Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Mary Leadbetter and Richard Davis Webb

Last week the postman brought me a small parcel which had started its journey in the United States of America some weeks before.  It contained a slim book of no more than 92 pages, which on its way from America to Ireland retraced the journey it had made in the opposite direction over 170 years previously.  The book, ‘Recollections of the Character of Mary Leadbetter with a Brief Memoir of Her Life and Writings’ was printed in William Street, Dublin in 1829 by Richard Davis Webb.  Mary Leadbetter, the Ballitore village postmistress, had died three years previously at 68 years of age and the recollections were written by her cousin, Betty Shackleton.  In the preface to the book the authoress claimed that what she wrote was not ‘for the public eye, nor are they intended for any but those whose intimacy with Mary Leadbetter inclines them to believe that the recollection is not exaggerated.  They were written soon after her death when her virtues were vividly remembered and recorded with no view to publication, some friends having transcribed the manuscript, a few copies are now printed to save that trouble in future.’

The recollections which accounted for 63 pages of the book and were written within weeks of Mary Leadbetter’s death, also included between the covers, ‘A Memoir’ of 14 pages written around the same time ‘by a young friend of hers whom she highly esteemed.’ 

The slim volume intended for private circulation amongst the small group of Leadbetter’s friends was printed and published by Richard David Webb, a member of the Society of Friends who had attended the Ballitore Quaker School.  The school had re-opened in 1806 under the headmastership of James White following a period of internal Quaker doctrinal dissension which had lead to its closure in 1801.  White married Lydia Shackleton, daughter of Abraham Shackleton, the former headmaster whose father Richard had established the Ballitore School in 1726.  Richard Davis Webb’s time as a pupil in the school coincided with that of a young Frenchman, Theodore E. Suliot, who taught French and classics in Ballitore.  Suliot, who was a graduate of Glasgow University, was slightly older than Webb and a follower of John Wesley. 

Mary Leadbetter, Theodore Suliot and Richard Webb had all formed friendships arising out of their different associations with Ballitore School.  Mary, the daughter of a former headmaster of the school, Theodore the young teacher and Richard, the onetime pupil would remain friends and correspond with each other over the years.  Leadbetter lived all her life in Ballitore Village, while Webb, a Dubliner by birth, would return to that city where he set up his printing works.  Suliot would spend some time in London before returning to Ballitore where his name appeared as joint headmaster of the Ballitore School in advertisements for 1832. 

The book which was returned from America last week is a unique association copy for it was presented to Theodore Suliot by Richard Webb and is so inscribed.  Suliot was still living in Ballitore when the presentation copy was given to him.  The Leadbetter book represented Webb’s first venture into the world of publishing and printing.  Later in life Webb, a friend of the Liberator Daniel O’Connell and the Temperance leader Theobald Matthew would be involved in many Irish Philanthropic societies.  He is best known today for his role in the anti-slavery movement of the mid-19th century and his part in the Hibernian Temperance Society which was the predecessor of the Temperance movement later championed by Fr. Matthew.  Involved with Webb in the anti-slavery campaign was James Haughton, brother of Alfred Haughton, both sons of Samuel Haughton of Carlow.  Alfred, a Quaker, operated mills in Athy and Ardreigh from the 1850s and he had built Ardreigh House on the Carlow Road immediately following the end of the Great Famine.  Webb was also actively involved with Quaker relief measures during the Great Famine and was appointed by the Central Relief Committee to investigate complaints of abuses in the distribution of relief by local committees in Connaught.

Webb supported the prominent black anti-slavery activist Frederick Douglass when he came to Ireland for a lecture tour in 1845.  Webb’s printing presses were used to turn out copies of Douglass’s biography which was something of a bestseller during the African American’s tour of Ireland.  The refusal of the Quakers to allow Douglass to use the Meeting House in Eustace Street in Dublin and Webb’s growing disenchantment with the Society lead to Webb’s resignation from the Society of Friends in 1851.  He continued with his printing business until his death, which occurred while he was visiting America in 1872.  He is buried in the Quaker cemetery at Temple Hill, Blackrock in County Dublin.

Theodore Sulliot is less well known.  He shared the headmastership of Ballitore School with James White until the school closed in 1836.  That same year he married White’s daughter Hannah and emigrated to Leeds where in 1837 he was listed as an academic living and working in that city.  As with Webb, Elliot was involved in the anti-slavery movement and by 1850 he was anxious to emigrate to Ohio, America where a number of like-minded people wanted to form a community there.  In a letter written from Philadelphia in April of that year slavery abolitionist Lucretia Mott mentioned Suliot’s desire for Webb and his family to join him in travelling to Ohio.  Webb remained in Dublin but Sulliot and his wife Hannah joined a Methodist mission in Ohio where the one-time Ballitore school teacher became professor of Latin and French literature in Wilberforce University.  The book given to Sulliot by Richard Webb soon after its publication in 1829 presumably went with him to America and is now back in Athy, the town which hosted its first Quaker meeting 238 years ago.

Mary Leadbetter, whose death on 27th June 1826 prompted the ‘Recollections and Memoirs’ was the daughter of Richard Shackleton, an intimate friend of Edmund Burke from their young school days in Ballitore.  In 1791 Mary married William Leadbetter and three years later published the first of her many publications.  Several of these books are on exhibition in the Heritage Centre in Athy.  Her principal publications included ‘Cottage Dialogues of the Irish Peasantry’, the first two volumes of which were published in 1811 and 1813, while a third volume was published after her death by the former Ballitore school pupil Richard Webb.  He was also to publish Mary Leadbetter’s best known work, the two-volume ‘Annals of Ballitore’ which appeared in 1862.  These Annals contain Mary’s contemporary accounts of daily life in Ballitore where she was the postmistress and covered the 1798 Rebellion.  Her account of the rebellion in the Ballitore neighbourhood is regarded as the best and most impartial account of what happened during that time.

The ‘Annals of Ballitore’ which have been out of print for so long are now being reprinted by the County Library Service in association with Athy Heritage Centre and will be formally launched in the Town Hall Centre on a date soon to be announced. 

Of the three people linked with the ‘Recollections on the Character of Mary Leadbetter’ it is the former postmistress of Ballitore who is best remembered today.  Richard David Webb’s influential involvement over 50 years in many Irish philanthropic movements is largely forgotten, while little is known of the Frenchman who arrived as a young man in Ballitore village in the early years of the 19th century.  They came together again in the slim volume which now rests on my bookshelf, not far from the Quaker village where they first met and spent some years in happy association.

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