The Webbs: Working On Trade Union History

For Sidney and Beatrice Webb, recording the struggles of early trade unionism - and subsidising its publication - were an integral part of their social commitment, by Chris Wrigley.


More than that, they were able to control the production of their books, organizing the printing, fixing the prices and keeping an eye on the stocks. This way they could direct certain books to chosen wider audiences, thereby enhancing the role of their writings as propaganda and furthering the Webbs' names politically. Special cheap editions of their books on trade unionism were produced for trade unionists. Thus, an 1898 special edition of their History of Trade Unionism (1894) was published with the optimistic inscription on its title page 'Printed By The Authors Specially For The United Society Of Boilermakers And Iron Shipbuilders, To Remain Forever The Corporate Property Of The Society For Branch And Office Use'.


Beatrice Webb devotedly put her private income behind the writing of their books. In September 1891, ten months before she and Sidney were married, she was writing to him, with regard to her trade union research, 'it would be worthwhile spending £200 in getting over the ground quickly and well' and spoke of taking Elvidge (a member of the compositors' union) 'and some similar persons as private secretary with me when l go off to the provinces the beginning of next year'.


Sidney, 'Careful personal expenditure and generous work-expenditure should be our aim', with the justification that 'it would be wanting in statesmanship to stint ourselves in our work just in these years of greatest vigour'.


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