…if I had been a man, self-respect, family pressure and the public opinion of my class would have pushed me into a money making profession; as a mere woman I could carve out a career of disinterested research. – Beatrice Webb
Beatrice Potter Webb, a self-taught economist, socialist and reformer, was one of the co-founders of the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Beatrice was born in 1858 in Gloucester to Richard Potter and Laurencina Heyworth, the eighth of their ten children. Having been born into a family of radical dissenters, Beatrice is believed to have had her earliest political inspirations at home interacting with her father, father’s acquaintances and cousins. In fact, one of her earliest involvements in social work was assisting her cousin Charles Booth in carrying out a survey of the Victorian slums of London. She also participated in philanthropic work carried out by the Charity Organisation Society based in Soho, London.
However, she was not entirely convinced by the usual modus operandi of charitable work in those times. She started to think more and more about understanding the cause of poverty. She came into touch with Sidney Webb in the course of her research on cooperative societies in Britain’s industrial towns. She went on to publish a book entitled The Cooperative Movement in Great Britain in 1891, introducing concepts like ‘cooperative federalism’ and ‘cooperative individualism’.
In 1892, Beatrice and Sidney Webb got married. After her father’s death in the same year, Beatrice inherited an income of £1000 a year and this enabled Sidney Webb to give up his civil servant post and become engaged in full time research and politics along with Beatrice.
Their relationship proved to be fruitful with the two of them going on to co-author several books and studies including History of Trade Unions (1894), Industrial Democracy (1898) and English Prisons (1922). It was through Sidney Webb that she came into contact with the Fabian Society and its members including the likes of Annie Besant, Edward Carpenter and George Bernard Shaw.
In 1894, Henry Hutchinson, a wealthy solicitor from Derby, left a grant of £10,000 to the Fabian Society and the Webbs suggested that the money be used to set up a university in London to teach political economy. Consequently, the London School of Economics was established in 1895, the Webbs’ other major achievement being the founding of the New Statesman in 1913.
Though the duo work together closely, Beatrice Webb was not one to be easily subsumed by her husband’s name and fame. She refused to be known as Lady Passfield after her husband became Baron Passfield in 1929. She also retained her independence and individuality through her work such as Wages of Men and Women: Should they be equal? (1919), My Apprenticeship (1926) and Our Partnership (1948). The most important contribution of Beatrice Webb is considered to be her work as head of the minority report that called for reform of the Poor Law system and established the foundation of modern welfare state.
Beatrice Webb continued her social research and political work late into her life. She died on 30 April 1943.