WEBSTER

This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 4th October 1993, reproduced by kind permission of the author, Desmond Holden.

The "What's in a Name" series has been a regular feature in the Advertiser.
Articles are confined to the origins and meanings of surnames and Desmond regrets he is unable to undertake research into the genealogy, descent or family history of individuals.

Editor's Note: Articles are provided for general interest and background only. They are not intended to provide an exhaustive treatise for any individual family history - investigations of which may yield quite different results. Or, in Desmond's own words:

"In the end it must remain with individual bearers of the names to draw upon family traditions and to seek out such documentary evidence as is available to decide the matter for themselves."

WHAT'S IN A NAME … Are you called WEBSTER?

This is an occupational name and means "the woman who weaves". There are many variations: Webb, Webber and, of course, Weaver itself. However people called "Weaver" may not necessarily have been textile workers, but possibly have taken their name from the place, "Weaver" in Cheshire.

The original word for a male weaver was "Webb" and a man who followed that occupation was called, for example, "John the Webb". Eventually the word "webb" disappeared as descriptive of the occupation and survived only as a surname. In the case of a female weaver, she would have been referred to as a "webster" - and that really is the pinciple point of interest in this name.

Today, if we want to make a "man" word into a "woman" word, we usually add "-ess" (as for example, "actor/actress"). Now, although we are all extremely conscious of sex-equality and tend to drop words which discriminate between men and women - we are no longer permitted to advertise for a "barman" or a "bar-maid" but only for a "bar-person"! Our ancestors seemed to have had no such inhibitions. And, in fact, some occupations were looked upon as being almost exclusively the province of women, particularly spinning, weaving, baking, brewing and selling ale. They reinforced this view by referring to them, respectively as "spinster", "webster", "baxter", "brewster" and "tapster". Some of these words have remained as ordinary words, such as "spinster" and "tapster" but the others live on only as surnames: Webster, Baxter and Brester.

A problem then arose: if a man took up an occupation which had until then been thought of as being followed mainly by women, how was he to be described? The problem is still with us. It confronted the hospitals when male nurses began to take charge of wards which, until recently, had been the responsibility of a Senior Nurse, who was addressed as "Sister". What did you call the man now in charge? However our ancestors seem to have found their way round the difficulty simply by dropping the distinctive feminine ending, and the neutral "-er" prevailed. There's sex equality for you! In fact they sometimes so completely forgot that words ending in "-ster" were already feminine, that they actually re-created new forms and we now have "tapstress" and "songstress" which are comparatively modern contrivances.

Apart from these odd eccentric inventions, the old occupational names have continued only as surnames and so people whose name is "Webster" can lay claim to having an ancestress who wove cloth. In the West Country, "Webb" is more frequently found than "Webster" and it is widely distributed over Yorkshire, Lancashire and the Midland Counties, where there has long been a weaving tradition, and there are nearly 1,000 entries in the local directories.

Perhaps the most famous bearer of the name is Noah Webster (1758-1843) an American who produced the great Dictionary which is still the Standard in the States. It was he who gave us those forms of spelling which we popularly call "American".

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 4th October 1993.
The following article on this surname was to be published in January 2002.

Are you called WEBSTER?
Variations: Weaver, Webb, Webber etc.

Weaving stands almost at the head of the standard list of surnames related to occupations - eg. Smith, Miller. Unlike many of the trades included it is represented by several variations of which "Webb" and "Webster" are the most frequently encountered. The reason is that whereas the spelling of words descriptive of the craft of weaving have varied over the centuries, the forms of the surnames they generated have remained frozen in the particular period when they were first conferred.

Thus as far back as 725 A.D. the term for woven fabric was "web" and by the time surnames were evolving, a man who wove cloth was called a "webba" and a woman was designated as a "webbe". These expressions were later to disappear from current usage and survive only in the names "Webb" and "Webbe" and (possibly) "Webber". One of the earliest records is to "Alger le Webba" of Chester (1099) and the feminine variant is evidenced in "Alice la Webbe" of Essex (1337).

It is this presence of masculine and feminine designations which creates a special interest in "Webster". This surname is well represented in the Midlands and the Southeast. Here it should be mentioned that the explanations which follow are greatly simplified and much fascinating detail has been omitted. But, to start with: the forms "Webba" and "Webbe" belonged to Old English which was spoken more or less between 450 to 1200 A.D. This language was then followed by "Middle English" (1200-1500) during which time our language underwent an overwhelming transformation. Among many improvements all the complicated rules as to the gender of nouns, such as still persist in French were discarded and every noun was simply "the" or "a' with none of the tiresome rules concerning the agreement of adjectives! Of course the changes were not at first observed uniformly across the country - that took time! In the case of naming occupations, most areas did nothing more than tag on "-er" to an appropriate expression. However in some regions, domestic activities such as baking, brewing, spinning as well as weaving were regarded as peculiarly female occupations and to demonstrate this tradition, the "-er" constructions were replaced with those in "-ster". Thus we have not only "Baker" but " Baxter" (ie. Bakester), "Brewster", "Spinster" as well as "Webster". However as time went by, men tended to become more involved in these occupations and the "-ster" designations were increasingly applicable to both. Indeed, even as early as 1275 "John le Webestere" is located in Norfolk and "William le Webester" in Lancashire (1284). Interesting entries occur in the tax lists for York in 1379; "Alicia Wryght, huswyfe, webster" and "Robert Webster, webster". The name was also imported into Scotland where "Malcolm Wobstare" is stated as dwelling in Stirling during 1436. An interesting comment is implied in the case of "William Webster" of Dundee (1688) whose occupation is given as " Baker".

The spelling "Webster" now survives only in surnames and the unit "- ster' has lost its feminine connotations except in the case of "Spinster" which in any case has changed its meaning. While the suffix "ess" is now the usual way for creating words with a female import, the former "-ster" has now taken on a significance for creating words which imply disapproval such as "gangster", "fraudster", "trickster" etc.

The words "youngster" and "oldster" are later concoctions and are not relevant grammatically.

Merely for completeness it can be noted that families whose origins lie in Cheshire and are called "Weaver" may have derived their name from the River Weaver which flows from the Shropshire border for 45 miles and joins the Mersey at Runcorn. It gets its name from its rather tortuous winding course and although it certainly " weaves" in and out, the name is only marginally related (if at all) to the word "weave". Surnames are in this instance taken from place-names alongside the river, such as "Weaver Hall". They can be separated from the occupational names easily in the old records because the bearers of the name are designated as being "of Weaver" and not "the Weaver": so - Simon de Wevere" (1257).

The surname "Webster" and its related names are well-represented in the Standard Biographies. They include John Weaver (1673-1760) the actor who produced the first pantomimes: Sydney Webb (1859-1947) who with his wife Beatrice was actively engaged in Social Reform and Andrew Lloyd Webber the composer of many popular musicals.

Still the greatest bearer of the name of Webster is unquestionably Noah Webster (1758-1843) whose monumental "Dictionary of American English" first appeared in 1828 and is now the accepted standard in the United States. It was he who did much to rid the language of its irrational spellings, giving rise to the term "the American way of spelling" - such as "honor", "theater", and "check" (for "cheque").

Locally the name is borne by nearly 400 persons and it is at the request of one of them, Chris Webster of Matlock Glass, that the present feature has been undertaken.

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 28th January 2002.
The first article on this surname was published in October 1993.

URL of this page: http://names.gukutils.org.uk/Webster.shtml
Logo by courtesy of the Open Clip Art Library