Sidney Webb

On this date in 1859, Sidney Webb was born in London. His father, an accountant, worked for John Stuart Mill in the 1865 election and was also a devout socialist. Webb taught himself to read at an early age and, as a teenager, became a clerk in the city of London. In 1886, he earned a law degree from London University and became a freelance journalist on the side. Webb befriended the famous playwright, socialist and fellow freethinker George Bernard Shaw and together they became the heart of the Fabian Society. Originally the Fabian Society's goals aimed at spiritual discovery, but Webb and others (including short-time member Bertrand Russell) reoriented the Fabian agenda to one of Socialist rather than religious values. Indeed "most of its early members were freethinkers: Shaw, Sidney Webb, first influenced by Mill; Graham WallasAnnie Besant" (David Tribe, 100 Years of Freethought 1967, 97). The Fabian Society soon developed into Britain's most influential intellectual group with Fabianism as the most significant socialist movement of its day.

Webb married a freethinker from high society and, as many friends described, his intellectual soulmate, Beatrice Potter, in 1892. In the same year, Webb won election to Parliament as the Progressive candidate for Deptford in the London county-council elections. Webb and Potter published numerous writings on social reform together including their first book, The History of Trade Unionism (1894), which was edited by their friend Bernard Shaw. Webb and Potter became increasingly active in opposing poverty in England and even were among the first to devise a national health care plan, the origins of Britain's National Health Service. Together they founded, along with fellow freethinkers Shaw and Graham Wallas, the London School of Economics and Political Science, the first social science research school of its kind. "The aim of the School was the betterment of society. By studying poverty issues and analysing inequalities, the Webbs sought to improve society in general" (London School of Economics website). After their marriage, the Webbs devoted the rest of their lives to social reform and education. D. 1947.

“[False] generalizations [about socialism] are accordingly now to be met with only in leading articles, sermons, or the speeches of ministers or bishops."

—-Sidney Webb, "The Historic Basis of Socialism" (1889), cited in Fabian Essays in Socialism, edited by George Bernard Shaw

Compiled by Bonnie Gutsch

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