Patricia Auspos

Published On


Page Range

pp. 259–328


  • English

Print Length

70 pages

4. A Partnership of Equals

Beatrice and Sidney Webb

  • Patricia Auspos (author)
The extraordinary partnership that Beatrice and Sydney Webb embarked on when they married in 1892 spanned almost fifty years and left a lasting mark on British sociology, social welfare policy, and public administration. Groomed to make a Society marriage, Beatrice Potter (1858-1943) grew up believing that love and career were incompatible goals for a woman. Her disastrous relationship with the prominent, domineering politician Joseph Chamberlain reinforced that conviction. After it became clear that they would not marry, Beatrice made a name for herself as a social investigator, studying London’s poor in the late 1880s. But she could not shake off her obsessive love for Chamberlain.
When Sidney Webb (1859-1947), a Fabian Socialist and a clerk in the Colonial Office, fell in love with Beatrice in 1890, he assured her that she could enjoy love and work. After a year of agonizing doubt, she agreed to marry him because she believed he would be the ideal partner for her work. But she was not passionately in love with him, as she had been with Chamberlain. She did not find Sydney physically attractive and was embarrassed by his lower class origins.
It took Beatrice ten years to be fully happy with Sidney and a marriage that was focused almost entirely on work. Instead of having children, they wrote books together. They investigated social and economic issues, campaigned for sweeping changes in education and social policy, sat on government commissions, and were instrumental in founding the London School of Economics. When they married, Sidney vowed they would show the world what a marriage of true equals looked like. Beatrice agreed, but always recoiled from any suggestion that she was the dominant partner in the relationship. Their collaboration, in sharp contrast to the Youngs’ partnership, was fundamentally egalitarian: it acknowledged Beatrice’s contributions as much as Sidney’s and allowed each to play a variety of public roles. Beatrice headed a public campaign to rewrite Britain’s Poor Law legislation, and sat on several government commissions during World War I. Sidney was elected to Parliament and held two Cabinet posts. They are buried together in Westminster Abbey, the only non-royal couple to be so honored. But their seemingly idyllic union was marred for many years by Beatrice’s yearning for a more romantically compelling partner than Sydney and her sublimated passion for the dominating Chamberlain.


Patricia Auspos


A graduate of Barnard College, Patricia Auspos earned a Ph.D. in Modern British History from Columbia University and taught at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. She researched and wrote about social policy issues and programs as a staff member at MDRC and the Aspen Institute Roundtable on Community Change, and as an independent consultant. Breaking Conventions is her first book. She lives in Jackson Heights, New York City.