During the middle years of the reign of Queen Victoria, a few young men took to meeting occasionally in the lodgings of Edward Pease near Regent’s Park, London. They talked of personal problems and considered how they might “help on” the improvement of British society. By January, 1884, there were nine enrolled, dues-paying members of the group. One of them thought they should have a name and suggested the Fabian Society—from the ancient Roman general Fabius Cunctator, who had withstood Hannibal by tactics of boldness and caution combined. That rather odd choice was matched by a vagueness of purpose. Frank Podmore, Edward Pease, and Hubert Bland made up the executive of the Society, but they admitted “they did not know what to do” with the group. Edith Bland, Hubert’s wife, added that, while the Fabians were the “nicest set of people” she ever knew, she could not say precisely what their intentions or purposes were.
Membership in the Society increased slowly during the next several years; there were still only sixty-seven Fabians in 1886. In general the Society attracted young middle-class intellectuals inclined toward socialism. At the Fabian meetings they found a relaxed, congenial atmosphere in which to vent their opinions. The Society did not insist upon adherence to any specific theory or ideology, which was the secret of its appeal. Members could lecture, debate, and discuss almost any topic, and they did so freely.
A notable addition to the Society’s roster came in May, 1884, in the person of George Bernard Shaw, a recent immigrant from Ireland. Now in his later twenties and very poor, Shaw had, unlike most of the other Fabians, not attended a university; so he had made the British Museum his university. There he imbibed the writings of Henry George, Nietszche, Marx, and the economist W. S. Jevons and became a convinced socialist. Between spells at the Museum, Shaw attended meetings of various political and social reform organizations which sprang up all over London in the 1880’s; he was particularly attracted to the Marxist Social Democratic Federation. He also consorted with the bohemian crowd which gathered in cafes around the British Museum; the short-haired women and long-haired men who ran the “gamut of personal and political eccentricity.” From the bohemian eccentrics, Shaw took up a number of food and dress fads along with evolutionist and free-thinking notions which he carried over to his later life and writings, and to the Fabians.
Others joined the Fabians about the same time as Shaw. Annie Besant, an intense young woman with various dreams and plans for social reform, became a member in 1885. In that year also, Sydney Olivier and Sidney Webb, both civil servants employed at the Colonial Office, found in the Fabians a forum for their reforming interests. The talents and dedication of Shaw, Besant, Olivier, and Webb were soon recognized, and they were all chosen to the Fabian executive in 1888.
Those new executives then set the Society toward a clearer purpose and a more definite program. It was decided to present a series of prepared talks on the general theme of socialism. Each executive member was assigned a specific topic: historical background of socialism, socialist economics, capitalist industry, property under socialism, morals, and social production or collectivization were the topics chosen. The lectures were delivered in 1889, the texts then were collected, edited by Sidney Webb and published by the Society as the Fabian Essays. These essays served as a prospectus and program for the education and propaganda work that the Society now began. Following up on the publication of the Fabian Essays, the Fabians launched the “Lancashire Campaign,” a lecture tour in the northern provinces in which the members would attempt to persuade industrial workers of the merits of socialism.
The work went well. About twenty thousand copies of the Fabian Essays were sold each year. In the provinces, new branches of the Society were established and, in London, additional Fabian groups formed. By 1890, total membership reached about one hundred and fifty persons: Mrs. Emmeline Pankhurst, who later led the fight for female suffrage, James Keir Hardie, Will Crooks, and Ben Tillett, spokesmen for the newly forming unions of unskilled workers, were among the more noteworthy recruits of the Fabians.
But the most valuable addition to the membership at this time was surely Beatrice Potter. She came from a wealthy family and had received all of the privileges of an upper middle-class Victorian girl, including the opportunity to meet many of the leading figures in British life. In her twenties, Beatrice fell in love with the rising politician, Joseph Chamberlain, but he did not reciprocate her love. After six years of romantic suffering and thoughts of suicide, Beatrice came out of her personal torment and turned to other concerns. Social work, particularly gathering facts about the lives and labor of the poor of London became her great interest. During the course of that work, she came into contact with the Fabians, began to attend their meetings, which she called “a very pretty piece of intellectual communism,” and was persuaded to join them....
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