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The History of the Fabian Society By Edward R. Pease Characters: 14197

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

The Foundations of the Society: 1883-4

Frank Podmore and Ghost-hunting-Thomas Davidson and his circle-The preliminary meetings-The Fellowship of the New Life-Formation of the Society-The career of the New Fellowship.

In the autumn of 1883 Thomas Davidson paid a short visit to London and held several little meetings of young people, to whom he expounded his ideas of a Vita Nuova, a Fellowship of the New Life. I attended the last of these meetings held in a bare room somewhere in Chelsea, on the invitation of Frank Podmore,[7] whose acquaintance I had made a short time previously. We had become friends through a common interest first in Spiritualism and subsequently in Psychical Research, and it was whilst vainly watching for a ghost in a haunted house at Notting Hill-the house was unoccupied: we had obtained the key from the agent, left the door unlatched, and returned late at night in the foolish hope that we might perceive something abnormal-that he first discussed with me the teachings of Henry George in "Progress and Poverty," and we found a common interest in social as well as psychical progress.

The English organiser or secretary of the still unformed Davidsonian Fellowship was Percival Chubb, then a young clerk in the Local Government Board, and subsequently a lecturer and head of an Ethical Church in New York and St. Louis. Thomas Davidson was about to leave London; and the company he had gathered round him, desirous of further discussing his suggestions, decided to hold another meeting at my rooms. I was at that time a member of the Stock Exchange and lived in lodgings furnished by myself.

Here then on October 24th, 1883, was held the first of the fortnightly meetings, which have been continued with scarcely a break, through nine months of every year, up to the present time. The company that assembled consisted in part of the Davidsonian circle and in part of friends of my own.

The proceedings at this meeting, recorded in the first minute book of the Society in the handwriting of Percival Chubb, were as follows:-


"The first general meeting of persons interested in this movement was held at Mr. Pease's rooms, 17 Osnaburgh Street, Regent's Park, on Wednesday the 24th October, 1883. There were present: Miss Ford, Miss Isabella Ford [of Leeds], Mrs. Hinton [widow of James Hinton], Miss Haddon [her sister], Mr., Mrs., and Miss Robins, Maurice Adams, H.H. Champion, Percival A. Chubb, H. Havelock Ellis, J.L. Joynes, Edward R. Pease, Frank Podmore, R.B.P. Frost, and Hamilton Pullen.

"The proceedings were begun by the reading of Mr. Thomas Davidson's paper 'The New Life,' read by him at a former assemblage, and after it of the Draft of a proposed constitution (Sketch No. 2). [This has not been preserved.]

"A general discussion followed on the question as to what was possible of achievement in the way of founding a communistic society whose members should lead the new higher life foreshadowed in the paper just read. The idea of founding a community abroad was generally discredited, and it was generally recognised that it would not be possible to establish here in England any independent community. What could be done perhaps would be for a number of persons in sympathy with the main idea to unite for the purpose of common living as far as possible on a communistic basis, realising amongst themselves the higher life and making it a primary care to provide a worthy education for the young. The members would pursue their present callings in the world, but they would always aim to make the community as far as practicable self-contained and self-supporting, combining perhaps to carry on some common business or businesses.

"It was eventually arranged to further discuss the matter at another meeting which was fixed for a fortnight hence (Wednesday, 7th November). Mr. Podmore consented to ask Miss Owen [afterwards Mrs. Laurence Oliphant] to attend then and narrate the experiences of the New Harmony Community founded by [her grandfather] Robert Owen.

"It was suggested-and the suggestion was approvingly received-that undoubtedly the first thing to be done was for those present to become thoroughly acquainted with each other. A general introduction of each person to the rest of the company was made and the business of the meeting being concluded conversation followed,"

On November 7th, the second meeting was held, when a number of new people attended, including Hubert Bland, who, I think, had been one of the original Davidson group. Miss Owen was unable to be present, and a draft constitution was discussed.

"A question was then raised as to the method of conducting the proceedings. The appointment of a chairman was proposed, and Mr. Pease was appointed. It was suggested that resolutions should be passed constituting a society, and, as far as those present were concerned, designating its objects. Some exception was taken to this course as being an undesirable formality not in harmony with the free spirit of the undertaking, but meeting with general approval it was followed.

"After some discussion ... the following resolution was proposed and agreed to:-

"That an association be formed whose ultimate aim shall be the reconstruction of Society in accordance with the highest moral possibilities"

A Committee consisting of Messrs. Champion (who was not present), Ellis, Jupp, Podmore, and Chubb, and, failing Champion, Pease was appointed to draw up and submit proposals, and it was resolved for the future to meet on Fridays, a practice which the Society has maintained ever since.

The meeting on November 23rd was attended by thirty-one people, and included Miss Dale Owen, William Clarke, and Frederick Keddell, the first Secretary of the Fabian Society.

H.H. Champion[8] introduced the proposals of theCommittee, including the following resolution, which was carried apparently with unanimity:-

"The members of the Society assert that the Competitive system assures the happiness and comfort of the few at the expense of the suffering of the many and that Society must be reconstituted in such a manner as to secure the general welfare and happiness,"

Then the minutes go on, indicating already a rift in the Society: "As the resolution referred rather to the material or economic aims of the Society and not to its primary spiritual aim, it was agreed that it should stand as No. 3, and that another resolution setting forth the spiritual basis of the Fellowship shall be passed which shall stand as No. 2."

It proved impossible to formulate then and there the spiritual basis of the Society, and after several suggestions had been made a new committee was appointed. Resolution No. 1 had already been deferred.

The next meeting was held on December 7th, when only fifteen were present. Hubert Bland occupied the chair, and Dr. Burns-Gibson introduced a definite plan as follows:-


Object.-The cultivation of a perfect character in each and all.

Principle.-The subordination of material things to


Fellowship.-The sole and essential condition of fellowship shall be a single-minded, sincere, and strenuous devotion to the object and principle."

Further articles touched on the formation of a community, the supplanting of the spirit of competition, the highest education of the young, simplicity of living, the importance of manual labour and religious communion. Nine names were attached to this project, including those of Percival Chubb, Havelock Ellis, and William Clarke, and it was announced that a Fellowship would be formed on this basis, whether it was accepted or rejected by the majority. These propositions were discussed and no decision was arrived at.

Up to this point the minutes are recorded in the writing of Percival Chubb. The next entry was made by Frank Podmore, and those after that by Frederick Keddell.

We now arrive at the birthday of the Fabian Society, and the minutes of that meeting must be copied in full:-

"Meeting held at 17 Osnaburgh Street, on Friday, 4th January, 1884.

"Present: Mrs. Robins, Miss Robins, Miss Haddon, Miss C. Haddon, Messrs. J. Hunter Watts, Hughes, Bland, Keddell, Pease, Stapleton, Chubb, Burns-Gibson, Swan, Podmore, Estcourt, etc.

"Mr. Bland took the chair at 8.10 p.m.

"After the minutes of the previous meeting had been read and confirmed Dr. Gibson moved the series of resolutions which had been read to the Society at the previous meeting.

"Mr. Podmore moved as an amendment the series of resolutions, copies of which had been circulated amongst the members a few days previously.

"The amendment was carried by 10 votes to 4.

[Presumably the 4 included Burns-Gibson, Chubb, and Estcourt, who signed the defeated resolutions.]

"Mr. Podmore's proposals were then put forward as substantive resolutions and considered seriatim.

"Resolution I.-That the Society be called the Fabian Society (as Mr. Podmore explained in allusion to the victorious policy of Fabius Cunctator) was carried by 9 votes to 2.

"Resolution II.-That the Society shall not at present pledge its members to any more definite basis of agreement than that contained in the resolution of 23rd November, 1883.

"Carried unanimously.

"Resolution III.-In place of Mr. Podmore's first proposal it was eventually decided to modify the resolution of 7th November, 1883, by inserting the words 'to help on' between the words 'shall be' and the words 'the reconstruction.'

"Resolution IV with certain omissions was agreed to unanimously, viz.: That with the view of learning what practical measures to take in this direction the Society should:

"(a) Hold meetings for discussion, the reading of papers, hearing of reports, etc.

"(b) Delegate some of its members to attend meetings held on social subjects, debates at Workmen's Clubs, etc., in order that such members may in the first place report to the Society on the proceedings, and in the second place put forward, as occasion serves, the views of the Society.

"(c) Take measures in other ways, as, for example, by the collection of articles from current literature, to obtain information on all contemporary social movements and social needs.

"Mr. Bland, Mr. Keddell, and Mr. Podmore were provisionally appointed as an Executive Committee, to serve for three months, on the motion of Mr. Pease. A collection was made to provide funds for past expenses: the sum collected amounting to 13s. 9d."

It appears that Mr. Bland on this occasion acted as treasurer, though there is no record of the fact. He was annually re-elected treasurer and a member of the Executive Committee until he retired from both positions in 1911.

Thus the Society was founded. Although it appeared to be the outcome of a division of opinion, this was scarcely in fact the case. All those present became members, and the relations between the Fabian Society and the Fellowship of the New Life were always of a friendly character, though in fact the two bodies had but little in common, and seldom came into contact.

* * *

A few words may be devoted to the Fellowship of the New Life, which continued to exist for fifteen years. Its chief achievement was the publication of a quarterly paper called "Seedtime,"[9] issued from July, 1889, to February, 1898. The paper contains articles on Ethical Socialism, the Simple Life, Humanitarianism, the Education of Children, and similar subjects. The Society was conducted much on the same lines as the Fabian Society: fortnightly lectures were given in London and reported in "Seedtime."

In 1893 we find in "Seedtime" an Annual Report recording 12 public meetings, 4 social gatherings, a membership of 95, and receipts £73. During this year, 1892-3, J. Ramsay Macdonald, subsequently M.P. and Secretary and Chairman of the Labour Party, was Honorary Secretary, and for some years he was on the Executive. In 1896 the membership was 115 and the income £48.

The most persistent of the organisers of the New Fellowship was J.F. Oakeshott, who was also for many years a member of the Fabian Executive. Corrie Grant, later a well-known Liberal M.P., H.S. Salt of the Humanitarian League, Edward Carpenter, and his brother Captain Carpenter, Herbert Rix, assistant secretary of the Royal Society, Havelock Ellis, and, both before and after her marriage, Mrs. Havelock Ellis (who was Honorary Secretary for some years), are amongst the names which appear in the pages of "Seedtime,"

Mild attempts were made to carry out the Community idea by means of associated colonies (e.g. the members residing near each other) and a co-operative residence at 49 Doughty Street, Bloomsbury; but close association, especially of persons with the strong and independent opinions of the average socialist, promotes discord, and against this the high ideals of the New Fellowship proved no protection. Indeed it is a common experience that the higher the ideal the fiercer the hostilities of the idealists.

At Thornton Heath, near Croydon, the Fellowship conducted for some time a small printing business, and its concern for the right education for the young found expression in a Kindergarten. Later on an Ethical Church and a Boys' Guild were established at Croydon.

Soon afterwards the Fellowship came to the conclusion that its work was done, the last number of "Seedtime" was published, and in 1898 the Society was dissolved.


[7] Frank Podmore, M.A.-b. 1856, ed. Pembroke College, Oxford, 1st class in Science, 1st class clerk, G.P.O. Author of "Apparitions and Thought Transference," 1894, "Modern Spiritualism," 1902, "The Life of Robert Owen," 1906, etc. D. 1910.

[8] Mr. Champion took no further part in the Fabian movement, so far as I am aware. His activities in connection with the Social Democratic Federation, the "Labour Elector," etc., are not germane to the present subject. He has for twenty years resided in Melbourne.

[9] See complete set in the British Library of Political Science, London School of Economics.

* * *

From a photograph by G.C. Beresford, S.W.


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