30th April 2021

Now Available in Paperback!

Richard Potter, Beatrice Webb’s Father and Corporate Capitalist

By Geoffrey Channon

Paperback | ISBN-13: 978-1-5275-6467-1 | ISBN-10: 1-5275-6467-3 | Date of Publication: 22/03/2021 | Pages / Size: 303 / A5 | Price: £25.99

Book Description

Existing studies of the Potter family tend to see Richard Potter through the lens of his most famous daughter, the socialist Beatrice Webb, or through Beatrice and her eight siblings, all girls. In this book, their father, whose business activities sustained the family’s upper-middle-class lifestyle and social position, is the subject of study in his own right.

He was a new kind of businessman, a corporate capitalist, who operated on an international stage. This book looks inside the principal companies in which Potter was the chairman (the Great Western and Canadian Grand Trunk railways and the Gloucester Wagon Company) to assess his business acumen and his relationships with other leading business figures including Daniel Gooch, Edward Watkin and William Price.

It also examines in detail Potter’s relationships with his wife and daughters, describing how he drew them into some of his key business decisions, and how he recognised the individuality of his daughters, encouraging them to read and think outside conventional boundaries, and to engage with famous intellectuals, most notably Herbert Spencer his life-long friend, who were part of the family circle, so shaping their lives as distinctive and strong adults. Beatrice had no doubt that he played a key part in shaping her professional life.

A Word from the Author

It is through my interest in nineteenth-century business elites and business enterprises, that I first came across Richard Potter. Potter’s career exemplified the opportunities offered by the emergence of the modern, public joint stock company. As the chairman of the Great Western Railway in England and as President of the Grand Trunk Railway in Canada he straddled the Atlantic.  I call him a “corporate capitalist”.  I take the reader inside these and his other companies to assess his effectiveness as a business leader.

In doing research on Potter I soon became aware that he was much more than a major figure in the emergence of nineteenth-century corporate capitalism. He was also a loving and open-minded father of no less than nine daughters, several of whom became public figures in their own right. So I became interested not only in Potter the businessman but also Potter the husband and the father. Of the daughters, the most famous was Beatrice, who is best known as Beatrice Webb.


“Geoffrey Channon has produced a painstaking, thoughtful and ingenious work of historical reconstruction which should provoke discussion for years. He retrieves and explains the lost story of Richard Potter, who, as chairman of the Great Western Railway in England and as President of the Grand Trunk Railway in Canada, bestrode the Atlantic and set the pattern for a Victorian international capitalist.”

Richard Davenport-Hines

Biographer of W.H. Auden and John Maynard Keynes; recipient of the Wolfson Prize for History

“Biography often runs the risk of being too narrowly focused and uncritical. This one adroitly avoids both pitfalls. Potter is placed first in the contented and liberal domestic context in which he was always anchored, with his daughter Beatrice following in his wife’s footsteps as confidante and adviser. But it moves far beyond this in its assessment of Potter’s involvement in the Great Western and Canadian Grand Trunk railways and the Hudson’s Bay Company and his links with Russia in the 1850s and 1860s. Changes in the Victorian political and business worlds are clearly drawn and leading intellectuals such as Hebert Spencer and social reformers and commentators such as Charles Booth are integral figures in the story.”

R.C. Richardson

Emeritus Professor of History, University of Winchester; Times Higher Education, 2 January 2020

"An insightful, multi-layered and meticulously researched biography of Beatrice Webb’s father, a neglected figure in 19th century entrepreneurial and railway history. It provides a fascinating account of the ups and downs of a Victorian corporate capitalist who was determined to secure the financial independence of his nine daughters."

Dr Terry Gourvish

Former Director, Business History Unit at the London School of Economics and President of the Association of Business Historians.

“This is a meticulously researched and beautifully written book which strikes a very successful balance between credibility based on academic rigour and an accessible style. The subject is Richard Potter, a wealthy mid to late Victorian businessman (1817–92), and as the title suggests, it is a story about business career, but also about a man’s life. This is a harder task than it might appear. A strictly thematic approach may end up being unrealistically compartmentalised, while a chronological blow by blow account risks becoming lost in the details. Despite these challenges, Geoffrey Channon strikes another good equilibrium here. […] I thoroughly recommend this book to business, transport and even social historians, and it is an enjoyable read of itself.”

James Fowler

University of Essex, UK; Journal of Transport History, 2020

About the Author

Geoffrey Channon is Professor Emeritus of History and former Pro-Vice-Chancellor at the University of the West of England. His publications include Railways in Britain and the United States, 1830-1940. Studies in Economic and Business History (2001).

Richard Potter, Beatrice Webb’s Father and Corporate Capitalist is available now in Paperback from the Cambridge Scholars website. An extract from the book, including the introduction and a sample chapter, can be read by clicking here.

Also available in Hardback, and as a Kindle eBook via Amazon.