Turbulent Londoners: Margaret Harkness, 1854-1923

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who played a part in the city’s contentious past. Most of the Turbulent Londoners I feature are women, because their contribution to history has so often been overlooked. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. Next up is Margaret Harkness, a radical journalist and author.


Margaret Harkness

Margaret Elise Harkness was a second cousin of Beatrice Webb (nee Potter), one of the founders of sociology as an academic discipline. Margaret trained as a nurse before deciding to make her living as a writer, publishing under the name John Law.

Born on 28th February 1854 in Great Malvern Worcestshire, Margaret was the daughter of a clergyman, the second of five children. She was educated at home, before going to a finishing school in Bournemouth at the age of 21. In 1877 she moved to London to train as a nurse at the Westminster Hospital. After she qualified she worked at Guys Hospital in London Bridge, but she didn’t enjoy the work much.

In the early 1880s, perhaps inspired by Beatrice, Margaret decided to try and make her living writing. Beatrice and her sister Katie supported Margaret financially, and introduced her to a circle of intellectuals who met at the reading room of the British Museum. She began to publish both fiction and non-fiction, most of it under the pen name John Law.

Margaret became friends with a wide range of the radicals in London at the time, including Eleanor Marx and Annie Besant. She began to take an interest in radical politics herself. Margaret must have seen the impacts of poverty first hand during her time as a nurse, and she came to believe that socialism was the solution to. inequality and poverty. Her beliefs influenced her writing, and she published five novels about the lives of London’s poor. The most famous is In Darkest London, first published in 1888. Another of her novels featured the famous Bloody Sunday in  November 1887, when radicals clashed with police in Trafalgar Square over the right to protest there.

Margaret joined the Social Democratic Federation, and was an active campaigner during the 1889 Dock Strike. The Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Manning, was instrumental in resolving the strike. Margaret went to see him in September 1889, and its thought she persuaded him to intervene in the dispute.

Margaret’s work enabled her to travel, she spent time in Manchester, Scotland, Australia, and New Zealand. It becomes quite difficult to trace her movements, but between 1906 and the start of the First World War she was in India. It seems likely that Annie Besant introduced Margaret to the religion of Theosophy, but she also became interested in Indian nationalism, and published a book about her experiences in the country. By this stage, Margaret had rejected socialism and now advocated the ideals and work of the Salvation Army, which inspired her last know novel, published in 1921.

Margaret continued to travel, living in France and Italy before her death, in Florence, on 10th December 1923. Margaret may not have been the best known radical female author in late-Victorian London, and she might not have achieved the most either. But her achievements were still remarkable, and I think it is important not to focus too much attention on a few prominent individuals. There was a vibrant radical community in London in the late nineteenth century, all of whom played a part in the successes and failures of that period.

Sources and Further Reading

London Fictions. “Margaret Harkness: ‘In Darkest London’-1889.” No date, accessed 5th May 2020. Available at https://www.londonfictions.com/margaret-harkness-in-darkest-london.html#

Lucas, John. “Harkness, Margaret Elise.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 26th May 2005, accessed 5th May 2020. Available at https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/56894 [Subscription required to access].

Turbulent Londoners: Beatrice Webb, 1858-1943

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who played a part in the city’s contentious past, with a particular focus of women, whose contribution to history is often overlooked. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. Next up is Beatrice Webb, an economist, sociologist, labour historian, Socialist and social reformer.


Beatrice Webb

Beatrice Webb in 1943 (Source: National Portrait Gallery).

Nowadays, we take it for granted that the causes and impacts of poverty are things that can be researched, quantified, and understood using academic research. It has not always been this way, however, and up until the early twentieth century everything that was known about poverty, as well as how to counter its effects, were based on assumptions and guesswork, frequently coloured by class-based prejudice. Beatrice Webb was one of the founders of the discipline of sociology. As well as fighting poverty, Beatrice began the process of properly understanding it.

Beatrice Potter was born on the 22nd of January 1858 to a wealthy family in Standish, Gloucestshire. She was well-educated by governesses, and later cited the co-operative movement and the philosopher Herbert Spencer, a family friend, as early influences. In 1890 she met Sidney Webb, and they married two years later. It was a long, happy, and intellectually productive marriage; the pair frequently wrote together. In 1892 Beatrice’s father died. Theresulting inheritance set her up for life, leaving her free to concentrate on her research and campaigning.

Like a lot of well-off women at the time, Beatrice came into contact with poverty through her volunteer work. In 1883 she started working with the Charity Organisation Society in Soho. She also volunteered as a rent collector in model dwellings in Wapping. Model dwellings were houses built by private companies that sought to improve living conditions for the working classes as well as making a profit. It was this experience of charity work in London that made Beatrice realise how few social workers actually understood poverty. She decided to use scientific research methods to help improve the situation. She is credited with the foundation of empirical investigation in political science and sociology.

Beatrice and sidney Webb

Beatrice and Sidney Webb in about 1895 (Source: LSE)

The Webbs were active members of the Fabian Society, a socialist organisation that believes in democratic reform rather than revolutionary overthrow. The society supported the Webbs in writing books and pamphlets on socialism and the co-operative movement. Beatrice made important contributions to the political and economic theory of the co-operative movement, even coining the phrase ‘collective bargaining.’ In 1895 the Fabians, including the Webbs, founded the London School of Economics and Political Science with the noble goal of bettering society. Now, LSE is one of the most prestigious universities in the country.

Beatrice was an early advocate of the welfare state. She understood the structural nature of poverty and believed, despite her own volunteering efforts, that private philanthropy was an ineffective way of dealing with long-term poverty. She believed in a national minimum; a standard of living which all citizens were entitled to and should not be allowed to fall below. She worked on the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws and Relief of Distress in 1905-9, although her recommendations were largely ignored. The National Committee for the Prevention of Destitution was set up to campaign for the changes she proposed to the Poor Laws.

Like the rest of the Fabian society, the Webbs were gradualists. They didn’t believe in revolution, although they did believe the socialism was inevitable. Beatrice was so convinced of this that after WW1 she started to write more prolifically, believing that her income would be confiscated by an imminent socialist government. Despite this conviction, the Webbs were criticised by other socialists as being too cautious and bourgeois. Initially suspicious of party politics, the Webbs joined the Labour party in 1914, and in 1922 Beatrice was part of Sidney’s successful election campaign.

Beatrice and sidney Webb Russia

Beatrice and Sidney Webb on their trip to the USSR in 1932 (Source: LSE Library).

At first, the Webbs were wary of Russian Communism, but their frustration with UK politics after the collapse of the Labour government in 1931 made them reevaluate. Beatrice liked the principle of collective altruism (self-sacrifice for the greater good) promoted by the USSR. In 1932, the Webbs spent 2 months in the USSR, and they later co-authored a book called Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation? which was criticised for being too supportive, particularly after the full horrors of Soviet rule began to come out.

Beatrice’s relationship with the women’s right’s movement was more complex than most. In 1889, she signed a petition against women’s suffrage, believing that economic emancipation was more important than the right to vote. She later changed her mind, and in the early 1900s was a strong supporter of the campaign for the vote. During WW1, she chaired a War Cabinet Committee on pay which called for equal pay. In 1932, she was the first woman to be elected as a Fellow of the British Academy, which demonstrates her contribution to opening up academia for women.

Beatrice Webb died on the 30th of April 1943. Her remains were later moved to Westminster Abbey, a gesture of recognition for the contribution she made to society. If she was alive today, she might be called an activist academic – someone who combines their research with activism. Not only did she help to found the modern discipline of sociology, and fight for what she believed in, she helped begin the process of normalising the presence of women in academia. Beatrice Webb was a remarkable woman.

Sources and Further Reading

Davis, John. “Webb [nee Potter], (Martha) Beatrice.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 24th May 2008, accessed 3rd October 2019. Available at https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/36799 [subscription required to access].

Simkin, John. “Beatrice Webb.” Spartacus Educational. Last modified August 2014, accessed 3rd October 2019. Available at https://spartacus-educational.com/TUwebbB.htm

Wikipedia. “Beatrice Webb.” Last modified 13th September 2019, accessed 2nd October 2019. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beatrice_Webb

Turbulent Londoners: Eleanor Marx, 1855-1898

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s contentious past. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. The next Turbulent Londoner is Eleanor Marx, a socialist campaigner and translator, and close friend of Clementina Black


Eleanor Marx was an inspirational socialist campaigner (Source: Marxists.org).

Eleanor Marx was an inspirational socialist campaigner (Source: Marxists.org).

Eleanor Marx was the youngest daughter of Karl Marx, one of the most famous political revolutionaries of all time. She managed to cause quite a stir in her own right however, and her achievements deserve to be recognised. She was a socialist activist and translator, but also worked as a teacher and carer for her ailing parents during her short life; she was only 43 when she committed suicide.

Unsurprisingly because of her family, Eleanor took an interest in politics at a young age. The execution of the Manchester Martyrs when she was 12 years old in 1867 sparked her lifelong support for the Fenians. She must have been very intelligent, because at just 16 she became her father’s secretary, travelling with him to socialist conferences around the world. In 1872 she met and fell in love with Hippolyte Lissagaray, a member of the failed Paris Commune living in exile in London. She helped him write a history of the 1871 commune and translated it, but ended in the relationship in 1882, not long after her father finally agreed to approve the match (Lissagaray was 17 years older than Eleanor).

Her father must have trusted her judgement, because after his death in 1883 he charged Eleanor with publishing his unfinished manuscripts and the English translation of Capital, his most famous work. Her political career did not die with her father however, and in 1884 she joined, and was elected to the executive of, the Social Democratic Federation (SDF). Later that same year she became a founding member of the Socialist League after splits within the SDF, although she later rejoined the SDF the year before she died.

Also in 1884, Eleanor became heavily involved in the Women’s Trade Union League, supporting numerous strikes over the following decade. In 1889 she helped women at a plant in Silvertown form one of the first female branches of a union. The National Union of Gasworkers and General Labourers (NUG&GL) was one of the first trade unions to admit female members. She was a firm believer in participation in political campaigns, a view that frequently alienated her from the majority of the Socialist League. She backed up her beliefs with action too, for example she was present in Trafalgar Square during Bloody Sunday in 1887. Known as compelling speaker, she campaigned tirelessly for workers rights and international solidarity. She also wrote numerous books and articles during this period, and took up acting- she believed the arts were a powerful socialist and feminist tool, and even learnt Norwegian just so she could translate the works of playwright Henrik Ibsen into English.

Eleanor Marx with Edward Aveling and William Liebknecht in 1886 (Source: Wikipedia).

Eleanor Marx with Edward Aveling and William Liebknecht in 1886 (Source: Wikipedia).

In 1885 she helped to organise the International Socialist Congress in Paris, and the following year she toured America with German socialist Wilhelm Liebknecht and Edward Aveling, raising money for the German Social Democratic Party. Eleanor met Aveling, a prominent British Marxist, when she joined the SDF, and she spent the rest of her life with him.

Eleanor Marx poisoned herself on 31 March 1898. It is not known for sure why, but members of the British socialist community blamed Aveling, as Eleanor had found out that he married a young actress in secret the previous year. Her ashes were kept by various socialist organisations over the years, including the SDF, the British Socialist Party, and the Communist Party of Great Britain, before eventually being buried with her family at Highgate in 1956. This tribute, whilst bizarre, demonstrates just how much she meant to the socialist community in Britain.

Eleanor Marx’s life was full of relationships with well known, radical men, but her life was not defined by them. She was an influential campaigner in her own right, and successfully made her own mark on a political landscape that was still very much dominated by males. She has my admiration and respect not only because she spoke several languages (I have enough trouble with English!) but also because she made her own name, and didn’t just rely on those of the men in her life.

Sources and Further Reading

Anon. ‘Datei:Wilhelm Liebknecht Edward Aveling und Eleanor Marx Aveling 1886.jpeg,’ Wikipedia. No date, accessed 17 March 2015.  http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Datei:Wilhelm_Liebknecht_Edward_Aveling_und_Eleanor_Marx_Aveling_1886.jpeg

Anon. ‘Eleanor Marx,’ Wikipedia. Last modified 30 January 2015, accessed 17 March 2015. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eleanor_Marx

Anon. ‘Eleanor Marx,’ Socialist Party. No date, accessed 17 March 2015. http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/socialistwomen/sw12.htm

Anon. ‘Eleanor Marx,’ Spartacus Educational. No date, accessed 17 March 2015. http://spartacus-educational.com/Wmarx.htm

Blunden, Andy. ‘Eleanor Marx,’ marxists.org. No date, accessed 17 March 2015. https://www.marxists.org/archive/eleanor-marx/

Tully, John. Silvertown: The Lost Story of a Strike that Shook London and Helped Launch the Modern Labour Movement. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 2014.