Fred WEBB  (1885 - 1939)

Researched by David Nation


In 2014 the Family History Research Corner at Crediton Museum was approached by Mick Munday for help identifying his paternal grandfather. Mick had never known him but had spent many months in 1987 intensively searching for information about him because his father, who had died the previous year, had told him that he had discovered that his birth had been registered with the surname Webb, despite the fact that he had always been known as Munday. Mick’s father had learned little of the grandfather from his mother, except that the grandfather had been sentenced to prison following setting fire to some cottages. The mother and her son subsequently switched to using the mother’s maiden name of Munday, rather than the grandfather’s surname Webb.

Mick’s search for births, marriages, deaths and police, court and prison records revealed very little but he found newspaper reports confirming his grandfather’s offences and court appearances. In terms of learning more about his grandfather’s origins or what became of him, he got nowhere. So he turned to the Research Corner to see if they could help.

Mick’s paternal grandmother, Mildred, left her partner Fred Webb (there was no evidence they had ever married) when their son (Mick’s father) was aged 16 at Xmas 1935. A week or so later Fred visited Mildred at the home of her friend nearby where she was staying. Presumably convinced that she had gone forever, Fred returned to their small cottage in North Weald, Essex, set fire to it with petrol and retired to a shed in the garden where he slit his throat with a razor. A passer-by raised the alarm but the fire destroyed the home and 3 adjoining dwellings. The police found Fred and a doctor who happened to be passing took him to the local hospital where he underwent surgery that saved his life.

Fred was charged with arson with intent to endanger life and attempting to commit suicide, then an imprisonable offence. Police kept watch at his bedside for three weeks after the incident. Local newspapers and some national papers reported Fred's subsequent appearances in the local Magistrates and then Assize Courts, where sentence was postponed for several months until Fred recovered. Judges commented to the effect that Fred had 'suffered enough' and in June 1936 he was conditionally discharged, though it was not clear from the newspaper reports whether he walked entirely free from court or whether he remained hospitalised.

What became of Fred afterwards was a complete mystery. Mildred and their son moved away, she married in May 1937 and in due course the son, previously known by his father's surname, changed his name by deed poll to his mother' maiden name. There were several difficulties.

  1. Newspaper reports showed Fred's age as anything from 50 to 53.

  2. His name was shown as Fred until the Indictment papers in the Assize Court recorded him as Frederick George. This raised hopes that this would limit the options but there was no guarantee that, even if his proper name was Frederick George, he might not be recorded as just Fred or Frederick.

  3. Fred, Frederick or Frederick George were all very common names almost anywhere in the country, and the surname Webb was not rare.

  4. It was known that Fred and Mildred met in 1919 in Hampshire, the place of her birth 18 years earlier. Upon her becoming pregnant by Fred, the couple left Hampshire and went to Essex, where the break-up occurred 16 years later.

The starting point in the search was a birth registration for Fred around 1882 to 1886. There were 14 Frederick Georges, 55 Fredericks and 22 Freds, with no additional clues as to which one might be him. Was he born in Hampshire, Essex or somewhere else entirely?

Similarly, searching for him in the 1911 census revealed so many men of those names that is was impossible to decide which he might be. However, it was interesting that only four were named as Frederick George, suggesting that many registered at birth with that name were later recorded as simply Frederick or Fred.

How about a marriage, say between 1905 and 1915? There were 12 Frederick Georges, 73 Fredericks and 26 Freds!

Following his release from court, could it be that his health was so poor that he died soon afterwards? A search for deaths over the next 20 years of men with those names revealed no Frederick Georges but dozens of Fredericks and Freds. Copy certificates were obtained for a number of these that appeared to be more relevant than others in the hope one might provide extra information indicating which one was him but they did not help.

A search was made of the available court records at the National Archives at Kew but they added little. It had been stated that he had had two minor convictions but again there was nothing in the many newspaper reports of convictions in those names to show which, if any, was him.

There was an indication that he was at some point in the custody of Brixton Prison but this might have been a technicality. Local archives were searched for police, prison and medical records. These proved almost non existent and difficult to access as they were less than 100 years old.

Was Fred married before he met Mildred? We searched registrations and the 1901 and 1911 censuses for likely families but again, there were several possibilities in the counties concerned and there was no way of proving which, if any, might be him. Assuming he had not married before he met Mildred and was not a bigamist, might he have married after 1936? There was only one Frederick George in the period to 1956 and the age given was much younger, but very many Fredericks and Freds.

We searched census records for 1891 and 1901 but once more, too many men of the same names and nothing to indicate which might be the right family.

Fred would have been around 28 to 31 years of age at the outbreak of the First World War so could we identify him from Military records? We hit up against the same problem – too many men with those names.

There seemed little more we could do. Then the 1939 Civil Register became available. We again checked deaths between June 1936 and September 1939 when the Register was compiled. There were two possibilities, both Fredericks. One was in Kettering, Northants in 1938, born 1884 and the other in Dartford, Kent in 1939, born 1885. We ruled out the first one, whose death certificate we had obtained some time earlier, because we found his birth in Kettering and also found him in the census returns for 1891, 1901 and 1911, all in Kettering, indicating that he had not moved from that area. We realised that we had also already obtained the death certificate for the Dartford one but had discounted it out because the place of death appeared to be a private residence and the informant was his sister and we didn't feel that he was likely to be living with family at that time. So, unless he died an itinerant, name unknown, our Fred should be in the 1939 register. There were no Frederick Georges but eight Frederick Gs. We acquired the records for all these and Fredericks (there were 22 in all!) but all but one of them appeared to be living with a partner of the same surname and in most cases with young children of the same surname. The exception was one Frederick living in a psychiatric hospital in Dartford. He was a patient there, described as a kitchen porter, single, born 1885 (making him aged 53 or 54). This caused us to look again at the Death Certificate from Dartford that we obtained long before. That Frederick was shown as dying on 29th August 1939, aged 54. Googling the address showed that the apparently private address was, in fact, the psychiatric hospital. Furthermore, Googling what appeared to be the address of his home, Carrington House, Deptford, we found this to be a hostel for itinerants.

We were then able to obtain, from the London Metropolitan Archives, copies of some hospital records. These indicated that Fred was admitted on 1st August 1939, for the first time, and died on 29th August 1939. The Medical Register shows him as aged 58, and this is repeated in the Post Mortem Register, which confirms that he had a history of bronchitis and emphysema, alcoholism and syphilis. Mildred told the police that Fred had always had a problem with alcohol. 

One odd thing about these discoveries was that the Civil Register was taken on 29th September 1939 so as Fred died on 29th August 1939, he should not have appeared in it at all! Fortunately for us, he was mistakenly included, presumably because work on entering by hand the list of around 1,000 inmates at the hospital began some time before the required date. The different ages shown on the different hospital records for the same man indicate, once again, how inaccurate information can be shown even in official forms.

The death certificate showed the name of his sister, Clara Cowland. We were able to trace the marriage of a Clara Webb to Frederick Cowland, indicating that she was born in 1871 and that her father was Charles Webb. This enabled us to trace the family in the 1881 and 1891 censuses, and thus further back. We found Frederick in the 1891 and 1901 censuses living with his parents, in the latter one working as a 'hatters' mess boy', presumably where his father, a hatter all his working life, also worked. However, in the 1911 census Fred was living in a homeless hostel in Holborn.

With such a common name and so many uncertainties, a comprehensive, very thorough and lengthy search in all directories proved unsuccessful until the 1939 Register became available. Previously we had decided that the only hope of ever finding him was to await publication of the 1921 census. However, the 1939 Register finally enabled us to solve the mystery of where Fred went after court and what eventually became of him. A sad story which unlocked the earlier family history with all the magic that that often entails.