Herefordshire People: Reverend Thomas Webb: The stargazer of Hardwicke
17:16 09 February 2010
The Reverend Thomas Webb has been regarded with affection by generations of amateur astronomers. Janet and Mark Robinson, editors of a recent book about him, tell his story.
If you travel the Golden Valley road through Peterchurch, then Dorstone, you will come without warning to Hardwicke. Within a mile you will pass a proud, upstanding church with just a sexton's cottage and a small church hall nearby. This is the church of Holy Trinity, Hardwicke. It has a neat bell tower surmounted by a trumpeting angel and is surrounded by yew trees.
After another bend or two, you will see a substantial house on the right just before the road drops down the hill to turn left for the last two miles into Hay-on-Wye. Like the church it stands quietly surrounded by fields. This house was the 19th-century vicarage, though it ceased to be so after the second world war and has fulfilled several roles since, serving the community as tea-room, petrol station, guest house and briefly a children's home.
How did these two Victorian buildings come to adorn this stretch of the road? Until 1851 Hardwicke was part of the parish of Clifford, one of the largest parishes in the country, but the Penoyre family petitioned to carve out a new parish for the people living in Hardwicke, claiming the Clifford church was too small and far away. They generously provided the money to build both a church and a vicarage.
It is a quiet stretch of road now but if you had passed the gate of the vicarage on the morning of July 14 1871 you would have seen waving flags on poles and trees which proclaimed 'Welcome to Hardwick'. This was the occasion of the annual treat and dinner held for the church choir, composed of both boys and girls, provided with enthusiasm and generosity by the vicar, Thomas William Webb and his wife Henrietta. The diarist Francis Kilvert, who was also invited, described the scene:
People began to arrive: Oswalds, Haigh Allens, Trumpers, Llan Thomases &c. The drawing room grew full and it was a relief when it was announced that the choir had come and were ready to begin their dinner. A table had been laid for them on the lawn, spread with a white table-cloth and adorned with vases of bright flowers.
The Revd T.W.Webb, the vicar, was the most illustrious incumbent of the parish of Hardwicke. A Herefordshire man, born in Ross, he had come to Hardwicke in 1856 when he was fifty and stayed until his death in 1885. Though a conscientious priest who faithfully served his small parish of around 250 people, he had another passion: that of observing the heavens. He began to observe as a boy and even made his own telescope. By the time he went to Oxford he was a serious observer who kept neat and detailed records.
When a curate in Herefordshire he began to give lectures and write articles for popular scientific journals. He was elected to the Royal Astronomical Society in 1852 and throughout his adult life conducted a copious correspondence with amateur astronomers at home and abroad. The Webbs also entertained several astronomers at Hardwicke, young men who came from London to converse with their mentor.
Like Patrick Moore, he was an enthusiast who wanted to inspire as many people as possible to look through a telescope. Even at the choir party he "arranged the telescope and acted as showman and all in turn had a look at Saturn". In the later years of his life at Hardwick he had a small observatory in the grounds, something he regarded as a luxury, after dragging his telescope out of the house and observing the stars unprotected from even the coldest of clear winter nights.
His most popular book, Celestial Objects for the Common Telescope, was first published in 1859 and was instantly recognised as an indispensable primer. Four editions were published in his life time and the sixth edition, with updated material, was published in 1962. Webb has been regarded with affection by generations of amateur astronomers, being seen as a most accurate observer who could always be referred to with absolute confidence.
Mrs Webb took an interest in her husband's work but she had interests of her own. She won a prize at the Hay Horticultural Society show for a garden that had a part-time gardener, and created a rockery of alpine plants filched from Swiss meadows - no worries about environmental issues in those innocent days. She was talented with her brush and painted many watercolours; she also took up photography when it was quite new.
The work of the parish was certainly different from that of today. The parishioners looked towards a good incumbent for help in bad times, sometimes for medical relief. Webb had the time to make frequent visits to his parishioners: "And there he would sit, the children gathering around him, and talk to his people of their everyday life, and local matters, making himself one of themselves, and imparting the sunshine of his life to theirs," as the writer of a memoir records. He had no parochial church council and only one church, whereas today an equally conscientious vicar has the care of eight parishes in the neighbourhood. Yet some of the sense of community that occasions like the choir dinner illustrates can still be seen in Hardwicke, as in many village churches. There are flower festivals, concerts, luncheons, ftes - but it is the people of the parish who now provide the organisation and willing hands.
In this, as in many other ways, life has changed since Thomas and Henrietta held sway in the vicarage. If one looks a little deeper, however, there are still facets of life in the county which they would recognise and appreciate. There are many places in Herefordshire where people lead apparently quiet and unassuming lives which are full of riches; imbued with passionate interests and hobbies but generous in their giving of time and effort to encourage and sustain the communities in which they live.
For further reading:
Kilvert's Diary 1870-79, W. Plomer (ed.) Jonathan Cape 1938-40
The Stargazer of Hardwicke, J&M Robinson (eds.) Gracewing 2006