb, Beatrice (1858–1943)

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Webb, Beatrice (1858–1943)

Social researcher and reformer who became a member of the Fabian Society and, with her husband Sidney Webb, helped instigate many of the welfare and educational reforms adopted in Great Britain in the early part of the 20th century . Name variations: Bee or Bo Potter. Born Beatrice Potter on January 22, 1858, in Standish House, her family's home in Gloucestershire, England; died on April 30, 1943, of kidney disease at her home in Passfield Corner, England; daughter of Richard Potter (a wealthy businessman) and Lawrencina or Laurencina (Heyworth) Potter; educated by governesses, with one year spent at Stirling House, a finishing school in Bournemouth, England, at age 17; married Sidney James Webb, on July 23, 1892; no children.

Lived at various homes her family had in England; traveled to North America with her father and to Europe with various family members; enjoyed the social season in London; assumed the management of her father's houses upon her mother's death (1882); began charitable work (1882); decided to become a social investigator; studied the conditions of the dock workers, the "sweated trades," the co-operative movement, and the development of trade unions; became a socialist; devoted her life to social investigation, writing, and reform programs; established, with Sidney Webb, the London School of Economics and Political Science (1895); served on the Royal Commission on the Poor Law (1905–09) and later on various other governmental commissions; kept a diary throughout most of her life.

Selected writings:

The Co-operative Movement in Great Britain (1891); (Fabian tracts) Women and the Factory Acts (1896) and The Abolition of the Poor Law (1918); Men's and Women's Wages: Should They be Equal? (1919); My Apprenticeship (1926); (edited and published posthumously) Our Partnership (1948); many other works jointly authored with Sidney Webb.

Victorian England expected upper-class women to conform to certain roles—wife, mother, household manager, society hostess—which required no extensive education or any great intellectual development. Women were assigned positions of subordination and generally were thought to be inferior intellectually to men. Although born into an upper-middle-class family, Beatrice Webb did not conform to her society's expectations, nor did she accept any pre-imposed limitations upon her intellectual development.

Beatrice Webb's parents came from wealthy backgrounds—from the classes risen to wealth during the heyday of industrialization. Her father's fortune came from the timber industry and from railroads; he served as the director of railroads in Great Britain and in Canada. Her maternal grandfather Lawrence Heyworth made his fortune in the textile industry. The Potters lived mostly at Standish House in Gloucestershire, where Beatrice Potter was born on January 22, 1858, but throughout her childhood the family moved frequently from one of their elegant houses to another, depending upon the season. Moving as they did was evidently unsettling to young Beatrice, as she confided to her diary that her childhood was a lonely, unhappy one. Given the fact that she was the eighth of nine daughters (a boy, who lived only four years, was born between Webb and her youngest sister), it seems strange that she would feel lonely. However, her mother, sorrowing over the loss of her only son, did not exhibit any affection for Beatrice and then lavished her attention upon the last daughter, Rosalind Potter , when she was born a few months after the son died. Laurencina Potter , herself considered something of an intellectual, actually judged Beatrice to be mentally inferior to her other children. Richard Potter's love for all his daughters compensated greatly for his wife's indifference. All the Potter girls received their education from governesses in a schoolroom provided at home, and the only time Webb was sent away to a "finishing" school was to Stirling House in Bournemouth, when she was 17. Although Beatrice had a very limited formal education, her father allowed his daughters to read and study whatever interested them, and Beatrice read the classics, history, economic theory, and philosophy. In addition, the Potter household frequently entertained prominent guests—scientists, clerics, entrepreneurs, government officials, philosophers, all friends of Richard Potter—and the young daughters conversed, discussed and even argued with some of the finest minds of the era. The philosopher Herbert Spencer, a longtime friend of the family, became one of Webb's intellectual mentors. From him and his writings, she learned the importance of the scientific method in making inquiries and coming to conclusions.

At age 18, Beatrice Potter made her debut into society and enjoyed the social scene for the next six years, until her mother's death in 1882 thrust upon her, as the older of the two unmarried daughters still at home, the management of her father's household. Not only did Potter rely upon Webb to handle his domestic concerns, but he also depended upon her assistance with his business affairs, which she managed so competently that he even considered making her officially a business associate.

Since these familial duties did not occupy all her time, in 1883 Webb began a short association with the Charity Organization Society (COS) in London as a "visitor" to the slums in Soho. Voluntary work with such an organization was considered appropriate for unmarried women from the upper classes. The COS' role was to make sure that only the "deserving poor" received help. In November 1883, Beatrice, disguised as a "Miss Jones" from Wales, visited a town, Bacup in Lancashire, from which her maternal ancestors had come. She was impressed by the spirit of community she found there. In 1885, Webb became a manager and rent-collector for Katharine Buildings, a group of dwellings for the working class located near St. Katharine Dock in London. This experience provided her with insight into the ordinary lives of the working class. However, her activities were curtailed by her father's stroke in November 1885, since his care fell primarily upon her shoulders. Her older sisters soon realized that she needed relief from the constant attendance upon their father, and they arranged for her to have four months each year to carry on her own endeavors.

In early 1886, Webb began to interview dock workers in London as part of Charles Booth's research to determine the numbers and conditions of the poor in that city. Booth, a wealthy shipowner who was married to Beatrice's cousin, did not believe the accusations of the Social Democratic Federation, a Marxist group, that one-fourth of the city's population lived in poverty. (The results of his investigations proved that in reality one-third were at the poverty level.) In talking with the dock workers, Webb perfected her interviewing techniques, which she had begun to develop at Katharine Buildings. She also became more concerned about the causes of poverty.

When she began her charity work and her social investigations, Webb was still very much influenced by Herbert Spencer, whose philosophy stressed individualism and laissez-faire. After witnessing the lives of the poor, Beatrice came to see this system of thought as self-centered and rapacious. She began to search for a replacement, for a "creed" in which she could believe. She had, while a teenager, begun to doubt Christianity, although throughout her life she had a mystical longing and found solace and comfort in visiting churches and in praying. During these years, Webb also sought a "craft" which she could pursue as her life's work.

The importance of having a craft seemed vital to Beatrice, since she had come to the conclusion that she would not marry. Beautiful and intelligent, Webb had had suitors, but she did not

reciprocate their feelings. The one great romantic attraction she did develop, at age 25, was for Joseph Chamberlain, then age 47. Chamberlain, a member of Parliament, had been a popular mayor of Birmingham and would later serve as colonial secretary. He had been widowed twice and was seeking a new mate. From 1883 to 1887, the two visited and corresponded with each other. However, as Beatrice related in her diary, she came to realize that his domineering personality would stifle her intellectual growth. After 1887, she put aside any consideration of marrying him and dedicated herself to the craft she had decided suited her best—that of a social investigator.

During these years, Webb had also investigated the "sweated" industry (clothing manufacturing), working briefly, and ineptly, at making trousers. By 1888, she had gained some renown for her research-related articles, which appeared in a few newspapers and journals. Based on that recognition, she was called to testify before a House of Lords committee investigating the "sweated" industries. Her research methods, attention to details, and presentation of her findings were gaining recognition. She felt confident in her work.

Beatrice then decided to study the co-operative movement in Great Britain, which led to the publication of The History of Co-operation in Great Britain in 1891. Her studies of the working class, her research of the co-operative movement, her interviews of dock workers during their strikes, her interest in trade unionism—all had convinced her that the prevailing laissez-faire capitalism was based upon individual greed and that community-oriented consciences had to be developed. The underlying causes of poverty had to be eliminated. Her search for a creed gradually led her to socialism and to Sidney James Webb.

In 1890, while collecting data for her book on co-operatives, Beatrice sought advice from Sidney Webb, a member of the socialist group the Fabian Society. From their first meeting, it seems, Sidney fell in love with Beatrice, and over the next two years tried to convince her to marry him. She was not romantically attracted to him, but she recognized his intellectual ability and literary talent. Finally, after the death of her father in January 1892, the two were married the following July 23. Many of her friends warned she had made an unwise choice, because the homely Sidney did not have the wealth nor social standing the Potters enjoyed. Nevertheless, Beatrice realized that she needed companionship and that marriage to Sidney would allow her to continue her social research. Soon she came to love her husband as much as he loved her, and the marriage turned into a partnership, or "the firm of Webb," as Beatrice referred to their union, which produced a prodigious amount of research, books, articles, reports, and speeches dealing with trade unions, local government, the poor laws, prisons, and many other topics. Biographers of each of the Webbs have stated that it is almost impossible to separate their work and assign specific credit to one or the other.

Two years after their marriage, the Webbs published their widely acclaimed History of Trade Unionism. Planned initially by Beatrice and based upon voluminous research and travel, this work proved how well their minds complemented each other. Another early and important result of the partnership was the founding of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Using a legacy left by a deceased Fabian member, the Webbs initiated the school in 1895. Beatrice not only helped conceive the plans for the school, but she also raised most of the additional revenue needed for its establishment. Sidney, by then a member of the London County Council and chair of its Technical Education Board, was also successful by 1898 in changing the University of London into a teaching institution instead of an examining and degree-granting body. The London School of Economics soon became one of the colleges of the University of London.

Whereas Sidney was generally in the public's view because of his elections to the London County Council, Beatrice was content to engage in the tedious research for their many subsequent volumes, especially for those on local government and on the poor laws. However, from 1905 to 1909, she, too, shared the public limelight. Appointed to the Royal Commission on the Poor Law in December 1905, Beatrice welcomed this opportunity for public service, especially as she believed the current Poor Law, which had undergone no major changes since 1834, was drastically in need of revision. Belief in Social Darwinism prevailed among the ruling classes in Britain at that time, and many people believed that the poor themselves were to blame for their conditions. Beatrice disagreed: unemployment and other situations beyond their control accounted for the vast number of poor people. She firmly believed that the government had a responsibility to provide what she called a "national minimum" of living standards—in employment, in education, in health benefits—for all citizens. Soon after the 20 commissioners assembled, Beatrice realized that the evidence to be presented by key witnesses and the data to be accumulated were controlled by the majority of members, who favored retaining the old principles behind the Poor Law. She did her best to present materials from her own research, to direct the Commission to the conclusion that it was better and, in the long run, cheaper to prevent unemployment and disease than to deal with them after the fact. Her diary entry of July 17, 1906, expresses this:

In listening to the evidence brought by the C.O.S. members in favour of restricting medical relief to the technically destitute, it suddenly flashed across my mind that what we had to do was to adopt the exactly contrary attitude, and make medical inspection and medical treatment compulsory on all sick persons—to treat illness, in fact, as a public nuisance to be suppressed in the interests of the community.

Although Beatrice badgered the majority of commissioners to change their views, she was unsuccessful. Thereupon, in 1909, she decided to submit a Minority Report expressing her conclusions. Sidney, the better of the two at writing, quickly drafted the document, and three other commissioners joined Beatrice in signing and presenting it. This report, the basis for welfare measures adopted in the future, gained for Beatrice an honorary doctorate in 1909 from the University of Manchester. (Later the University of Edinburgh and the University of Munich also conferred honorary degrees upon her.)

To gain support for the Minority Report, the Webbs formed the National Committee for the Prevention of Destitution in 1909. However, their attempts to convince leading Liberals and Conservatives to accept the report failed. Instead, the National Insurance Act, passed in 1911, effectively ended the hopes for Beatrice's remedies. The Insurance Act provided relief for the unemployed and the aged, and medical care for the destitute, but it did not address underlying causes of poverty.

After the grueling and unsuccessful campaign on behalf of the Minority Report, the Webbs went abroad on a world tour from 1911 to 1912. Beatrice, whose health was always frail, was exhausted by her intense work on the Commission. In 1898, they had previously traveled in Canada, the United States, New Zealand, and Australia. This trip took them to the Far East—to Japan, China, India. (Beatrice's inheritance provided the bulk of their livelihood and allowed for such travels, which were basically the only luxury they allowed themselves. However, she firmly believed that those with unearned income had an obligation to serve the community.) Her diary entries during her journeys reveal a disquieting amount of elitism and chauvinism toward other cultures, which seems out of character for one so concerned about the poor of her own country.

Upon their return in 1913, the Webbs founded a weekly journal, The New Statesman. The controversy generated by the Minority Report made them realize that their socialistic programs needed wider publicity. Too many in Britain still feared socialism as a revolutionary movement. The Webbs, as members of the Fabian Society, believed not in violent upheaval, but, as they phrased it, "in the inevitability of gradualness," i.e., in a gradual evolution toward a socialistic society. The new journal, although independent, was intended to explain evolutionary socialism more thoroughly to the general public.

During World War I, both Webbs served on governmental committees. In 1916, Beatrice was appointed to the Statutory Pensions Committee, and in 1917 she served on a few subcommittees of the Reconstruction Committee. In the summer of 1918, she was on the War Cabinet Committee on Women in Industry, which studied the amount of wages paid to women doing jobs formerly held exclusively by men. This committee reported that promises of pay equity had not been fulfilled, but the war ended shortly thereafter, and nothing was done about the report.

The die was cast, the craft was chosen. Through the pressure of circumstances and the inspiration of the time-spirit, I had decided to become an investigator of social institutions.

—Beatrice Webb

In 1918, women over the age of 30 received the right to vote in Great Britain. Beatrice had originally opposed woman suffrage on the grounds that women had no obligation in the political arena. However, gradually she came to realize that the government was increasingly involved in the private lives and welfare of the people and that women needed the vote to help direct public policy. The year 1918 was also an important milestone in the reformation of the Labour Party. A new constitution, written by Sidney, allowed for individual party membership rather than group affiliation, and the party's policy was definitely socialistic. Previously the Webbs had not wholeheartedly supported the Labour Party, for they had directed their efforts at permeation of their socialist goals into the two major parties. Failing at that, they realized the need to work through the Labour Party. In 1921, Beatrice formed the Half-Circle Club in the Labour Party to educate women about party policies and to familiarize them with political procedures so they could become informed voters. She chose the name for the club because it admitted only women. When Sidney was elected to the House of Commons as a Labour candidate in 1922, Beatrice also worked with the women of his constituency, Seaham, meeting with them occasionally, and regularly sending them newsletters about issues before Parliament.

In early 1924, the Labour Party formed the government for the first time, and Sidney became a Cabinet member, heading the Board of Trade. The Webbs had recently purchased a country house, Passfield Corner, and Beatrice, for reasons of health, began to spend more time there away from London, which had been their residence since their marriage. Although she realized Sidney had responsibilities to his office and his constituents which kept him in London, she resented the time they were apart. The first Labour government lasted less than a year, but Sidney was returned to Commons from Seaham until 1929, when he did not seek reelection.

During these years, while continuing her research and writing, Webb decided to publish her autobiography. Based on her diary and published in 1926, the volume covered her life to 1892. She titled it My Apprenticeship, since those were the years when she acquired the interests and skills for her life's work, the years which prepared her for the partnership with Sidney. Reviewers of My Apprenticeship praised Webb's candid evaluation of her life and the fact that she never sought to retaliate against her and Sidney's detractors. In the late 1930s, Beatrice began a second volume of her autobiography and worked on it until shortly before her death. Also based on her diary entries and entitled Our Partnership, the book was edited by her friend Margaret Cole and her niece Barbara Drake and published in 1948.

In June 1929, the Labour Party, forming the government for the second time, wanted Sidney to serve in the Cabinet again. Since he had not sought reelection to Commons in 1929, he was given a peerage and a seat in the House of Lords as Lord Passfield so he could become colonial secretary. He held this post until Labour lost its majority in 1931. Beatrice, however, refused to be recognized as Lady Passfield and tried to avoid ceremonies at which protocol demanded that she be addressed by that title. In 1931, Beatrice was made a Fellow in the prestigious British Academy, the lone woman member.

When the Labour Party's second government failed to solve the economic depression of the early 1930s, Beatrice became very depressed about ever achieving their ideal socialistic society. It was then that the Communist experiment underway in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) began to attract the Webbs' attention. They traveled to Russia in 1932 and were eagerly welcomed and escorted around the country. They returned to England believing they had witnessed the utopia of their dreams, discounting the fact that they had been shown only what the Soviet leaders wanted them to see. They could not believe the reports of police-state tactics they heard from others. They saw the Communist Party officials as dedicated, selfless public servants working for the good of all the Soviet people. In 1935, the Webbs published Soviet Communism: A New Civilization?, praising the Soviet system. (They omitted the question mark in the second edition.) Their detractors have subsequently used this to condemn them as undemocratic. However, others have preferred to assess their enchantment with the USSR as the last hope of two aging socialists to see their dreams accomplished. Their earlier works, especially A Constitution for the Socialist Commonwealth of Great Britain, published in 1920, clearly indicate that they believed in democracy and envisioned a government which represented all segments of society.

Beatrice, whose health had been failing for some time, died of kidney disease at Passfield Corner on April 30, 1943, at age 85. Her body was cremated, and her ashes were buried on their property. However, at Sidney's death in 1947, her ashes, along with his, were placed in Westminster Abbey—the only married couple to be interred there.

Although Beatrice did not live to see most of their plans for reform implemented, the Webbs' research and writing prepared the way for many of the welfare programs adopted by the Labour Party when it formed the government after World War II. Beatrice, true to her creed and her craft, had dedicated herself to social research, which she hoped would lead to improvement in the lives of all citizens.


Cole, Margaret I. Beatrice Webb. London: Longmans, Green, 1945.

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

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

Webb, Beatrice. My Apprenticeship. London: Longmans, Green, 1926.

——. Our Partnership. Ed. by Barbara Drake and Margaret I. Cole. London: Longmans, Green, 1948.

suggested reading:

Caine, Barbara. Destined to be Wives: The Sisters of Beatrice Webb. London: Oxford University Press, 1987 (explores the lives of Beatrice and her eight sisters).

MacKenzie, Norman, and Jeanne MacKenzie. The Fabians. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1977.

Seymour-Jones, Carole. Beatrice Webb: A Life. Ivan R. Dee, 1992.


Beatrice Webb's diary, correspondence, and related materials are deposited in the British Library of Political and Economic Science, along with those of Sidney's, as the Passfield Papers.

Patricia A. Ashman , Professor of History, Central Missouri State University, Warrensburg, Missouri