Fabianism in Oxford: a brief history, by Dr Michael Weatherburn (5 March 2017)


I have always thought that clubs of every description were the most important means of collecting and condensing that general, free, unpacked, and unbiassed opinion of the public voice (5 March 1817).[1]


Over the past few years, the Fabian Society has been undergoing something of a revival, with a larger membership than ever before, and a renewed expansion of local Fabian groups. The current Oxford group was formed at the time of the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 and now thrives, with monthly discussion meetings, members producing widely-read articles and featuring in the news, plus our excellent public debates. But during these discussions what, we wondered, were the past parallels of Fabianism in our local community?


The first substantive manifestation of Fabianism in Oxford was the formulation of the Oxford University Fabian Society (OUFS) in 1895. Initially allowing only members of the University of Oxford, but to ‘include all Oxford Socialists in residence’, early Presidents included Sidney Ball, G.D.H. Cole, and A.D. ‘Sandy’ Lindsay. The handwritten OUFS minutes, held at the Weston Library in Oxford, indicate that the Society’s regular meetings took place in college rooms and early topics of discussion largely fitted into what would later be termed the ‘welfare state’.[2]

The OUFS even contained smaller, sub groups such as at Balliol, Queens and New colleges. Set in Oxford’s (almost) Brideshead Revisited context, and with little structure or meaningful precedent to hand, we can only imagine how oddly free-flowing these tiny meetings must have been. Nevertheless, they were part of larger developments. Far from being sealed off from similar organisations, the OUFS frequently engaged with such organisations as the Russell Society, women’s groups, the Socialist Federation, Toynbee Hall, and the Christian Socialists. Indeed, it was in the latter’s New Age newspaper that the OUFS got some early publicity:

New Age

At a time when national membership hovered around one thousand, largely consisting of university lecturers, journalists, clergy, and other professional roles,[3] the OUFS membership was solid, standing at around one hundred every year throughout the 1900s and early 1910s. Speakers came from across the political spectrum, and even the Indo-Swedish revolutionary Rajani Palme Dutt, then at Balliol College studying Classics, was once a guest speaker.[4]

Some very famous Labour figures appear not to have been involved in the OUFS at all. Research suggests that Clement Attlee (University College, 1901-4), Labour Prime Minister from 1945-1951, had little or no involvement with the OUFS, instead joining the Fabian Society in London in 1907 after he had completed his undergraduate studies in history.[5]

Although Liberals could not join as full members, some such as Lyndall Urwick, then a Modern History student at New College, and who almost wrote an LSE PhD on the history of the British shoe industry, supervised by Sidney and Beatrice Webb, joined as associates. It is still possible to join the Fabian Society as an associate member today.

OUFS 1910

As we study the OUFS minutes into the 1910s, it’s a terrible shame to see OUFS membership collapse at the outbreak of war in 1914, when clearly its membership were needed for the front. The minutes for 1915 indicate that the OUFS was then merged into the Oxford University Socialist Society.

The OUFS appears not to have been resurrected between the wars. The foundation of the successful Oxford University Labour Club in 1919 presumably provided a suitable outlet for those so inclined, plus more broadly the period saw the formulation of a Labour Party proper, and even the first Labour governments in 1924 and 1929-31.

But our story does not stop there. Two of our former OUFS Presidents returned to prominence in the 1930s.

Firstly, in 1931 G.D.H. Cole, by then a Reader in Economics at New College, Oxford and advocate of Guild Socialism, created the New Fabian Research Bureau (NFRB), which by energising and much-expanding the intellectual remit of the by-then creaky Fabian Society, was influential on the postwar Labour government.

George-douglas-howard-coleG.D.H. Cole, the first Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at All Souls College, Oxford

NFRB lectures

The NFRB lasted from 1931-1939

Second, another of OUFS’s former Presidents, A.D. Lindsay, by then the Master of Balliol College, contested the Conservative seat of Oxford in 1938; an important post-Munich by-election in which the Labour and Liberal parties stood their candidates down and supported Lindsay, as some Conservatives did, as an ‘Independent Progressive’. As history records, after a valiant Labour-Liberal effort Lindsay lost to the National Government candidate, Quintin Hogg (later Lord Hailsham), but had gained three thousand votes compared to the 1935 general election.

1938 bye-election Lindsay image

The more recent history of Oxford Fabianism keeps our focus on Oxford University and its resurrected branch of the OUFS. Much of the story remains unclear but from our research it seems that Angela Eagle, now MP for Wallasey, was OUFS President from 1980 until 1983. And the Society’s President in the later 1980s and early 1990s, Matthew Leigh, now Professor of Classics at St. Anne’s College, Oxford, kindly donated several booklets and documents to us from the OUFS’s 1980s incarnation, including the following splendid cartoons:

OUFS Michaelmas 1986

Kindly loaned by Professor Matthew Leigh.

Now to the present: true to the original principles of Fabianism, we continue to patiently adapt and evolve for a new century which presents new opportunities and challenges. What is distinctive about the new phase of Oxford Fabianism is that we set out from the outset to encompass not just both of Oxford’s fine universities but the entire city. This has proven to a popular move and affords us access to a far larger set of voices than would otherwise be possible.

OUFS Hilary 1987

Kindly loaned by Professor Matthew Leigh.

One striking feature of the group is that, in addition to Labour members, many activists and even candidates from the Liberal Democrats, Greens and NHS Action Party attend our events and engage very positively. So the Fabian branch in Oxford appears to have evolved into being politically and intellectually pluralistic, which, for debating purposes at least, is certainly a good thing. Perhaps the atmosphere resembles more that of the original OUFS than any time in between.

OUFS Hilary 1988

Kindly loaned by Professor Matthew Leigh.

The Oxford Fabian story continues. So far we haven’t been able to discover much about Fabian Society activity in Oxford from the 1950s through to the 1970s, though we’re sure they were up to something. It’d also be interesting to learn how Oxford Fabians celebrated the centenary of the Fabian Society in 1984.

OUFS Michaelmas 1991

Kindly loaned by Professor Matthew Leigh.

We’d love any information you have Oxford Fabianism on this period and any other, so if you have any additional insights, please do get in touch.

This essay is an expanded version of M.R. Weatherburn, ‘A Renaissance for Oxford’s Fabians’ Fabian Review (Autumn, 2016). Available here.

[1] Black Dwarf, 5 March 1817, quoted in E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (1963), p.640.

[2] e.g. Fabian Society, From the Workhouse to Welfare: What Beatrice Webb’s 1909 Minority Report can teach us today (Fabian Society, 2009).

[3] Eric Hobsbawm, ‘The Fabians Reconsidered’ in Labouring Men: Studies in the History of Labour (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1964).

[4] John Callaghan, Rajani Palme Dutt: a Study in British Stalinism (Lawrence and Wishart, 1993).

[5] John Bew, Citizen Clem: a Biography of Attlee (Quercus, 2016).