As we have seen in Chapter 4, Joseph, eldest son of Edward and Mary, did not stay in Redditch, but moved to Birmingham in the 1820s where he worked as a bridle cutter. His son Edward Daniel was brought up in Birmingham, but then moved away to train as a Methodist missionary - how did that come about? We are very fortunate to have a document in Edward's own hand. In 1892, seven years before his death, he wrote down what he knew of the family history, claiming to be the oldest surviving member of the Webb family, and stating that he had a conversion experience at the Wesleyan Chapel in Reditch one Whitsuntide when he was aged 19. This shows that the two branches of the family (Birmingham and Redditch) were in close touch. His uncle Charles and family worshipped at the Weslyan Chapel in Redditch, and had most of their children christened there. Was Edward visiting at the time of his conversion, or was he working in Redditch himself? Certainly he makes particular mention of Harriet, one of Charles' daughters, which shows a close tie with that family. Harriet was born the year after his conversion, so perhaps he was staying with them, and knew her as a baby. He certainly received little religious encouragement from home - his obituary states that "he had few religious advantages in early life". His note on family history and subsequent correspondence show that he was well-educated and eloquent, indeed commentators on his career as a missionary noted that his sermons were carefully prepared and delivered with much animation.
We might wonder how the son of a Birmingham artisan (albeit a craftsman) gained sufficient education to be able to undertake a 3-year course at Richmond College, as this was way before the 1871 Education Act. (Ref 1) gives details of education in Victorian Birmingham. It would be fascinating to know where Edward was educated, but he certainly showed in his ministry that he had an excellent grasp of religious matters, politics, finance and commerce in addition to having a fine command of the English language (though he did not have the gift of assimilating foreign languages, which would have been useful to him).
While at Richmond College he met his future wife, Elizabeth Dewdney, and in 1854 the newly-qualified probationer, aged 26, left his fiancée in England and started his adventurous life as a missionary - he would not return to England for 14 years.
The Bay Islands group consists
of three large islands and many small islets 30 miles off the
coast of Honduras. The island of Roatan (various
spellings) is 40 miles long and has a mountainous central area
- it is surrounded by coral reefs. Utila is smaller, flatter
and closer to the mainland, while Guanaja is smaller again. The
whole area is a tropical paradise and has been very much
developed in the twentieth century for the tourist industry because
of the favourable climate and its famous coral reefs, but what
is its history? (Ref
By June of the following year (1855)
he reports that, apart from painful and troublesome boils, he
is in good health, and that on the island of Ruatan there are
two chapels; the larger will accommodate 500 and the smaller
back in Belize in the summer of 1856, but the packet boat
to England is delayed while he writes his report of the disastrous
fire which had threatened to destroy the whole town the previous
night. As each letter took a month to be delivered to his sponsors,
their response was always received too late after the event to
be of any real help.
The affair seems to die down for
a while, and in the Spring of 1857 Edward turns to more
personal issues. Without wishing to trouble his sponsors he nevertheless
feels it is time to remind them of their agreement : "to send out to me the lady to whom, as
you are aware, I am engaged. You
are aware that, if spared, I shall have completed my probation
at the next Conference.
He requests that Miss Dewdney of
Esher, Surrey be sent out on the September packet boat, perhaps
in the company of another lady who is engaged to a fellow preacher.
All seemed well for the next two years, and Edward and his wife settled into life on Ruatan, with frequent journeys back to base at Belize. However the concerns about the treaty with Spain resurfaced, as shown by the following letter (dated April 1860) , and there is an ominous post script : (Ref 5)
In July 1860 Mr Fletcher at the Mission in Belize wrote to the Wesleyan Society in London with the tragic news : (Ref 6)
After some time a colleague, George Sykes, sent a report to the sponsors, recalling what he had witnessed. Edward had had to break the news to his wife that she would not recover, but she calmly replied that she already knew, and that she hadn't wanted to distress him by talking about it. Edward served communion to his wife and the attending nursing staff, and asked her if she regretted leaving home and coming out to Belize. Although very weak she replied emphatically "No! Never!"
We can only imagine how Edward
felt in the months following the death of his wife and his fellow
workers. He suffered several bouts of fever himself, but gradually
recovered, and reported that as his own and his wife's family
were anxious for him to return home to England, he would do so
as soon as his replacement could be established in the post.
However, by May 1861 Edward is feeling better than he
has done for many months. Two new teachers, Mr Clark and Miss
Smith, have arrived and seem to have settled well. A few
weeks later he writes a letter to his sponsors with surprising
news: "There now exists no necessity for my intended
visit to England. Since I have been in Belize my health has been
After the fires he wanted to stay on to supervise the rebuilding work, but this dragged on through 1863 and 1864. Edward had difficulty in obtaining grants and government permission to proceed, and seems to have had trouble sourcing bricks and other building materials. The long delays in communication with England must have made the task seem hopeless at times, but eventually progress was made and in July 1865 he could report that: "It will be a most attractive and convenient place of worship, The house of God is rising from the ashes".
Intriguingly, while all this was
going on, the Society was being bombarded with letters of complaint
from the teacher who had travelled out with Miss Smith. Mr
Clark wrote very long letters in which he expressed his anger
and resentment of nearly everyone at the mission, but especially
Edward Webb. Whether he had had hopes of marrying Miss Smith
himself we do not know, but there is a hint of jealousy in his
version of events when he writes to Rev Hools:
In May 1868, after 14 years abroad,
Edward, his wife and daughter returned to England. His father
Joseph died in the September of that year, and it is good to
think that they were reunited in Birmingham after such a long
separation. Edward became a supernumerary pastor, serving wherever
there was need on the Methodist Circuit, and he spent the next
30 years in various parts of the country, where he was welcomed
as a fine preacher and a caring minister.
In July 1892, while Superintendent of the Marlborough Circuit, he thought to write down what he knew of the family history, proudly claiming to be the oldest surviving member of the Webb family, a document which has proved invaluable in tracing the family tree.