|The Webb family.
[A brief description as an aid to explain references in the letters. For further information see The Stargazer: the life and work of Thomas William Webb Gracewing 2006 and ODNB entry]
Thomas Webb was born in Ross-on Wye on 14 December 1806. His childhood was spent mainly in Ross and Gloucester. He was educated by his father, the Revd John Webb, and lived with his parents in Tretire, Herefordshire, until his marriage.
He went to Magdalen Hall, Oxford, where he matriculated in 1826 and received his BA degree with honours in mathematics in 1830. He took his MA and was elected a member of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Oxford in 1832. He was ordained deacon at Hereford Cathedral in 1830 and became a priest the following year. For twenty-five years he served in several parishes north of Ross-on-Wye, and as curate to his father. He was musical, played the organ, and installed the first instrument at St Weonard's in 1840. Webb was a minor canon and librarian of Gloucester Cathedral from 1844 to 1849 and a prebendary of Hereford Cathedral from 1882. In December 1856 he was invited to be vicar of Hardwick, a new parish near Hay-on-Wye, which he served attentively until his death.
As a young man Webb had spent many hours making specula for his home-made telescopes. He became an expert in optics. From 1852 to 1866 he mainly used a Tully 3¾ inch refractor. Later he purchased an Alvan Clark refractor (1859) and reflectors by With. He was elected to the Royal Astronomical Society in 1852. His observational work was concerned principally with the moon, double stars and nebula, meteors, and comets, as meticulously recorded in a series of surviving notebooks, covering various periods from 1825 to 1874, and including a number on natural phenomena. He served on the British Association's moon committee, and was active in the Selenographical Society. He became trusted as a meticulous and accurate observer.
Webb's Celestial Objects for Common Telescopes (1859) brought him enduring fame among the growing number of amateur astronomers. It ran to three editions during his lifetime, and the sixth edition of 1917 was reprinted in 1962. Whereas Admiral W. H. Smyth's expensive two-volume Bedford Catalogue (1844) was aimed at gentlemen able to obtain and house 5 inch refractors, Webb described all Smyth's double stars and nebulae within reach of a portable 3½ inch telescope.
Webb edited and completed his father's books on the civil war in Herefordshire and the military memoirs of Colonel John Birch. He also collected many details of local and oral history. He wrote numerous articles in several popular periodicals, including Nature, Knowledge, and the English Mechanic; in the last he contributed a regular column answering readers' astronomical queries. He also lectured at both the Ladies' College and working men's club in Cheltenham. He privately published The Earth a Globe (1865), a rebuttal of the flat earth theory of Samuel Burley.
Many friends were entertained at the Vicarage in Hardwicke, including the diarist Francis Kilvert and the astronomers Espin, Ranyard, and Sadler. Amateur astronomers in many parts of the world enjoyed Webb's generous and prolific correspondence.
Webb died from a disease of the bladder at Hardwick vicarage on 19 May 1885 and was buried at Mitcheltroy. His obituary in the Hereford Times stated that he had ‘probably induced more amateurs to interest themselves in the study of astronomy than any other man of his generation’
Henrietta Montagu Wyatt (1826- 1884), became Thomas’s wife in 1843. She had been brought up at Troy House, Monmouth where her father, and later her brother, were land agents to the Duke of Beaufort. The Wyatts were a large family that had aristocratic connexions and the Wyatt dynasty produced painters, inventors, land agents and surveyors and a whole host of architects. Though Thomas and Henrietta remained childless, they enjoyed long visits from the Wyatt nephews and nieces and the latter sometimes accompanied the Webbs in their holidays on the continent. Henrietta painted in watercolours and oils, decorated china and was an early photographer. She occasionally supplemented her husband's astronomical and editing work.
John Webb (1776-1869) Thomas’s father, originated, on his father’s side, from a family of Wiltshire and Dorset gentry. An ancestor, who was a Catholic, fought with such distinction on the Royalist side in the Civil war that he was made a baronet. However, the cadet line from which John sprang directly was almost certainly descended from Colonel William Webb, Cromwell’s principal Surveyor-General of the Crown Lands.
John himself was born and brought up in London, and was educated at St. Paul's and Wadham College, Oxford. He married Sarah Harding who was of a landed family, having property in Warwickshire and London. In 1812, when he was thirty-six, John became rector of Tretire with Michaelchurch, five miles from Ross on Wye. He was also a minor canon of Gloucester Cathedral. In 1820 he was given, by that dean and chapter, a living in Wales, that of St John and St Mary, the parish church of Cardiff - which he held in absentia from 1821 to 1863.
He was a considerable scholar in various fields and as a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries contributed papers to that society on varied subjects. Research into the history of the English Civil war in seventeenth-century Herefordshire engaged him throughout his years in the county and was unfinished at the time of his death. Hence Thomas’s completion of the work. In 1859, at the age of 83 John retired and went to live with his son at Hardwicke. He died there ten years later.