Accounts of LSE’s foundation and early years are dominated by the personalities of the four people staying at Borough Farm on the morning of 4 August 1894 when Sidney Webb began to outline the idea of establishing a “London school of economics and political science”. One often overlooked key player, writes LSE Archivist Sue Donnelly, is the Irish heiress and Fabian, Charlotte Payne Townshend, later Charlotte Shaw. Yet she was a constant presence in LSE’s early home in Adelphi Terrace and a generous donor both of time and money until her death.

Charlotte Shaw, 1904 portrait by G. Bernard Shaw

Charlotte Shaw, 1904. Credit: LSE Library

Charlotte Payne Townshend (1857-1943) was an Irish heiress who met Beatrice and Sidney Webb in 1895. Through them she joined the Fabian Society and in 1896 she was invited to spend a holiday with the Webbs, Graham Wallas and George Bernard Shaw in Suffolk. However the Webbs fell ill and when Graham Wallas arrived late Charlotte was left to the company of George Bernard Shaw and they became firm friends. After the holiday Beatrice Webb described Charlotte in her diary:

By temperament she is an anarchist – feeling any regulation or rule is intolerable – a tendency which has been exaggerated by her intolerable wealth. She is romantic but thinks herself cynical. She is a socialist and a radical, but not because she understands collectivist standpoint, but because she is by nature a rebel. She has no snobbishness and no convention. She has ‘swallowed all formulas’ but has not worked out principles of her own. She is fond of men and impatient of most women – bitterly resents her enforced celibacy but thinks she could not tolerate the matter of fact side of marriage. Sweet tempered, sympathetic and genuinely anxious to increase the world’s enjoyment and diminish the world’s pain.

Seated: Sidney Webb, Charlotte Shaw, George Bernard Shaw and Beatrice Webb, 1932

Seated: Sidney Webb, Charlotte Shaw, George Bernard Shaw and Beatrice Webb, 1932. Credit: Lse Library

When Sidney Webb was looking for a home for the School, Charlotte was persuaded to sub-let the top two floors of the School’s premises at 10 Adelphi Terrace, leaving the rest of the building for the School and its Library – and most importantly making the project affordable. Charlotte was also a member of the School’s Advisory Board which in 1901 applied to the Board of Trade to become a company; she then served as a Governor.

In 1896 Charlotte donated £1,000 towards the establishment of the Library and was among its first Trustees alongside Sidney Webb, William Clarke, Edward Pease and RB Haldane. The records also indicated that Charlotte was a regular source of vital funding whenever LSE funds were low.

From 1896 Shaw was a regular visitor to Adelphi Terrace and Charlotte’s flat. The couple married in 1898 at the Registry Office in Covent Garden with Graham Wallas as a witness. Charlotte supported Shaw during his recovery after hospitalisation and treatment for necrosis of the bone and their honeymoon was spent in Hindhead with Charlotte acting as nurse to Shaw in his wheelchair or on crutches. There was some concern at LSE that the marriage would mean a move from Adelphi Terrace but after the honeymoon they returned to London and the flat above LSE.

Students in the Shaw Library 1964

Students in the Shaw Library, 1964. Credit: LSE Library

After LSE’s move to its final home on Houghton Street Charlotte Shaw continued to serve as a Governor and set up a trust to support a research studentship.

In 1939 Director Alexander Carr-Saunders’ plan to establish a reading library at LSE led to Charlotte’s last major donation: a gift of £1,000 to buy books covering general literature. The Shaw Library was initially established in Grove Lodge in 1940 during LSE’s sojourn in Cambridge. It moved back to London in the Christmas vacation 1945-46 and has resided ever since on the top floor of the Old Building.

So if you ever snatch a quiet half hour in an armchair, or attend a concert or reception in the Founders Room remember Charlotte Shaw and her steady and self-effacing support for LSE.

Contributed by Sue Donnelly (LSE Archivist)

Read more

Charlotte Shaw’s legacy – the Shaw Library

Interested in women’s history? See Women at LSE

Meet LSE’s famous founders The Webbs

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