Culture History

The Detestable Race. Beatrice and Sidney Webb In Ireland

For the last few weeks I’ve been doing some research on the complex origins of socialism as a political and cultural force in late 19th and early 20th century Ireland, which of course includes the significant influence of British thinkers and campaigners on developments here. Which led me to this observation on the Irish people by the acclaimed Christian-socialist author and reformer Charles Kingsley upon a visit to County Sligo from his home in England, writing to his wife from the Ascendancy opulence of Markree Castle in Collooney in 1860.

“I have done the deed at last – killed a salmon, over five pounds weight, and lost a whopper from light hooking. Here they are by hundreds, and just as easy to catch as trout… I could catch fifty pounds of them in a day. This place is full of glory –

But I am haunted by the human chimpanzees I saw along that hundred miles of horrible country. I don’t believe they are our fault. I believe that they are happier, better, more comfortably fed and lodged under our rule than they ever were. But to see white chimpanzees is dreadful; if they were black, one would not feel it so much, but their skins, except where tanned by exposure, are as white as ours.”

Shortly later he made this judgement on the “year zero” ushered in by the Great Famine and its effect on the British-controlled population and economy in a letter from Westport in County Mayo:

“But the country which I came through yesterday moves me even to tears. It is a land of ruins and of the dead. You cannot conceive to English eyes the first shock of ruined cottages; and when it goes on to whole hamlets, the effect is most depressing. I suppose it had to be done. …what an amount of human misery each of those unroofed hamlets stands for! Still it had to be done. There are magnificent farms growing up now, with roots and grasses, instead of the horrid potato in the black bog.”

On a related theme here is a letter from 1892, written by Beatrice and Sidney Webb, the celebrated married couple who were founding members of the London School of Economics, the left-wing Fabian Society and the New Statesman Magazine.

116 Lower Baggot St, Dublin.


Dear Wallas

We both thank you for your very nice letter, which we are quite in capable of answering as it deserves.

All we feel capable of doing is to ask you kindly to ascertain since when the British Museum possesses a Sheffield daily newspaper — that is if you can before the Library closes and you go away. Our emissary in Sheffield wants to know how much he must read there. Send your answer in the enclosed envelope.

We hope you will have the holiday you deserve. B. takes a keen interest in the bicycle.

We will tell about Ireland when we come back. The people are charming but we detest them, as we should the Hottentots — for their very virtue. Home Rule is an absolute necessity — in order to depopulate the country of this detestable race!

Sidney Webb

The term “Hottentot” in Victorian Britain was a common slur for peoples or nations judged to be racially inferior to the British or white Europeans in general.

Fun times!

13 comments on “The Detestable Race. Beatrice and Sidney Webb In Ireland

  1. This on the British Empire from yesterday’s Guardian is excellent:

    “In Britain, study of the empire is still largely absent from the history curriculum. This still tends to go from the Tudors to the Nazis, Henry to Hitler, with a brief visit to William Wilberforce and Florence Nightingale along the way. We are thus given the impression that the British were always on the side of the angels. We remain almost entirely ignorant about the long history of atrocities and exploitation that accompanied the building of our colonial system. Now, more than ever, we badly need to understand what is common knowledge elsewhere: that for much of history we were an aggressively racist and expansionist force responsible for violence, injustice and war crimes on every continent.”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. On the origins of socialism, you might check out the role of Methodism in northern England.


  3. In the UK then and now, people operated under a fairly promiscuous definition of the term “socialism”, yes?

    I know that I’m pretty much an upfront, unabashed proponent of a mixed economy. I believe that the concepts of both “capitalism” and “socialism” are essentially theoretical models, useful to understand society to a limited, limited degree-but no living society can conform fully to either one. To try to force any country to completely conform to either model to is a monstrosity and an utterly predictable road to authoritarianism, famine, and psychologically wrecking much of the population until at least a couple generation after the dreadful experiment ends.

    As to why a socialist and reformers would make the “Chimpanzee” comment: That’s actually good example of evidence that some bigotry comes down to “abjectification”.


  4. Sheila Carroll

    The Webb’s portrait is displayed at the Shaw library London School of Economics I think we should request the portrait be removed as well as their name from all association with the school.


    • I agree, Sheila.
      However, I think if we’re genuine, and not just grabbing at an opportunity to point-score, we should also take a long, hard look at some of our own statues and other publicly displayed iconography. We could start with joining the lobbying for the removal of the Newry statue of pro-slavery, anti-abolishionist John Mitchel (as discussed in a previous thread).
      Along with that I would add the statue at Tullow in County Carlow of Fr. John Murphy, the Catholic priest who led the 1798 uprising in Wexford. Murphy was a war criminal by any measure of that term. He directed the burning to death of 200 non-combatant Protestant men, women and children in a barn at Scullabogue in Wexford, where they were being held prisoner after being taken from various parts of the surrounding countryside. Murphy ordered this atrocity under the ludicrous pretext that the prisoners were all “loyalists”. (Such labelling has been a common ploy by “both sides” in the Irish conflict to try to disguise sectarian motivation.)
      Should a sectarian mass murderer such as Murphy continue to be “honoured” with a statue? Should the memory of Wolfe Tone (himself a Protestant) and the form of Irish republicanism he and many, many hundreds of his co-religionists died for continue to be dishonoured by association with Murphy?

      Has anyone any other suggestions re Irish statues or other publicly displayed iconography that should be removed?


      • Anything related to WT Cosgrave and Kevin O’Higgins for a start!

        Apologies, an excess of republican fervor there… 😉


        • I genuinely did LOL when I read that. 😂


        • gendjinn

          Thomas Clarke would have to go first.

          That is going to be the real test case, and quite a painful one.

          I feel the tug of conflict myself, even when the connection is quite tenuous. My grandmother talked of going into Clarke’s tobacco shop as a little girl with her father. A DS in the DMP who went to the shop because it was Clarke’s. Later during the WoI her and her mother had to duck for shelter into the Elbow Inn on Mary St to shelter from a gun battle between the IRA and the Black & Tans.


          • Thomas J Clarke? Why so?


            • gendjinn

              Michael T Foy’s book on Clarke is a good start.

              There was a good write up a few years ago that pulled all of his problematic statements together but I can’t seem to find it atm.

              It is an interesting contrast to Fredrick Douglass’ experience visiting Ireland. I wonder to what degree living in the US and/or subject British imperial propaganda caused the change.


              • Ah here. I always admired Clarke and that stalwart, forged in the crucible tradition of Fenianism he represented. That has definitely taken the sheen off him. Like a military plan never surviving first contact with the enemy our heroes never survive first contact with a good biographer. Unfortunately I never read up as much on Clarke as some of the other Signatories.


              • gendjinn

                I know.

                It’s why we need more statutes of Robert Emmet and Tom Paine.


      • Yes, why is that so called Queen Victoria statue still on show on our Island in Belfast? Did she not have slaves,Indian slaves as well as the chaos that her government caused to the people of Ireland from Cork to Donegal for centuries and continuing to this day.


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