Beatrice Potter visits Joseph Chamberlain, family and a visitor

Have you ever thought what a grand Victorian home would look like?  Well – at the other end of this piece you’ll have an interesting description – but don’t jump to the end just yet. The next 500 or so words paint the background.

Back in 2001 I completed an ‘Open University Diploma in Modern Social History Research’. The middle of the three modules was ‘Charles Booth and Social Investigation in nineteenth-century Britain’. One of those involved in Booth’s work was a young & committed lady Beatrice Potter – Booth’s cousin-in-law.

In July 1892 Beatrice married Sidney Webb and is now invariably referred to as Beatrice Webb. Beatrice began keeping a diary in 1873 when she was 15 and continued recording the life and times around her until her death in 1943. The Potters were a significant family who had a ‘substantial but plain four-square Georgian mansion in its own grounds where the Cotswold escarpment towered over the Vale of the River Severn’. Richard Potter was a partner in a successful timber business and also served for many years on the board of the Great Western Railway. The mansion home was ‘Standish’ that, for Beatrice, seemed a world in itself.

Joseph Chamberlain (1836 – 1914) was a British politician and statesman best known as the leading imperialist of the day in Britain. He made his career in Birmingham, first as a manufacturer of screws and then as a notable Mayor of the city. During his early adulthood he was a campaigner for educational reform – something dear to the heart of Beatrice. Despite never becoming Prime Minister, he is regarded as one of the most important British politicians of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
In her diary entry of 3rd June 1883 Beatrice recorded her first meeting with Joseph Chamberlain. That entry begins: ‘Wretchedly wasted week. No hard work done. Sick headache from over-eating and under-exercising.’ She then records: ‘Met sundry distinguished men, among others Joseph Chamberlain. I do, and I don’t, like him. Talking to ‘clever men’ in society is a snare and delusion as regards interest. Much better read their books’.

Towards the end of January 1884 Beatrice received an invitation to visit a house that Chamberlain had recently built. She was there on Tuesday afternoon 29th January 1884 but is isn’t written up in her diary until Saturday 16th March. It was there that she became aware of the views of John Bright a Birmingham M.P. for thirty years. He was a leader of the Free Trade – laissez-faire – non-interference/leave things alone – movement. That view led him to oppose the government’s proposal to aid the poor and Beatrice would spend much of the rest of her life seeking to provide that aid.

In her diary of Saturday 16th March 1884 Beatrice wrote:
‘Receiving a pressing letter from Miss Chamberlain, and feeling convinced that the negotiation was off, I saw no harm in going for two days to Birmingham to watch the great man (Chamberlain) at home. I am afraid there is a dash of the adventuress about me, and it struck me as rather comically interesting to investigate the top-most branch of the caucus under the circumstances.’

Her arrival seems to have been a bit of a let-down for her. Her diary entry reads:
‘Highbury is a very elaborately built red-brick house with numberless bow windows and long glass orchid-houses stretching along the brow of the hill upon which it is placed.
Inside there is very much taste – and all very bad. At first you admire the bright softness of the colouring and general luxurious comfort of the rooms and furniture, but after four and twenty hours the whole palls on you, and you long for a bare floor and plain deal table. The two Miss Chamberlains sit ill at ease in the midst of the luxury. They are dressed in the dowdiness of the middle class, and are both of them simple and genuine, naturally inclined for hard work and simple fare, and loving the easy intercourse of family life and intimate friendships. From the great man they get conversation but little sympathy; possibly they don’t give it. He comes and goes, asks his friends and entertains them and sees little of his womenkind. In Birmingham they make kindly homely hostesses and are useful to him; in London they are glum and sit silently between the distinguished men who dine with the future ‘Prime Minister’ and try in vain to interest and be interested in the fashionable worldly-wise wives who stay the correct time in the drawing-room.

In spite of the luxury and brightness of the house, a gloom overhangs the ‘Home’. The drawing-room with its elaborately carved marble arches, its satin paper, rich hangings and choice watercolours has a forlornly grand appearance. No books, no work, no music, not even a harmless antimacassar, to relieve the oppressive richness of the satin-covered furniture.

‘Here, on Tuesday afternoon 29th January, I find the whole family assembled (except its head) ready to receive me. Presently the great man himself emerges from his glass houses and gives me a constrainedly polite welcome. Are we about to take part in a funeral procession? think I, and sink oppressed into a perfectly constructed armchair. Enter John Bright.’
Joseph Chamberlain does the introductions:
‘Miss Potter, I think you know her.’
Beatrice responded:
‘Not me,’ I say humbly, ‘but I think you knew my grandfather, Lawrence Heyworth.’
‘Lawrence Heyworth,’ replies the old man with slow emphasis, ‘yes. Then you are the daughter of Lawrencina Heyworth – one of the two or three women a man remembers to the end of his life as beautiful in expression and form.’

With this introduction our intercourse becomes naturally of the most kindly description. Immediately he dives into the memories of the past, tells me of his visits to Yewtree and describes the girl-hostess, who charmed the teetotal and Anti-Corn Law League enthusiasts who visited her father. This afternoon, however, the old man is too miserable and restless with the prospect of the evening to sink quietly into his favourite topic – reminiscences of the past – and presently he leaves the room.

‘There is one consolation for me,’ remarks Mr Chamberlain as he gets up to follow him, ‘Bright in a terrible fidget is a good deal worse than I. Miss potter, I shall reserve the orchid-house for tomorrow and then I shall do the honours myself. I don’t want my sister to take you there’, and he forthwith retired to his library.’


The above extract is based on the entry recorded in ‘The Diary of Beatrice Webb, volume one 1873-1892’ Edited by Norman & Jeanne MacKenzie; published by Virago Press 1982.


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