William Webb (1830-1919): Home & Family

As mentioned in the previous blog William is quite secretive about his own family and discloses limited details about his private life after resettling in Australia. Instead he chooses to focus heavily on the public space he inhabits, writing extensively about his varied employment and movements throughout Victoria before finally settling in Port Fairy. On the surface this does well to confirm Lynn Abrams’ opinion that ‘the home was never quite a male domain’ (Abrams p.224) and was intrinsically a theatre for women and their children, although this was not entirely ubiquitous as will be shown. William’s relationship with his brother is perhaps one of the few glimpses into his personal life, however, even this is provided in context to their business partnership (H. & W. Webb) and lacks any emotiveness. These silences and omissions are due, in part, to the ruling ideology amongst working-class writers that:

it was out of place for them to discourse at length on their private lives, and quite improper to discuss any aspect of their sexual experience (Vincent, p.228).

'The highest cholera mortality in Wiltshire was in the 1849 epidemic with 320 deaths in the county, including 165 in Salisbury and 67 in Devizes. Before the next appearance of cholera various sanitary schemes had been carried out and the deaths in the county fell to 60 in 1854, and 11 in 1866, these years being the last two epidemic years of the century' (Pugh & Crittall)
‘The highest cholera mortality in Wiltshire was in the 1849 epidemic with 320 deaths in the county, including 165 in Salisbury and 67 in Devizes. Before the next appearance of cholera various sanitary schemes had been carried out and the deaths in the county fell to 60 in 1854, and 11 in 1866, these years being the last two epidemic years of the century’ (Pugh & Crittall)

The link to working-class autobiographers’ desires to produce respectable material and pastiche bourgeois writers is made clear here, with William’s memoir being of no exception. With William’s home life being virtually off limits, due to his absence from it and secrecy of it, the reader’s gaze must turn elsewhere to extract information concerning his domestic life. One such source is William’s early years, spent in his hometown, East Kennet. However, William provides only a brief look at his childhood family life which is predictably gendered. The father is portrayed as the dominant figure, featuring throughout as the breadwinner and patriarch; conversely, the mother is relegated to the margins, but wholly embodies Victorian femininity as she very much represents the figure of the “Angel in the House”, first saving William from Black Fever and then later administering some inoculation of sorts at his school. This benevolent image of the mother helps solidify nineteenth century stereotypes of the philanthropic woman “caring for” (nurturing) children and reinforces the notion that ‘the tasks of parenting […] fell to women and were associated with mothering’ (Strange, p.1008).

The idea that "separate spheres" was ubiquitous is simply untrue. For instance, Robert contributed significantly to home life through his role as breadwinner, confirming his integration into the domestic sphere. Admittedly his contribution differed to that of his wife, who played a more traditional role, but that did not mean he was entirely absent.
The idea that “separate spheres” was ubiquitous is simply untrue. For instance, Robert contributed significantly to home life through his role as breadwinner, confirming his integration into the domestic sphere. Admittedly his contribution differed to that of his wife, who played a more traditional role, but that did not mean he was entirely absent.

Interestingly William’s father, Robert, cannot be categorised as an “absent father”. This is because Robert played such an integral role in William’s child and adult development. Robert may not have been physically present at home but he did nurture William, allowing him to pursue his interest in parish records as a young boy and then later took William into his workshop. It was here where William learned about the key trade skills which enabled him to secure an apprenticeship with Messrs Garden & Perks; something which defined William and allowed him to emigrate to Australia where he set up a successful business with his brother. Robert then adheres to the counter-stereotypical image of the “intimate” or fond father who:

enjoyed demonstrative and easy familiarity with his offspring: they were playmates and friends with a respect for the authority and protection of fathers (Strange, p.4).

The Husbandman's Return from Labour by William Begg (1795) romanticizes the relationship between working-class families. It is an inclusive image that debunks the concept of "separate spheres" by bringing the father into the home and showing that he was indeed part of the family unit.
The Husbandman’s Return from Labour by William Begg (1795) romanticizes the relationship between working-class families. It is an inclusive image that debunks the concept of “separate spheres” by bringing the father into the home and showing that he was indeed part of the family unit.

This is apparent from William’s fond recollections of his father, the Parish Clerk, who was ‘an individual of some importance and had a recognized position in church affairs (Webb, p.2). William does not directly express his feelings for his father, but instead relays his emotions by highlighting his admiration for the things his father did or achieved. The subtleness of this approach confirms that ‘words such as love were unfamiliar or awkward’ (Strange, p.1017) and so their use was often avoided altogether. Sentiment was conveyed differently and sometimes hard to distinguish. For instance, William does not use the word “love” to show his affection for his father, but what he does do is acknowledge his father’s hard work and self-sacrifice:

as a tradesman with a fair connection and a Freeholder in the parish, my father was enabled, by hard work (my emphasis), to live in comfort’ (Webb, p.3).

William successfully navigates away from having to use any uncomfortable language, while simultaneously expressing appreciation for his father. With Robert fulfilling his masculine obligations, such as the provision of economic stability, William commends his efforts. It is worrying that love and labour are so inextricably linked amongst working-class families and had Robert not been so successful, William’s opinion might have been shaped differently.

In short, Robert’s frequent acts of devotion helps undo the common misconception that working-class men were too preoccupied with work to help with the raising of children. Further, William’s “love” for his father is displayed only by an acknowledgement of his ability to provide and remain the breadwinner. This interconnectivity should, however, be approached with much caution because labour is not always fixed – it is more often variable, particularly amongst working-class families.

Bibliography

Webb, William. (1982). Reminiscences of an Ordinary Life. In: Burnett, J Destiny Obscure. Autobiographies of childhood, education and family from the 1820s to the 1920s. London: Allen Lane. 78-82.

Abrams, Lynn. (1999). ‘There Was Nobody like My Daddy’: Fathers, the Family and the Marginalisation of Men in Modern Scotland. The Scottish Historical Review. 78 (2), 219-242.

Strange, Julie-Marie (2015). Fatherhood and the British Working Class, 1865–1914. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1-20.

Vincent, David. (1980). Love and Death and the Nineteenth-Century Working Class. Social History. 5 (2), 223-247. Available: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4284976

Pugh, R and Crittall, E. (1957). ‘Public health and medical services’. A History of the County of Wiltshire. 5 (1), 318-347. Available: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/wilts/vol5/pp318-347

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