Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Webster, Benjamin Nottingham
WEBSTER, BENJAMIN NOTTINGHAM (1797–1882), actor and dramatist, was born in Bath on 3 Sept. 1797. His father, who came from Sheffield, and through whom Webster claimed descent from Sir George Buc or Buck [q. v.], was at one time a musical ‘composer’ and a pantomimist; he married Elizabeth Moon of Leeds, joined the army, served in the West Indies, was engaged in Bath in organising volunteer forces, and settled there as a dancing and fencing master. A brother Frederick (d. 1878) became stage manager of the Haymarket theatre.
After receiving some education at Dr. Barber's military academy, ‘Ben’ Webster threw up the chances of a promised commission as midshipman from the Duchess of York. Upon his mother's death he made his first appearance on the stage as a dancer, assisted his father in his occupations, ran away from home, and obtained from the younger Watson of Warwick an engagement at twenty-five shillings a week to play Harlequin, small speaking parts, and second violin in the orchestra. As Thessalus in ‘Alexander the Great’ he made on 3 Sept. 1818 his first appearance at Warwick, playing also at Lichfield and Walsall races. Joining in a sharing scheme a manager called ‘Irish’ Wilson, who fitted up a barn at Bromsgrove, Webster (announced, with no apparent claim, as from the Theatre Royal, Dublin) doubled the parts of Sir Charles Cropland and Stephen Harrowby in the ‘Poor Gentleman,’ danced a hornpipe, and played in his own dress, and with a head chalked to look like grey hair, Plainway in ‘Raising the Wind.’ He then went as Harlequin to the Theatre Royal, Belfast, under Montague Talbot [q. v.], acted in Londonderry and Limerick, and joined the Dublin company to play with it in Cork as Harlequin.
After appearing in Manchester and Liverpool he came to London, and played on 11 May 1819 a smuggler in the opening entertainment of the Coburg Theatre. According to a speech he made at a complimentary dinner given to him at the Freemasons' Tavern on 24 Feb. 1864, he had at this time married a widow with a family of children. Webster became ballet-master and walking gentleman at Richmond, then leader of the band at Croydon, which led to his engagement as dancer and walking gentleman under Beverley at the Regency Theatre in Tottenham Street, called many names before it became the Prince of Wales's. At the English Opera House (the Lyceum), where he played a part in ‘Captain Cook,’ he was Raymond in ‘Raymond and Agnes’ and Seyward in the ‘Hypocrite.’ Accepting from Elliston an engagement at Drury Lane, he appeared on 28 Nov. 1820 as Almagro in ‘Pizarro,’ and at Christmas played Pantaloon. At the end of the season of 1821–2 he joined Bunn's company at Birmingham, where he was seen in low-comedy parts, then acted at Sheffield, Newcastle, and Chester. Returning to Birmingham, he was re-engaged by Elliston for the Drury Lane season of 1823, an action which Elliston had brought against him for previous loss of service having been compromised. On a revival of ‘Measure for Measure’ on 1 May 1824, Harley, who played Pompey, being taken ill, Webster took the part. In this year he was the first Tuditanus in Knowles's ‘Caius Gracchus,’ and in 1825 the first Erni in the ‘William Tell’ of the same author. In spite of obtaining some recognition, he was kept back. Remonstrating with Elliston, he was given on the third night of performance the part of Sadak, originally played on 27 March 1826 by Fitzwilliam in an anonymous adaptation of ‘Oberon,’ and played a few other parts refused by Harley. On 4 Jan. 1827 he was the original Malise in the ‘Lady of the Lake;’ on 16 April the original Domingo, a negro, in Macfarren's ‘Gil Blas and the Robbers of Asturias;’ on 29 Nov. the original Spalatro in ‘Isidore di Merida, or the Devil's Creek;’ on 1 Dec. the original Peter in Howard Payne's ‘Lancers;’ on 18 Feb. 1828 the first Cyrus in ‘Don Juan's Early Days,’ and on 7 April the first Sturmwald in Thompson's ‘Dumb Savoyard and his Monkey.’ He was also seen as Sharpset in the ‘Slave’ and in other slightly better parts.
On 15 June 1829, as Webster from Drury Lane, he made at the Haymarket his first appearance, playing Trusty, an original part, in Poole's ‘Lodgings for Single Gentlemen.’ Here he was assigned leading comic business: Dr. Pangloss in the ‘Heir at Law,’ Risk in ‘Love Laughs at Locksmiths,’ Spatterdash in the ‘Young Quaker,’ Mungo in the ‘Padlock,’ Farmer Ashfield in ‘Speed the Plough,’ Lingo in the ‘Agreeable Surprise,’ Ramilie in the ‘Miser,’ Dougal in ‘Rob Roy,’ Trappanti in ‘She would and she would not,’ Wormwood in the ‘Lottery Ticket,’ and Sir Philip Modelove in ‘A Bold Stroke for a Wife.’ Back at Drury Lane, he was the original Kastro in the ‘Greek Family’ on 22 Oct. 1829, and the original John Thomas in Buckstone's ‘Snakes in the Grass;’ played other unimportant original parts, was seen as Justice Greedy in ‘A New Way to pay Old Debts,’ and Old Gobbo in the ‘Merchant of Venice;’ was the first Sam in Haynes Bayly's ‘Perfection’ on 25 March 1830 and on 1 May the original Herr Stetten in ‘Hofer, the Tell of the Tyrol.’ He was seen in some other parts, and for his benefit (shared with Paul Bedford and Mrs. W. Barrymore) was Jock Robinson in the ‘Cataract of the Ganges.’ The Haymarket in 1830 saw him as Roderigo, Launcelot Gobbo, Oswald in ‘King Lear,’ Robin Roughhead in ‘Fortune's Frolic,’ Jessamy in ‘Bon Ton,’ L'Eclair in the ‘Foundling of the Forest,’ Jocoso in ‘Clari,’ Sir Harry's servant in ‘High Life below Stairs,’ Buskin in ‘Killing no Murder,’ Dandie Dinmont, Marquis in the ‘Cabinet,’ Trudge in ‘Inkle and Yarico,’ and in a few original parts—Popponoff in ‘Separation and Reparation’ on 1 July, Barney O'Cag in ‘Honest Frauds’ on 28 July, and Roughhead in Caroline Boaden's ‘First of April’ on 31 Aug. The ‘Dramatic Magazine’ (1829–30) speaks of him at this time as an eminently useful actor, and asks what the Haymarket would do without him. In 1832 he was with Madame Vestris at the Olympic, where he played in Dance's ‘Kill or Cure,’ and in an adaptation by himself of ‘L'Homme de soixante Ans,’ in which he took the part created by Gabriel Charles Potier. At the Haymarket he was on 17 July 1833 the original Father Olive in Jerrold's ‘Housekeeper;’ played the following October in Buckstone's farce ‘Uncle John,’ then first produced; and was on 2 Jan. 1834 at Drury Lane the original Creamly in Jerrold's ‘Wedding Gown.’ At the same house he played Bardolph in a revival of the second part of ‘King Henry IV;’ in 1834 had an original part in Jerrold's ‘Beau Nash;’ and was the original Samuel Coddle in Buckstone's ‘Married Life.’ On 21 April 1835 he was at Covent Garden the first Sharkshead in Fitzball's ‘Carlmilhan.’ Again at the Haymarket he was the original Serjeant Austerlitz in Mrs. C. Gore's ‘Maid of Croissey.’ Among very many original parts which he played at the Haymarket, of which house he became lessee in 1837, were Frederick II in Tyrone Power's ‘St. Patrick's Eve,’ Mr. Docker in Buckstone's ‘Weak Points,’ Major Hans Mansfeldt in Lover's ‘White Horse of the Peppers,’ Gibolette in Buckstone's ‘Lesson for Ladies,’ Wallop in Thomas Haynes Bayly's ‘Mr. Greenfinch,’ John Niggle in Buckstone's ‘Single Life,’ Wildrake in Knowles's ‘Love Chase,’ and Joseph in Knowles's ‘Maid of Mariendorpt,’ Lionel Varley in Bayle Bernard's ‘Boarding School,’ Baron Ravenspurg in Bernard's ‘Woman Hater,’ Graves in Bulwer's ‘Money,’ Harry Lawless in Boucicault's ‘Love by Proxy,’ Pliant in Boucicault's ‘Alma Mater,’ Bob Lincoln in Mark Lemon's ‘Grandfather Whitehead,’ William Shakespeare Dibbs in Boucicault's ‘Curiosities of Literature,’ Nonpareil in Peake's ‘Sheriff of the County,’ Cymon Foxhall in R. Sulivan's ‘Beggar on Horseback,’ Nathan Thompson in Westland Marston's ‘Borough Politics,’ Napoleon in the ‘Pretty Girls of Stilberg,’ and Mark Meddle in ‘London Assurance.’
Webster's own farce, ‘My Young Wife and Old Umbrella’ (‘Ma Femme et mon Parapluie,’ by Laurencin), was given at the Haymarket on 23 June 1837, with Webster as Augustus Tomkins; his ‘Swiss Swain,’ in which he played Swig, on 6 Oct. 1837; the ‘Village Doctor,’ with himself as Baron de la Fadaise, on 24 July 1839. He was Hobbs in his own ‘Hobbs, Dobbs, and Stubbs, or the Three Grocers,’ 31 March 1840; the Marquis d'Arblay in his ‘Caught in his own Trap,’ 25 Nov. 1843; and Ally Croaker in his ‘Miseries of Human Life,’ 27 Nov. 1845. He also translated for the Haymarket in 1846 ‘Le Part du Diable’ (the ‘Black Domino’), 10 June 1846, but did not appear in it. He played Verges, Moses, Bob Acres, Sir Hugh Evans, Scrub, Trappanti, Tony Lumpkin, Don Vincentio in ‘A Bold Stroke for a Husband,’ and First Witch in ‘Macbeth.’ At Covent Garden in the meantime he had been seen as Sparrow in Dance's ‘Country Squire,’ Tassel in Fitzball's ‘Walter Tyrrel,’ and Marquis de Montespan in Bulwer's ‘Duchesse de la Vallière.’ His first appearance at the Adelphi was made in a piece called ‘Yellow Kids.’
After 1844 he divided his time between the Adelphi, of which he became manager, and the Haymarket. Among the pieces he had produced at the Haymarket were Bulwer's ‘Sea Captain,’ Talfourd's ‘Glencoe,’ and the ‘Bridal,’ an adaptation of the ‘Maid's Tragedy.’ To the Adelphi, in conjunction with Dion ‘Bourçicault’ (sic), he gave ‘Fox and Goose,’ 2 Oct. 1844, in which he did not play; and ‘Cæsar de Bazan,’ 14 Oct. 1844, in which he was Don Cæsar. He had previously, June 1843, played at the Haymarket for the first time with his constant associate, Madame Celeste [q. v.], in an adaptation entitled ‘Louison,’ and on 1 Nov. was Victor to her Hortense in a vaudeville called ‘Victor and Hortense.’ This year (1843) he offered a prize of 500l. for the best English comedy. This was awarded by the judges (including Charles Young, Charles Kemble, G. P. R. James, and Alexander Dyce) to ‘Quid pro Quo, or the Day of Dupes,’ by Mrs. Gore, which was produced at the Haymarket on 18 June 1844, and was received with uproar and ridicule. ‘Old Heads and Young Hearts,’ by Boucicault, was given on 16 Nov. 1844, with Webster as Tom Coke, a good-hearted country gentleman, a part in which he showed much pathos. Webster next produced Jerrold's ‘Time works Wonders,’ in which, after the death of Strickland, the original exponent, he played Professor Truffles. On the secession of Charles Mathews, Webster played Sir Charles Coldstream in ‘Used Up.’ On 6 Jan. 1846 he made a great hit as John Peerybingle in his own adaptation of the ‘Cricket on the Hearth.’ Still at the Haymarket, he was Clown in ‘Twelfth Night;’ played the Laird of Killiecrankie, a duellist, in ‘Queen Mary's Bower,’ Planché's adaptation of ‘Les Mousquetaires de la Reine;’ Jack Spriggs in Lovell's ‘Look before You Leap;’ and Reuben Gwynne in the ‘Round of Wrong.’ In 1847 he was the first Job Sykes, M.P., in Boucicault's ‘School for Scheming,’ and Hope Emerson in Robert Bell's ‘Temper.’ On 15 Nov. he played Stanislas de Fonblanche in his own ‘Roused Lion’ (‘Le Réveil du Lion’). In performances at Covent Garden for the purchase of Shakespeare's house, he was Petruchio. He played Jabez Sneed in a revival of the ‘Wife's Secret;’ was, 6 April 1848, Michael Bradshaw in Morton's ‘Old Honesty,’ and Lavater in ‘Lavater the Physiognomist.’ In his address at the close of the season of 1848 he declared that in eighteen months at the Haymarket he had lost 8,000l. During the next two years he was the first Giles Fairland in the ‘Queensberry Fête,’ played Malvolio, Modus, Gratiano, Bullfrog in Jerrold's ‘Rent Day,’ and produced his own ‘Bird of Passage,’ a rendering of Bayard's ‘Oiseau de Passage.’ In Morris Barnett's ‘Serious Family’ (‘Le Mari à la Campagne’) he was the original Charles Torrens, was the first Coolcard in Jerrold's ‘Catspaw,’ and Captain Gunn in Jerrold's ‘Retired from Business.’ In a version of ‘Tartuffe’ by Oxenford he played Tartuffe, and gave at the Adelphi his own ‘Belphegor’ (‘Paillasse’) January 1851. In April 1852 was the first Verdun in Mark Lemon's ‘Mind your own Business.’ On 20 Nov. he was seen for the first time in what was perhaps his greatest part, Triplet in ‘Masks and Faces,’ by Taylor and Reade; and in a revival of Bulwer's ‘Not so bad as we seem,’ was Sir Geoffrey Thornside. On 14 March 1853, with a performance of the ‘Roused Lion,’ ‘A Novel Expedient,’ and the ‘Pretty Girls of Stilberg,’ his management of the Haymarket closed. He had kept the house open sixteen years, paid 60,000l. for rent, 30,000l. to actors, and had employed the best actors of his time, the Keans, the Mathewses, the Keeleys, Mrs. Warren, Mrs. Glover, Mrs. Nisbett, Charlotte Cushman, Helen Faucit, and many others. A presentation was made him by the company.
On Easter Monday 1853 he began a new management of the Adelphi with Lemon's farce, ‘Mr. Webster at Home.’ He gave on 8 June Boucicault's ‘Geneviève,’ in which he played Lorin; produced on 10 Oct. his own ‘Discarded Son,’ and was Falstaff in a revival of the ‘Merry Wives of Windsor.’ On 20 March 1854 he was the first Father Radcliffe in Taylor and Reade's ‘Two Loves and a Life;’ played two parts, Diogenes and Ferdinand Volage, in the ‘Marble Heart,’ Selby's adaptation of ‘Les Filles de Marbre,’ 31 May; was Richard Pride in Boucicault's ‘Janet Pride,’ 5 Feb. 1855; and on 20 June first Lorentz Hartmann in Taylor's ‘Helping Hand.’ On 5 Feb. 1856 he was Cobbs in ‘Boots at the Holly Tree Inn,’ in 1857 the first Joseph Chavigny in Watts Phillips's play so named, on 16 Nov. Carl Blitzen in the ‘Headless Man,’ and on 22 May 1858 Horatio Sparkins in Morton's ‘French Lady's Maid.’
In the new Adelphi theatre, erected on the site of the old, Webster was, on 6 Aug. 1859, the original Penn Holder, one of his greatest parts, in his own adaptation, ‘One Touch of Nature.’ On 10 Nov. 1859 he was the original Robert Landry in Watts Phillips's ‘Dead Heart.’ On 29 Aug. 1864 he produced at the Adelphi his own adaptation, ‘A Woman of Business.’ On 30 Nov. he was first Van Gratz in the ‘Workmen of Paris’ (‘Les Drames du Cabaret’). In ‘No Thoroughfare,’ adapted by Wilkie Collins, Webster was the first Joey Ladle on 28 Dec. 1867. In ‘Monte Cristo,’ which was damned in October 1868, he played Noirtier. On 31 May 1869 he was the first Hugh Wollaston in ‘Eve,’ an adaptation by his son, B. Webster, jun., of Augier's ‘Gabrielle.’ On 1 Nov. he opened as lessee the Princess's, which he had long owned, reviving the ‘Willow Copse,’ in which he played his old part of Luke Fielding. In Byron's ‘Prompter's Box,’ on 23 March 1870, he was the first Frank Bristow, and in April 1873 the first Rodin the Jesuit in the ‘Wandering Jew,’ adapted by Leopold Lewis. This appears to have been his last original part. In February 1874 he retired from the stage, and on 2 May his farewell benefit took place at Drury Lane. The ‘School for Scandal’ was given. Mrs. Keeley recited an address by Oxenford, and Webster, who did not act, made a speech; over 2,000l. was raised. On 1 Aug. he repeated at the Princess's Richard Pride in ‘Janet Pride.’ He played Snake for Buckstone's benefit at Drury Lane on 8 June 1875. The previous day he had spoken at the Theatrical Fund dinner at the Freemasons' Tavern. His last appearance was at the Crystal Palace on 2 Nov. 1875 as William Penn Holder. He died on 3 July 1882 at his residence, Churchside, Kennington.
Webster left two sons, Ben and John, who were connected with the stage. Ben Webster, the younger, wrote for the Adelphi ‘Behind Time,’ a farce in one act, on 26 Dec. 1865; and seven other farces or adaptations from the French came from his pen between that date and 1873. John Webster played about 1837 and 1838 at Covent Garden, the Haymarket, St. James's, and the Adelphi. A daughter married Sir Edward Lawson, bart., proprietor and editor of the ‘Daily Telegraph.’ Benjamin Webster, a grandson, is at present on the London stage.
In his line as a character actor Webster stood foremost in his day, and has not since known a superior. He kept his energy, physical and intellectual, almost to the last, and his latest creations count among his best. His greatest characters were Richard Pride, Robert Landry, Lavater, William Penn Holder, Lorentz Hartmann, Jabez Sneed, Triplet, Graves, Belphegor, Tartuffe, Rodin in the ‘Wandering Jew,’ and Joey Ladle. He was happiest in characters in which serious purpose, puritanical fervour, and grim resolution were shown, and had not indeed more comedy than would serve like light points in a picture to indicate the gloom. He was a spirited manager so far as regards the engagement of good actors, but was behind the times, backward as those were, in respect of stage mounting and the employment of supernumeraries. To this day the term Adelphi guests is used as a byword.
Webster is responsible for about a hundred plays, the names of many of which cannot now be traced. Several are in part based on French originals. In addition to those named are ‘High Ways and By Ways,’ a farce in two acts (Cumberland's ‘British Drama’); ‘Paul Clifford,’ a drama in three acts, and ‘The Golden Farmer,’ a drama in two acts (both in Cumberland's ‘Minor Theatre’); ‘The Old Gentleman,’ a comedy in one act (Duncombe's ‘British Theatre’); ‘The Modern Orpheus,’ a farce in one act; ‘The Village Doctor,’ a drama in two acts; ‘Peter and Paul,’ a comic drama in two acts; ‘Caught in a Trap,’ a comedietta in two acts; ‘The Thimble Rig,’ a farce in one act; ‘The Wonderful Water Cure,’ extravaganza in one act; ‘Mrs. Sarah Gamp's Tea and Turn Out,’ a Bozzian sketch in one act. These are all in Webster's ‘Acting National Drama.’ His name also appears to ‘The Series of Dramatic Entertainments performed by royal command at Windsor Castle, 1848–1849’ (London, 4to), in which he took part.
A portrait in oils of Webster is in the Garrick Club. A likeness, engraved by J. Onwhyn, accompanies a memoir prefixed to the sixth volume of his ‘Acting National Drama.’ Many photographs are in existence, in character alone, or in company with Mrs. Stirling and others. A large photograph of him as Robert Landry in Watts Phillips's ‘Dead Heart’ (1859), and a coloured engraving of him in the ‘Roused Lion,’ as well as an oil painting, are in the possession of his family.
[Personal knowledge; manuscript Autobiography lent by Webster's grandson; Memoir contributed by himself to his Acting National Drama, vol. iv. [on title vere vol. vi.]; Theatrical Times; Men of the Time; Men of the Reign; Tallis's Dramatic Mag.; The Players, 1882; Pascoe's Dramatic List; Genest's Account of the English Stage; Dramatical and Musical Review, 1842–9; Era newspaper, 15 July 1882; Pollock's Macready; Morley's Journal of a London Playgoer; Dutton Cook's Nights at the Play; Scott and Howard's Blanchard; Sunday Times; Era Almanack.]