The Story of the Webb Family of Melton Mowbray
A time of Social growth
At the arrival of the 20th Century in England when the long Victorian era was ready to hand over to the rule of King Edward VII, the small market town of Melton Mowbray along with the rest of the wider country, was passing through a phase of social extremities in that increasing poverty and a lack of resources amongst the working classes was reaching disturbing proportions. This state of affairs was especially serious in the newly industrialised and crowded conurbations of the larger cities to where a great number of agricultural workers had desperately transferred in search of paid work, but at the same time it is a contrary fact that the proliferation of a new professional and managerial class of people and a growth of the gentrified classes, was perversely creating an ever widening gap within the general population. Melton Mowbray, unlike many other towns of its size was principally populated by the latter social group, due to a large extent to the great attractions of its fox-hunting and sporting facilities which had continued to provide pleasure and good social entertainment for the wealthy and the gentry in particular who remained strangers to poverty. But this fact is not to suggest that the ‘proletariat’ were spared in any special way, as with the decrease of the sporting activity the double indignity of irregular and low wages combined with a daily struggle to co-exist and support their extended families which were forced to shelter in often squalid and cramped living conditions. This was a situation which was to reach a peak, not to be properly dealt with until the passing of the disruptive Great War of 1914-1918.
Surprisingly, despite the bleak paucity of available or affordable accommodation for the majority of the working classes, the building of new homes did progress steadily in the town and fronting the main approach roads, large and expensive mansions continued to appear on previously virgin tracts of agricultural land, these usually outside the town limits due to a lack of suitable space within. Many of these new dwellings were built for the use of local business people and for the ‘immigrants’ increasingly arriving in the town to work. Many of these incomers would remain as residents and endeavour to improve and benefit the area over the ensuing years and their descendants are today accepted as welcome and settled Meltonians. It is the story of one of these incoming families from over a century ago that is the subject of my special interest.
Much of the new building work was carried out on the [A606] Burton Road which takes travellers South to Oakham and beyond. A general perusal of Census records of 1891, 1901 and 1911 clearly shows a steady increase of real estate in the area as available plots about the town were purchased to be converted into homes. From a random page which lists just seven houses in the 1901 Census can be found two architects, a solicitor, two managers of local businesses and the general manager of the local spinning mill, all being people having originated from places other than Melton. Of special personal interest to me is the entry for No. 60 Burton Road which lists the recent arrivals from Stamford in Lincolnshire as the family of Mr Morpeth Webb, then aged 38 and described as an architect/surveyor who was born in North London. Amongst the children is listed his eldest daughter, Mahala Theodora Webb, born at Stamford and now aged 14 years. It was this young lady, who insisted on being addressed as ‘Dora’, who was to grow up to become quite a celebrity in the important art circles of the wider world. She worked from and spent the great part of her life in the lovely old house which remains in Burton Road today, but now bearing the door number 106. This then, is the story of the Webb family
THE WEBB FAMILY
Early Life in Stamford ...
Born in the heaving and congested streets of Shoreditch in mid -Victorian London in the summer of 1861, Morpeth Webb was one of eight siblings born of the marriage of baker, John Adams Webb and his wife, Harriet Bannister. In around 1870 the family moved North to the Peterborough area more than likely for reasons of employment and a young Morpeth would there complete his formal schooling and later be trained as an architect/draughtsman. Qualifying in 1883 he practiced initially in Grantham, Lincolnshire and in July 1885, he married local girl Florence Sophia, the middle of the three daughters of paperhanger Joseph Cousins and Eliza Elvin. Within the following year the newly-weds moved on once more to nearby Stamford, an attractive town which once straddled the Great North Road in Lincolnshire, but today is circumnavigated by the A1 by-pass. On the 6th May 1886, Morpeth and Florence produced their first child, a girl, whom they were to name Mahala Theodora. (said to be native North American for ‘woman’, this unusual name was also that of Florence’s older sister, Mahala Ellen Cousins.) These given names were more than likely not to have been encouraged for long though, as the soubriquet ‘Dora’ soon became accepted as the norm. She was joined by her sister, Millicent Cecilia - better known later on as ‘Millie’ - in 1887; some five years later in 1892, brother, John Adams Webb arrived to complete the family.
.. and to Melton Mowbray.
As the old market town of Melton Mowbray expanded with the inevitable growth of the general population and the human movement from agricultural pursuits to employment in the factories of the towns and cities, new residences were required, especially for the professional people such as Mr Morpeth Webb who could comfortably afford the great expense of being an owner. He had recently gained employment as an administrator with Colonel Richard Dalgliesh who was establishing the recently opened iron-foundry at Asfordby Hill to the northeast of Melton which was to play an important part in the brisk growth and success of the new business which led to the gainful employment of many local people. For the purpose of being handy to his place of work he was to purchase the pretty little semi-detached house at No. 60 Burton Road, an area which is known locally as 'Burton Hill'. It was around 1900 when he arrived in the town with his family to take up occupation of their new home and for him, to commence his lifetime's work alongside Colonel Dalgliesh.
(This type of house would probably have cost about £250 -£300 at that time!)
The Census for 1901 tells us that in April that year, No. 60 Burton Road was still occupied by all five of the Webb Family. The three siblings were all of school age - under 14 - and mother Florence is shown at the age of 35 as a 'Teacher of painting school -artist.' It is known that Florence had a small studio attached to the house, where, alongside her marital and domestic duties she taught small classes of local people in the popular art of painting, she specialising in pottery, her favourite discipline.
By 1911, the census shows that the five members of the Webb family were still all resident at the house in Burton Road and that father Morpeth Webb continued to be employed as an architect and surveyor in his managerial rôle. At the age of 48 he was by now a valuable member of Colonel Dalgliesh's management team at the Holwell ironworks and had assisted especially in the fruitful search for and extraction of iron ore from the local area, which initially had been transported into the works at great expense by train. Florence, is no longer shown as a being a teacher but she was known to carry on her painting until the time of her death. In her later years, she was to become well known as an active woman in social matters locally and to work or the advancement of many good causes. Of her children, Dora, now 24, is shown as an artist and miniature painter, now with an added note to the effect of; on her own account, at home' and not suggesting that Dora was a small woman, she was by now in the business of producing the increasingly popular art form of miniatures, a path which was to lead her a comfortable and independent living, but of much more personal importance, she had acquired celebrity and a respected position in the international world of miniature painters with a membership of the R.S.M. 'Royal Society of Miniature Painters, Sculptors and Grazers'.
Sister, 'Millie', one year younger, is not shown in the record to be employed, but it is known that although not as successful as Dora proved to be, she too would produce saleable art. John Adams Webb, now at the age of 18, was studying to be a land surveyor as his father had done before him, but he wasn't to know just then that a terrible war in which he would become involved with his contemporaries, was just three years away. Neither of the girls married during their lifetimes and at the age of 22, brother John was in fact, to serve in World War I, first as a private in the 5th London Regiment and later in the Machine Gun Corps Regiment. He came through the conflict apparently unscathed and was discharged with his medals on the 8th February 1919. On his return to Leicestershire he married Amy, with whom he lived for the rest of his life in Leicester. There is not much more of his biography to be discovered.
Florence, a Talented Mother
During King Edward's reign after six long decades of rule by his mother the Queen Victoria, the Webb family seem to have assimilated well into the active life at Melton, finding it, very different from their days in genteel Stamford which was once described by Sir Walter Scott as "The finest stone town in England". This especially so in the Leicestershire town during the hunting season of winter when it seemed like the whole world would descend on the town to hunt, drink, feast and be merry. As the main breadwinner, Morpeth pursued his administrative duties at the Holwell iron works through the remainder of his working life.
For the first few years of the children's lives, Florence proved to be unlike many women of the time, tied to the stove and the nursery to await her husband's return each day. As a competent and trained artist from her youth, she had moved on from painting to become specialised in the genre of pottery and even later in her life, to a novel concept of creating pottery dolls. As a trained teacher of painting, she not only worked with small mixed classes at the family home, but returned frequently to Stamford school where she had retained a class of hopefuls. She was to influence both of her daughters in the pastime of art, but it is known as to whether young John was to be drawn into the group, especially as this was a hobby then predominantly of the female persuasion. Dora especially, was to be the first to inherit her mothers talent for colours and the depiction of objects about her and was quite young when she first took the notice of the public, as this piece from the Lincoln, Rutland & Stamford Mercury of Friday, 24th April 1896 explained to its readers:
EXHIBITION OF PICTURES. - A number of pictures painted by the Stamford pupils of Mrs. M. Webb, of Melton Mowbray, were Exhibited in the Albert-hall, Stamford, on Thursday afternoon last, and were inspected by a large number of people. An interesting programme of music was rendered at intervals by the pupils and others, and afternoon tea (given by the class) was served, the rooms being nicely decorated. Altogether about 80 pictures were shown, and they were highly creditable to both the students and their mistress, especially considering that the majority of the pupils had only two terms under Mrs. Webb. The chief interest centred in some pictures painted by Mrs. Webb herself, including four charming views and four exquisite miniatures. She also displayed some woodcuts, in engraving in which she is an adept. ... and Miss Dora Webb, aged nine, a view which she painted without aid. As a whole the pictures were exceedingly good, some of them showing marked ability, and Mrs. Webb is to be highly congratulated on the success which has attended her class.
Early kudos indeed, especially at the time for Florence herself, for an exposure she most certainly would have appreciated, but the small reference to a nine years old Dora, was most probably a spur for mother and father to get her off to some proper training. In the meantime, sister Millie was not to let all of the light shine on her older sibling as she continued with her own work.
Alyn Williams RSM (President)
With the spark of an early interest shown in the nascent talent of young Dora Webb at the Stamford exhibition, there is little doubt that her mother would seek out the best chances for her young prodigy - if that is what she was going to be. She could not have done much better therefore, than to attract the attention of one of the leading miniaturists of the day to her daughter's work and before she was much older, Dora was taking her tutelage at the knee of the master, Alyn Williams who was regarded as the leading light in England at the beginning of the 20th century. Whether the moment or the circumstances of this meeting at Stamford were those of pure chance, or carefully pre-planned, is today open to speculation. It is known that as an artist of some respect Florence Webb was acquainted socially with Mr Williams from the world of art in which she moved and the place of meeting on that important day was a relatively small exhibiton in Stamford. Whatever the fruits of this meeting, a very young Dora was to receive tuition and guidance from a man who really knew his subject. As for the man himself, in his younger days, in 1902, a critic from the Daily Sketch wrote of him;
" ... The great revival which has taken place in what was until a few years ago the lost art of miniature painting is due mainly to the son of that distinguished scientist, the late Mr W Matthew Williams F.C.S., My Alyn Williams, the founder and president of the Royal Society of Miniature Painters. He turned his attention to the art at an early stage, and after studying in London and abroad finished his academic work in the Academie Julien under Laurens and Benjamin Constant. His first portrait, a beautiful miniature painting of Miss Yarrow, was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1890, and since then his works have become familiar to visitors at the principal art galleries here and abroad. Among Mr William's sitters have been King Edward and Queen Alexandra who each gave the artist a series of special sittings at Buckingham Palace."together with a rather flowery critique of his work and style ...
'... he has a very sound understanding of what is essential in this delicate form of pictorial art, and combines cleverly in his work due respect for tradition with definite originality of method. His touch is free and expressive, his drawing graceful and dainty, and his colour, always pleasantly harmonious, is at times remarkable for its strength and brilliancy.'
With the support of Williams and his connections within the world of miniatures, Dora went on to produce many more works of art, the majority of which were selected for public exhibition. It is estimated that during her active life she was to produce more than 300 pieces of work which were exhibited exhibited in many major art venues around the world to much acclaim. A quiet and polite young lady with few pretensions to greatness, Dora produced her works from her home and whilst never reaching the highest of high echelons, her creations were always considered desirable and new items were eagerly awaited to be despatched from her little home studio in Melton Mowbray and usually fetching high prices in a busy market.
Apart from reports of her exhibitions around the country and the showing of her work in foreign cities, little is heard of Dora or her family during the following two decades, which were of course to embrace the terrible war of 1914-18, but it is recorded that the Webb family took a very important part in the social life of their town. This was especially so in the case of Millicent Webb who was to devote the whole of the war period to the voluntary nursing of the many soldiers recuperating the various battle fronts across France and Germany, who were now detained with varying degrees of shattered minds and disfigured bodies in the temporary military hospital at nearby Wicklow Lodge. The Webb ladies were most likely attracted to this vital work in the knowledge that young sibling, John Adams Webb was manning a machine-gun in the killing fields of that awful passage of history. More of Millie's story later.
A particularly impressive report on Dora's progress as a still aspiring artist was to appear in the Grantham Journal of 7th December 1907 which was headed;
MELTON SUCCESSES AT A LEICESTER EXHIBITION
Amongst the two hundred pictures exhibited in the old free library, Wellington Street, Leicester, by the Leicester Society of Artists, are two miniatures by Miss Doris Webb, of Melton Mowbray, deserving of special notice.
TO BE CONTINUED .............