The visits of Sidney and Beatrice Webb to Cambridge


What the British Newspaper Archives show us about two of the founders of the London School of Economic and Political Sciences and their visits to Cambridge in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This post mainly looks at Beatrice. 

I recently visited the Marshall Library in Cambridge – named after the economist Alfred Marshall who died in 1925. He married the Newnham College economist, Mary Paley, who after Alfred’s death could be found at the welcome desk at the Marshall Library – Maynard Keynes having helped facilitate this arrangement.

The librarians have been running an advent countdown feature on Twitter, and they tweeted about the economists Sidney and Beatrice Webb.

Sidney & Beatrice Webb, Alfred and Mary Paley Marshall, John Neville and Florence Ada Keynes, Sir Horace and Ida Darwin, Sir George and Maud Darwin, Henry and Millicent Garrett Fawcett, Henry and Eleanor Sidgwick …can you detect a theme there?

These were partnerships in more ways than one. Just as none of those men would have achieved what they achieved without the love and support of their wives, perhaps with the exception of Alfred Marshall I get the sense that the husbands were more than willing to support their wives in transforming society – whether in Cambridge or on a much bigger scale.

I hadn’t looked in detail about the role of Sidney and Beatrice Webb in the making of modern Cambridge, but I noticed their names seem to crop up in the political circles in pre-WWI Cambridge. This blogpost picks out some of their visits.

Sidney Webb’s first visit – Sat 23 Feb 1889 to King’s College, Cambridge

Christmas Eve 1887 is the first mention of the Fabian Society in Cambridge. The two other institutions Sidney & Beatrice Webb helped found are the New Statesman magazine, and the London School of Economic and Political Sciences. In Spring 1889, Oscar Browning organised a series of lectures at King’s College, Cambridge for the Fabian Society on the various aspects of socialism. The first record I can find is the talk by George Bernard Shaw.

900211 George Bernard Shaw Fabian Soc

This was followed by a talk on the historical aspects of socialism by Sidney Webb.

890225 Sidney Webb first visit cambridge kings

Sidney Webb was back in 1891 making the case for the 8 hour working day.

910214 Sidney Webb 8 hour day

One person who noticed the impact of Sidney was the wife of the Editor of the Cambridge Independent Press – Catherine Tillyard. Catherine, for me is one of Cambridge’s heroes for her column in the newspaper where she wrote about the issues women were discussing and campaigning on. This column of hers – penned under the nom de guerre ‘Pertilote’ started at the end of the 1880s and would last until the First World War. Thus we have a huge wealth of information produced on a weekly basis for the best part of 30 years written by a woman active in Cambridge’s civic and social affairs. There’s a Ph.D thesis waiting to be written in those articles alone. The way Catherine describes the engagement between Sidney and Beatrice Webb in 1892 is beautiful.

920205 Catherine Tillyard on Sidney Beatrice Webb Engagement

Note below how Catherine goes into detail of Beatrice’s work.

920205 Catherine Tillyard on Sidney Beatrice Webb Engagement_2

The final sentence makes me wonder whether Catherine could have predicted just how much of an impact the pair would go onto have. That said, Catherine wasn’t afraid to pull Beatrice up if she went too far. In 1895, she took issue with Beatrice’s idea of a women-only chamber in Parliament.

950208 Beatrice Webb women only parliamentary chamber

Interestingly, in this article, Catherine notes the proposal is not a new one but came from Sir George Grey, former PM of New Zealand – and thus hoped Beatrice wouldn’t be ‘tainted’ as being the originator of that idea. Catherine states at the end of the column:

“The world wants good and clever men and women to work together, not in legislative houses apart, or religious houses, or grooves or sphere, but hand in hand and shoulder to shoulder, comrades and helpmates in the upward path.”

Beautifully written if I may say so, Mrs Tillyard. The full column is here but requires £subscription. (It’s well worth it!)

At the end of the year, Sidney Webb was back in Cambridge soothing bruised hearts and minds following the general election defeat. The next time we hear about Beatrice Webb is in 1905, when, alongside the social reformers Helen Bosanquet and Octavia Hill, she was appointed to the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws. Interestingly during the time Beatrice was working on the Commission (which reported in 1909), Sidney came back to Cambridge to deliver a lecture on unemployment to the Cambridge Fabian Society.

080207 Sidney Web on job centres

The final sentence in this snippet really caught my attention.

“To deal with these [unemployed labourers] there should be a scheme for a Labour Exchange, and for the surplus they should provide maintenance.”

The reason why it caught my attention was because Mary Paley Marshall and Florence Ada Keynes – mother of John Maynard Keynes, had already set up the first labour exchange in Cambridge – it was being run by Eglantyne Jebb, who would go on to found Save The Children. It wouldn’t have surprised me if someone at that meeting pointed this out to Sidney Webb. The premises of it were on Regent Street (where there is now a blue plaque for Eglantyne) – chances are he’d have gone past it on his way to Trinity College for that meeting.

In 1909 Beatrice Webb was in the Cambridge Independent again, having written a lengthy letter to the editor about the plight of babies in workhouses and the poor response from the Local Government Board – an institution central to the development of public services in the Victorian/Edwardian eras. Catherine Tillyard comments in response that this was a political issue that only women could solve. In that same year, when the Poor Law Commission reported back, Sidney Webb came back to Cambridge to deliver a lecture on the subject under the auspices of the Master of Selwyn College. During the Q&A session after his lecture, one very interesting name crops up in the newspaper report: Clara Rackham. Clara would go onto give Cambridge the best part of half a century of public service. A true civic hero.

In 1913, Beatrice Webb was back in Cambridge delivering a lecture to the Cambridge Fabian Society on the Minimum Wage. Interestingly, a few years before this, Eglantyne Jebb gave a similar speech but to a different audience. Great minds thinking alike?

War breaks out

The British Newspaper Archive records for Cambridge’s newspapers record Sidney Webb joining a government committee on housing following the confirmation by Parliament of £4m to be spent on the problem. This was three weeks after the outbreak of the First World War – the paper noting that the outbreak of war meant that the item passed without controversy. Beatrice was appointed to a reconstruction committee in 1917 – announced by Edwin Montagu MP, somewhat of a local member of Parliament in these parts at the time. He held the Chesterton seat for the Liberal Party – which would then become the Cambridgeshire seat in 1918. His constituency area spans a fair amount of South Cambridgeshire, South East Cambridgeshire, and parts of the current Cambridge City constituencies.

After the war

Now very much in the Labour Party, Sidney Webb returns to Cambridge to support Rhondda Williams.

181211 Sidney Webb backs Labour Rhondda Williams

The meeting was chaired by Professor Ernest Hobson – whose specialist subject was maths. What fascinates me about this time period in Cambridge is how so many academics are prominent in hosting meetings in Cambridge that are party political and/or are primarily around solving complex social problems. This is despite the fact that their specialist subject might be far removed from politics. But then we can look to a modern day example of possibly Cambridge’s most famous professor unexpectedly turning up to a history talk on Cambridge’s railways at the Mill Road Winter Fair…

followed by his backing of a lawsuit against the controversial Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt MP. Although not widely known outside of Cambridge, Professor Hawking has been a Cambridge Labour Party supporter for many years.

On the importance of digitising our archives.

I’ve been able to put this blogpost together because of the hard work by the staff at the British Newspaper Archives – who have so far digitised over 20million pages in an archive that has over 700million pages that need digitising. (If the BNA could digitise the Cambridge Newspapers of the 1920s & 1930s someday soon that would be splendid!)

What digitisation allows is for historical researches to access archives from their own home, while at the same time creating a revenue income stream for the archives as more of us find out about it. You can get your subscription here.


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