The actor-manager and prolific dramatist Ben Webster was born at Bath on 3 September 1797, the son of a musical composer, pantomimist, and dancing-fencing master in that city and his wife Elizabeth Moon, of Leeds. Ben had numerous brothers and half-brothers, including Frederick Webster (1802-1878), an actor and stage manager at the Haymarket. Ben made his first appearance on the stage at Warwick performing Harlequin, acting some small speaking roles and playing second violin in the theatre orchestra. That inauspicious beginning was followed by some years in the provinces, including Manchester and Liverpool. He made his London debut as a smuggler in the opening entertainment of the Coburg Theatre (later the Old Vic) on 11 May 1819. After some inconsequential engagements at Richmond, Croyden and Birmingham, Webster engaged at Drury Lane, appearing there on 28 November 1820 as Almagro in “Pizarro”. He was associated with that theatre until 1829, when he went over to the Haymarket, at which theatre he remained for many years, becoming lessee and manager in 1837. In 1844 he also took over the Adelphi and in 1859 replaced the latter with the New Adelphi. At these theatres he produced many notable plays, with some of the best actors in London; he also appeared in many of the productions. The DNB lists dozens of roles which he acted until he retired in February 1874. Prominent among them were Triplet in “Masks and Faces” (1852), Lorin in Boucicault’s “Geneviève” and Luke Fielding in “Willow Copse”. He was an excellent actor of characters that displayed ‘serious purpose, puritanical fervour, and grim resolution.’
Webster wrote about 100 plays, many now not traceable; several were adapted from the French. A number were published in Webster’s “Acting National Drama”. Webster died at his residence, Churchside, Kensington, on 2 November 1882.
The Websters’ children were involved in the theatre. Their son John Webster acted at several London theatres in 1837 and 1838. Ben’s namesake son, Ben Webster, wrote some plays for the Adelphi from about 1865 to 1873. Our subject’s grandson, Benjamin Webster (1864-1947) was a prominent actor in London and New York; he married the actress Dame May Whitty (1865-1948); their daughter Margaret Webster (b. 1905) made an outstanding reputation as a director of Shakespearean plays.
In addition to the portraits of Benjamin Nottingham Webster in the Garrick Club (G0835, G0836) and several engravings of him in character, many photographs of him exist. Webster had become a member of the Garrick Club in February 1838. (DNB, OCT)