Barbara Wootton

Barbara Wootton is Deputy Speaker in the House of Lords. Her latest book is Crime and Penal Policy.

Diary: Changes

Barbara Wootton, 7 March 1985

It would, I think, be generally agreed that in this country the generation now in its eighties or above must have seen more change in industrial processes and consequently in lifestyles than any of its predecessors at similar ages. This diary records the casual observations of one individual concerning public reactions to some of these changes which have impressed me personally, particularly in their effect upon the unwritten codes which govern the things that may be said, the questions that may be asked, and the language which may be used in the ordinary social intercourse of ‘respectable’ people.

Making herself disagreeable

Barbara Wootton, 6 December 1984

The third and final volume of the Webb diaries, which covers the period 1905 to 1924, is appropriately subtitled ‘The Power to Alter Things’. Hitherto Beatrice had been mainly the stay-at-home book-writer and social entertainer, while Sidney pursued his activities in the London County Council as well as in the London School of Economics which the Webbs had themselves founded. Towards the end of this volume Sidney became an MP and a Cabinet Minister in the first ever Labour government, but for Beatrice the turning-point was an invitation to join a Royal Commission on the Poor Law, which was Balfour’s legacy to the Liberal government that followed his defeat in the General Election of January 1906. In Volume Two of the diary Beatrice had already escaped from the neurotic self-analysis and sense of guilt which had characterised the first instalment; now in Volume Three we are aware of a confident, outgoing, independent-minded and very sociable woman approaching her fifties. In these entries, even before the defeat of the Balfour government, she presents herself as anxiously awaiting news as to who her colleagues in the Royal Commission were to be. When the full list arrived, she was ready to welcome her old friend Charles Booth, already famous for his researches into the lives of the London poor: but of the others only George Lansbury, and perhaps to some extent Octavia Hill, looked likely to share what would today be called Beatrice’s left-wing opinions. In consequence, Beatrice was compelled from the outset to fight a solitary battle for the principle that destitution was something to be prevented, not just mitigated after its occurrence.

Real Things

Barbara Wootton, 5 April 1984

Fifty-eight years ago the man we now know as Sir David McNee was born in dire poverty in a Glasgow tenement. His father was a railwayman, and a staunch tradeunionist who rose ‘through a variety of jobs’ to be driver of many famous trains, including the ‘Royal Scot’. His mother was the daughter of a railwayman. In this book Sir David reports how he has often had occasion to refer with pride to these facts in later life, in face of suggestions that, as Metropolitan Commissioner of Police, he had no real insight into the problems of working-class life with which that office so often brought him into contact: ‘the lessons learned in Glasgow streets and tenements … taught me a lot about human nature which a more affluent and protected childhood might not have done.’


Barbara Wootton, 1 December 1983

The final entry in Volume One of this diary, dated 23 July 1892, left Beatrice safely married to her Sidney, but lamenting that, according to current convention, as ‘Mrs Sidney Webb’ she would lose both her names. The next entry is dated 16 August and is divided between a brief reference to two delightful days of ‘real honeymoon in the Wicklow Hills’ and interviews with trade-unionists in Glasgow and elsewhere relevant to the History of Trade Unionism, which was to be their first joint book. As soon as this volume was completed, its authors felt the need for some sociological analyses to explore the background of the events which the History had recorded. They immediately set to work, therefore, on a study of ‘industrial democracy’. To Beatrice, however, this proved a less engaging task, though the pace at which one book was intended to succeed another was reflected in the fact that the diary’s announcement on 30 April 1894 that ‘our book comes out tomorrow’ was followed less than three months later by a lament about ‘not getting on with our book’. As it turned out, however, ‘industrial democracy’ proved such an awkward subject that the finished product did not reach the publishers for another three years.

I do and I don’t

Barbara Wootton, 21 October 1982

Beatrice Potter was born in 1858 at Standish on the edge of the Cotswolds. Her father, Richard Potter, was a well-to-do (mainly self-made) businessman to whom she was devoted. Relations with her mother seem, however, to have been uneasy: the diary mentions ‘a kind of feeling of dislike and distrust which I believe is mutual’. For this she suffered a strong sense of guilt, as she earnestly believed that ‘whatever my mother might be, it ought not to make the slightest difference to my feelings and behaviour towards her. Honour thy Father and thy Mother was one of the greatest of Christ’s commandments.’ Nevertheless, as the eighth daughter in a family of nine girls and one boy (who died in infancy), Beatrice did sometimes feel neglected by her parents’ preoccupation with her older sisters’ numerous courtships and marriages.

Memories of an Edwardian Girlhood

Barbara Wootton, 4 March 1982

Carol Dyhouse’s book is concerned only with girls, and mainly with those drawn from middle or upper-class circles, although she makes one substantial digression in which she contrasts their educational history with that of their working-class contemporaries in the elementary schools of the day. Stephen Humphries’s story, on the other hand, theoretically covers both sexes, though boys and youths loom larger than their feminine counterparts, and his horizon does not extend beyond the working classes. Both stories are exceedingly well documented, but whereas Dyhouse draws largely on written memoirs, biographies and other published studies, Humphries justly observes that most of what has been written about working-class youths of earlier generations has not come from the subjects themselves, and therefore necessarily presents interpretations of working-class culture by middle-class outsiders. His book is an attempt to redress the balance by ‘rewriting the history of working-class childhood and youth largely in the words of working-class people who themselves experienced it between 1889 and 1939’. Since, however, few such people have left written records, Humphries’s data have been almost exclusively gathered from interviews with men and women now of advanced age (there cannot be many who go back to 1889) recounting childhood experiences.

Ground Floor

Barbara Wootton, 15 October 1981

A few years ago, when I was reviewing a book on Women in Social Work, I made a vow to myself that I would never again engage in discussion of ‘Women in’ any sphere. It seemed to me that the time had come to recognise that sex is as irrelevant in the professional activities of men or women as it is important in our private lives.

British Blues

Barbara Wootton, 21 May 1981

‘Many benefits and costs attend life in a middle-aged, middle-sized, formerly prosperous, presently semi-collectivised, freedom-loving, intensely tribal, modern society with tired blood, cultivated civil servants, weak industries, strong unions, and a flourishing high culture.’ So say the authors of this book, which originated in conversations between a British journalist well-known to readers of the Times and an American professor of political science in the University of California. Finding themselves ‘engaged in fairly intense discussions about British politics’, this pair asked why ‘the pleasure and instruction we were shamelessly deriving from hearing our own voices’ should not be ‘spread among a larger population’. The result is a wide-ranging, admirably readable study.

The Future of the Labour Party

Barbara Wootton, 18 December 1980

Here is a miscellany of books, written before the 1980 Party Conference by authors who have some concern about the future of the Labour Party. Healey’s is a magnificent picture-book strung on a slender autobiographical thread, which he describes as being ‘partly about photography, partly about the world and partly about me’. Although he has included some political anecdotes, the book makes no claim to be a serious discussion of his party’s future, but it does reveal attractive aspects of the author’s personality and interests probably not hitherto widely recognised.

Mrs Thatcher’s Instincts

Barbara Wootton, 7 August 1980

What have Margaret Thatcher and David Steel in common, apart from holding the leadership of their respective political parties? Both are highly intelligent and educated persons with academic qualifications – Thatcher in chemistry and law, Steel in arts and law. Both have been called to the bar, and for both politics has been the main preoccupation of their adult lives. Thatcher entered Parliament at the General Election of 1959 at the age of 34. Steel followed six years later at a by-election three days before his 27th birthday. Both are married: Thatcher has one son and daughter (twins) and Steel also has one son and one daughter.

Saving the World

Barbara Wootton, 19 June 1980

It must be just 60 years ago that, as a newly appointed Cambridge lecturer, I walked the streets of that city with a young friend, Eileen Sprague, while she discussed the pros and cons of marrying Desmond Bernal – a recent Cambridge graduate. I felt sure of the outcome, and in fact they married almost immediately afterwards, when Des (as he was known to all his friends) was 21 and Eileen 23.


Trouble at the Met

5 April 1984

SIR: In his first criticism of my review of McNee’s Law Professor Punch is literally correct (Letters, 7 June). Lord Mountbatten did not mention the name of the previous Commissioner (Sir Robert Mark), but he is reported to have ‘looked across at Mark’, while saying: ‘I got him his job, you know.’ There could have been no point in that remark unless it was intended as...

Last Victorian

José Harris, 10 November 1994

Eminent social scientists are not normally household names, but in the middle decades of the 20th century Barbara Wootton was well-known far outside the dim corridors of universities....

Read More

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences