Beatrice Webb

On this date in 1858, Beatrice Webb (née Beatrice Potter) was born in Gloucestershire, England. The eighth of nine sisters, Potter's mother resented her for not having been born a boy. Like most Victorian girls, Potter received a poor education in spite of her father's wealthy career as a timber entrepreneur. Unusually though, her father, unlike most Victorian men, believed in the intellectual equality, if not superiority of women. As a teenager, with an increasingly inquisitive mind, Potter read every history, economy and philosophy book within reach and began to rebel against her privileged life. She did not seek comfort in religion, like most English elites of the time, but instead sought it in science. Herbert Spencer, a close friend of the Potter family, intrigued Potter with his "scientific method," which she believed could be applied to solve society's social problems. As a young adult, Potter conducted her own research, contrasting poverty in London to poverty in rural areas. She was one of the first researchers to argue that poverty has underlying causes, instead of being a deserved state. By 1885, Potter's research, including on the English cooperative movement and housing projects for the poor, inspired her to break with capitalism and openly advocate socialism for the rest of her life. The success of Potter's research was her fearless commitment to disguise herself as one of her subjects (often poor workers) and immerse herself in their lifestyle.

In 1890, Potter needed historical information for a then-upcoming book on London sweatshops and was referred to socialist and reformist Sidney Webb. Webb fell in love with her, but she rejected his proposals for marriage until it became apparent that they were deeply intellectually compatible. They married in 1892, and wrote their first of many books together, The History of Trade Unionism (1894). Personal friend H.G. Wells once described the Webbs as "the most formidable and distinguished couple conceivable" (quoted in Margaret Drabble, ed., Oxford Companion to English Literature, 1995). The Webbs' influence in British government is still felt in London politics today. Beatrice was among the first to conceive of a "national health plan," the basis for today's British National Health Service. She also apprenticed for Charles Booth, helping him write the influential study The Life and Labour of the People in London (1902-1903). In opposition to Britain's 1934 Poor Law, the Webbs wrote a minority report, which was considered a revolutionary document, responsible for the foundation of Britain's social services system. After joining the Fabian Society in the 1890s, the Webbs socialized with other freethinkers, including Virginia Woolf, George Bernard Shaw, Bertrand Russell and Annie Besant. Along with Shaw and Graham Wallas, the Webbs founded The London School of Economics and Political Science, in 1895, to train social scientists to promote "the betterment of society" (LSE website). Beatrice and Sidney both held government posts throughout their later years. Beatrice especially gained renown when her personal diaries were first published in 1926. Together, the Webbs published around 500 books, articles, pamphlets and edited volumes. They are the only married couple interred at Westminster Abbey. D. 1943.

“That part of the Englishman's nature which has found gratification in religion is now drifting into political life.”

—Beatrice Webb, quoted in David Tribe, 100 Years of Freethought, 1967

Compiled by Bonnie Gutsch

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