This post was written by Victoria Doran
William Webster was a very small man in a Bantam Battalion who was killed by shelling from British artillery.
Lancashire Fusiliers cap badge
William Webster was born on 22 September 1881 at 77 Priory Grove, Everton, Liverpool and was the eldest of the 3 sons of William Webster (1859-1891) and Catherine Hogan (1857-1885). He was baptised into the Church of England on 16 October 1881 at St Cuthbert, Robson Street, Everton. William Webster senior worked in sawmills as a labourer, and possibly rose to be a foreman, but the family would not have been well off. William senior had 3 older sisters and a younger brother who died at the age of 21.
Catherine Hogan was the daughter of Oliver Hogan (1827-???) and Elizabeth Quirk (1829-???). Oliver was an Irish born dock labourer, and Elizabeth (from Crosby) was a widow with a 5 year old daughter when they married on 11 Jun 1855 at St Peter, Liverpool. This was possibly a ‘mixed’ marriage as Catherine and her younger sister Emma (1859-???) were both baptised as Roman Catholics, but the marriage seems to have been in the Church of England. Oliver and Elizabeth disappear after the 1861 census. Catherine has not been located at 1871, but Emma, aged only 12, was a servant in a boarding house in Seacombe. It seems likely that both Oliver and Elizabeth had died by then.
On Christmas Day 1880 Catherine and William senior were married in Liverpool. Catherine died on 13 June 1885 of multiple cancers aged 28. William senior was now responsible for 3 boys aged 4, 2 and 1 respectively. It would have been impossible for him to look after them whilst working long hours in the sawmill, and six months after Catherine’s death, on the 5th anniversary of his first marriage, he married Catherine’s younger sister, Emma.
William senior and Emma had 2 children, Emily (1886-???) and Jonathan (1890-1924) before William senior died on 25 March 1891 of pneumonia. There is no trace of Emma after this, so she seems to have abandoned her toddler and 6 month old baby as well as her 3 stepsons. The extended Webster family usually lived close together in Everton, often merely a few doors away.
William senior’s oldest surviving sister, Anne Pierrepoint (1848-1920) stepped in and took all 5 children into her home. However, she had been a widow for over 4 years and had 6 children of her own, none of them really old enough to support themselves. At the 1891 census a few days after William senior died, the only people with an income in the house hold were Anne and her 2 eldest teenage daughters, all of whose occupations were recorded as ‘knocking up at all hours’, and her oldest son George Pierrepont aged 16 who was a ‘lad in a cotton saleroom’, again likely to be paid a pittance.
By June her position was probably untenable, and so her younger sister Elizabeth’s ‘husband’ (no marriage has been found) Robert Johnson, a carter, applied to Liverpool Orphanage for William and his 2 full brothers, Abraham (1882-1960) and Thomas (1884-???) to be given places. This happened on 22 June 1891.
A photograph of Liverpool Orphanage, on Myrtle Street, can be found here. It was only possible to find William Webster’s family background from the admission records held at Liverpool Archives. Unfortunately the discharge records no longer exist, so it is not known how long William and his brother’s remained there. Probably it was until they were old enough to earn a living at 14 or 15.
Despite being orphans they still had a loving extended family, as Anne Pierrepoint had kept their half siblings, Emily and Jonathan with her, and by 1901, William and Abraham were also back living with her, William working for a grocer. No trace of Thomas has been found after he entered the orphanage, but Thomas Webster is a very common name.
William married Mary Lawson (1868-???) on 4 March 1911 at St Bridget, West Kirby. We know that William remained with his paternal aunt, Anne Pierrepont, and her family until he married Mary, as 27 St George’s Hill, Everton was his aunt’s address at the 1911 census on 2 April 1911.
Mary was a widow at least 14 years older than William, with 4 adult children. Her parents both came from Ireland, her father, who worked as an ‘outdoor officer’ for HM Customs, being from Newry, County Down and her mother from Carlingford, County Louth. All their children were born in Liverpool. Mary worked as a domestic servant before her first marriage on 3 April 1886 to William Henry Allen (1860-1908), who was a compositor in the printing trade. He left her no money an his untimely death at the age of 48.
At the 1911 census a few weeks after their marriage William and Mary, together with her 2 sons, were living at 13 Orrysdale Road, West Kirby, just round the corner from Mary’s home at 1 Hilton Grove before her remarriage. William described himself as a coffee roaster for Italian grocers & warehousemen. Both of his stepsons were shop assistants.
Deeside Advertiser 25 August 1916
This newspaper report, a small item in the West Kirby News and the entry in the Book of Remembrance was all the further information we had to go on until his name was found on the Liverpool Orphanage War Memorial list from here. The West Kirby News informs us that the family had moved to 18 South Road, West Kirby.
Book of Remembrance entry
This in fact enables us to know rather more about him. The 20th Battalion, Lancashire Fusiliers was a ‘Bantam Battalion’, formed on 23 March 1915, and also known as the ‘Salford Pals’. We know for certain that William was a very small man, as Bantams had to be less than 5ft 3 in tall, the minimum height that the army had accepted up to then. The new minimum height became 5 ft. Bantam Battalions were the idea of Alfred Bigland MP in November 1914, the first being recruited in Birkenhead. Mainly they were men such as miners, who could demonstrate that they were very fit. Possibly William tried enlisting closer to home before being accepted by the Salford Pals.
When he joined the army in June 1915, William was 33 years old. After training at Conway in North Wales and then Cholderton near Salisbury, Wiltshire, on 27 August 1915 the battalion was attached to the 104th Brigade, 35th Division. This was a Brigade composed entirely of Bantam Battalions.
On 30 January 1916 the battalion was mobilised for war and landed at Le Havre, France. They proceeded towards the front, but were not engaged in any major actions until July 1916. On 18 July they were holding Dublin Redoubt at Maricourt. Over the next few days they moved in and out of the trenches as the Battle of the Somme continued its inexorable course, but were never involved in any attacks, usually taking over part of a line to relieve those who had captured it or been subject to heavy bombardment.
On 24 July they were sent to prolong the line along the eastern edge of Trones Wood, linking up with the left end of the 23rd Battalion, Manchester Regiment. This movement took place in daylight, with the loss of only 3 men. However the Germans thought it was a precursor to a major attack, and shelled all along that part of the Somme front from 9.30 pm. At least 13 more men from the battalion died during this bombardment and, no doubt, many more were wounded.
The following day the battalion withdrew to the Bernafay Wood trenches.
On the 26 July the British heavy artillery inadvertently shelled these trenches. William Webster was one of 12 men of the battalion killed by this ‘friendly fire’. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial, together with 7 ‘Pals’ whose bodies have never been recovered. William was 36 years old.
Thiepval Memorial, Somme, France
William is also commemorated on the Liverpool Orphanage War Memorial, but no photograph of this has been located. He is further commemorated on Grange Hill War Memorial and the Honour Rolls at St Andrew and St Bridget churches, all in West Kirby
Birth: 22 Sep 1891 at 77 Priory Grove, Everton, Liverpool
Death: 26 Jul 1916 at the Battle of the Somme, France; killed in action
Addresses: 60 Friar Street, Everton (91), 13 Tynemouth Street, Everton (01), 27 St George’s Hill, Everton, Liverpool (11); 3 Orrysdale Road, West Kirby (11); 18 South Road, West Kirby (16)
Occupation: coffee roaster, Mann & Crosthwaite, Bold Street, Liverpool
Unit: 20th (Salford Pals) Battalion, Lancashire Fusiliers
Number and Rank: 21530 Private
Medals: Victory and British War
Commemorated: Thiepval Memorial, Somme, France; Liverpool Orphanage War Memorial; Grange Hill War Memorial, West Kirby; St Andrew & St Bridget churches, West Kirby
Sources: CWGC, MC, Census: 91, 01, 11, BR, WK, DA, WKN, 104th Brigade diary, Liverpool Archives (ref 362/SAL)