Edward Spencer Beesly : biography
Edward Spencer Beesly (1831–1915), positivist and historian, was born on 23 January 1831 in Feckenham, Worcestershire, the eldest son of the Revd James Beesly and his wife, Emily Fitzgerald, of Queen's county, Ireland. After reading Latin and Greek with his father, in the autumn of 1846 he was sent to King William's College on the Isle of Man, an evangelical establishment whose inadequate instruction and low moral tone were later depicted in Eric, or, Little by Little, by his school friend F. W. Farrar.
In 1849 Beesly entered Wadham College, Oxford, another evangelical stronghold. He held two exhibitions and a Bible clerkship. His flair for quoting scripture yielded to radical rhetoric under the influence of his tutor Richard Congreve, a covert disciple of Auguste Comte's positivism. Along with his Wadham friends Frederic Harrison and John Henry Bridges, Beesly actively engaged in the debates of the Oxford Union and became recognized as a Comtist, though his adhesion to the French philosophy was still tenuous.
Beesly received his BA in 1854 and proceeded MA in 1857. After failing to secure a first class (he obtained seconds in classical moderations and literae humaniores) or a fellowship, he became an assistant master at Marlborough College. His brother Augustus Henry, a historian and classical scholar, also taught at the school. Beesly left for London in 1859 to serve as principal of University Hall, a student residence in Gordon Square serving University College. The next year he was appointed professor of history there and professor of Latin at Bedford College for women, with a combined salary of £300. He also had a private income. His tall, willowy figure became a familiar sight in the Reform Club and London drawing-rooms, including that of George Eliot and George Henry Lewes, whose Fortnightly Review welcomed Beesly's articles.
Beesly joined Congreve and Harrison, both now in London, in supporting the struggle of the workers in the building trades for shorter hours. He also attacked the economic theories used by critics of the ‘new model’ trade unions of the 1860s. The notoriety he gained culminated in 1867, when he declared in the aftermath of the ‘Sheffield outrages’ that a trade union murder was no worse than any other: he almost lost his post at University Hall and Punch dubbed him Dr Beastly. His radical agenda included promoting international solidarity among working-class leaders. He helped organize the most important pro-Union demonstration in England during the American Civil War, and he chaired the historic meeting (28 September 1864) advocating co-operation between English and French workers in support of Polish nationalism, which led to the formation of the International Working Men's Association (the First International), soon dominated by his friend Karl Marx.
Foreign affairs were always a passion of Beesly's. For International Policy, a positivist volume published in 1866, he wrote on British sea power, asserting a connection between protestantism and commercial immorality. A critic of imperialism, he was a member of the committee founded in 1866 to prosecute Edward Eyre, governor of Jamaica [see Jamaica committee]. Beesly and other positivists incurred hostility for advocating intervention on the side of France in the Franco-Prussian War, and for defending the Paris commune. Their republican views found expression not only in the press but also at the positivist centre in Chapel Street (now Rugby Street) that they opened in 1870 under Congreve's direction. There they introduced sacraments of the Religion of Humanity and published a co-operative translation of Comte's Positive Polity. When Congreve repudiated their Paris co-religionists in 1878, Beesly, Harrison, Bridges, and others formed their own positivist society, with Beesly as president, and opened a rival centre, Newton Hall, in a courtyard off Fleet Street. Beesly headed its political discussion group, which produced occasional papers. Retirement from University College in 1893 (he had left Bedford College in 1889) enabled him to found and edit the Positivist Review.
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