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.


  • 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)

1864. The Counterfeit Count

In the summer of 1864 a new figure appears on the Tunbridge Wells scene and attracts a great deal of attention. He is around 30 years old, tall, slim and well dressed, with a dark complexion, dark hair and grey eyes.

Pantiles 1864 Illustrated London News

The Pantiles in 1864 (Illustrated London News)

The exotic newcomer would walk along the Parade (Pantiles), absorbed by melancholy thoughts. Frequently he would pay the band to play the Polish national anthem. When approached he introduced himself as Count Sobieski, son of the King of Poland. He claimed to have been exiled on account of his criticisms of the Russian government. He also said that he had fought a duel at Heidelberg, escaped to Paris and then travelled by ship to Bristol.  His agent was sending him regular sums from his estates in Poland, but he could not return home. Many felt pity for him in such a sad situation, which obviously weighed on him heavily.

Sobieski 1870s

Sobieski/Ostreg in the 1870s

The count was very engaging and was quickly welcomed into fashionable society. It was rumoured he ‘enchanted more than one young lady’s heart’. The ladies showered him with presents and local tradesmen and hotel keepers were happy to extend him credit.

However, after a few months the count suddenly disappeared from town. Soon news reached Tunbridge Wells that he was not what he had seemed. He was Russian not Polish, his real name was Michael Ostreg and he was certainly not a count. In December 1864 he appeared in court in Exeter accused of larceny and was sentenced to eight months hard labour.

Ostreg seems to have been a habitual, but very inept criminal. Over the following years the newspapers reported that he was arrested and charged with theft or fraud in various places across the country, including Maidstone, Chatham, Woolwich, Burton-on-Trent and Eton. He served several prison sentences and was committed to a lunatic asylum on two occasions.

Perhaps the counterfeit count did not stay in Tunbridge Wells long enough for his crimes here to be uncovered. However, his deceptions may have been a warning to some residents about the danger of judging people on the basis of appearances alone.


  • Ostreg used a range of other aliases, as well as Sobieski, including Max Gosslar, Monsieur Orlof, Bertrand Ashley and Ashley Nabokov.
  • In 1894 Ostreg was listed as a suspect in the Jack the Ripper case. Recent research has shown that it is highly unlikely he was the Ripper; there is no evidence that he committed any crime other than fraud or theft, he did not match the physical descriptions given of the Ripper and there is evidence that he was in prison in France when the murders were committed.

1851. The Crooked Clerk

The people of Tunbridge Wells put a great deal of trust in Benjamin Lewis. Not only was he Clerk to the Commissioners, he also acted as secretary and collector for the gas and water companies, as vestry clerk for the Parish of Speldhurst and as collector for numerous other organisations. In total he held around 14 different appointments. Then on 13th June 1851 50-year-old Benjamin left town and it became apparent that this trust had been misplaced.

Bedford Terrace, where Benjamin and his family lived

In the first part of the nineteenth century retired army and navy officers and East India Company officials began making Tunbridge Wells their permanent home. (Previously the town had a large number of summer visitors, but only a small resident population). A building boom took place to create homes for these new occupants, and for the servants, shopkeepers and other workers who moved here too. This in turn placed demand on the town’s infrastructure, which now required more effective management. In 1835 a new Board of Commissioners took responsibility for matters such as lighting, water, cleaning and law and order. Around seven years later Benjamin Lewis was appointed as their Clerk. The job involved many administrative duties – for example when new regulations were drawn up for the local Fire Service in 1845, it was he that signed them. But his main role was the collection of local taxes and other payments. He proved very good at this and over time he was appointed as collector for more and more local bodies.

When, at some point, Benjamin began to siphon off a large proportion of the money he was collecting, he did it with such confidence that most people suspected nothing. However, members of the Speldhurst Vestry realised that something was wrong and at a meeting on 11th June one of them made allegations of dishonesty against him. These were withdrawn when he agreed to give up the Vestry books, retire from office and never seek employment at any other parish. However, the event seems to have made him fearful that other misdemeanours would be uncovered (one of the vestry members was also a proprietor of the gas company) and so two days later he fled.

ILN on Benjamin Lewis

Even the Illustrated London News reported that the Tunbridge Wells Town Clerk had absconded, although they got the name wrong and called him Sears

It was quickly established that Benjamin had left Tunbridge Wells by the 5 o’clock train. An employee of the Gas Company encountered him the following morning on a train from London Bridge and reported that he got off at Godstone in Surrey. After that the trail went cold and there was no further clue to his whereabouts, although he was rumoured to have sailed to America. The story of his disappearance was reported in newspapers across the country and a reward was offered for his apprehension.

When the Speldhurst Vestry’s books were examined it was found that £500 was missing. The gas and water companies reported that they had each lost a similar amount and shortfalls were found across all the organisations Benjamin had worked for. It was reported in the press that he had embezzled as much as £4,000 in total (around £400,000 in today’s money).

Word spread rapidly round the town as the extent of the thefts became apparent and there was general amazement that such a well-respected man had turned out to be a thief. Given that his annual income had been as much as £400, people wondered why he had taken this course.

In early July the Commissioners, rather surprisingly, appointed Benjamin’s son William as temporary clerk in his place, the Chair having testified to his good character. Arrangements were made for the appointment of a permanent new clerk, with the Commissioners clear that, whoever was appointed, they would not be paid the same generous salary as Benjamin. William applied for the position, but was unsuccessful, receiving 25 votes compared to 45 cast for bookseller John Elliott, who was duly appointed.

You might assume that Benjamin would not think of showing his face in town again. However, the following February the West Kent Guardian reported that one of his sons had written to the Tunbridge Wells gas company on his behalf, asking their permission to return from ‘a foreign clime’ and offering to cash in a life insurance policy so that he could, on some future occasion, ‘make a grateful return for their leniency’. Unsurprisingly this offer was refused and the message was sent back that, while they would not pursue him, if he did return to Tunbridge Wells the law would be allowed to take its course. There is no evidence that he ever ran the risk of that happening.

1871 Census entry for Benjamin Lewis

By the time of the 1871 census Benjamin was back in England.  Now 70 years old, he was described as a Gentleman and recorded as living in Lambeth, at the home of son William. His wife Sarah and two of his other children were at the same address, so it seems that his family at least had forgiven him.


The 1835 Tunbridge Wells Improvement Act entrusted the town’s running to a Board of Commissioners, who were responsible for ‘lighting, watching, cleansing, regulating and otherwise improving the town of Tunbridge Wells in Kent and Sussex, and for regulating the supply of water and establishing a market within the said town’. All men who owned or rented a property worth more than £50 a year were entitled to sit on the board and members were a mixture of gentry, professionals and tradesmen.