Friday, February 24, 2012

Webbs on the Web

The remarkable diaries of Beatrice Webb, the great social reformer and co-founder of The London School of Economics, have been made fully and freely available on the internet to mark the launch of the LSE’s new digital library. The diaries, LSE says, record ‘not just her personal struggles but her place in the front-line of public life from the late 19th century to her death in 1943’.

Beatrice, the eighth daughter of industrialist Richard Potter and Laurencina Heyworth, was born in Gloucestershire in 1858. Although she enjoyed little formal schooling she read widely and talked to her father’s visitors, one of whom was Herbert Spencer. A liaison with the statesman Joseph Chamberlain, who was much older than she, failed to develop, and when it broke down, she joined a charity to help those living in poverty.

For a while Beatrice worked as a researcher for her cousin Charles Booth, a social reformer. In 1891, she published a small book, The Co-operative Movement in Great Britain, which later became a classic. While working on the book she met Sidney Webb, who wooed her for several years before they married in 1892. Beatrice’s inheritance of a £1,000 a year enabled Sidney to give up his civil service job. They set up house in London together, and subsequently wrote a number of important books such as The History of Trade Unionism and Industrial Democracy.

In 1894, the Fabian Society, in which the Webbs were important figures, was left £10,000, which they used to help found The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) in 1895. In 1898, the Webbs travelled to North America, Australia and New Zealand; thereafter, they spent many years researching and publishing 11 volumes of English Local Government.

In 1900, the Fabian Society joined with other parties to form the Labour Representation Committee, which won two seats in the House of Commons. The Webbs were responsible for drafting the 1902 Education Act; and Beatrice served as a member of the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws, producing an important minority report. In 1913, they launched the New Statesman magazine, and, a year later, they joined the Labour Party. Sydney, in particular, rose to high office. When he was made Baron Passfield, Beatrice refused the title Lady Passfield. In the 1930s, after their retirement to Hampshire, they visited the USSR, and then spent three years writing Soviet Communism: a new Civilisation?.

When Beatrice Webb died in 1943, she left behind an astonishing 70 years of diaries, all of which are held in the Passfield Archive at LSE. They are among the founding works of the LSE library, and are widely consulted by researchers studying late 19th and 20th century politics, industrial relations, and the role of women in society and family relationships. A selection of extracts was first edited by Norman and Jeanne MacKenzie and published in four volumes between 1982 and 1985 by Virago in association with LSE; a one volume edition, abridged by Lynn Knight, came out in 2000.

LSE, with funding from the Webb Memorial Trust, has made all of Beatrice Webb’s diaries available online. Two versions of the diary have been digitised - 9,000 pages of the actual manuscript as well as 8,000 pages of a transcribed version that is cross-referenced with the date fields indexed from the manuscript version. The website - called Webbs on the Web - also contains a number of images of the Webbs. See The Diary Junction for several biography and diary extract links. Here, though, are a few extracts from the 2000 volume edited by Knight.

6 May 1887
‘This morning I walked along Billingsgate from Fresh Wharf to the London docks. Crowded with loungers smoking bad tobacco, and coarse, careless talk with the clash of a halfpenny on the pavement every now and again. Bestial content or hopeless discontent on their faces. The lowest form of leisure - senseless curiosity about street rows, idle gazing at the street sellers, low jokes - and this is the chance the docks offer.’

1 February 1890
‘London is in a ferment: strikes are the order of the day, the new trade unionism with its magnificent conquest of the docks is striding along with an arrogance rousing employers to a keen sense of danger, and to a determination to strike against strikes. The socialists, led by a small set of able young men (Fabian Society) are manipulating London Radicals, ready at the first check-mate of trade unionism to voice a growing desire for state action.’

14 July 1896
‘Made arrangements to start the London School in its new abode at Adelphi Terrace in October. Engaged a bright girl as housekeeper and accountant. Advertised for political science lecturer - and yesterday interviewed candidates, nondescript set of university men. All hopeless from our point of view. All imagined that political science consisted of a knowledge of Aristotle and ‘modern’ writers such as de Tocqueville - wanted to put the students through a course of Utopias from More downwards. When Sidney suggested a course of lectures be prepared on the different systems of municipal taxation, when Graham suggested a study of the rival methods of election, from ad hoc to proportional representation, the wretched candidates looked aghast and thought evidently that we were amusing ourselves at their expense . . . Finally we determined to do without our lecturer - to my mind a blessed consummation. It struck me always as a trifle difficult to teach a science which does not yet exist.’

19 May 1910
‘The King’s death has turned politics topsy-turvy . . . London and the country generally is enjoying itself hugely at the Royal Wake, slobbering over the lying-in-state and the formal procession. Any collective thought and feeling is to the good; but the ludicrous false sentiment which is being lavished over the somewhat commonplace virtues of our late King would turn the stomachs of the most loyal of Fabians.’

5 August 1914
‘It was a strange London on Sunday: crowded with excursionists to London and balked would-be travellers to the Continent, all in a state of suppressed uneasiness and excitement. We sauntered through the crowd to Trafalgar Square, where Labour, socialist and pacifist demonstrators, with a few trade union flags, were gesticulating from the steps of the monument to a mixed crowd of admirers, hooligan warmongers and merely curious holiday-makers. It was an undignified and futile exhibition, this singing of the ‘Red Flag’ and passing of well-worn radical resolutions in favour of universal peace. We turned into the National Liberal Club: the lobby was crowded with men, all silent and perturbed.’

15 January 1941
‘We have had a shock. In the devastating German raid on London on 29 December all our books, bound and unbound - seven thousand volumes - were destroyed. At first I was downcast, but Sidney was more philosophical [. . .]. When in the six o’clock BBC news we are told that five million books had been swept away, I was consoled by the feeling ‘we are all in it’, and had no reason to feel specially injured.’

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