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Webster - Sir Godfrey., 4th Bart


The Badge of a Baronet

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Webster Coat of Arms

The Webster's of Battle Abbey, Sussex


The Webster baronetcy was created on 21 May 1703 and became extinct in 1923 when there were only two daughters, Lucy and Evelyn, who could not succeed. There was a man who was calling himself Sir Godfrey Webster. According to someone at the East Sussex Record Office, he was the son of Evelyn and her husband, Charles Robert Harbord. Evelyn changed her name back to Webster and so Godfrey may have legally be a Webster but not a baronet. *He lived in the Brazilian jungle and was reputed to be  "as eccentric as most of his ancestors". [The Websters were famed for their eccentricity.] 

See Daily Telegraph for obituary on *Godfrey Webster Harbord who died aged 75 on 22 July 2003.

At a distance, the Webster baronets certainly appear to have been eccentric and the stuff of what legends and romance are made. The 4th baronet, Sir Godfrey Webster, married Elizabeth Vassall, the daughter of a wealthy Jamaica plantation owner. The couple already had two children, a boy (Godfrey, 5th Baronet) and a girl (Harriet), when their mother, Elizabeth, ran off with the 3rd Lord Holland, whom she met in Italy while the Websters and Holland were on extended Grand Tours. Lord Holland and Lady Webster lived together for some time and had their first son, Charles, before Webster divorced her.

The son of the first Viscount Exmouth, the Hon. Sir Fleetwood Broughton Reynolds Pellew, Knight Commander of the Bath and an admiral, born 13 December 1789, married on 5 June 1816  Harriet Webster only daughter of Sir Godfrey Webster, 4th Baronet, of Battle Abbey, Sussex, by his wife Elizabeth Vassall. Harriet died in Florence, Italy, 7 August 1849. Harriet's father was much addicted to Florence and probably introduced his daughter to the city. It is presumed that the other child of Sir Godfrey and Elizabeth was his son and heir, another Godfrey. Harriet's daughter, Harriet Pellew, married Horatio Walpole the fourth Earl of Orford and a descendant of the first earl, the great English parliamentarian Robert Walpole who was prime minister for over 20 years.

Sir Godfrey Webster, 4th Baronet (1748-1800) was known in his day as a grand tourist. His portrait  by Louis Gauffier (1762-1801), a French artist little represented in English collections, was recently on temporary show at Kenwood House having been purchased by English Heritage. The painting will be returned to Battle Abbey, which English Heritage are in the process of refurbishing. It is one of 22 portraits to be returned to Battle. The Gauffier portrait depicts Sir Godfrey in Florence. 

Lady Elizabeth (Vassall) Webster was 23 when she left Sir Godfrey and ran away with 20 year-old Lord Holland. The birth of Charles out of wedlock added to Elizabeth's notoriety and the Holland's were forced to live abroad for several years. Some time between 1800 and 1805, Elizabeth saw her first dahlias in Spain and sent some home. She is generally credited with being the person who introduced the Mexican flower into England. After the couple had been married for twenty years Lord Holland wrote a poem to Elizabeth.

The Dahlia you brought to our isle
Your praises for ever shall speak:
Mid gardens as sweet as your smile,
And colour as bright as your cheek.

Sir Godfrey Webster gave his name to a ship, which made several trips to Australia bearing convicts. Convicts when marrying would cite the name of the ship on which they were transported so Sir Godfrey's name lives on in many Australians' ancestry.

The (presumed) 5th baronet was as eccentric or notorious as his (presumed) mother. He had an affair in 1809 with Lady Caroline Lamb, wife of William who became the second Viscount Melbourne and who was appointed prime minister in 1834. Caroline Lamb's mother-in-law Lady Melbourne, the famous hostess,  wrote a letter on 13 April 1810 scolding Lady Caroline for her "disgraceful" and "disgusting" behaviour and warning her that "when anyone braves the opinion of the World, sooner or later they will feel the consequences of it". Lady Caroline was later to have an affair with poet Lord Byron. [Caroline Lamb definitely had the affair with Sir Godfrey but, based on his mother's age upon leaving home and his father's death in 1800, he could have been barely 18 or so when the relationship occurred.]

Sir Godfrey owned property in various parts of Sussex and had his followers.  On 1st March 1820 John Barton spoke at the Dolphin Inn, Chichester in favour of "the Radical" Sir Godfrey Webster. Hastings had developed into a major fishing port and was increasingly popular with the middle classes. Land was very much at premium and the near derelict Ropewalk provided perfect lodgings for the growing numbers of workers (and those providing for their needs and requirements) employed on the various construction projects in hand. By 1822 it was estimated that more than 1,000 souls had acquired ramshackle, incommodious but rate-free accommodation on the shingle bank, guaranteed to provoke the great and the good on the Borough Council. A few half-hearted attempts were made to impose official control and the immediate response to this was the American flag (a contemporary symbol of freedom) being run up in defiance. And so the America Ground was born.

The America Ground was an organized community supplying most if not all of its own needs. Lodging houses were a major industry as was pig keeping, in fact these two appear to be the main sources of activity, dominating all others. These others included warehousing for tallow, rope and coal. Lime-kilns were present as were a sawing house, stonemasons and a tallow factory, multiple piggeries, a slaughterhouse and butchers. There was a gin palace and, perhaps surprisingly, a school.

The first signs of trouble began when it was found that no title deeds existed to enable the sale of property on the America Ground and the matter was referred to the Crown Authorities. And in turn the query was passed on to the Commissioners for Woods, Forests and Land Revenues. An inquisition was called for and eventually four claimants appeared on the scene, Lord Cornwallis, holder of the Priory Estate, the Earl of Chichester [one of the Pelhams], Hastings Corporation and Sir Godfrey Webster on behalf of Battle Abbey Estates. On the 6th of December 1827, five commissioners and twelve jurymen met at the George Hotel at Battle and quickly decided that the lands should be seized on behalf of the King. There is no record of the residents of the America Ground being consulted or even referred to.

Sir Godfrey's widow Charlotte was living in Battle Abbey in 1841 and 1851 when the censuses were taken. This lady is presumed to be widow of the 5th baronet but most if not all were named Godfrey. She was particularly generous to the village of Netherfield, a place that was first mentioned in the Domesday book and which is located between Battle and Brightling. Netherling had no church or school for hundreds of years until a parish church was built and dedicated in 1860, a gift to the village by Lady Webster in memory of her husband, Sir Godfrey.  Services were held in the barn of a local farm before the church was built. It was designed by Samuel Sanders Teulon, a controversial Victorian architect, who also designed the Holy Trinity Church in Hastings. The church is dedicated to St John the Baptist. The old schoolhouse adjoining the churchyard was also given by Lady Webster, in 1859. The school closed in 1961.

The Websters

Thomas Webster (1677-1751) was created a baronet in return for donating £1095 to the garrison of Ulster. He acquired Battle Abbey in 1721 from Viscount Montague.

He was succeeded in 1751 by his eldest son, Whistler Webster, 2nd baronet (son of Thomas Webster and Jane Cheek). Jane inherited her grandfather Henry Whistler's vast estates in 1719. Sir Whistler Webster did not have the some love for the Battle estate as his father. In 1766 at the age of 58 Whistler married Martha, daughter of  Dr Nairn, dean of Battle. Martha was 21 years younger. They had no children and the 3rd baronet was Godfrey who succeeded in 1779 on Whistler's death. Godfrey was baronet for only six months and his eldest son succeeded him as 4th baronet in 1780.

Sir Godfrey, 4th baronet, inherited vast debts caused by marriage settlements and/or the wills of Sir Whistler and Sir Godfrey, his uncle and father. His financial position was vastly improved by his marriage to Elizabeth Vassall, daughter of Richard Vassall of Jamaica. Godfrey was 40 when they married and Elizabeth only 15. Dame Martha, Whistler's widow, was still living at Battle Abbey and forced the couple to live in a small house on an opposite hill.

Sir Godfrey and Lady Elizabeth departed for the Continent. Lady Webster later met and eloped with Henry Fox, 3rd Lord Holland and Sir Godfrey obtained a divorce by Act of Parliament in 1796. Under the terms of the divorce he was entitled to the whole of Elizabeth's fortune during their life together and was made sole guardian of their children. In 1800, he took his own life.

The 5th baronet, Sir Godfrey, was the eldest son of the fourth and was only ten when he succeeded. His guardians were his grandmother and his aunt, Elizabeth Chaplin. He succeeded to the estate in 1810 when he was 21 and Battle Abbey was in a ruinous state thanks to 31 years of neglect by Sir Whistler's widow. Sir Godfrey spent large amounts on restoration and on his political activities. He was part owner of several racehorses and built a luxury yacht. His marriage in 1814 to Charlotte, daughter of Robert Adamson of Ireland, did very little to help his financial situation and it was not a happy union. Sir Godfrey retired to the Continent in 1819 to escape his creditors.

When he died in 1836, his personal finances were insufficient to discharge the hotel account, his medical bills and his servants' wages.

The 6th baronet was his eldest son Godfrey Vassall. Godfrey was a navy officer and had served at the siege of Acre. From 1840 onwards Godfrey's brothers were pressing for their portions of the estate. Godfrey married a rich heiress, daughter of William Murray, a large plantation owner in Jamaica, and granddaughter of Samuel Virgin who held extensive estates in both England and Jamaica. She was the widow of the younger son of the Earl of Ashburnham. The couple married in 1851 and Sir Godfrey died in 1853.

Godfrey having no issue, the title passed to brother Augustus. 

Augustus, 6th baronet, was a professional navy officer. He was still bedevilled by debt and had to pay the balance of his brother Guy's fortune and mortgages to his mother and sister-in-law. His younger brother Frederick acted as agent and receiver of rents. In 1857 the remainder of Battle Abbey estates were sold to Harry Vane, later Duke of Cleveland. In 1862 Augustus married Amelia Sophia Prosser Hastings, daughter of Charles Prosser Hastings of Taunton. He died in 1886.

The 7th baronet was another Augustus, the 6th baronet's eldest son. He was in the Grenadier Guards (1884-1894). In 1895 he married a rich heiress, Mabel, a member of the famous Yorkshire Crossley carpet manufacturers. In 1901 the Duchess of Cleveland died and her nephew offered to sell Battle Abbey back to the Websters. Sir Augustus paid £200,000 for over 6,000 acres including estates at Battle, Ewhurst, Northiam and Romney. Battle Abbey was let to Michael Grace and the Websters lived at Powdermill House.

Godfrey, son of Sir Augustus, died in the 1914-18 War while serving with the Grenadier Guards. Augustus died in 1923 and the estate passed to his daughter Lucy. The Abbey itself was let to a girls' private school. The baronetcy expired with the death of Augustus.

[Family history courtesy of Christopher Whittick of East Sussex Record Office.]

Sir Godfrey Webster (4th Baronet)


Sir Whistler Webster, 2nd baronet, married in 1766, at the age of 58, Martha the daughter of Dr Nairn, Dean of Battle, who was some 21 years younger than him (BAT 1131). There were no children of the marriage, so the baronetcy passed to Whistler's brother Godfrey on his death in 1779 (BAT 1330, WHL 108). Godfrey had married Elizabeth, daughter of John Gilbert Cooper of Lockington in Derbyshire and Thurgarton in Nottinghamshire, and had six children. Godfrey, however, died in 1780 (BAT 1331) only 6 months after succeeding to the baronetcy and the title passed to his eldest son, another Godfrey.

Sir Godfrey, 4th baronet who was born about 1749, inherited an estate, large but encumbered with various rent charges and payments provided for either by marriage settlement or under the wills of Sir Whistler 2nd baronet or Sir Godfrey 3rd baronet. Presumably to help pay off some of these debts Sir Godfrey sold the East Grinstead estate: eight houses six burgages and some 450 acres in East Grinstead in 1781 (AMS 350), cottages and 22 acres at Worth in 1782 (AMS 233), and the Manor of Pickstones in East Grinstead and Worth in 1786 (WHL 117). He seems to have sold the last part of his East Grinstead property about 1800 (land tax assessments for East Grinstead). He did, however, extend his Fairlight property by his purchase of Fairlight Downs (128 acres) (BAT 2610) and his financial situation was greatly improved by his marriage in 1786 to Elizabeth sole heiress of Richard Vassall of Jamaica, heir of Florentius Vassall whose estates included the Friendship, Greenwich and Sweet River Plantations in Jamaica as well as New England property (BAT 1133). The marriage was not a happy one: Elizabeth was only 15, Godfrey being 25 years older than her. Battle Abbey was subject to an estate for the life of Dame Martha, Whistler's widow and she in fact remained in possession forcing the young couple to live in a small house, on the opposite hill, called Rose Green (Duchess of Cleveland 210; Lord Torrington states in 1788 that Sir Godfrey was longing to succeed the old lady so that he could pull down the already ruinous abbey (C Bruyn Andrews (ed) The Torrington Diaries 121)). It seems that relations with the Dowager were never good: in 1797 she took Sir Godfrey to court for taking down the roof of the Courthall in Battle and using the materials for his own purpose (SNQ 13 198).

Sir Godfrey and his wife spent several years on the Continent (letters from Thomas Pelham to Lord Sheffield, 1791-1793, include references to the couple's activities on the Continent (AMS 5440); see also Lady Webster's correspondence amongst the Holland House MSS in the British Library) and it was there that Lady Webster met and later eloped with Henry Fox, 3rd Lord Holland (Duchess of Cleveland 210-211). Sir Godfrey obtained a divorce by Act of Parliament in 1796, (BAT 1145) under which he received £6,000 damages from Lord Holland and secured for himself the whole of her fortune, about £10,000 a year, during their joint lives, leaving her only £800 (L B Behrens Battle under 39 Kings; a newspaper cutting states that it was £7,000 rather than £10,000 (BAT 4880)). He was also made sole guardian of his children. In 1797 he discontinued the surname Vassall which he had assumed in 1795 as a condition of Richard Vassall's will.

In political affairs Sir Godfrey carried on the Webster tradition of Whig opposition. He was very active in the reform movement in Sussex and introduced a petition for parliamentary reform in 1783. Two years later, however, he opposed Pitt's Parliamentary reform proposals as inadequate (Namier and Brook). In 1784 he unsuccessfully contested Hastings (T W Horsfield History of Sussex 2 61) and in 1785 stood at Seaford (T W Horsfield History of Sussex 2 69-70) in the interest of Lord Pelham. He was defeated but the election was declared void. In 1786 when he was again defeated he was seated on petition. He remained Member for Seaford until 1790 and for Wareham in Dorset from 1796 until 1800, when after a period in which his mind was troubled, he took his own life (BAT 4880).

[Information supplied by Christopher Whittick of East Sussex Record Office.]




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The English Cemetery, Piazza Donatello, Florence, Italy


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Pellew/ Enrichetta Francesca/ / Inghilterra/ Firenze/ 7 Agosto/ 1849/ / 409/ Traslocato al 747
Pellew/ Ammiraglio Fleetwood/ / Inghilterra/ Marsilia/ 28 Luglio/ 1861/ / 747
/ Buried at Florence 7 Aug. 1861
Walpole/Harriet Bettina Frances Pellew/ / Inghilterra/ Firenze/ 9 November/ 1886/ /


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Headstone of Fleetwood Broughton Reynolds Pellew in Florence by Felicie de Fauveau 02.jpg (68659 bytes)

Headstone of Admiral the Hon. Sir Fleetwood Broughton Reynolds Pellew
Fèlicie de Fauveau at The English Cemetery, Florence, Italy

Tomb of Fleetwood and Harriet Pellew in Florence Italy.jpg (44246 bytes)

Tomb of Admiral the Hon. Sir & Lady Fleetwood Broughton Reynolds Pellew
at The English Cemetery, Florence, Italy

Headstone of Harriet Frances Pellew in Florence by Felicie de Fauveau.jpg (20279 bytes)

Headstone of Lady Harriet Frances Pellew
Fèlicie de Fauveau at The English Cemetery, Florence, Italy


 Anglo-Italian Website, Florence; Julian of Norwich, Showing of Love Websites © Julia Bolton Holloway, 1997/2000; Text, Pastore Luigi Santini, Administration of Cimitero degli Allori 1981;


See http://Pellew/Exmouth for details.


Descendants of Sir Godfrey Webster


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Webster, Burkes Peerage 1890, 01  Webster, Burkes Peerage 1890, 02

Burke's Peerage 1890



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