Beatrice Webb

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The Right Honourable
Baroness Passfield
Beatrice Webb, c1875.jpg
Webb, photographed c. 1875
Personal details
Born Martha Beatrice Potter
(1858-01-22)22 January 1858
Gloucestershire, England
Died 30 April 1943(1943-04-30) (aged 85)
Liphook, Hampshire, England, UK
Spouse(s) Sidney Webb

Martha Beatrice Webb, Baroness Passfield (née Potter; 22 January 1858 – 30 April 1943), was an English sociologist, economist, socialist and social reformer. Her husband became Baron Passfield in 1929. She coined the term "collective bargaining".[1] Along with her husband Sidney and numerous others, she co-founded the London School of Economics and Political Science and played a crucial role in the forming of the Fabian Society.


Beatrice Potter was born in Standish House in the village of Standish, Gloucestershire, the daughter of a businessman Richard Potter and Laurencina Heyworth, daughter of a Liverpool merchant. Her older sister was the social worker Catherine Courtney, Baroness Courtney of Penwith, while her grandfather was Liberal Party MP Richard Potter, co-founder of the Little Circle which was key in creating the Reform Act 1832. From an early age she was self-taught and cited her influences as the cooperative movement and the philosopher Herbert Spencer with whom she became acquainted after an early stay with relatives in Lancashire.[citation needed]

Beatrice and Sidney Webb working together in 1895

In 1882, she had a relationship with Radical politician Joseph Chamberlain, by then a Cabinet minister. After this relationship failed, she took up Social Work and assisted her cousin Charles Booth who was carrying out a pioneering survey of the Victorian slums of London, bringing her own experiences as rent-collector in the model dwellings at Katherine Buildings, Aldgate, operated by the East End Dwellings Company. Upon the death of her father, Potter inherited an endowment of £1,000 pounds a year which she used to support herself during this research. In 1890 she was introduced to Sidney Webb whose help she sought in this research and in 1891 she published The Co-operative Movement in Great Britain, based on her experiences in Lancashire. Marrying Webb in 1892, the two remained together and shared political and professional activities, becoming active members of the Fabian Society. With support from the Fabians, she co-authored books and pamphlets on socialism and the co-operative movement including The History of Trade Unionism in 1894 and Industrial Democracy in 1897. In 1895, a donation from Henry Hutchinson, a solicitor from Derby, was used by the Society to found the London School of Economics and Political Science.[citation needed]

Webb in 1894

Minority Report to Royal Commission[edit]

Between 1905 and 1909, Beatrice Webb was a member of the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws and Relief of Distress 1905-09. The Commission was established by the Conservative government of AJ Balfour, and reported to the Liberal government of HH Asquith.[2][3] Webb headed the minority report which outlined a welfare state which would "secure a national minimum of civilised life ... open to all alike, of both sexes and all classes, by which we meant sufficient nourishment and training when young, a living wage when able-bodied, treatment when sick, and modest but secure livelihood when disabled or aged". William Beveridge, who was later to author the Beveridge Report in 1942, worked as a researcher for the Webbs on the Minority Report.[citation needed]

Later career[edit]

In 1913, she co-founded with her husband the New Statesman, a political weekly edited by Clifford Sharp with contributions from many philosophers, economists and politicians of the time including George Bernard Shaw and John Maynard Keynes. In late 1914, the Webbs became members of the Labour Party. At this time, their leadership of the Fabian Society was facing opposition from H.G. Wells, who lampooned them in his 1911 novel The New Machiavelli as 'the Baileys', a pair of short-sighted, bourgeois manipulators. They were also opposed from the left in the Labour Party by the Guild Socialists and the historian and economist G.D.H. Cole. During this time, Webb collaborated with her husband in his writings and policy statement such as Labour and the New Social Order in 1918 and his election in 1922 to the parliamentary seat of Seaham in Durham.

In 1928 the Webbs retired to Liphook in Hampshire, where they lived until their deaths. In 1932, Sidney and Beatrice travelled to the Soviet Union and later published in support of the Soviet economic experiment with Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation? and The Truth About Soviet Russia. Her left-wing commitments led Webb to make unfortunate justifications of some of Joseph Stalin's excesses: for example, in speaking of the Moscow Trials, she described her satisfaction that Stalin had "cut out the dead wood".[4] The Webbs' books, Soviet Communism: A New Civilization? (1935) and The Truth About Soviet Russia (1942) have been widely criticised by historians for adopting an uncritical view of Stalin's conduct, during periods that witnessed a brutal process of agricultural collectivization as well as extensive purges and the creation of the gulag system. [5] A. J. P. Taylor later referred to Soviet Communism: A New Civilization? as "the most preposterous book ever written about Russia", [6] and Marxist historian Al Richardson described the same book as "pure Soviet propaganda at its most mendacious". [7]

Webb as co-operative theorist[edit]

Beatrice and Sidney Webb during a trip to the Soviet Union in 1932

Webb made a number of important contributions to political and economic theory of the co-operative movement. It was, for example, Webb who coined the terms “Co-operative Federalism” and “Co-operative Individualism” in her 1891 book Cooperative Movement in Great Britain. Out of these two categories, she identified herself as a co-operative federalist; a school of thought which advocates consumer co-operative societies. She argued that consumers' co-operatives should form co-operative wholesale societies (by forming co-operatives in which all members are co-operatives, the best historical example being the English Co-operative Wholesale Society) and that these federal co-operatives should undertake purchasing farms or factories. Webb dismissed the idea of worker co-operatives where the people who did the work and benefited from it had some control over how it was done, arguing that – at the time she was writing – such ventures had proved largely unsuccessful, at least in ushering in her form of socialism led by volunteer committees of people like herself.[8] Examples of successful worker Cooperatives did of course exist then as now. In some professions they were the norm. But Webb’s final book, The Truth About The Soviet Union, celebrated central planning.[citation needed]


Webb's nephew, Sir Stafford Cripps, was a well-known Labour politician in the 1930s and 1940s, serving as British ambassador to Moscow during World War II and later as Chancellor of the Exchequer under Clement Attlee. His daughter, Peggy, went on to marry Nana Joe Appiah, a noted African statesman and tribal chieftain who served as something of a founding father of the Republic of Ghana. Her niece, Barbara Drake, was a prominent trade unionist and a member of the Fabian Society. Another niece, Katherine Dobbs, married the journalist Malcolm Muggeridge, whose experience reporting from the Soviet Union subsequently made him highly critical of the Webbs' optimistic portrayal of Stalin's rule.[citation needed]Her sister Margaret Hayworth Potter was married to the Liberal politician Henry Hobhouse, making Webb an aunt of peace activist Stephen Henry Hobhouse and Liberal politician Arthur Hobhouse.[citation needed]

Sidney and Beatrice Webb had no children of their own. In retirement Beatrice reflected upon this and the success of their symbolic children, the London School of Economics and New Statesman. On September 14, 1936, Beatrice wrote: "In old age it is one of the minor satisfactions of life to watch the success of your children, literal children or symbolic. The London School of Economics is undoubtedly our most famous one; but the New Statesman is also creditable - it is the most successful of the general weeklies, actually making a profit on its 25000 readers, and has absorbed two of its rivals, The Nation and the Week-end Review".[9]


When Beatrice Webb died in 1943, the casket containing her ashes was buried in the garden of their house in Passfield Corner. Lord Passfield's ashes were also buried there in 1947. Shortly afterwards, George Bernard Shaw launched a petition to have both reburied to Westminster Abbey, which was eventually granted. Today, the Webbs' ashes are interred in the nave of Westminster Abbey, close to those of Clement Attlee and Ernest Bevin.


Beatrice Webb's papers, including her diaries, are among the Passfield archive at the London School of Economics. The Webb Diaries are now digitized and available online at the LSE’s Digital Library. Posts about Beatrice Webb regularly appear in the LSE Archives blog, Out of the box.


For a comprehensive bibliography, see Webbs on the Web, hosted by the London School of Economics.

Works by Beatrice Webb:

  • Cooperative Movement in Great Britain (1891)
  • Wages of Men and Women: Should they be equal? (1919)
  • My Apprenticeship (1926)
  • Our Partnership (1948)

Works by Beatrice and Sidney Webb:

  • History of Trade Unionism (1894)
  • Industrial Democracy (1897)
  • The Webbs' Australian Diary (1898)
  • English Local Government Vol. I-X (1906 through 1929)
  • The Manor and the Borough (1908)
  • The Break-Up of the Poor Law (1909)
  • English Poor-Law Policy (1910)
  • The Cooperative Movement (1914)
  • Works Manager Today (1917)
  • The Consumer's Cooperative Movement (1921)
  • Decay of Capitalist Civilization (1923)
  • Methods of Social Study (1932)
  • Soviet Communism: A New Civilization? (1935) (the 2nd and 3rd editions of 1941 and 1944 did not have "?" in the title)
  • The Truth About Soviet Russia (1942)


  1. ^ "A Timeline of Events in Modern American Labor Relations". Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (United States). Archived from the original on 2 August 2010. Retrieved 31 January 2013. "1891: The term “collective bargaining” is first used by Mrs. Sidney Webb, a British labor historian." 
  2. ^ BBC Radio 4 Women's Hour discussion on 1909 Minority Report
  3. ^ From the Workhouse to Welfare, edited by Ed Wallis (Fabian Society and Webb Memorial Trust, 2009)
  4. ^ Snyder (2010). Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. p. 74. 
  5. ^ See, e.g., Conquest, Robert, The Great Terror (1968 and subsequent editions).
  6. ^ Paul Laity, Left Book Club Anthology Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2001 ISBN 0575072210 (p. xvii)
  7. ^ Al Richardson, "Introduction" to C. L. R. James, World Revolution 1917-1936: The Rise and Fall of the Communist International. Humanities Press, 1937 ISBN 0391037900
  8. ^ Potter, Beatrice, The Co-operative Movement in Great Britain, London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co., 1891.
  9. ^ Beatrice Webb diary entry 14 September 1936

External links[edit]