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Beatrice Webb
Born 22 January 1858(1858-01-22)
Gloucester, England
Died 30 April 1943 (aged 85)
Liphook, Hampshire, England
Spouse(s) Sidney Webb

Martha Beatrice Webb (née Potter; 22 January 1858– 30 April 1943) was an English sociologist, economist, socialist and reformer, usually referred to in association with her husband, Sidney Webb. Although her husband became Baron Passfield in 1929, she refused to be known as Lady Passfield.

Beatrice Webb was born in Gloucester, the granddaughter of a Radical MP, Richard Potter. In 1882, she had a relationship with Radical politician Joseph Chamberlain, by then a Cabinet minister. This was a failure, and in 1890 she was introduced to Sidney Webb, whose help she sought in research she was carrying out for her cousin, Charles Booth, whose Life and Labour of the People of London categorised the poorest into class A: "Vicious: borderline semi criminal" or class B "Casual earnings, very poor. The labourers do not get as much as three days work a week, but it is doubtful if many could or would work full time for long together if they had the opportunity". Marrying Sidney in 1892, the two remained together. Beatrice was an active partner in all Sidney's political and professional activities, including the organisation of the Fabian Society and the establishment of the London School of Economics. She co-authored books such as the History of Trade Unionism (1894), and was co-founder of the New Statesman magazine (1913).

In H.G. Wells's The New Machiavelli (1911), the Webbs, as 'the Baileys', are unmercifully lampooned as short-sighted, bourgeois manipulators. The Fabian Society, of which Wells was briefly a member (1903-08), fares no better in his estimation.

Webb's nephew, Sir Stafford Cripps, became a well-known British Labour politician in the 1930s and 1940s, serving as British ambassador to Moscow during the war and later as Chancellor of the Exchequer under Clement Attlee. 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. Their books, Soviet Communism: A new civilization? (1935) and The Truth About Soviet Russia (1942) have been widely denounced 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.[1]

When she died in 1943, Webb's ashes were interred in the nave of Westminster Abbey, close to those of her husband, and were to be joined subsequently by the remains of Clement Attlee and Ernest Bevin.


Minority Report to the Royal Commission on the Poor Law (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.

The Commission split into 'majority' and 'minority' factions. The Minority Report to the Commission was among the most famous of the Webbs' outputs. (Sidney Webb was not a member of the Commission, but the Minority Report was a Webb co-production). Beatrice Webb wrote that its purpose was "to 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".

Historian Jose Harris[4], the biographer of William Beveridge, has written that "in historical accounts of modern social policy, the Royal Commission - and in particular its famous Minority Report - has often been closely twinned with the Beveridge Plan of 1942 as one of the two most seminal public enquiries into the working of British social policy over the last hundred years"[5], noting that the Minority Report has often been cited as one of the first descriptions of a modern welfare state. William Beveridge worked as a researcher for the Webbs on the Minority Report, on the issue of employment exchanges, and was to write in his memoirs that "the Beveridge Report stemmed from what all of us had imbibed from the Webbs".

The central arguments between Helen Bosanquet of the Charity Organisation Society and Beatrice Webb - who led the intellectual arguments for majority and minority respectively - have resonated across later debates about poverty and welfare. Webb was arguing for a structural understanding of the causes of poverty, against those who feared this underplayed individual responsibility; and she argued that collective responsibility to prevent poverty required a much greater public role for the state in guaranteeing a basic minimum, while Bosanquet argued that charitably-led provision would be undermined by the state.

A Guardian editorial in 2009, marking the centenary of the Minority Report, wrote that "the seed that was to grow into the welfare state was planted [in the Minority Report] ... Workhouses lingered on in various forms and the poor law itself lasted until 1948 - but Beatrice had already written its obituary in 1909"[6].

These arguments were not successful in 1909. The divisions on the Commission saw the Liberal government ignore recommendations for reform from majority and minority. The Webbs sold 25,000 copies of a Fabian edition of the Minority Report, and launched a Campaign for the Break-Up of the Poor Law to mobilise public support.

Politically, the experience of the Minority Report campaign proved important in moving the Webbs and other Fabians away from influencing the Liberal Party to focusing on building up the Labour Party. The fledgling Parliamentary Labour Party proposed a private members bill based on the Minority Report: few Liberals supported its measures, with Winston Churchill a prominent exception. The campaign letter 'The Crusade' was a forerunner to the New Statesman, both edited by Clifford Sharp.

Webb as Co-operative theorist

Webb has 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, Webb identified herself as a Co-operative Federalist; a school of thought which advocates Consumer Co-operative societies. Webb 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 (CWS)) 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 [7] Examples of successful worker Cooperatives did of course exist then as now. In some professions they were the norm. But Webbs final book, The Truth About The Soviet Union celebrated central planning.


Beatrice Webb's papers, including her diaries, are among the Passfield archive at the London School of Economics. For a small online exhibition featuring some of these papers see 'A poor thing but our own': the Webbs and the Labour Party. Posts about Beatrice Webb regularly appear in the LSE Archives blog, Out of the box.


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)
  • 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 Truth About Soviet Russia (1942)


  1. ^ See, e.g., Robert Conquest, The Great Terror (1968 and subsequent editions).
  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. ^
  5. ^ Jose Harris, The Webbs and Beveridge, in 'From Workhouse to Welfare' (Fabian Society, 2009)
  6. ^ The Guardian, February 19th 2009
  7. ^ Potter, Beatrice, "The Co-operative Movement in Great Britain", London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co., 1891.

External links



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