Chapter 5

The Life of a Missionary; 1828-1899

As we have seen in Chapter 4, Joseph, eldest son of Edward and Mary, did not stay in Redditch, but moved to Birmingham in the 1820s where he worked as a bridle cutter. His son Edward Daniel was brought up in Birmingham, but then moved away to train as a Methodist missionary - how did that come about? We are very fortunate to have a document in Edward's own hand. In 1892, seven years before his death, he wrote down what he knew of the family history, claiming to be the oldest surviving member of the Webb family, and stating that he had a conversion experience at the Wesleyan Chapel in Reditch one Whitsuntide when he was aged 19. This shows that the two branches of the family (Birmingham and Redditch) were in close touch. His uncle Charles and family worshipped at the Weslyan Chapel in Redditch, and had most of their children christened there. Was Edward visiting at the time of his conversion, or was he working in Redditch himself? Certainly he makes particular mention of Harriet, one of Charles' daughters, which shows a close tie with that family. Harriet was born the year after his conversion, so perhaps he was staying with them, and knew her as a baby. He certainly received little religious encouragement from home - his obituary states that "he had few religious advantages in early life". His note on family history and subsequent correspondence show that he was well-educated and eloquent, indeed commentators on his career as a missionary noted that his sermons were carefully prepared and delivered with much animation.

We might wonder how the son of a Birmingham artisan (albeit a craftsman) gained sufficient education to be able to undertake a 3-year course at Richmond College, as this was way before the 1871 Education Act. (Ref 1) gives details of education in Victorian Birmingham. It would be fascinating to know where Edward was educated, but he certainly showed in his ministry that he had an excellent grasp of religious matters, politics, finance and commerce in addition to having a fine command of the English language (though he did not have the gift of assimilating foreign languages, which would have been useful to him).

While at Richmond College he met his future wife, Elizabeth Dewdney, and in 1854 the newly-qualified probationer, aged 26, left his fiancée in England and started his adventurous life as a missionary - he would not return to England for 14 years.

The Bay Islands group consists of three large islands and many small islets 30 miles off the coast of Honduras. The island of Roatan (various spellings) is 40 miles long and has a mountainous central area - it is surrounded by coral reefs. Utila is smaller, flatter and closer to the mainland, while Guanaja is smaller again. The whole area is a tropical paradise and has been very much developed in the twentieth century for the tourist industry because of the favourable climate and its famous coral reefs, but what is its history? (Ref 2)
By the time Edward Daniel arrived in the region, there were several established mission bases. Catholic, Presbyterian as well as Methodist missionaries had set up churches and schools to minister to the native islanders and the many black slaves from the Cayman islands, who had gained emancipation in 1834 but chose to remain on the Bay Islands. There was much need of their services - a contemporary writer noted that "No part of the world needs the Gospel more than Central America; for no part of the world exceeds it in cruelty, murder and every diabolical practice".

However, first impressions were quite favourable. Edward Daniel arrived by packet boat at Belize on November 11th 1854 and after a few days' rest, wrote the first of his many letters to his superiors at the Wesleyan Missionary Society in London: (Ref 3)

By June of the following year (1855) he reports that, apart from painful and troublesome boils, he is in good health, and that on the island of Ruatan there are two chapels; the larger will accommodate 500 and the smaller one 250.
"…….. as the majority of the population can neither read nor write it is our intention to open Evening Classes for the instruction of adults. We have already lately established a library to encourage the desire for knowledge which exists among the people.
I am exceedingly happy in my labours in this place. In the month of April I visited the island of Utilla. On Wednesday I preached in the chapel which the people are building at their own expense. Nearly the whole of the inhabitants were present."

He is back in Belize in the summer of 1856, but the packet boat to England is delayed while he writes his report of the disastrous fire which had threatened to destroy the whole town the previous night. As each letter took a month to be delivered to his sponsors, their response was always received too late after the event to be of any real help.

He received a box of useful and fancy articles (value £10) in the October of that year from some benefactors in England, but he now realises that the extent of the losses in the conflagration of July had been wildly underestimated - he now reckons it to be in the region of £20,000 worth of stores. His main source of concern in October 1856 is however the news that the British government had ceded the Bay Islands to Spanish Honduras. It is interesting that he did not learn this from any local source, but in the mail from England! (Ref 4)

The affair seems to die down for a while, and in the Spring of 1857 Edward turns to more personal issues. Without wishing to trouble his sponsors he nevertheless feels it is time to remind them of their agreement : "to send out to me the lady to whom, as you are aware, I am engaged. You are aware that, if spared, I shall have completed my probation at the next Conference.
I have laboured on this mission three years. The greatest part of the first year I spent on this Island which is 150 miles from Belize and quite a distinct circuit; the second year I was left in charge of Belize; this year I am again stationed in Ruatan."

He requests that Miss Dewdney of Esher, Surrey be sent out on the September packet boat, perhaps in the company of another lady who is engaged to a fellow preacher.
True to their word he is able to report back in October 1857:
"I am very happy to report to you the safe arrival of Miss Dewdney on Monday last the 12th inst. She was favoured with a very pleasant passage and arrived in the enjoyment of perfect health. Our marriage was solemnised on the following Wednesday by Mr Fletcher. I trust our united lives may be spent in the service of our gracious God. Mr Mosley's lady is not expected until next March."

All seemed well for the next two years, and Edward and his wife settled into life on Ruatan, with frequent journeys back to base at Belize. However the concerns about the treaty with Spain resurfaced, as shown by the following letter (dated April 1860) , and there is an ominous post script : (Ref 5)

In July 1860 Mr Fletcher at the Mission in Belize wrote to the Wesleyan Society in London with the tragic news : (Ref 6)

After some time a colleague, George Sykes, sent a report to the sponsors, recalling what he had witnessed. Edward had had to break the news to his wife that she would not recover, but she calmly replied that she already knew, and that she hadn't wanted to distress him by talking about it. Edward served communion to his wife and the attending nursing staff, and asked her if she regretted leaving home and coming out to Belize. Although very weak she replied emphatically "No! Never!"

We can only imagine how Edward felt in the months following the death of his wife and his fellow workers. He suffered several bouts of fever himself, but gradually recovered, and reported that as his own and his wife's family were anxious for him to return home to England, he would do so as soon as his replacement could be established in the post. However, by May 1861 Edward is feeling better than he has done for many months. Two new teachers, Mr Clark and Miss Smith, have arrived and seem to have settled well. A few weeks later he writes a letter to his sponsors with surprising news: "There now exists no necessity for my intended visit to England. Since I have been in Belize my health has been perfectly restored. ……
and that I do not need to return home in order to obtain the indispensable blessing of another helpmeet, as such has been provided me here in the person of Miss Smith our day school teacher to whom I have become engaged and whom it is my intention to marry as soon as may be convenient ……
They were married in August 1861, a little over a year after the death of his first wife!

Edward and his new wife were to spent another 6 years on Ruatan and in Belize, (at least, there is no report of her death, so we assume that she was with him). Belize suffered two more terrible fires, with some 50 houses being destroyed which distressed Edward greatly : (Ref 7)

After the fires he wanted to stay on to supervise the rebuilding work, but this dragged on through 1863 and 1864. Edward had difficulty in obtaining grants and government permission to proceed, and seems to have had trouble sourcing bricks and other building materials. The long delays in communication with England must have made the task seem hopeless at times, but eventually progress was made and in July 1865 he could report that: "It will be a most attractive and convenient place of worship, The house of God is rising from the ashes".

Intriguingly, while all this was going on, the Society was being bombarded with letters of complaint from the teacher who had travelled out with Miss Smith. Mr Clark wrote very long letters in which he expressed his anger and resentment of nearly everyone at the mission, but especially Edward Webb. Whether he had had hopes of marrying Miss Smith himself we do not know, but there is a hint of jealousy in his version of events when he writes to Rev Hools:
"When I met you in London you gave me some words of advice in reference to the young lady going out with me (to Belize). As far as in my power I was civil and obliging but my disapproval of her conduct on the voyage led, after her connection with Mr Webb, to a good deal of quiet persecution on their part."
From what we know of the personality of Edward, and what we can gather from the angry ramblings of young Mr Clark it is not hard to form an opinion, although we know nothing of the personality of the former Miss Smith, nor what is meant by "her conduct on the voyage".
Edward and Eliza had one daughter, Eliza Jane, born in 1865 "on the sea near Honduras" though letters referering to this have yet to be found.

In May 1868, after 14 years abroad, Edward, his wife and daughter returned to England. His father Joseph died in the September of that year, and it is good to think that they were reunited in Birmingham after such a long separation. Edward became a supernumerary pastor, serving wherever there was need on the Methodist Circuit, and he spent the next 30 years in various parts of the country, where he was welcomed as a fine preacher and a caring minister.
His daughter married in 1888, and the marriage produced three daughters and two sons, although Edward did not live to see all his grandchildren. See Family Tree E.

In July 1892, while Superintendent of the Marlborough Circuit, he thought to write down what he knew of the family history, proudly claiming to be the oldest surviving member of the Webb family, a document which has proved invaluable in tracing the family tree.

He died in Nottinghamshire in October 1899 aged 72 years having served God and his fellow man to the very best of his ability.