Beatrice Webb and Sidney Webb
Article abstract: The Webbs were leading figures in the Fabian Society and in the development of Labour Party policies. Founders of the London School of Economics and New Statesman, they also authored several important texts on trade unions, local government, and the Poor Laws.
Beatrice Potter was born January 22, 1858, in Gloucester, Gloucestershire, England, the eighth of nine daughters in an upper-middle-class family. Her father, Richard Potter, was a wealthy industrialist; her mother, Laurencina Heyworth Potter, was a highly intelligent but increasingly reclusive woman, disappointed by a life of constant pregnancy rather than scholarly achievement. Beatrice’s childhood was an unhappy one, marred by ill health, loneliness, and resentment. Her formal education was limited by chronic illness and psychosomatic complaints; it ended by the time she was thirteen. By then she had begun securing her own education through extensive reading. She had also begun her lifelong habit of keeping a diary in which she examined her own frailties and those of whomever came under her scrutiny.
At the age of sixteen, Beatrice lost her religious faith and was sorely troubled by that loss ever after. She remained an agnostic, dedicated to the religion of humanity, but she was much given to prayer. By the age of twenty-five, Beatrice had decided to become a social investigator, in spite of her belief that a woman’s intellectual capacity was strictly limited. She hoped to apply the scientific method to the study of society, to understand and improve it.
Beatrice became a rent collector and tenant organizer at a housing project for the poor in London’s East End. Later, she joined her cousin Charles Booth in his massive study of poverty in London; her first published article was “Dock Life in East London.” To study sweated labor in the manufacturing trades, she worked briefly as a seamstress in several sweatshops. In 1888, five of her articles on sweated labor were published, and she began to enjoy a reputation as a knowledgeable social scientist.
It was in connection with her next project, a book on cooperative societies, that Beatrice first met Sidney Webb. Friends had recommended him as a useful resource for her work. Beatrice was thirty-two at the time, a tall, slim, dramatically attractive woman, with piercing brown eyes and long dark hair fashioned in a no-nonsense bun. She and Sidney were an unlikely match.
Sidney Webb was born on July 13, 1859, the second of three children, in a lower-middle-class family. His mother, Elizabeth Mary Stacy Webb, the more industrious and energetic partner, ran a millinery and hairdressing business. His father, a somewhat ineffectual but public-spirited man, reserved most of his energy for political debates and local politics. Educated to be a commercial clerk, Sidney continued taking courses, winning prizes, and passing examinations well after he had begun his career. He became a clerk in the colonial office in 1881 and was called to the bar in 1886.
Extremely bright and ambitious, Sidney also took advantage of the numerous debating clubs, study groups, and political societies which flourished in London in the 1880’s. There he learned techniques for bringing people around to his point of view, mainly by mastering a subject and knowing far more about it than anyone else present. Thus, despite his rapid speech, slight lisp, and dropped aitches, Sidney was extremely persuasive, especially in a committee situation.
In 1885, Sidney joined the executive committee of the fledgling Fabian Society, a middle-class Socialist organization. The goals that Sidney helped to establish as he, along with George Bernard Shaw and a few others, began to dominate the society were those of gradual change through the promotion of education and the permeation of other organizations and committees with collectivist ideas.
Sidney resigned from his position as a civil servant in 1892 and was elected as a Progressive member to the London County Council. By this time, he had wooed and won the illustrious Beatrice Potter, despite their class differences and despite the fact that he was far from attractive, with his bespectacled head atop a rotund little body and his unkempt appearance. Sidney had assured Beatrice that their marriage would be a working partnership, dedicated to the betterment of society, a relationship that would expand her own efforts along these lines rather than hinder them. That was certainly the case. Freed from the onus of earning a living by Beatrice’s limited but adequate inheritance, the couple immersed themselves in researching and writing books and studying and formulating public policies.
For the first fifteen years of their married lives, the pattern established was one which kept Sidney in the public eye and Beatrice as the more private, research-oriented member of their team. Sidney continued to play a leading role in the Fabian Society as policymaker, speaker, and tract writer. In addition, he served on the London County Council for eighteen years, wielding his greatest influence as chairman of its Technical Education Committee. In this capacity he extended the number of scholarships to technical schools and universities, increased the number of such schools, and reformed the level of education practiced in these schools. Because of his expertise on education, Sidney was particularly influential in the drafting and passage of the Education Acts of 1902-1903, which expanded and consolidated public education. Sidney also served on various commissions and wrote a series of minority reports, such as one for the Royal Commission on Labour Disputes in 1894.
While Beatrice gave an occasional speech to the Fabians or served on a committee, her chief responsibility as a reformer and agitator was to hold select dinner parties for whichever political, intellectual, or philanthropic set of people they were most interested in knowing or influencing at the time. The meals, like the furnishings, were sparse at 41 Grosvenor Road—the home the Webbs rented for almost forty years—but the conversation was thick with ideas and plans for social reconstruction.
Administrative and social duties notwithstanding, the Webbs’ joint research was carried on vigorously. For the most part, Beatrice planned their projects, formulated the questions to be asked, and did much of the interviewing, while Sidney concentrated his efforts on the analysis of their data. Their first joint venture, The History of Trade Unionism (1894), became the standard text on the subject. In their next effort, Industrial Democracy (1897), they argued that trade unions were necessary for the economic and moral benefit of workers and were needed to right the imbalance between powerful employers and their far weaker employees. Trade unions, they predicted presciently, would play a far more important role in the future.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, the Webbs had established themselves...
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