The English social reformer Beatrice Potter Webb (1858-1943) was a leading Fabian socialist and a partner with her husband, Sidney Webb, in their projects for social and educational reform and in their research into the history of political and economic institutions.
Beatrice Potter was born on Jan. 2, 1858, at Standish House near Gloucester. Her father, Richard Potter, was a man with large railroad interests and many contacts among politicians and intellectuals. She was educated at home by governesses and also by extensive travel, wide reading, and direct contact with many of the leading figures of politics, science, and industry. Herbert Spencer in particular gave her the attention and encouragement that she thought denied to her by her family.
Potter's involvement with social problems began in 1883, when she became a rent collector in London. This work, in turn, led to her participation in Charles Booth's survey published as Life and Labour of the People in London. In 1887 the results of her inquiries into dock life in the East End of London were published in Nineteenth Century, soon followed by other articles and studies of sweated labor.
Increased confidence and deeper study culminated in Potter's The Co-operative Movement in Great Britain (1891). It was in connection with this that she met Sidney Webb. They were married in 1892, and their life together became one of single-minded dedication to research and social reform. Together they produced a veritable torrent of books, pamphlets, essays, and memoranda amounting to over a hundred items.
Until 1906 Potter's role in the partnership was primarily that of researcher, writer, and hostess for gatherings of Cabinet ministers and members of Parliament who came to hear the Webb opinion on social legislation. At the end of 1905 Beatrice was appointed a member of the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws, which sat from 1906 to 1909. The minority report, drafted by the Webbs, played an important role in the dismantling of the old Poor Law and in its replacement by the new systems of social insurance.
In the period after 1910 the Webbs abandoned their nonpartisan stance and became an important force in building the Labour party. Another cornerstone of their earlier philosophy was abandoned with the publication of their Soviet Communism: A New Society? (1935). They, who had always held that social change cannot come about by the violent destruction of existing institutions, endorsed the Russian Revolution in spite of its totalitarianism. Beatrice Webb died at Liphook, Hampshire, on April 30, 1943. In 1947, shortly after Sidney's death, their ashes were buried in Westminster Abbey.
Further Reading on Beatrice Potter Webb
The two volumes of Beatrice Webb's Diaries, 1912-1924, edited by Margaret Cole (1952), with an introduction by Lord Beveridge, offer many insights missing from the standard biographies. Beatrice Webb's memoirs are My Apprenticeship (1926) and Our Partnership (1948). One of the best books on Beatrice Webb was written by her niece, Kitty Muggeridge, and Ruth Adam, Beatrice Webb: A Life, 1858-1943 (1967). Margaret Cole, ed., The Webbs and Their Work (1949), is a collection of appraisals of the Webbs written by acquaintances and colleagues. Margaret Cole, Beatrice Webb (1945), is also well written, informative, and accurate. Mary Agnes Hamilton, Sidney and Beatrice Webb (1933), is an interesting account of the Webbs' activities up to the early 1930s.
Additional Biography Sources
MacKenzie, Jeanne, A Victorian courtship: the story of Beatrice Potter and Sidney Webb, New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.
Muggeridge, Kitty, Beatrice Webb: a life, 1858-1943, Chicago: Academy Publishers, 1983, 1967.
Nord, Deborah Epstein, The apprenticeship of Beatrice Webb, Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1985.
Radice, Lisanne, Beatrice and Sidney Webb: Fabian Socialists, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1984.
Seymour-Jones, Carole, Beatrice Webb: a life, Chicago: I.R. Dee, 1992.
Webb, Beatrice Potter, My apprenticeship, Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979.