William Webb (1830-1919): Life & Labour

While much of what follows has already been discussed in detail elsewhere. This blog differs in that it will form a chronology of William’s labouring life. Starting first with his childhood, when he helped to assist his father in the local parish, the blog will move swiftly to look at his adult experiences of work in Britain and then later Australia and the time he spent working the goldfields.

Much like Thomas Wood, a Yorkshire engineer who David Vincent discusses at length in his study of working-class auotbiographers, William was part of a complex family unit. In the same way that Wood’s economic function developed rapidly out of a necessity to contribute to and not just be a consumer of family finances and resources, it is evident that William’s utility was exploited early on in his childhood. His ability to competently read and write was a skill which served his father well, with William noting how he was ‘continually in and about the church on some errand’ (Webb, p.1) as he helped assist his father, the parish clerk. As William got older this playful interaction between father and son developed into something more serious as he recalls how he ‘had to leave school to go into [his] father’s workshop’ (Webb, p.4). The reason for this was, as William suggests, ‘to do my part’ (Webb, p.3). These points reinforce Vincent’s view that ‘almost as soon as he [the child] was aware of his father he would be aware of his trade and usually how that trade was practiced’ (Vincent, p.64). William’s early exposure and gradual integration into his father’s workplace may have deprived him of an education, but it did serve as a solid platform for his professional development. Wood’s experience was not all too dissimilar from this as he recalls how:

It fell to my lot to have to wind bobbins full of weft from the hank, so between winding and nursing I had little time left for home lessons, still less for play (Vincent, p.62).

What Webb and Wood have in common is that they were both robbed of time to experience childhood and enjoy simple things such as play. They were both hastened towards maturity and adulthood out of an obligation to serve the family, something neither of them had the opportunity to object to. This sense of forced family duty is a fundamental characteristic which forms the basis of working-class identity and reveals the extent to which family members led lives which were strongly interconnected. Selflessness is the buzz word which underpins the stereotypical image of working-class family men who were perceived as the providers or breadwinners, propping up the family and protecting its fragility through hard work. Linking to this is the idea of personal sacrifice whereby the individual’s needs were given up to help facilitate the greater good; the family unit.

Drawing briefly on a blog I created which looks at emigration, I do believe this occurrence could have been a pivotal point in William’s life, one which may have later influenced his decision to move to Australia. This is merely an observation and may well be a misinterpretation, however, if William was indeed forced to abandon any dreams of a life outside of Wiltshire because of the duty placed on him to serve the family unit, it is possible that he would have grown resentful. What supports this idea is that most of the members of the “first family”, to which he belonged, had died following an outbreak of Black Fever. Having to then help sustain the “second family” which he felt detached from, it is likely that he would have felt discontent and less willing to act altruistically. From this spawned an increasing sense of resentment as he grew tired of seeing his wages get eaten up by his new brothers and sisters, from whom he felt disconnected. Ultimately the urge for something more than a life of monotonous repetition drove him to extremes, and so in May 1852 he left Wiltshire, never to return. It may appear that I have digressed here and embellished William’s story slightly, however, the point is relevant as it highlights a possible rupture in his life where he reclaimed his own independence, and in doing so was free to dictate the means by which he was to make his own living.

Market Lavington area where William would have made a daily commute to serve his apprenticeship
Market Lavington area where William would have made a daily commute to serve his apprenticeship

To get to this stage however William first needed to acquire a skillset that would ensure his own financial security. With limited opportunities available to him and multiple barriers to entry, not least of all class and education, the seven year apprenticeship was the best a working-class boy like William could hope for. It is likely that William would have had his father, Robert, to thank for negotiating terms of agreement with Mr. William Cambridge for him to join the Iron Works at Market Lavington as an apprentice. While Robert’s involvement in the process is not made clear it was normal for the father to source opportunities using their connections and pay the premium required to gain their son entry onto a particular training scheme. This arrangement between father and son ‘was much the most important contribution a father could make to his son’s future prosperity’ (Vincent, p.67), because it was unlikely that an inheritance would have been made available to him upon the passing of senior family members. So, on this basis an assumption can be made about Robert’s contribution (or interference) in deciding William’s fate, especially in the absence of sufficient information to clarify the point or suggest anything otherwise.

All of this would have been true if William had not stated that it was at his ‘own earnest wish’, that he was to be ‘bound apprentice’ (Webb, p.4). Whether this means that he was responsible for making the necessary arrangements of his own volition, or that he was simply a willing participant in a decision that had already been for him is unclear. With respect to the former it is evident that prior to serving an apprenticeship William was able to find employment himself, recalling first how ‘I got a situation in the establishment of Messrs Garden and Perks, Iron Masters and Smiths at the town of Swindon’ (Webb, p.4). In this particular instance there is no mention of an assisting third party who may have helped him to secure the position. Instead the use of the first person “I” suggests an unusual degree of independence. More unusual though is that he only remained at Messrs Garden and Perks for a few years, after which he was an apprentice to Mr. William Cambridge. What increases the peculiarity of William’s early employment further still is that his apprenticeship was heavily reduced from seven years to three. It may have been the case that the work he performed prior to obtaining this position contributed towards his apprenticeship, as he may have already acquired some of the more rudimentary skills which the first few years would have focused on.

For reasons which can only be speculated (see Emigration & Immigration) William decided to leave the family home and take passage to Australia in May 1852. One such explanation which has not yet been addressed is that:

In almost every case the successful completion of a seven-year apprenticeship was followed by a period “on the tramp” during which the unemployed artisan would have to leave his home, family and friends and go off in search of work (Vincent, p.68).

On the Tramp [circa 1860] by Moritz Von Schwind depicts a young adult male who is looking on at his home town for one last time as he prepares to face the arduous road ahead in search of work
On the Tramp [circa 1860] by Moritz Von Schwind depicts a young adult male who is looking on at his home town for one last time as he prepares to face the arduous road ahead in search of work
If William had completed his apprenticeship by the time his brother Henry was contemplating emigrating to Australia, the phenomenon explained here by Vincent concerning post-apprenticeship unemployment would have certainly contributed to his decision to move.

Having covered William’s employment history in Britain it is time to follow him as he journeys across vast oceans to the far side of the globe. Much to William’s dismay a warm reception did not await him upon arrival because ‘most of the men were away at the diggings at Ballarut’ (Webb, p.6). This was William’s first encounter with the gold rush phenomenon and no doubt the Portland ghost town, devoid of men, bewildered him. Nonetheless William was not deterred and he soon settled, finding work ‘in the workshop of a Blacksmith and Wheelwright, at good wages’ (Webb, p.6). Meanwhile Henry had managed to secure employment at Rosebrook Steam Flour Mills in Belfast (Port Fairy) some forty miles away, and so the two were separated for a period of three months. They reunited after Henry sent word to William that ‘the township of Belfast down the coast was situated in a good agricultural district’ (Webb, p.7), the idea being that William could find better employment by utilising his skill as a manufacturer of implements and machinery.

Example of a Miner’s License, otherwise known as Miner’s Right. It included the fee paid, the issuing authority’s signature and the miner’s signature. This evidences the extent to which the mining industry became heavily regulated and prevented opportunists
Example of a Miner’s License, otherwise known as Miner’s Right. It included the fee paid, the issuing authority’s signature and the miner’s signature. This evidences the extent to which the mining industry became heavily regulated and prevented opportunists

The ambitious duo did not stop there and soon their sights were set on much bigger targets. After searching for a suitable workshop they finally ‘secured the lease of a first class property that had just been deserted’ (Webb, p.7). It was here where the two combined their knowledge and experience of their respective trades and formed their own family business, H. &. W. Webb. While for most the sense of achievement gained from having successfully relocated and settled an entire family in a new colony would have been enough, for William it was not! He wanted excitement and adventure, and the newly discovered goldfields provided both. Like so many others before him William had caught gold fever and was eager to pursue his ambitions. He made his arrangements and travelled to Forrest Creek where he registered with Commissioner’s Camp and paid thirty shillings for his Miner’s License. Perhaps the main reason why so many individuals like William were initially attracted to the goldfields was because they were representative of what M. Rohbough calls an “economic democracy”, whereby:

anyone with a pick pan, and shovel could participate, at least in the early days, regardless of wealth, social standing, education, or family name (Rohrbough, p.2).


Scene depicting a clash between white and Chinese gold diggers reveals that there was tension between different ethnic groups and tempers often flared. This also feeds into the idea that the goldfields had an adverse effect on morality as capitalistic greed took hold
Scene depicting a clash between white and Chinese gold diggers reveals that there was tension between different ethnic groups and tempers often flared. This also feeds into the idea that the goldfields had an adverse effect on morality as capitalistic greed took hold

The sense of equality between miners meant that they became one homogenous mass, distinguishable only by their ethnicity (there was a large Chinese presence on the goldfields). Diggers were stripped of their identity in all respects because none of it really mattered, nor did it count for much on the fields where hard work, perseverance and good luck counted most. If anything the workingman benefited most simply because he was used to the intensive manual labour and was therefore in a more advantageous position, physically speaking. Everyone’s objective was the same although motives did differ, and each person was fuelled by a strong capitalist mentality that somehow fortune and riches would miraculously befall them on the fields, resolve their financial problems and bring them immense happiness – all without exerting much effort. Of course for the majority this remained a pipedream and many spent years chasing after the dream without ever achieving it, although this did not stop waves of people from abandoning their jobs to join the gold rushes. This following extract taken from The Argus reveals the extent of the problem in California, but is relevant to Australia too:

The news of gold discoveries has spread at lightning speed, and the minister, merchant, artisan, mechanic, farmer, labourer and loafer, have all gone to seek their fortune. Farms and crops are deserted, and all branches, of business are at a stand’ (The Argus, p.4).

Typical image of gold digger back at camp after a day on the goldfields or panning the rivers
Typical image of gold digger back at camp after a day on the goldfields or panning the rivers

What is most apparent here is the overwhelming lack of responsibility amongst communities as groups of people decided that they would rather abandon the security of their fairly well paid jobs in search of a wealth which was in no way guaranteed. So deeply entrenched was this new gold-seeking-culture that in some instances it was being reported that while ‘labourers could be hired in abundance a month ago for twenty-five dollars per month. Now they are not to be had for ten dollars a day’ (The Argus, p.4). This shows the extent to which people valued gold not just as a marketable commodity but also as a means of subsistence and, to a lesser extent, a method of escape from all manner of social issues. T.J. Stiles perfectly sums up this phenomenon by addressing the fact that ‘gold was not just worth money – it was money’ (Stiles, p.171), meaning reports of alluvial gold, which was reportedly easy to obtain, pushed the opportunity cost that would have been incurred by not going to the goldfields too high. This leads onto another point that while many were naively seeking an easy road to prosperity, others were more opportunistic and were perhaps sucked into the whole ideology that came with the gold rushes. William was undoubtedly an opportunist as he was under no illusion that he was going to stumble across a massive fortune. Instead he was just ‘anxious to try [his] luck as a gold digger’ (Webb, p.7) which sounds like he got caught up in the romance of it all and just wanted to witness the spectacle. Nonetheless William does provide an interesting report of his time spent at Campbell’s Creek, noting how he and his colleagues:

Looked anxiously at the bottom of the first pan of stuff from the first hole bottomed, and we certainly found gold, in small particles, and small in quantity, but still gold, and containing the results of nearly a week’s labour. No nuggets such as we had been led to expect. Still, we fed on hope of what the future would do and started on a second hole (Webb, p.8).

For William it appears that he was content just participating in the process of searching for and extracting the gold. For him the excitement came from the physical act of digging, not from the uncertain reward which came at the end of it all. What is also apparent here is just how anticlimactic the whole process was. Presumably they [gold-diggers] had been “led to expect” vast amounts of gold just sitting on the surface, fresh for the picking. However, the reality was far from this, just as William and his group quickly came to realise for themselves. They were the victims of media sensationalism, rumour, and speculation, and they all too willingly committed to the gold rush having been ill-informed. For William this was of little concern because he stood to lose very little and had the benefit of being able to fall back on the family business, which was by now doing extremely well for itself. Despite all of this he did not want to relentlessly pursue something that was going to prove fruitless time and time again. On this basis he faced a choice that ‘on the one hand there was simply the gambler’s chance; on the other, the knowledge that work and good wages awaited’ (Webb, p.8) him back in Belfast. Employing reason he opted for the latter and left the goldfields behind, having ‘gained experience but little increase in wealth’ (Webb, p.8).

Far from the familiar Wiltshire fields that William called home, he found himself on the far side of the globe along with his brother and, having passed through some tumultuous times, was able to successfully resettle in a new Colony that had swallowed up so many other hopefuls without reward. Why William found it comparatively easy to relocate to Australia is in part due to the assistance provided by his brother. This safety net gave William the opportunity to gain the independence he so desired, but was reassured by the fact that help was never too far away. The most obvious example of this was when William left Henry in charge of their business while he went off to join the gold rush, but after having little success he soon returned. Robert’s role cannot be diminished here either because, despite all of my negative conjecture about their relationship, he did after all provide William with a good solid platform for future employment. From the parish through to the family workshop, Robert was an ever present figure who featured strongly in William’s early professional development. Most importantly though, for better or for worse, William was able to exploit the skills passed onto him by his father and use them to his own advantage when he emigrated to Australia. Similarly, the importance of his apprenticeship cannot be emphasised enough, because without this his application for assisted passage would have most likely been disregarded, as skilled workers were beginning to receive more preferential treatment. Lastly, what has been most striking throughout this study is the way in which William’s employment has shaped his own identity. The parish sparked his interest in genealogy; the workshop established him as the selfless provider; the apprenticeship sculpted him into an artisan, a necessary prerequisite to emigrating; the family business affirmed his dependency on a parental figure; and his brief spell on the goldfields revealed his desire for independence and adventure. In short, William’s employment history offers a window not only into his professional life, but his personal life too.


1849 ‘New Gold Mine.’, The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1957), 5th January, p. 4, Available: http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article4768253 [Accessed: 22nd January, 2016]

Reeves, Keir et al. (2010). Integrating the Historiography of the Nineteenth-century Gold Rushes. Australian Economic History Review. 50 (2), 111-128.

Rohrbough, M. (1997) Days of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the American Nation. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.

Stiles, T.J. (2009). The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt. New York: Alfred A Knopf.

Vincent, David. (1982). Bread, Knowledge & Freedom: A Study of Nineteenth-century Working Class Autobiography. New York: Methuen & Co.

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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *