Beatrice Potter Webb
Beatrice Potter Webb
by Nicolle Bettis
- Autobiographical Works
- Biographical Works
Born in Gloucester in 1858, Beatrice Potter was the eighth born to a
businessman, Richard Potter and Laurencina Heyworth who was a daughter
of a Liverpool merchant (Britannica Online). Although her
mother died while she was still quite young, Beatrice states that she
remained “in the shadow of my baby brother’s birth and death” (1998,
278). This major disappointment of loosing a male heir seemed to
devastate the family for the rest of their life. Another important note
that seemed to play an important part in her life was the fact that
Beatrice’s mother “regarded her as the only ungifted child in the
family” (1998, 278). Even though Beatrice describes her family life as
one which “habitually gave orders” (Britannica Online). After the death
of her mother she found herself forced to make a decision regarding the
course of her life. She had the option to remain with her father and
take care of the home, she could have married, community service through
the church or to be a “lady novelist” (1998, 280).
The governess in their home schooled Beatrice, along with all of her
siblings. Because she was often ill she often did not complete a full
term, as a result she began to educate herself by reading material from
her father’s library and speaking with his friends and acquaintances
such as Herbert Spencer and other intellectuals (1998). A significant
amount was learned from these conversations which prepared her to be
“self-identified as a sociologist, taught sociology, worked as a social
investigator on the major empirical study of her age (Charles Booth’s
Life and Labour of the People of London), and did her own independent
investigations, leading to the socialist reform classic The Co-operative
Movement in Great Britain (1891)” (1998, 5).
As a young woman she worked as an associate for her father for six years. This experience enabled her too to learn about business (1992). It was during this time
that she began to “question the assumptions of her father’s business world” due to uncertainties about his intentions (Britannica Online). It was during the time she spent with relatives in Lancashire town she was introduced to the working class and the improvements they were trying to make for themselves. The fact that the family was well off financially did not seem to get in the way of her ideas about the
classes of individuals (Britannica Online).
Had it not been for the difference in personalities she would have been
the third wife of the Liberal statesman, Joseph Chamberlain. It was
after this upsetting event that Beatrice began to practice social work
in London but soon became upset with the charities and their methods of
solving the problem of poverty. Her “charitable work” included the
Charity Organization Society, managing the Katherine buildings (1998).
When she helped her cousin, Charles, an owner of a ship and a social
reformer, research for his book The Life and Labour of the People in
London, Beatrice learned a lot about the life of the poor first hand.
After the death of her father Beatrice inherited 1,000 pounds a year
which helped her support herself while researching and doing other
non-paid work. In 1891 she inquired enough information about the
working class from her stay in Lancashire to write The Cooperative
Movement in Great Britain (Britannica Online). It was after
this research that Beatrice realized that before she could address
social problems she must learn more about what she wanted to correct.
She began to realize it was not the individual, which was entirely at
fault but the structure (1998). She also inquired more about labor
unions and the economic conditions of the working class to better
understand not only where they were coming from but also how to help
them more efficiently.
It was during this time which she was introduced to Sidney James Webb,
“later Baron Passfield (1859-1947)”, who was a member of the Fabian
Society (1996, 679). It is suggested that although looks played a part
in their attraction for each other they enjoyed the fact that they had
found someone in whom they could share ideas. Because Sidney’s
political views were very different and extreme compared to Beatrice’s
family they waited until 1892 to marry (1998). When they married they
created a ” remarkably complementary partnership” which strictly abided
by the Fabian Socialist beliefs which introduced a new way to look at
the reforming of societies (1996, 679). Their honeymoon consisted of a
trip to both Glasgow and Dublin to look at the records of trade unions (Britannica Online).
After this project was complete, they both decided to return to London and live off
of Beatrice’s inheritance from her father in order to do more social research, political work, and writings (Britannica Online).
Even though their marriage seemed to be completely egalitarian Beatrice
expressed her sense of unhappiness when she wrote, “I never write,
except in my diary in my own style”, she continues “I have constrained
my intellect, forced it to concentrate on one subject after another; on
some of the dullest and least illuminating details of social
organization . . . I vividly remember the nausea with which, day after
day, I went on with this task'” (1998, 283).
It has been suggested that her autobiography,My Apprenticeship, is not only a source for information concerning gender discrimination it is also a source in
which one can find information about “women’s intellectual journey to a
vision of society” (1998, 283). Knowing all this it is hard to
understand how Beatrice could believe the she had “never suffered the
disabilities assumed to arise from my sex” (1998, 280).
The outcomes of the Webb’s efforts included, The History of Trade
Unionism and Industrial Democracy (Britannica Online). It has been
suggested that Beatrice practiced “permeation” which is “attempting to
push through Fabian policies or parts of policies by converting persons
of power and influence irrespective of their political affiliations”
In 1887, Beatrice Potter Webb wrote her first book which discussed
working conditions. The following year she wrote on the working
conditions of the poor in the East End of London, information she had
shown to the House of Lords. She had also developed reform laws for
which she was acknowledged (1992). She was “interested in the general
problem of how to use facts to generate policy-relevant theory” (1998).
Even though she tried to deny the unfair treatment of women, Beatrice
does mention in her autobiography a conversation she had with Cambridge
professor, Alfred Marshall in which he tries to dishearten her from
writing The Co-operative Movement in Great Britain. He said to her
that, “A book by you on the Co-operative Movement I may get my wife to
read to me in the evening to while away the time, but I shan’t pay any
attention to it” (1998).
In 1913 in London, along with her husband, Beatrice created the New
Statesman, which was an “influential periodical” (1997, 287). Both also
created the London School of Economics and Political Science in 1895
(1996). Edith Abbott who was also a well known within the Chicago
circle took one of the Webb’s classes titled “Methods of Social
It was during this time in which Beatrice was involved with the Poor Law
Commission. She was only one of many in Chicago which tried to “measure
urban poverty and serve as a guide to reform legislation” (1998).
Others, which tried to form a social science, which could be researched
and legitimate, were Jane Addams, Edith Abbott, and Kelley. Because the
University of Chicago’s Department of Sociology looked at empirical
studies as “women’s work” they did not look at the social sciences in
the same way as the Chicago Women’s School of Sociology (1998). They
also wrote books on the economic history of Britain (1997). Both made a
large impact both socially and politically suggesting that “Most of the
social and political reforms of the time came about as a result of the
Webb’s research and political insight” (1996, 679).
Women’s Firsts describes Webb as an “English socialist leader”(1997, 287), this may have been to her involvement with socialist political parties such as
the Labour Party which she and her husband supported starting in 1914
providing “intellectual leadership” (1996, 679). The Webb’s wrote decay
of Capitalist Civilisation in 1923. In 1932 they visited the Soviet
Union, as a result of their excitement they wrote Soviet Communism: A
New Civilization? Which was completed in 1935 (1996). Together,
Beatrice and her husband wrote more than 100 books and articles on the
conditions which labors had to endure (1992). In 1901, Beatrice wrote
Factory Acts (1996).
The Webb’s, together, wrote eleven “voluminous works of empirical
sociology that formed the blueprint for the British welfare state”
In 1928 both Beatrice and her husband Sidney retired in Hampshire, where
they lived until their deaths <Britannica Online).
Beatrice’s sociology has been described in three ways:
- The Proposition that any social science claim must be arrived at
inductively and grounded in the practice of rigorous empirical
investigation (1998, 286).
- Empirical investigation shows society to be a system of emergent
social structures rather than the by-product of individual action (1998,
- The project of sociology is to discover how economic equity can be
arrived at through democratic decision-making (1998, 289).
Even though Beatrice Potter Webb did a great amount when it comes to the
reformation of laws concerning the poor she is criticized “for writing
about it as an undifferentiated mass, with little regard for the
individuals among the group” (1992).
Unlike other women during this period, Beatrice was not forgotten because
she was so intricately intertwined with her husband Sidney in their
writings. A result she has been included into “discussions of
sociology’s empirical tradition” (1998, 277).
On December 12, 1947, the ashes of both Beatrice and Sidney were
“ceremoniously interred in Westminster Abbey” (1998, 277). The British
Prime Minister Clement Atlee stated, ” Millions are living fuller and
fuller and freer lives today because of the work of Sidney and Beatrice
Webb” (1998, 277).
- English and Local Government (10 Vols., 1906-1929)
- Co-operative Movement in Great Britain
- History of Trade Unionism (1894)
- Industry Democracy (1897)
- My Apprenticeship (1926)
- Our Partnership (1948)
- Deborah Epstein Nord The apprenticeship of Beatrice Webb (1985)
- Barbara Caine’s article “Beatrice Webb and the ‘Woman Question'” (1982)
- Golemba, B. E. (1992). Lesser known women: A biographical
dictionary. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.
- Lengermann, P. M., & Niebrugge-Brantley, J. (1998). The
women founders: Sociology and social theory 1830-1930. New York: McGraw-Hill
- Parry, M. (1996). Larousse dictionary of women. New York: Larousse
- Zilboorg, C., & Gall S. B. (1997). Women’s firsts. Cleveland, OH: Eastword.
- Notable American women, 1607-1950: A biographical dictionary. Cambridge,
MA: TheBelknap Press of Harvard University Press.
- Britannica Online
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