“A Prophet Before Her Time:” Beatrice Potter Webb, Part 1: Beatrice Webb’s Life Up to 1905-1909 Poor Law Commission

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Beatrice Webb

Few political thinkers have influenced British society and politics in the 20th Century as much as Beatrice Potter Webb. She was a prodigious scholar, publishing 11 books by herself, and about 20 more with her husband, Sidney. She was instrumental in the founding and development of the London School of Economics and Political Science, one of the pre-eminent institutions of higher learning in Britain, (1) and was also a prominent Fabian. But perhaps her greatest influence was on Poor Law reform and the subsequent creation of the British Welfare State. Between 1905 and 1909, she served on the Royal Commission for Poor Law Reform and Relieving of Distress. She was the impetus (2) behind its Minority Report (1909) which, more than any other document, influenced much of the social reform in the 20th Century, and formed much of the basis for the reforms of the 1945-1951 Attlee Government. (3) On July 5th, 1947, four years after Webb died, the Labour Government repealed the Poor Laws which had remained in operation since the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. (4) A new system of social benefits, including universal health insurance and pensions for the elderly, were implemented in their place. Beatrice Webb’s lifetime work was finally vindicated. In the same year, Clement Attlee, then Prime Minister, said of the Webbs: “Millions are living fuller and freer lives today because of the work of Sidney and Beatrice Webb.” (5)

This work began in late Victorian England. Beatrice Webb was born on January 22, 1858, the eighth daughter of Richard Potter, a prosperous merchant and railway executive, and Laurencina Potter, an accomplished intellectual and linguist. (6) As a member of the upper middle-class, it was only natural that Beatrice did social work, as it “was…in the eighteen-eighties,….the conventional spare-time occupation for an unmarried daughter of the leisured classes…” (7) In 1876, her elder sister Kate became a rent collector in the East End [the poor areas of London], and a few years later, Beatrice joined her sister. In 1882, she joined the Charity Organisation Society [C.O.S.], an organization committed to rationalizing the numerous charities then in existence to help the poor, and also to arresting what the group’s founders believed was the demoralizing flood of charity handouts to the poor. (8)

Through her experiences in the East End, she gradually began to challenge many of her pre-conceived notions. She began to wonder whether these notions–prevailing mid-Victorian notions–of the morality of the poor were correct. To find out, she began to study the lives and work of her tenants. (9) She compiled information on their life histories, history of employment, salaries, and their families. She used this information to publish, in February 1886, “A Lady’s View on the Unemployed at the East.” (10) At the same time, she despaired of her rent-collecting and charity work, finding “that whatever the answer [to poverty] might be, it was not to be found in urging the poor to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.” (11) She began to find ethical problems with capitalism, and eventually felt “ethical revulsion” toward it. (12) As a result, she left the C.O.S. in 1886. (13)

She left obstensibly to care for her ailing father, but the real reason is that she wanted to pursue her investigation into the lives of the poor which she began the year before. Thus, she volunteered to be a social investigator for her cousin-in-law, Charles Booth, the founder of modern sociology.

Over the following two years, Beatrice investigated East End dock labor, and the sweating-system and the Jewish garment industry. These investigations further transformed her political opinions. She wrote several articles, relating the experiences of dock and seamstress workers, and was a witness in the House of Lord’s Commission of the Sweating System. In 1889, Booth’s research was published. It shocked the nation: about 30% of Londoners were living below the subsistence level. (14)

By this time, Beatrice was moving more and more toward socialism, finally acknowledging that she was one in January 1890.(15) At the same time,s he became attracted both to Sidney Webb and the Fabian Society, a small group of Socialist intellectuals who favored gradualism [Fabian comes from “Fabius,” the Roman general who used delaying tactics against Hannibal of Carthage.] In 1890, the two met, and shortly afterwards, Beatrice became a member of the Fabian Society. The two would play instrumental roles in turning “…the Fabian Society from a not very notable little group of earnest seekers after truth into a powerful intellectual force armed with a new and eminently practical social gospel.” (16) The two made an excellent academic pair– “one of the most remarkable and enduring intellectual partnerships in the history of the English-speaking world” (17) –combining Sidney’s tremendous memory, recall ability, and attention to detail, with Beatrice’s sense of style and philosophical (18) manner. Within ten years, the pair established for themselves a reputation for excellent scholarship, a reputation that in large part encouraged the Conservative Prime Minister Alfred Balfour to appoint Beatrice to The Royal Commission on the Poor Law and Relief of Distress, in one of his last acts before resigning in December 1905. (19)

Footnotes:

  1. (1) Sister Barbara E. Nolan, The Political Theory of Beatrice Webb, (NY: AMS Press, Inc., 1988), p. 298.
  2. (2) Alan M. McBriar, An Edwardian Mixed Doubles, (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 280.
  3. (3) Kitty Muggeridge and Ruth Adam, Beatrice Webb: A Life, (London: Secker & Warburg, 1967), p. 176, quoting Sir William Beveridge, Power and Influence, (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1953).
  4. Beveridge wrote that “The Beveridge Report [undoubtedly the other most influential document] stemmed from what all of us had imbibed from the Webbs.” [p. 176]
  5. (4) Michael E. Rose, The English Poor Law, (Newton Abbot, England: David & Charles, 1971), p. 322.
  6. (5) Muggeridge and Adam, p. 258.
  7. (6) Carole Seymour-Jones, Beatrice Webb: Woman of Conflict (London: Allison & Busby, 1992), pp. 2, 11.
  8. (7) Muggeridge and Adam, p. 101.
  9. (8) Seymour-Jones, p. 76.
  10. (9) Deborah Epstein Nord, The Apprenticeship of Beatrice Webb, (Amherst, MA: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1985), p. 143.
  11. (10) Ibid.
  12. (11) Muggeridge and Adam, p. 108.
  13. (12) Beatrice Webb, My Apprenticeship, (London: Longmans Green, 1926), p. 267.
  14. (13) McBriar, p. 29.
  15. (14) Rose, The Relief of Poverty: 1834-1914, 2nd ed., (London: Macmillan, 1986), p. 17, quoting Charles Booth, Life and Labour of the People of London, 17 vols., (1889-1903), vo. 1, (1889).
  16. (15) Beatrice Webb, ed. by Norman and Jeanne MacKenzie, The Diaries of Beatrice Webb, vol. 1: 1873-92, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982), p. 322 (1 January 1890). “At last I am a socialist!”
  17. (16) G.D.H. Cole, A History of Socialist Thought, vol. 3: The Second International, (London: Macmillan, 1961), p. 107.
  18. (17) Nolan, p. 49.
  19. (18) G.D.H. Cole, p. 105.
  20. (19) McBriar, p. 175.
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