If you follow the links for the ‘Webb’ surname on this site, you’ll see the results of my often tortuous attempts to unravel the family history of my paternal grandmother, Mary Emily Elizabeth (Polly) Webb (1898 – 1968). I’ve traced the Webb family back a couple of generations, but have always come to a halt in the mid-Victorian period, frustrated by uncertainty about which line to follow. However, I’ve recently returned to the records for this branch of my family tree and now feel more confident about pushing back further into the past.

My grandmother, Polly Robb née Webb (centre), with various family members

So what do we know for certain about my Webb ancestors? We know that my grandmother was born on 10th June 1898 at 32 Coutts Road, Mile End Old Town. She was the eldest daughter of George Webb, a journeyman house decorator, and Mary Webb, formerly French. George Webb had married Mary French ten months earlier, on 1st August 1897, at the church of St Paul, Bow Common. The couple gave their address as 92 Burdett Road. Mary was described in the marriage certificate as the daughter of bootmaker Frederick French, while George was said to be the son of another George Webb. Both father and son were described as decorators. George and Mary were both 24 years old.

My great-grandmother Mary Webb née French in old age

Four years after their marriage, the 1901 census finds George, 28, and Mary, 27, living with their two daughters, Mary E(mily) E(lizabeth) Webb, 3, and Jessie C(aroline), 10 months, at 32 Coutts Road. George is now working as a labourer at a gas works. According to the census record, George (like his wife and children) was born in Mile End. However, the 1911 census is more specific. By this date, the Webbs have moved to 39 Perth Road, Barking. George, now working as a machinery oiler at a brewery, is 37, as is his wife Mary. Besides Mary Emily Elizabeth, now 12, the couple have four other children: Jessie Caroline, 10; George Frederick, 8; Charles Joseph, 6; and Alfred Arthur, 4. The three boys are all said to have been born in East Ham, suggesting that the Webbs must have been living there between 1903 and 1907. Importantly, the record informs us that Mary Webb née French was born in Stepney, while her husband George was born in Shadwell.

If we then search the census records for a George Webb, born in Shadwell in about 1873-4, whose father was a decorator also called George Webb, then the most obvious (indeed, the only feasible) match is the family to be found living at 50 Prusom Street, Wapping, in 1891. The household is headed by George Webb, aged 47, a house decorator, and his wife Elizabeth, 43, a tailoress. They have six children: Elizabeth, 23, a tailoress like her mother, George, 17, a baker, Alice, 15, Virtue, 10, and Alfred, 7. George junior’s occupation is something of an anomaly, though we know from later records that he changed jobs often.

Part of Shadwell, from Edward Weller’s 1868 Map of London

George Webb senior is said to have been born in Wapping, while his wife and children were born in the parish of St George in the East. However, the Shadwell connection becomes clearer if we trace the same family back ten years, to the census of 1881. At this date, the Webbs were actually living in Shadwell – at 83 Cornwall Street, part of the network of streets between Commercial Road and the church of St George in the East (see map above). George senior is described as a house decorator and his wife Elizabeth as a machinist. George junior was 7 and his sister Alice, 5, matching the ages in the 1891 census. The younger two children, Virtue and Alfred, were not yet born, and there are three older sisters – Susanna, 15, Elizabeth, 13, and Rosina, 10 – who were no longer living at home ten years later (we know from other records that all three had married in the meantime).

There is a discrepancy between the two census records regarding George senior’s age: in 1881 he was said to be 44, while in 1891 he appears to be 47. However, the ages of his wife and children match, providing strong evidence that this is the same family. Further confirmation comes in the fact that in 1881, the Webbs shared their house in Cornwall Street with painter Joel Hogwood, 60 (perhaps he and George senior worked together?), his wife Susanna, 52, and Jane, 19 (presumably their daughter). In 1891, Jane Hogwood, 28, a tailoress, would be boarding with the Webbs in Prusom Street. Another clue is provided when we look at the baptismal record for George and Elizabeth’s daughter Alice, who was christened at the church of St George in the East on 29th October 1876. She was given the unusual (but characteristically Victorian) middle name Virtue: the same as her younger brother who is present in the 1891 Prusom Street record.

The Webbs were living at the same address in Cornwall Street seven years earlier, when they had their son George (the person I believe was my great grandfather) christened at the church of St James, Bethnal Green. At this date, his father George senior was working as a bricklayer, but the fact that the address is identical with the later census record confirms that this is the same family. The ceremony took place on 9th August, but George junior was actually born on 15th July. According to my calculations, this means that my great-grandfather (if indeed this is him) was actually 23, rather than 24, at the time of his marriage: but perhaps it was usual to give one’s age at the next birthday?

We can trace George’s parents back to the census taken three years before his birth, in 1871. Once again, they are in Shadwell, but at this date they were a few streets from Cornwall Street, at 30 Sheridan Street. At this stage, George senior, 23, was working as a dock labourer. He and his wife Elizabeth, 22, had three daughters: Ann, 6, Elizabeth, 3, and Georgiana, 10 months. Although the ages of the parents (and Elizabeth’s work as a needlewoman) match later records, their daughters’ names might raise questions as to whether this is really the same family. Elizabeth junior also features in the 1881 census, and her details match, but what about Ann and Georgina? I’ve been unable to find a christening record for Ann, and my theory is that she may actually be the Susannah found in the later census record, who was baptised on 1st July 1866 at Christ Church, Watney Street. She was born at 35 Spencer Street, which was the next street to Sheridan Street. As for Georgiana, she must be the Georgina Virtue Webb who was christened at St James the Great, Bethnal Green, on 5th June 1870 – that familiar middle name providing another confirmation that this is the same family. Her absence from later records is explained by the fact that she died in the last quarter of 1874.

We can now draw together what we’ve learned from census and christening records to chart the movements of the Webb family between 1866 and 1891:

In 1866 they were at 35 Spencer Street for the birth of Susannah. George senior working as a labourer.

In 1870 they were at 24 Sheridan Street (mis-spelt as Sherrington in the parish register) for the birth of Georgina or Georgiana Virtue. George senior working as a bricklayer.

In 1871 they were at 36 Sheridan Street for the census. George senior working as a dock labourer.

In 1872 they were at 25 Sheridan Street for the birth of Rosina. George senior working as a bricklayer.

In 1874 they were at 83 Cornwall Street for the birth of George junior. George senior working as a bricklayer.

In 1876 they were at 83 Middle Cornwall Street (presumably the same address) for the birth of Alice Virtue. George senior working as a bricklayer.

In 1881 they were at 83 Cornwall Street for the census, and for the birth of Virtue. George senior working as a house decorator.

In 1884 they were at 83 Cornwall Street for the birth of Alfred. George senior working as a bricklayer.

In 1891 they were at 50 Prusom Street for the census. George senior working as a house decorator.

To complete the story of George and Elizabeth: the 1901 census finds them still at Prusom Street, with George senior still employed as a house decorator. Most of their children (including my great-grandfather George junior) are now married, but Virtue, 19, and Alfred, 17, are still living at home. Alfred would marry in 1909 and Elizabeth would die in 1910, at the age of 62. Our last sight of George senior is in the 1911 census, when, aged 65, he is still living in Prusom Street with his unmarried son Virtue, who would have been 30. Both are working (presumably together) as painters. George may be the person of that name who died in September of that same year, in Whitechapel: the date of birth certainly matches what we know of him from other records.

Prusom Street, Wapping, in the early years of the 20th century, before slum clearance changed the face of the area.

Having convinced myself that my great-grandfather, George Webb junior, was indeed the son of George and Elizabeth Webb of Shadwell, I want to move on to explore the identities of the couple I’m now fairly sure were my great-great-grandparents. Who exactly were George and Elizabeth Webb, and what were their backgrounds?

The first step is to find evidence of George and Elizabeth’s marriage. We have some clues to help us. Firstly, we know that they must have been married before (though probably only shortly before) 1866, when their first child, Susannah, was born. Secondly, we know from a number of records that Elizabeth had a middle name – Ann.  Thirdly, thanks to information supplied by my fellow Webb family researcher Pat Tennant, we know that Elizabeth’s maiden name – Knight – was mentioned on the birth certificates of a number of her children – for example, Rosina’s in 1872 and Alfred’s in 1884.

This information points us towards the marriage, on 2nd October 1865, at the church of St Thomas, Stepney, between George Webb and Elizabeth Ann Knight. This would certainly fit with the birth of Susannah in the following June, and it’s in the right geographical area – St Thomas’ was in Arbour Square, just north of Commercial Road.

We learn from the certificate that Elizabeth Ann was the daughter of William Knight, a lighterman. She was born in February 1848 at Little Union Street, the daughter of William, described in the baptismal record as a mariner, and Susan or Susannah, and christened at Christ Church, Watney Street (did Elizabeth name her first daughter – see above – after her mother?). Elizabeth’s parents are probably the William Knight and Susan Taylor who were married in May 1846 at St Dunstan’s church, Stepney. We know from other records that William Knight’s middle name was Aaron, that the year before Elizabeth Ann’s birth he and Susan had another daughter of the same name who must have died in infancy, and that they also had a son, John Henry, born in 1850.

Cooper’s workshop and tools, 1849 (via SuperStock)

The most surprising thing about the marriage certificate is George Webb’s occupation. He is said to be a cooper – indeed, he is the son of a cooper by the name of John Webb. It seems odd that George would be working, only a year after his marriage, as a simple labourer, and later variously as a dock labourer, bricklayer, and house decorator. However, if we were to disregard this marriage record, we would need to be sure that there was another Elizabeth Ann Knight who married a different George Webb in Stepney in the 1860s, which seems extremely unlikely.

If we look for George Webb and his father John in the 1861 census, four years before his marriage to Elizabeth Ann, then we will find John Webb, a 72-year-old dock cooper, living at 22 New Road (just south of Cornwall Street) with his wife Margaretta, 53, and two sons William, 16, a clerk at the London docks, and George, 14, a cooper at the same location. All four were said to have been born in ‘Middlesex London’. If the age is accurate, this would mean that George was born in 1847, a date which is consistent with at least some of the later census records.

Ten years earlier, in 1851, this Webb family were already in New Road, at what looks like 8 Jealous Row. John, 62, a cooper, is said to have been born in Stepney, his wife Margaretta, 43, in St George in the East, William, 6, in Stepney, and George, 4, in Whitechapel. They also have a daughter, Margaretta, who appears to be a baby, born in St George in the East.

In 1841, John Webb, a cooper aged 52, Margaret Webb, 55, and Margaret Clark, 28, were living together in Gloucester Street, Mile End Old Town. If the census return is at all to be trusted (and we know that the 1841 records were not particularly precise about ages), then this could certainly be the same John Webb, but Margaret, 55, can’t be the same person as Margaretta, who would be 43 in 1851 and 53 in 1861. On the other hand, if Margaret Clark’s age can be taken as approximate, then she might possibly be the Margaretta of those later census records.

Some support is given to this theory by George Webb’s birth certificate, a copy of which was kindly sent to me by Pat Tennant. Apparently he was born on 24 May 1846 at 2 Fieldgate Street, Whitechapel, the son of John (a cooper) and Margaret Webb ‘formerly Clark’. (The fact that George would later give census officials different information about his place of birth, as well as his age, is a slight concern, but perhaps he just didn’t know or remember that he was born in Whitechapel?)

One possible explanation is that Margaret Clark was Margaret Webb’s daughter by her first marriage. If the census records are accurate, then John Webb was born in about 1790, which means he would have been of marriageable age by about 1810. In September 1813, banns were published in the parish of St Saviour, Southwark, between John Webb, a bachelor, and Margaret Clark, a widow.

Thanks to other family trees at Ancestry, I’ve learned that Margaret’s first marriage was probably in 1797 at St Botolph Bishopsgate to Francis Clark – her own maiden name being Mole. Francis and Margaret Clark had five children: Ann, born in 1801 at Marial Place (?), St George in the East; Elizabeth Ann, born in 1803 in New Road; Francis, born in 1805 at Wapping Wall; Margaretta, born in 1807, also at Wapping Wall; and Jane, born in 1808 (no further information). Francis senior worked variously as a shipwright and victualler.

It’s possible that Francis Clark senior is the person who died in September 1811 at the age of 41 of dropsy and was buried either at St Dunstan’s or St George in the East – there are burial records at both churches. This would fit with his widow Margaret marrying John Webb two years later.

Wycliffe Congregational Chapel, Stepney

I’ve found a burial record for Margaret Webb, formerly Clark – at Wycliffe Congregational Church, Stepney, on 16 January 1842. Both her age (66) and her address (Gloucester Street) match what we already know. Her widower John must have married Margaretta some time between 1842 and the birth of their son William in 1845, but I’ve yet to find a record their marriage.

Although some of the details remain unclear, I think we can safely say that John Webb and Margaretta Clark were my great-great-great-grandparents (and that they were probably Congregationalists). In fact, we can probably go back another generation. The most likely christening record for John Webb is at St Dunstan’s, Stepney, on 15th August 1790. He was the son of another cooper, Thomas Webb, and his wife Denne or Denny, who lived in Poplar. They also had a son Thomas junior, born in 1792, and a daughter Elizabeth, born in 1795.  So Thomas and Denne Webb were almost certainly my great-great-great-great-grandparents.

Having traced my Webb ancestors back a couple more generations, and another half a century or so, I look forward to finding out more about them.