VASSALL (afterwards WEBSTER), Sir Godfrey, 4th Bt. (1747-1800), of Battle Abbey, Suss.
Available from Boydell and Brewer
Family and Education
b. 25 Dec. 1747, 1st s. of Sir Godfrey Webster, 3rd Bt., of Battle Abbey by Elizabeth, da. of Gilbert Cooper of Lockington, Derbys. educ. L. Inn 1768, called 1773. m. 27 June 1786, Elizabeth (div. 4 July 1797), da. and h. of Richard Vassall of Jamaica, and Golden Square, Mdx., 2s. surv. 1da. suc. fa. as 4h Bt. 6 May 1780; took name of Vassall by royal lic. 3 Oct. 1795, resumed name of Webster on divorce 1797.
Capt. Suss. militia 1778-89, maj. 1793-4; capt. Hastings yeomanry 1798.
Webster, a founder member of the Whig Club, was defeated at Seaford, where his patron was the father of his friend Thomas Pelham*, in 1790, when the Treasury temporarily regained control of the borough. After a petition in which he showed little confidence, he was left in a minority of one, but his colleague on the Pelham interest, Tarleton, was seated. Should there have been a compromise or only one vacancy, Thomas Pelham had promised him the preference and now promised it to him at the next vacancy. As Webster, who ‘did not see any prospect of advantage from the present state of politics’, had suddenly decided to yield to his wife’s whim of travelling on the Continent, Pelham even offered to look for a quiet seat for him in his absence.1 In August 1792 Tarleton was reported dead and Pelham was preparing to return Webster (then at Dresden) in his place when the report proved false. In January 1794 a vacancy did arise at Seaford, but the retiring Treasury nominee was replaced by another, and Webster, for whom Pelham canvassed in his absence in Italy, was defeated.2
Webster, who had no love of foreign travel, endured it in a futile bid to save his marriage to an heiress young enough to be his daughter and, by her own confession, ‘a lure for a villain’. Owing to his aunt’s life interest in Battle Abbey he was confined to a small house on his estate, and the encumbrance of his affairs, due to his incurable gambling mania and to the failure of a bank in which he had invested, made him an unequal match for an ambitious woman who had no idea of the economy his circumstances required.3 Jealousy of his wife’s young admirers did not improve his temper and was justified in 1794 when she became attached to Fox’s nephew Lord Holland. On the death of her father in 1795, Webster, who thereby obtained a West Indian estate worth over £7,000 a year, returned to England alone.
His friend Pelham had still been looking out for a seat for him ‘at a very moderate expense’, and at the general election of 1796 an opening was found when Charles Rose Ellis, a childhood friend of Lady Webster’s, was returned both at Seaford (where he became paymaster of the Pelham interest) and at Wareham, which he purchased from John Calcraft*. Webster was offered the seat for Wareham. His attachment to Fox had weakened: in 1792 he was quoted as a critic of Fox’s stand on the Russian question. His domestic calamity might have provoked downright hostility, as his wife had come home with Lord Holland and bore his son in November 1796. But he was now an indifferent politician and, although he started divorce proceedings in January 1797, his conduct showed ‘an indecision of purpose, almost verging at times upon insanity’. His only known parliamentary gestures were his two votes of 13 Mar. 1797 when he joined the minorities in favour of adding Fox to the public accounts committee and of reducing sinecures. In July 1797 he obtained a divorce after demanding severe terms: his wife’s inheritance for life, minus an allowance to her of £800 a year and £10,000 damages; the jury reduced the latter to £6,000.4 Lady Webster at once married Lord Holland and found happiness. Webster sank into oblivion. Further losses at play were not enough to account for his suicide, 3 June 1800. He had shown signs of mental instability for some time and had twice tried to destroy himself with laudanum shortly before he succeeded by shooting himself. ‘Lunacy’ was the verdict at the inquest.5
Ref Volumes: 1790-1820
Authors: E. A. Smith / R. G. Thorne
- 1. Add. 51705, T. Pelham to Lady Webster, 9, 18 Mar. 1792.
- 2. Add. 33090, ff. 338, 340; 33129, ff. 85, 234; 33630, ff. 7, 9.
- 3. Jnl. of Lady Holland, i. 38, 131; Add. 51705, Pelham to Lady Webster, 15 June 1792; 51706, same to same, 22 Jan. 1794.
- 4. Add. 51706, Pelham to Lady Webster, 16 July 1794; Leveson Gower, i. 50; Jnl. of Lady Holland, i. p. xvi; The Times, 22 Feb. 1797.
- 5. Jnl. of Lady Holland, ii. 90, 98; Add. 33130, f. 180; Gent. Mag. (1800), i. 594.