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Decades of British social upheaval open to public view as Beatrice Webb's diaries go digital

Beatrice Webb

A savage attack on bankers, reflections on a demoralised Labour party, preparations for the monarch’s diamond jubilee and a celebration of the joys of retail therapy. They might sound like a portrait of the contemporary world but in fact are some of the highlights from the diaries of social reformer Beatrice Webb – published digitally and in full for the first time today .

Beatrice Webb, co-founder of both the London School of Economics and Political Science and the Fabian movement, left a fascinating 70-year account of social upheaval and history in the diaries which have now been made freely available online to launch LSE’s digital library.

They 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.

The financial crisis of the early 1930s, for example, drives her to an attack on financiers and politicians which sounds strangely familiar to a modern audience. Writing in September 1931 after the formation of a national government forced by the great depression, Beatrice thunders:

“We know now the depth of the delusion that the financial world have, either the knowledge or goodwill to guard the safety of the country over whose pecuniary interests they preside. They first make an appalling mess of their own business – involving their country in loss of business and prestige – and then by the most bare-faced dissimulation and political intrigue they throw out one Cabinet and put in their own nominees in order to recover the cost of their miscalculation by hook or crook from the community as a whole.”

She also recorded the effects of the crisis on the Labour party whose conference that year she found:

“Dull, drab, disillusioned but not disunited.”

She could be equally direct in more personal affairs, including her first impressions of future husband Sidney Webb, recorded in 1890, which were anything but favourable:

“His tiny tadpole body, unhealthy skin, lack of manner, cockney pronunciation, poverty are all against him. He has the conceit of a man who has raised himself out of the most insignificant surroundings into a position of power – how much power no one quite knows. This self-complacent egotism, this disproportionate view of his own position is at once repulsive and ludicrous.”

But she married him nonetheless and recorded the dramatic change of heart in an entry just over two years later:

“We love each other devotedly - we are intensely interested in the same work – we have freedom and means to devote our whole lives to the work we believe in. Never did I imagine such happiness open to me. May I deserve it.”

The Webbs founded LSE in 1895 and Beatrice was a busy researcher all her life, publishing studies on poverty, housing, wages, equality and co-operatives among other subjects.

Yet there are times when her diaries also dwell on lighter topics such as Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee or the joys of shopping for clothes ahead of a foreign tour by the Webbs in 1898:

“I am revelling in buying silks and satins, gloves, underclothing, furs and everything that a sober-minded woman of forty can want to inspire Americans and Colonials with a due respect for the refinements of attractiveness! It is a pleasure to clothe myself charmingly! For the last ten years I have not had either the time or the will to think of it. My childish delight in watching these bright clothes being made is a sort of rebound from the hard drudgery of the last two years. But is is rather comical in a women of 40! – 40 all but two weeks – forty, forty, FORTY – what an age, almost elderly! I don’t feel a bit old.”

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. Both versions can now be viewed side-by-side for comparison. The project, "Webbs on the Web", was made possible with funding from the Webb Memorial Trust

Beatrice(manuscript)_227x304Sue Donnelly, head of archives at LSE, said: “Her diaries are remarkably rich. The style is very personal and often introspective but she can be analytical and gossipy as well at times.”

The diaries were chosen as the launch collection for the new LSE Digital Library. LSE is one of the first academic libraries to provide a digital library, a service which is becoming more and more necessary due to the requirement to collect, preserve and provide access to digital material. This is compounded by the popularity of social media today and its importance as a historical record, particularly to an institution like LSE.

Ed Fay, manager of the digital library, said: “It is a way of storing potentially anything in digital format. It allows us to archive books, photographs and maps but also blogs, podcasts, social media and other forms of communication which are increasingly important in academic life. We don’t know exactly what the future will bring but we needed to build our capacity to respond.”

A range of collections will be added to LSE Digital Library in the future. There is plenty of material held in LSE’s archives such as Fabian Society pamphlets, Charles Booth’s Poverty Map and 19th Century photographs.

LSE Digital Library


For more details on the digital library contact Ed Fay e.fay@lse.ac.uk

For more information on the content of the Webb diaries or other LSE archive collections contact Sue Donnelly s.donnelly@lse.ac.uk


13 February 2012