Select Page

A Tragic Story

I have five Joshua Websters in my tree and a couple more waiting in the wings for some kind of proof or otherwise. The name is quite common in Yorkshire, but in East London in the 19th century my ones were pretty much the only ones.

To make it even easier the earliest Joshua which I have so far (born 1771) and his son (born 1803), were hairdressers and perfumers.

They dutifully had all their children baptised at churches, kindly transcribed by the Church of the Latter Day Saints (LDS), and insured their business premises with the Sun Insurance Company, which gave me all sorts of information prior to the first census in 1841.

The eldest was even a witness at an Old Bailey trial, which also gave me an address.

I found them both on the 1841 and 1851 census returns, and when they died I found their certificates quite easily. Sadly, the younger of the two committed suicide by hanging, shortly after the death of his wife.

The next in this line was another Joshua born in 1826, however he was not so obliging!

He became a sawyer and married Ann Benzing in Bethnal Green, London, in 1845. I found the family fairly easily up to and including the 1861 census, however after this they could not be traced. I could find no death entries for Joshua and there were too many entries for an Ann Webster to hazard a guess whether it was in fact her. I even considered trawling through every page of the 1871 census for Bethnal Green, in an attempt to find this family. I even asked for help on Family Tree Forum’s Research Board, but for once, this was one mystery they could not solve

Starting to feel despondant, my hopes were raised when the archives of some British newspapers become available online earlier this year.

I duly typed ‘Joshua Webster’ into the search box and was astounded to discover a vivid description of his death under the headline “Extraordinary Suicide in Hoxton”.

The article, from Reynold’s Newspaper dated 9th July 1865, was reporting the coroner’s inquest into the death of a 39 year old sawyer, Joshua Webster, which had been held at the Green Man Tavern in Hoxton.

Evidently, after the recent death of his wife he had become melancholy and had taken to drinking to excess. Sadly, he also mistreated his children and neglected them, so that they had “left him the week before” , although the article does not say where they went.

On the day in question, Joshua climbed upon a water butt and lowered himself head first through a small hole in the lid which was usually nailed down. His next door neighbours noticed his feet above the top of the butt and with some difficulty got him out. A doctor was then called, who pronounced him dead.

At the inquest the doctor stated that,  “It was next to an impossibility for the deceased to have got into the butt by accident, he must have used great ingenuity to accomplish the feat”. The jury recorded a verdict of suicide while of unsound mind.”

After reading this, you can imagine my excitement! Not only did I have a good idea of the date of Joshua’s death, I also knew that his wife had died around the same time. However, on checking the death indexes on the FreeBMD website, I could still not find a record of his death, although there was a John Webster listed as having died in Shoreditch (the registration district for Hoxton) in September quarter 1865. Also listed in the same district was an Ann Webster, whose death had been registered in December quarter 1864.

I ordered both certificates through the GRO website and specified that Ann should be the wife of Joshua and that John’s cause of death should be suicide, to ensure that I had the correct ones.

Both death certificates were received and on Ann’s she was described as ‘wife of Joshua Webster, Timber Sawyer of 16 Rose St’. The certificate of John Webster had the place of death rather bizarrely recorded as ‘water butt at 15 Rose St’, with the cause of death being ‘drowning whilst of unsound mind through drink’.

So it does appear that the registrar was so bemused by this cause of death, that he wrote the wrong name on the certificate and this was the reason that I had not been able to find his death previously.

However after the excitement of my discovery, came the dreadful sadness of this tragic story. Joshua and his father were obviously men of deep feelings, both committing suicide rather than continue with what were probably very hard lives without their wives. Yet Joshua also took to drink and from the inference in the newspaper report, also beat his children, some of whom were only a few years old.

My great grandfather was his youngest son and I still have to find out where he went immediately after this tragedy. My mother, now aged 88, lived with her grandfather until his death in 1942 and she never heard him talk of his parents, perhaps this was the reason why.

Sue from Southend

© Sue from Southend 2008


Reynold’s Newspaper dated 9th July 1865

Old Bailey Online – The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674-1913 – Central Criminal Court

Sun Fire records at the Guildhall Library