Portrait of George Borrow

William Webber

The Ipswich book-seller who purchased George Borrow’s manuscripts etc. at the Oulton sale of 1883.

These are working notestreat them with caution — DP.

William Webber’s mother, Laura Scott, was born in Brixham, Devon around 1821.  At the time of writing William’s father hasn’t been traced, nor has the marriage.  It would probably be around 1848 given that William’s siblings were: Henry, born c1850 at Portsea(?) and Emma, born c1855 at Winchester. [1]

Our William Anthony Webber, the Ipswich bookseller who was to purchase various George Borrow manuscripts in 1883, was born at Portsea, Portsmouth, Hampshire around 1852.

In the 1861 census William and his family are in the Totnes Union Workhouse (Devon).  There’s his mother Laura aged 49[?], his older brother Henry aged 11, William aged 9 and younger sister Emma aged 7.  There’s no indication of a father, so presumably he had died, and that’s why the family were in the workhouse.  The Totnes workhouse area included Brixham (about 9km away) and it might be that Laura had returned to her place of birth with her family, only to have to then go into the workhouse.

By the 1871 census (William was now 17) the Webbers have moved to 15 Pottery Street, St. Helen’s parish, Ipswich with his older brother Harry (Henry?), now aged 19 being the head of the house and a master baker.  William’s mother, Laura, widowed, appears as housekeeper and his sister Emma, 16, completes the household.  Laura (who gives her age as 50) is a marvel: she’s only aged one year in the last decade!  Why such a move: and what was the reason for Ipswich: it’s the other side of the country?  The family are clearly struggling without a father.  William lists his occupation as Merchant’s Clerk.

Carter and Pollard (see below) assert that William Webber became a friend of Edward Fitzgerald of Woodbridge, translator of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, although they give no source.  With William living in Ipswich he’s close enough to Woodbridge that an acquaintance could develop, but initially the connection was probably via bookselling as in the 1881 census, aged 26, William is a “bookseller’s assistant” with an address of 8 Queen Street, St. Lawrence (parish?), Ipswich.  The head of the house is James Read [2], 76, a bookseller and Baptist local preacher, born London, with Mary J. Webber, 49, housekeeper, born Brixham.  So, William’s learning the bookselling trade, and probably living with his employer, possibly with an aunt working as housekeeper.  Whilst there’s no record of William’s education (yet) he was clearly well educated to get a job as a clerk, and later as a bookseller.

In the same 1881 census William’s mother Laura was working as a servant at Kelsale, Suffolk, but his siblings haven’t been traced so the family possibly broke up.

George Borrow died on 26th July 1881, leaving his estate (including his manuscripts) to his step-daughter, Henrietta MacOubrey.  Edward Fitzgerald arranged for Aldis Wright to value of the manuscripts.  Fitzgerald wrote to Wright, 24th February 1882:

. . . You did not say whether you would undertake to look over Borrow’s Books and MSS., and I write his Step-daughter to that effect.  But I hope you will find it not inconvenient or unpleasant so to do . . .

Letters of Edward Fitzgerald, Vol. 2, p. 324.

Wright valued the manuscripts at £1000 [3], which proved too much for Jeremiah Colman (of Norwich), who wished to acquire them for the Carrow Abbey Library; and left Henrietta looking for another buyer.

Find where James Read’s shop was: presumably High Street?  Would it be worth tracing Read?

On 18 August 1882 James Read, the Ipswich Bookseller (with whom William Webber lived, and probably for whom he worked) died, leaving a personal estate valued at £678 3s. 10d. [4].

In 1883 we have William Webber running a second-hand bookshop at Ipswich.  Given that William was quite poor, perhaps James Read left him the business.  William occasionally advertises in the Ipswich Journal.  For example, on 17th Feb. 1883:

High Street, Ipswich.

Books Bought of Every Description, in any Quantity.

GOOD Prices given for the Proceedings of the Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex Archæological Societies; East Anglian Notes and Queries, “Forby’s Suffolk Words,” and any Books relating to the County.

Catalogues Post Free.

There are other advertisements in the Ipswich Journal on 24th Feb. 1883 and 2nd June 1883 — it’s not a regular advertisement, and clearly his specialism was local studies.

Around 1883 William Webber purchased a large part of the Borrow manuscripts from Henrietta — no doubt becoming involved via Edward Fitzgerald.  As Henrietta was later to say (letter to Cooke, 2nd April 1888):

“After the death of my dear Step Father ... we also disposed of some other books and MSS to a Mr. Webber a purchaser of old books etc. who was know[n] to Edwd FitzGerald of Woodbridge a great Persian scholar, and a particular friend of Mr Borrows — some MSS I know he had, but I was not aware there were any letters amidst them . . .”

George Borrow: A Bibliographical Study, p. 7.

This opens a hornet’s nest of problems: How much did Webber pay (the valuation for the entire collection was £1000) — where did he get the money from (James Read left less than £1000 and that must have included the business which Webber seems to have got) — did Webber only purchase some items, and if so, exactly which ones?  We can only guess by the subsequent events.

In 1884 William Webber published Borrow’s The Turkish Jester (title page has W. Webber, Dial Lane, Ipswich) — no doubt one of the manuscripts he’d acquired in 1883.  In reply to a letter from Frank Farnell, Jarrolds said:

10 December 1912

Turkish Jester.  An edition of 150 copies was issued in 1884 by W. Webber, Ipswich.  Mr. Webber, soon after the announcement, accepted an appointment with us here in Norwich, and the work was subsequently issued by ourselves [5]

George Borrow: A Bibliographical Study, p. 121.

As a second-hand bookseller William Webber published sales catalogues.  Unfortunately I’ve only been able to trace one:

Webber’s monthly hand list of current purchases. / [By Webber, William, Bookseller.]

Published [Ipswich]: [Webber], 1885.

The above catalogue (held at the British Library) contains an advertisement for Turkish Jester, and also for ??? which has an inscription of Thomas Borrow (i.e. George Borrow’s father), but no other Borrow items.  Webber had a Borrow collector as a customer: William Knapp, Borrow’s biographer.  Webber was planning more Borrow publications, and on 23rd March 1886 wrote to William Knapp:

‘The few books which comprised Borrow’s library I bought about three years ago and with them a few MSS answering in titles to those advertised in Borrow’s lifetime as Works ready for publication.  Some of these have passed into private hands ... I have an old portrait of him ... likewise an interesting MS translation of The Death of Balder, which ought to possess some merit.’

The Mystery ofThe Death of Balder’, p. 6

In a letter to Knapp, 17th June 1886, Webber said he was planning on bringing out an edition of The Death of Balder, with Webber asking Reeves & Turner of London to make the arrangements.  On 14th October 1886 Webber sent the corrected proofs for The Death of Balder to Knapp:

‘I make bold to send you ... the proof of my forthcoming work by Borrow ... and to beg that you will favour me with a perusal, making such final corrections for the press as may be necessary.’

The Mystery ofThe Death of Balder’, p. 7

Possibly Webber had sold Knapp the Balder manuscript and hence could no longer check it himself?  Webber wrote to Knapp again on 18th February 1887:

‘I enclose a note to hand this day from Messrs Reeves and Turner.  They are anxious to get The Death of Balder into print but want me to write a sketch to prefix thereto ... I take this opportunity of informing you that I am about to merge my business with that of Messrs Jarrold & Son of Norwich, of whose secondhand department I have undertaken the management.’

The Mystery ofThe Death of Balder’, pp. 9–10.

What Reeves and Turner wrote was:

‘re Borrow.  It is essential that this should be proceeded with.  We will get and send you the vol. of National Biography and doubtless you could compose a short notice of the Author.’

The Mystery ofThe Death of Balder’, pp. 9–10.

 Would the William Webber of Totnes Union Workhouse have felt upto writing a literary preface?  It appears Webber wouldn’t/couldn’t do this: when the book was published, it had no preface.  It also looks as if Reeves and Turner were getting impatient of this endeavour and perhaps for Webber the safety of a regular job at this stage would have been tempting.

On 4th April 1887 Webber started his duties with Jarrold and Son at Norwich and now resided at 81 Rosary Road, Thorpe, Norwich.  Webber still continued to sell (in a private capacity) Borrow’s manuscripts to Knapp.  Upto 31st May 1887 Knapp and Webber seem to be on friendly terms (cf. the letters), but on 6th December 1887 Webber is seriously angry with Knapp:

‘Sir, Your last communication to Messrs Jarrold respecting myself was painfully surprising to me and was calculated for ought you apparently meant to the contrary to work me ill in the last degree in my new capacity as their manager.’

The Mystery ofThe Death of Balder’, pp. 13.

By the look of it Knapp had assumed that he should now deal with Jarrolds, who didn’t realise their manager was carrying out a private trade, possibly with the stock they had purchased off him!

On 20th March 1888 Webber wrote again to Knapp: “I have printed the Balder and shall be glad to make use of your summary in an adapted form (without addition) by way of preface.”  The Balder doesn’t appear to have been published until May 1892 (by Jarrolds), although the title page claims 1889.  No preface by Knapp appears in the work, but it carries one by Borrow.

In a letter (23rd April 1888) Webber writes to Knapp, saying his is considering setting up his old business again.  Presumably the Jarrold’s job was no longer the lure it had been.

In the 1891 census Webber (age given as 35) is living as a boarder at 28 Rosalind Road, Thorpe, Norwich, at Sarah Mace’s, a 49 year old widow, with her children James A. (25), Louisa N. (23), Jessie L. (20).  Webber gives his occupation as Bookseller.  In July-September of the same year Jessie married William with the marriage being registered in Norwich.  Before and after 1891 the directories give Webber as living at 81 Rosary Road, Thorpe, Norwich: [6] quite why he moved to Jessie’s for 1891 is unknown.

Jessie and William settled down in Norwich and two of their children were born there: Thomas Butcher around 1895, and Dora around 1897.

In the 1900 directory William is not longer listed at Norwich but appears in the Ipswich section:

 ‘New & second hand bookseller, stationer, &c.  Subscription library: terms and catalogues on application.  Libraries purchased, 37 Westgate Street, Ipswich.’

Kelly’s 1900 Directory of Suffolk

The 1901 census has the Webbers living at 227 Cauldwell Hall Road, St. John the Baptist’s parish, Ipswich.  William is now 47, Jessie (30, 17 years his junior) and their children are Thomas B. (6) and Dora (4).  They are comfortable with a Leah R. Grant (18) being listed as a domestic servant.   Under profession he’s put “Living on means”, i.e. he had enough money not to need to work.

By 1904 the Ipswich business had disappeared from the directories and Webber is back at Norwich: 27 Rowington Road.  Another daughter, Winifred Amy, was born 2 March 1906 in Norwich, although the civil registration wasn’t until a year later.

There’s no trace of Webber in Norwich in Kelly’s 1908 Norfolk Directory and in that year someone else is living at 27 Rowington Road.

In a letter to Frank Farrell (20th December 1909) Webber claimed (speaking of Borrow’s Sleeping Bard):

“I have seen somewhere a statement of his in his usual tall way with reference to this work that the entire impression was sold within the year whereas I found the whole of it at Oulton and sold it nearly intact to a particular London bookseller.” [7]

George Borrow: A Bibliographical Study, p. 118–119.

And that’s the last link we so far have between Webber and Borrow.

By the 1911 census William and Jessie are living at 376 Unthank Road, Norwich with their children: Thomas Butcher Webber (16), Dora Webber (14) and Winifred Amy Webber (4).

William Webber died on 7th September 1915 with a brief notice appearing in the Eastern Daily Press for 9th September 1915, page 4:

WEBBER.—September 7, William Webber, of 376 Unthank Road, Norwich, the dearly-loved husband of Jeanie Webber, aged 63.

The same notice appears in the Eastern Evening News for 9th September 1915.  No fuller obituary occurs in the following days (both newspapers being daily), although with around 10 deaths listed each day, and the war on, it’s unlikely a full obituary would appear.  The probate reads:

WEBBER William of 376 Unthank-road Norwich died 7 September 1915 Probate Norwich 10 December to Jessie Louisa Webber widow and Ernest Egbert Blyth LL.D.  Effects £4419 3s. 11d.

This is a sizeable amount and at the time would indicate that William and Jessie were comfortably well off.  Ernest Egbert Blyth was a mayor of Norwich and again indicates the middle-class status of the couple.  Jessie would later sell the business premises: Ipswich archives have a document on the sale of 37 & 39 Westgate Street, Ipswich, by the executors and trustees of the Wm. Webber, deceased: two houses and shops.  It’s dated 29 May 1919 (presumably a sale by auction) and is filed under Fenn Wright, Estate Agents.

By the time of the 1939 Registration Jessie had moved to Windermere, Saint Auster Grove, Sherringham, Norfolk.  She was living with Winifred Calder (presumably her daughter who had married), and two grandchildren (Janet and Bridget).  The details from that registration are that Jessie was born 30 May 1870 and was widowed.  Jessie possibly Oct-Dec 1946 as there’s a civil death registered at Acle, Norfolk, with another match in Winchester in Oct-Dec 1948.  There’s no record of probate.

Unresolved items for research

In no particular order:

1.  What did William pay in 1883 for Borrow’s manuscripts (they had been valued to £1,000)?

2.  Where did William get the money to buy Borrow’s manuscripts?

3.  Who was William’s father?  So far no parish records have been found, and the civil registration doesn’t give it.  Possibly there’s a need to start going through birth certificates?

4.  Was Mary J. Webber William’s aunt?  If so surely her brother William Webber would be our William’s father?



Given the questions on where Webber’s money came from, his dealings with Jarrolds would be a valuable source to research (what where the terms he got for selling his business, what was his salary when he worked for them).


The Letters of Edward Fitzgerald, 2 Volumes, 1901 Macmillan.

George Borrow: A Bibliographical Study, Fraser and Collie.

COPAC: The academic library union catalogue (http://copac.ac.uk)

The Mystery ofThe Death of Balder’, Carter and Pollard.

William Webber’s letters to William Knapp would be the obvious next source of information: they are probably in New York, with the rest of Knapp’s papers.


[1]  The only marriage FindMyPast has in England (1845 plus/minus 20 years) of a Webber and a Laura is: Laura Eliza Scully married Thomas Richards or John Webber or William Lovell or John Reddock at Wellington, Sommerset, Jan-Mar 1847.  However that’s miles away from Brixham and very unlikely, plus name is always Laura not Laura Eliza.  It has no parish record match at all.

The census records for him and his family are very inconsistent:

Most authoritative date of birth

Census (born / approximate year of birth)







Laura (mother)





Henry / Harry (brother)
Oct-Dec 1850 @ Portsea (Civil Reg.)




William [Anthony?]
Jul-Sep 1852 @ Portsea (Civil Reg.)







Emma (sister)
[Cannot find civil reg. etc.]




Jessie (wife)
30 May 1870 (1939 Reg.)






Thomas Butcher (son)
Apr-Jun 1894 @ Norwich (Civil Reg.)



Dora (daughter)
Jul-Sep 1896 @ Norwich (Civil Reg.)



Winifred Amy (daughter)
Jan-Mar 1907 @ Norwich (Civil Reg.) or 2 March 1906 (1939 Register)


Mary Jane Webber
(unknown relationship)







In 1891 census Laura is living as mother in law in the John R. Lait (aged 46) household, Ipswich, whose wife is Isabel Lait, aged 40 was born Winchester: cannot see that at all because she didn’t have a daughter Isabel.  There’s a civil death registration for an Isabel Lait, aged 46, registered Oct-Dec 1897 at Ipswich.  The only civil marriage of a John Robert Lait in Ipswich was in 1874 and FindMyPast thinks he married: Jane Margaret Edgley or Alice Foreman!  There is a matching 1881 census for John R. Lait and Isabel, born Winchester, living Ipswich, plus children.  This implies they’d been married for at least 5 years as they had a 4 year old son.  In the 1871 census John Robert Lait was living with his parents in Ipswich.

FindMyPast has over 2,000 baptism records for Brixham around 1830 so it looks fairly comprehensive.  However, I don’t see anyone named Laura around 1821 twenty years either way.

There’s a baptism of a William Webber at Stoke Gabriel (half way between Totnes and Brixham) who was born 1 July 1805 and baptised 21 July 1805, parents Samuel and Mary.  However, the 1830 baptism for Mary Webber (sister) at Stoke Gabriel has parents Henry and Elizabeth.

There’s a civil registration of the death for a Laura Webber, aged 64 at Ipswich, Oct-Dec 1893.  The National Burial Index gives this plus she was buried 21 December 1893 at St. Peter’s Anglican Church, Ipswich.

There’s a civil registration of a Henry Webber born Oct-Dec 1850 registered Portsea Island district, Hampshire.

There’s no civil registration of an Emma Webber being born in Hampshire 5 years either side of 1855 (FindMyPast).  There’s a civil registration of an Emma Webber marrying Oct-Dec 1872 at Ipswich, with a Robert Mace, George James Rignall listed on Ancestry.  On Ancestry I cannot trace an Emma Mace or Emma Rignall in the 1881 census in England.

There’s a civil registration for the birth of Jessie Louisa Mace (latter Webber) Jul-Sep 1870 at Norwich.

Mary Jane Webber in the 1861 is living at 8 New Road, Brixham with her brother William Webber, who was 52.  That William Webber (our William’s father?) was a Magistrate’s “cl” (clerk?)  They are still there in 1871 with William Webber 58, married, clerk to the justices, Mary J. Webber, unmarried, sister 33, housekeeper, both born Totness (although I think this is an error as the enumerator has almost the whole page born Totness because he’s done “do do”.)  However, there seems to be a match on the William Webber bit of 1871 in the 1881, living in Middle Street, Brixham, aged 64, a mariner(!), and he’s married to Sarah with a son William 23.  There’s a final record in 1901 for that William Webber, living with his son Samuel’s family, Paradise Alley, Brixham, aged 82, born Newton Abbott.

Also, there’s a 1871 match of a Mary J. Webber, born Brixham c1830, living Swansea as a laundress, but she’s down as a widow.  There’s a death of a Mary Jane Webber aged 72 registered at Norwich, Oct-Dec 1903.  A Mary Webber was baptised at Stoke Gabriel, 20 May 1830, parents Henry and Elizabeth.  Stoke Gabriel is around 5km to the west of Brixham.

James Read (Ipswich Bookseller): 1881 as above, born London; 1871 census he was living 31 Cornhill, aged 66, unmarried, Bookseller and Baptist Preacher, born London (with Robert Bowman, 22, his assistant and also a Baptist preacher); 1861 census he was living 31 Cornhill, unmarried 56, Bookseller and Baptist Preacher born Southwark with an assistant Edwin Barritt, 24; 1851 census living Thoroughfare, unmarried, 46, Bookseller and station, born Newington Bells, London.  Don’t see him in 1841 census but it’s enough to show he was a long established Ipswich bookseller.

[2]  The 1881 census record for James Read says he was born in London, that he’s 76 years old, a bookseller and local Baptist preacher.

[3]  The £1000 comes from Life, Writings and Corresponding of George Borrow, Vol. 2 by William Knapp, p. 255

[4]  The National Probate Calendar has:

READ James.  Personal Estate £678 3s. 10d.  1 December.  The Will of the James Read late of Ipswich in the County of Suffolk Bookseller who died 18 August 1882 at Ipswich was proved at Ipswich by Benjamin Birkett Solicitor and Edwin Barrett Bookseller both of Ipswich the Executors.

Can I get a copy of the WillDid he leave it to William Webber?

[5]  In a subsequent letter Jarrolds clarified that The Turkish Jester was not issued under a Jarrolds imprint.  The book has “150 copies only printed ... copyright”, which begs the question of whether Webber thought he’d purchased the copyright together with the manuscript.  The “soon after” appears to be a period of three years!

[6]  Webber appears at 81 Rosary Road, Thorpe, Norwich, in the 1889, 1890, 1892 and 1896 directories.

[7]  There are problems with this statement: see the Bulletin, Series 2, No. 1, p. 62 for a discussion.