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, the Ipswich bookseller who was to purchase various George Borrow manuscripts in 1883, was born at Portsea, Portsmouth, Hampshire around 1852. [1]

The first record I’ve found of William Webber is the 1861 census, where he and his family are in the Totnes Union Workhouse (Devon): he’s aged 9.  There’s also Laura 49(?) (presumably his mother), Henry, 11, (his older brother) and Emma (his younger sister).  There’s no indication of a father, so presumably he had died, and that’s why the family were in the workhouse.

By the 1871 census (William is now 17) the Webbers have moved to 15 Nortery(?) 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 appears as housekeeper and his sister Emma, 16, completes the household.  The family are clearly struggling without a father.  William lists his occupation as Merchant’s Clerk.  Laura (who gives her age as 50) is a marvel: she’s only aged one year in the last decade!

Carter and Pollard (see below) assert that William Webber became a friend of Edward Fitzgerald of Woodbridge, translator of 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 (his age is given as 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, with Mary J. Webber, 49, housekeeper.  So, William’s learning the bookselling trade, and probably living with his employer.  He wasn’t suited to be a merchant’s clerk.

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 . . .

source: Letters of Edward Fitzgerald [1901], 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 still looking for a buyer.

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, it looks as if like James Read left him the business.  Webber 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 it doesn’t really list a specialism.

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 . . .”

source: 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 a letter from Frank Farnell (10 December 1912) Jarrolds said:

“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]

source: 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.

source: Copac

It would be interesting to see the catalogues — did he advertise any of the Borrow material?  We know that at least one keen buyer wanted to know what Webber had: 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.’

source: 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.’

source: The Mystery ofThe Death of Balder’, p. 7

Possibly Webber had sold Knapp the 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.’

source: 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.’

source: 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.’

source: 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.

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).  Jessie will later become Mrs. Webber, so mothers beware your lodgers!  Webber gives his occupation as Bookseller.

As Carter and Pollard found (The Mystery ofThe Death of Balder’) Webber appears at 81 Rosary Road, Thorpe, Norwich, in the 1889, 1890, 1892 and 1896 directories, but isn’t in Kelly’s 1900 directory.  Instead, in 1900 he appears in the Ipswich section:

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

Possibly Webber left Jarrolds after 10 years (which would be April 1897) and moved back to Ipswich.

Between the 1891 and 1901 Webber married Jessie Louisa Mace (presumably) and the 1901 census has the Webber’s living at 227 Cauldwellham(?) Road, St. John the Baptist’s parish, Ipswich.  William is now 47, Jessie (30, 17 years his junior) and heir 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.”

By 1904 the Ipswich business had disappeared and Webber is back at Norwich: 27 Rowington Road.  There’s no trace of him in Kelly’s Norfolk directory (under Norwich) in 1908 and someone else is 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.” [6]

source: 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 and they now have three children: Thomas Butcher Webber (16), Dora Webber (14) and Winifred Amy Webber (4).

William Webber died on 7th September 1915 with a brief notice (under Births, Marriages and Deaths) 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.  I could not see any fuller obituary in the following days (both newspapers being daily), although with around 10 deaths listed each day, and the war on, it’s unlikely full obituaries would appear.

It’s strange that William Webber is associated with so many different addresses, and knowing where he was between 1904 and 1911 would be very useful.


There is quite a bit of material on William Webber in The Mystery ofThe Death of Balder’ by Carter and Pollard.  Other sources are given above.

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.

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

And lastly a few obvious missing points: where and when was William born, who was his father and when did he die, when did William marry Jessie?


[1]  The year is from the notice of death in Eastern Daily Press, and the area from the 1881 and 1911 census records.

The 1861 census says he was born in Winchester, although being a Union record it’s suspect, and Winchester also given for his brothers and sisters.  Laura in the 1861 is given as born in Brixham, Devon.

The 1871 census says he was born in Southsea, Hampshire, as was Harry (Henry), whilst Emma is given as born in Winchester.

The 1881 census says he was born in Portsmouth.

In the 1891 census he was born in Winchester, Hants.

In the 1901 census he was born at Southsea.

In the 1901 census he was born at Portsea, Hampshire.

Take your pick...

[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]  FreeBMD has a record of death for a James Read, born about 1804, died July-September 1882 in Ipswich.  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.

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