Autograph Letter Collection: Keir Hardie, the Webbs and Ramsay Macdonald

  • This material is held at
  • Reference
      GB 106 9/19
  • Dates of Creation
  • Language of Material
  • Physical Description
      1 A box (1 volume)

Scope and Content

The collection contains the following: letters from Beatrice Webb to Miss M Lees (1908) on the treatment of infants in Oldham; Sidney Webb to Lady Strachey (1911) on model standing orders form; Beatrice Webb to Cavendish Bentinck (undated), Sidney Webb to CB (1912) on his role as suffragist, his wife's changing attitudes to the question and the Fabian Society; Sidney Webb to Cavendish Bentinck (1913); Ray Strachey to Sidney Webb (1919) asking permission to include name on advisory council with reply written on setting out position via women as 'blackleg' workers; Beatrice Webb to Miss Moore (undated.) on forms for committee membership sent out; card from Sidney Webb to Ray Strachey (1929) to say the copy of the requested publication is on its way and requesting payment); BW to 'Ruth' [Cavendish Bentinck] can't come to stay as too busy with BBC talk.

Administrative / Biographical History

Ruth Mary Cavendish-Bentinck (1867-1953) was born Ruth St Maur in Tangiers in 1867. She was the illegitimate daughter of Viscount Ferdinand St Maur, the eldest son of the Duke of Somerset, and a half-gypsy kitchen maid. Her father died in 1869 and her mother went on to marry. Consequently the Duke and Duchess of Somerset raised the child themselves and Ruth was brought up in the English aristocracy. She was brought up within the family home and on her grandmother's death was left an endowment of £80,000. Despite this, by 1887, she was already a committed Fabian Socialist.She energetically supported the cause of socialism, and later that of women's suffrage, throughout her life. In 1887 she married Frederick Cavendish-Bentinck, the grandson of Lord Frederick Bentinck, who was himself a rich man until the death of his father, who left the couple was considerable inherited debts to pay off. She joined the Women's Social & Political Union (WSPU) in 1909 and the Fabian Women's Group the following year, when she also published 'The Point Of Honour: A Correspondence On Aristocracy And Socialism'. She become part of the Fabian suffrage unit in 1912 and was able to use her social connections for political ends: for instance, she was able to persuade Bernard Shaw to intervene to have Gladys Evans released from prison in Dublin. That same year she was an organiser of the Women's March from Edinburgh to London and went on to become the secretary of the 'Qui Vive Corps'. However, like a number of members of the WSPU, she became alarmed at the rightward drift of the group and its increasingly violent tactics under the Pankhursts. Therefore, 1912 was also the year when she left the group for the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). She was one of the first members of the Election Fighting Fund Committee that promised support to any party officially supporting suffrage in an election where the candidate was challenging an anti-suffrage Liberal. This in effect meant the NUWSS supporting the Labour Party in elections. While this disturbed many NUWSS members, it was fully supported by Cavendish-Bentinck who, on behalf of the Fabian Women's Group, approached the other members of the 'Qui Vive Corps' to start a propaganda campaign amongst the miners of Staffordshire and Derbyshire around this time. In 1913 she took on more activities, becoming an organiser of the Northern Men's Federation for Women's Suffrage and the following year published an article in the 'Women's Dreadnought'. By 1917 she had become a member of the executive committee of the United Suffragists. The main work for which she is remembered is the creation in 1909 of a subscription library of feminist materials open for the use of any individuals working for women's suffrage. She remained actively involved when the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies took it over, along with the Edward Wright Library, in 1918 and it became one of the core collections of the Women's Service Library (now the Women's Library) when it was gifted to them in 1931. Ruth Cavendish-Bentinck died in 1953.

James Keir Hardie (1856-1915) was the illegitimate son of Mary Keir, a servant from Legbrannock, Lanarkshire, Scotland, he was born on 15 Aug 1856. His mother later married David Hardie, a ship's carpenter. At the age of eight Hardie became a baker's delivery boy in Partick in Glasgow when his step-father became unemployed. The family later moved back to Lanarkshire when he lost this position, and at the age of eleven, Hardie became a coal miner. He learnt to read after this move and was able to write by the age of seventeen. He became involved in trade unionism and led the first strike of Lanarkshire miners in 1880. He was then dismissed and went on to become a reporter then secretary to the recently formed Ayrshire Miners' Union in 1886, later the Scottish Miners' Federation. His support for the Liberal party ended with the premiership of Gladstone and he became involved in socialism. In 1888 Hardie stood as the Independent Labour candidate for the constituency of Mid-Lanark but was not elected. However, four years later he succeeded as a candidate for the West Ham South constituency in London's East End. In 1893 Hardie helped form a new socialist group, the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and was elected its first leader, a position that he retained after he lost his seat in the 1895 election. He returned to the House in 1900 as the MP for Merthyr Tydfil. He continued to support women's suffrage and pacifism during the First World War until his death on 25 Sep 1915.

James Ramsay MacDonald (1866-1937), was born in Lossiemouth, Morayshire in 1866, the illegitimate son of Ann Ramsay, a maidservant. He studied at the local school from 1875 until 1881 before becoming a pupil-teacher. Aged nineteen, he went to Bristol before moving to London in 1886, where he was employed as a clerk for the Cyclists' Touring Club. Poverty and ill-health ended his attempts to win a science scholarship and be became a clerk to Thomas Lough, MP. MacDonald joined the Fabian Society around this time and there met others such as George Bernard Shaw, Annie Besant, Walter Crane and the Webbs who were concerned with issues such as socialism and women's suffrage. In 1893 the Independent Labour Party was formed by members of this group, including Philip Snowden, Robert Smillie, Tom Mann, John Bruce Glasier, Ben Tillett and James Keir Hardie.

Rachel Pearsall Conn [Ray] [née Costelloe] Strachey (1887-1940) was born in 1887 to Mary Pearsall Smith (later Berenson) and Benjamin Francis Conn Costelloe. Mary Pearsall Smith was the daughtert of Hannah Whitall Smith, the American evangelist and religious writer. Rachel's sister was Karin Conn Costelloe (c.1889). After the death of her husband in 1899, Mary moved to Italy to marry Bernard Berenson in 1900 and her mother Hannah, who had moved to London in 1888, took care of Ray and Karin in London. Ray was educated at Kensington High School and then read Mathematics at Newnham College Cambridge (1905-1908). Her cousin, Ellie Rendel (1885-1942), daughter of Elinor Rendel, oldest sister of Oliver Strachey, was a close friend during her school and college days, and particularly when they became involved in the early suffrage activities. In 1909, Ray and Ellie went to Bryn Mawr College in Philadelphia where M Carey Thomas, Ray's second cousin, was President. Ellie later worked for the National Union of Women's Suffrage Society (1909-1912) and for the Scottish Women's Hospital Unit in the Balkans (c.1916-1917). In 1911, Ray married Oliver Strachey, a civil servant. This was his second marriage. They had two children Barbara (1912-1999) and Christopher (1916-1975), who later became a computer scientist. Ray was a tireless campaigner for women's rights. She was a close friend of Millicent Fawcett, the leader of the law-abiding suffragists. In 1915, she was a Parliamentary secretary for the London Society for Women's Suffrage. During World War One, she was a Chair for the Women's Service Bureau and fought for women to be allowed to do all types of war work. From 1930-1939, Ray was the first Chair of the Cambridge University Women's Employment Board and also helped to found the Women's Employment Federation in 1935. She was editor of the feminist newspaper The Common Cause. Ray also stood for Parliament as an Independent candidate in 1915, 1922 and 1923, but was unsuccessful. She was the political private secretary to Viscountess Nancy Astor MP (1929-34). Ray had many publications including: The World at Eighteen (1907); Frances Willard. Her Life and Work (1913); The Cause, (1928); Millicent Garrett Fawcett (1931); Careers and Openings for Women (1935). She died on 16 Jul 1940.

[Martha] Beatrice Webb [née Potter] (1858-1943) was born on 2 Jan 1858, the eighth daughter of railway entrepreneur Richard Potter and Laurencina Heyworth. She was given little formal education but read widely as a child and became involved in philanthropic work, joining the Charity Organisation Society (COS) in 1883. However, she went on to work as a researcher in the East End of London for Charles Booth in 1886 and this experience led her to criticise the limitations of charitable activity and its failure to strike at the roots of poverty. Her articles on dock workers and the sweating trades were published in the 'Nineteenth Century' journal and she gave evidence on the subject before a House of Lords committee. She became interested in the Co-operative movement and, through this, met Sidney Webb, whom she married in 1892. The pair worked together in the Fabian Society and on a number of books, including 'The History of Trade Unionism' (1894) and 'Industrial Democracy' (1897). They were also instrumental in establishing the London School of Economics and Political Science. On 27 Feb 1900, the Fabian Society joined with the Independent Labour Party, the Social Democratic Federation and trade union leaders to form the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) which put forward fifteen Labour candidates for the first time in the 1900 General Election, resulting in the election of two of the candidates, Keir Hardie and Richard Bell. However, the Webbs were willing to work with the new Conservative Government to create the 1902 Education Act and Beatrice served as a member of the commission relating to the Poor Laws. Her disagreements with other members resulted in the publication of her Minority Report on the subject. In the 1923 General Election Sidney Webb stood in the Seaham constituency and was elected, going on to serve in the first Labour government in 1924 as the President of the Board of Trade under Ramsay MacDonald. She died in 1943.


The collection is arranged in chronological order.

Access Information

This collection is available for research. Readers are advised to contact The Women's Library in advance of their first visit. Available on microfiche only.

Other Finding Aids

Abstracts of individual letters in the autograph letters collection were written and held alongside the letters. This work was done from the 1960s by volunteers including Nan Taylor. In 2004 Jean Holder completed a 3 year project to list the letters, copy-type the abstracts, and repackage the letters to meet preservation needs. In 2005 Vicky Wylde and Teresa Doherty proof read and imported the entries to the Special Collections Catalogue.

The original card index of all correspondents, including date of letter & volume reference, is available on the microfiche.

Alternative Form Available

A copy of this archive is available on microfilm held at The Women's Library.

Related Material

The Women's Library also holds personal papers of Ruth Cavendish-Bentinck (7RCB).

The main body of the papers of Beatrice Webb can be found in the London University: British Library of Political and Economic Science: diaries, correspondence and papers: 1870-1947, working papers on English local government, miscellaneous papers 1885-1925 (Reference : COLL MISC 043, 0238, 0241, 0359, 0849), correspondence with Lord Beveridge c1906-40 (Reference : BEVERIDGE),: correspondence with the ILP 1912-15 (Reference : BLPES/ILP/Section 4 passim), letters 1892-1942 (Reference : Fabian Society), correspondence with Dr Mcleary 1907-43 (Reference : COLL MISC 0979). The main body of the papers of Sidney Webb can also be found in the London University: British Library of Political and Economic Science: correspondence and papers 1870-1947 (Reference : Passfield), further correspondence and papers (Reference : Webb Trade Union), correspondence and papers (Reference : COLL MISC 156, 190, 240-43, 280, 282); his 1924 correspondence with J Ramsay MacDonald is held in the Public Records Office (Reference : PRO30/69/1/210).

Geographical Names