1864. The Argumentative Surgeon

Riots have not exactly been a common occurrence in the history of Tunbridge Wells, but in 1864 surgeon William Webber provoked a storm amongst local residents.

In the summer of 1864 William wrote to the Home Office accusing the Town Commissioners of neglecting their duty – they had allowed an old drain near his home to be opened up and left exposed. As a result, he claimed, he and some of his patients had contracted fevers. The Board of Health promptly dispatched an inspector to check out William’s allegations, who reported that there was no cause for concern. However in the mean-time rumours had spread, including the alarming suggestion that the town’s poor drainage was causing typhus and scarlet fever. Many visitors upped and left.

William’s home. In 1864 it was 1 Sion Terrace, today it is 7 Mount Sion.

Local traders and lodging-house keepers, dependant on summer visitors for business, were furious with William for meddling. At around 9 o’clock on the evening of Saturday July 2nd a crowd of a thousand or more people gathered outside his home at the foot of Mount Sion and in the surrounding streets. There were catcalls, insults were yelled and fireworks were let off. A straw effigy of William, in the form of a pig, was burnt and stones, potatoes and other missiles thrown at his house, breaking many of the windows. The police could do little to halt the rioting, although they did make four arrests. It was only when heavy rain came on that the crowd dispersed.

The rioters who had been arrested – a fly-proprietor, a billiard marker, a labourer and a butcher’s son – came up before the Tunbridge Wells magistrates a few days later, in a packed court. After the police had given evidence, solicitor Mr Cripps appeared on their behalf. His clients just happened to be on the spot, he claimed, along with many other persons holding a high position in the town. (It is quite possible that one or more of the magistrates had also been present). William did not appear in court and no evidence was presented. Nevertheless the men were committed for trial by a jury at the Maidstone Assize. When they were tried at the end of July, the judge described the disturbance as a scandalous affair, but released all four, requiring only that they pay £5 each towards the cost of the broken windows. (This added up to less than half the £45 William claimed repairs would cost).

Cartoon thought to be of William Webber in a donkey cart

Meanwhile William had brought a private prosecution against a number of others who had been present at the riot. including two butchers, a watchmaker, a chemist and a grocer. In a volley of words he accused them of ‘unlawfully, riotously, wantonly and tumultuously’ making a ‘great noise, riot, tumult and disturbance’. However, once again he did not appear in court to give evidence, claiming in a letter that he felt intimidated. The Chairman of the Tunbridge Wells magistrates dismissed the case, to thunderous applause from those in the packed courtroom and hundreds more waiting outside. After enjoying a celebratory dinner at the Camden Hotel (whose landlord had been one of the accused) the defendants drove through the town, waving their court summonses in the air like flags. The Town Band lead the way and, as the procession reached Mount Sion, they struck up an Irish jig called ‘The Rogue’s March’.

William still would not let it lie. In June 1865 he appeared in the Court of Exchequer in London, as plaintiff in a case against publisher Henry Colbran, who had printed and distributed several thousand leaflets around the time of the riot, containing verses written by local cobbler and poet Reuben Gibbs.  These mocked William, in one case likening him to a wild boar:

William Webber snippet

In this instance the jury decided in William’s favour, awarding him £50 in damages.

Then in March 1866 William launched a civil prosecution for trespass and damage during the 1864 riot against a further 8 defendants. This time the case was tried in Maidstone. William subpoenaed 50 witnesses but, before their evidence could be heard, the case was decided, with two of the defendants ordered to pay him damages of £25.

He was less successful in his dispute with Charles Trustram, another surgeon living in Tunbridge Wells, whom he accused of making improper use of his position on the Town Board. Trustram responded by suing William for libel. This case was decided in Trustram’s favour and William was ordered to pay damages of £25, plus £168 in costs. Unable, or unwilling, to pay Trustram the money he owed him William spent five months in a debtors’ prison in the second half of 1866. He applied repeatedly to the court to be released, complaining of unfair treatment and claiming that imprisonment was endangering his health and might end his life. He was finally released in December 1866.

By now William no longer lived Tunbridge Wells. Soon after the 1864 riot he had fired off a letter to the town’s residents, which was published in several local newspapers, informing them that he was acquiescing with the wishes of the ‘mob-dictators’ and moving away. He said he had been astonished to see people he had treated amongst his assailants and concluded:

My parting words to the town – which I shall leave with one regret, namely that I ever entered it – will be Peace to it and may it cease to look for a crop of prosperity from seeds sown in the hotbed, tyranny and wrong’.

It is not clear exactly when William left Tunbridge Wells, but when he did, it does not seem that there many in the town who regretted it.

Notes

  • William Webber’s home is now 7 Mount Sion.
  • There is a full account of ‘the Webber riots’ in Roger Farthing’s ‘History of Mount Sion’ (2008)

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