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Women Of Destiny

Beatrix Potter And Beatrice Potter

Historical NPCs For Your Victorian Era Role-Playing Game

Part Two of Two

by John Gannon


During the Victorian Era, many of the foundations of our modern society, be they political, social, or cultural, were first raised and organized. While the deeds of the Chamberlains, Gladstones, Edisons, and other such men of the Victorian Era are well known to us, the same cannot be said for equally notable contributions of the women of the time.

Allow me to attempt to rectify that oversight with a brief look at two of the prominent women of the Victorian Era -- Beatrix Potter, Author and Environmentalist, and Beatrice Potter Webb, Social and Political Activist.

Both ladies shared similar names, similar childhood's and lived side-by-side lives' moving in the same social circles at the same time. Both women were successful writers. Perhaps the greatest irony of all, was that both ladies would pass away in the same year, only months apart. A final similarity shared by these to remarkable ladies' is that each, in her own way, had a significant and profound impact on the times in which they lived. The impact of both ladies' is still felt today.

Last week I examined the life and possibilities of Beatrix Potter. This week: Beatrice Potter-Webb.

Beatrice Potter

Beatrice Potter-Webb

While the vast majority of Victorian Era Gaming takes place in somewhat fantastical settings, they all possess the common thread of the Empire during the period 1850-1900. In such a setting, it would be remiss if the players failed to encounter some of those individuals who influenced that era, and ours as well. One such person is Beatrice Potter -- later Beatrice Potter Webb. A social reformer, author, influential member of the Fabian Society, Beatrice Potter was all this and more. In your Victorian Era campaign, she is capable of becoming a valued member of your party, a patron, a foil -- or a damned nuisance!

Early Background

Beatrice Potter, is the eighth daughter of Richard Potter, a wealthy merchant and railway executive, and his wife, Laurencina Heyworth. Beatrice was born on 2nd January, 1858, at Standish House in Gloucestershire. A foreshadowing of her future might have been gleaned from her grandfather, Richard Potter Senior, the Radical MP for Wigan. Typically for her time, Beatrice received little formal education. However, she was quite intelligent and voraciously read books on science, mathematics, and philosophy. She was inspired by the works of Herbert Spencer and Auguste Comte and came to the conclusion that "self-sacrifice for the good of the community was the greatest of all human characteristics". As a member of the upper middle-class, it was only natural that Beatrice would gravitate to social work, as it was the accepted spare time activity for an unmarried daughter of her social station. In 1876, her elder sister Kate became a rent collector in the East End (the poor areas of London), and three years later, Beatrice joined her sister collecting rents.

Recent Background

In 1882, an event occurred which Beatrice would describe as "the catastrophe of my life". She met one of Britain's leading politicians, Joseph Chamberlain at a London dinner party. Attracted by Chamberlain's energy and personal magnetism, 24 year old Beatrice quickly fell in love with him. Beatrice's own intellectual awakening and strong social convictions however, did not easily mesh with Chamberlain's, and her feelings of love soon turned ever more hostile. The relationship ended unhappily for both of them.

In 1883, Beatrice joined the Charity Organization Society (COS), a group committed to providing help to those living in poverty, and also to ending what the group saw as the self-defeating stream of charity handouts to the poor. It was during this time that Beatrice began to realize that mere charity alone would not solve the problems of the poor. She began to argue that it was the causes of poverty that needed to be tackled, such as the low standards of education, housing and public health; not simply the state of poverty itself. Her experiences in the East End began to challenge many of Beatrice's pre-conceived notions regarding the poor. Soon, Beatrice began to study in earnest the lifestyle , histories, and working conditions of her tenants and their families. She eventually published this information in 1886 as a book entitled "A Lady's View on the Unemployed at the East." By this time, Beatrice despaired of her rent collecting duties and could find no satisfaction in her charity work. More and more, Beatrice felt that whatever the solution to poverty might be, "it was not to be found in urging the poor to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps."

By 1886, Beatrice began to find ethical problems with capitalism, and felt a growing revulsion towards it. Consequently, she left the COS and volunteered to be a social investigator for her cousin Charles Booth, one of the leading figures of modern sociology, attending the first meeting of his Board of Statistical Research on 17th April, 1886. Booth was involved in studying the lives of working people living in London, and Beatrice was assigned to study and investigate the lives of the dock workers in the East End. Over the next two years, in addition to dock labour, Beatrice also investigated the sweating labour system in the garment industry and the matter of Jewish immigration. Her articles on the conditions of the dock workers and the plight of the sweating shop seamstresses were published in the ๋the Nineteenth Century' and as a result of these pieces, Beatrice was asked to give testimony before the House of Lords Commission of the Sweating System. Covering the Commission's hearings, a reporter for the Pall Mall Gazette described Beatrice as " tall, supple, dark, with bright eyes, and quite cool in the witness chair" while giving her evidence before the House of Lords Commission. While bringing the plight of the workers to light, these investigations also further galvanized Beatrice's own political philosophies and she began to move more and more towards the tenets of Socialism.

When the London Dock Strike of 1889 occurred, Beatrice welcomed it, seeing within it's actions the beginnings of organized labour on the docks, under the direction of John Burns a noted Socialist and Ben Tillet, the representative of the dock workers. Beatrice was equally excited at the support the Dock Workers Strike garnered amongst the other working classes of East London, which she felt demonstrated the solidarity of the workers themselves. However much Beatrice was taken with the Dock Workers and their plight, they were equally taken with Beatrice. Ben Tillet described Beatrice as "young, clever, undoubtedly sincere, anxious to help, but somewhat condescending. She appeared before us as a young, beautiful, ardent reformer..."

Beatrice Potter Now

By the time of her birthday in 1889, Beatrice is interested in the good work achieved by the different co-operative societies that exists in most of Britain's industrial towns, and she is debating travelling to Lancashire to work there, or perhaps taking her message to one of the colonial lands. She has begun writing a book on the subject (The Co-operative Movement). With the annual income of £1,000 that she has inherited from her rich father, Beatrice is able to concentrate on her political work and social reform.

Gaming Beatrice Potter

Born in 1858, the earliest age one might reasonably encounter Beatrice would be at 16 (1874) when she "comes out" socially. At this time, Beatrice would be a socially and intellectually skilled, but impulsive young woman. Her attitude is not the shy, retiring maiden -- she is well aware of how smart she is, and she has opinions that she is not prepared to keep to herself. Young Beatrice would most likely be encountered only by upper class characters at social occasions.

By 1879, 21 year old Beatrice would be working as a rent collector in East London, under the auspices of her Elder sister Kate. This would be a time of awakening for Beatrice, as she begins to see the true reality of her world, as opposed to her previously sheltered view. Beatrice will be quick to respond to things around her, and her inquisitive nature will move one from good-natured humour to impatient frustration as she insistently questions and challenges most social values and conditions of her time. In these circumstances, she could be encountered by lower and middle class characters on a daily basis, and by upper class characters at social occasions.

By 1884, 26 year old Beatrice would be more worldly, more wise, and more outspoken.
Her attitudes on social conditions are moving more and more towards the view of the Socialists, and her romance with Chamberlain is ended. Lower class characters would still be able to find Beatrice moving about East London gathering her data and working with the poor, while middle class characters will find her in a variety of locations and settings. Upper class characters can expect to encounter Beatrice both socially and at various lectures and meetings where she speaks out on topics of social relevance.

By 1889, 31 year old Beatrice is a rising public figure. Well known in the circles of government, a published author, and noted social reformer, Beatrice stands as the epitome of the independent, free-thinking Victorian Woman. Beatrice can be encountered anywhere by anyone. She is still looking for a suitable platform for her social philosophies, and she still works to improve the plight of society's downtrodden. At this juncture of her life, Beatrice faces a major decision - does she proceed to Lancashire to finish her latest book, or does she travel further afield to champion the cause of the downtrodden natives in one of the colonial territories (India, Mars, Venus, or some other exotic locale)? Perhaps one or more of the players in your campaign will be able to influence the decision that Beatrice will make....

In a Horror style of game, Beatrice Potter could become involved with the players as they investigate some menacing "East End Evil". A frequent visitor to the East End, she would be well aware of any strange goings on. She might even become a Patron of the players, hiring them to investigate strange disappearances amongst the lower class denizens.

In a Sceince-fiction oriented game, Beatrix could encountered travelling to the farthest corners of the Empire, intent upon aiding the exploited native populations of distant worlds in their efforts to raise themselves up under their colonial masters.

Regardless of the circumstances, Beatrice Potter will make a spirited and interesting encounter for the players in any campaign.

Further Reading: Beatrice Potter-Webb

Kitty Muggeridge and Ruth Adam, Beatrice Webb: A Life (London: Secker & Warburg, 1967)

Carole Seymour-Jones, Beatrice Webb: A Life (Ivan R Dee, Inc, 1992)

Deborah Epstein Nord, The Apprenticeship of Beatrice Webb (Amherst, MA: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1985)

The Diaries of Beatrice Webb, vol. 1: 1873-92 (Norman McKenzie (Ed), Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1982)

Peter Clarke, Hope and Glory: Britain, 1900-90 (NY: Penguin Books, 1996)

Posted Monday, 04-May-2009 19:53:41 EDT

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