Shropshire History

Mary Webb


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Mary Webb was born Mary Meredith in 1881 at Leighton Lodge in the village of Leighton. Her father George Meredith was a private tutor and inspired his daughter with his own love of literature and the Shropshire countryside. Her mother Sarah was descended from Sir Walter Scott so there was already a history of literature in the family.  At the age of 12 months, her parents moved to Much Wenlock, where they lived at the Grange on the outskirts of town. As a child, Mary explored the countryside around her home and made detailed observations of people and places, which she later included in her poetry and fiction. She never went to school but was taught at home by her father, before being sent in 1895 to a finishing school for girls at Southport. Her parents moved to Stanton upon Hine Heath in 1896 and moved again to Meole Brace in 1902.


Mary developed Graves' disease at the age of 20 (a thyroid disorder causing bulging protuberant eyes and throat goitre), which caused ill health throughout her life and probably contributed to her early death. This affliction resulted in her being empathic with suffering and is probably the basis for the disfiguring harelip of Prue Sarn, the heroine of “Precious Bane”. Her first published work was a poem with 5 verses, describing the Shrewsbury rail accident in October 1907. Her brother Kenneth liked it so much, and thought it potentially comforting for those affected by the disaster, that he took it without her knowledge to the offices of the Shrewsbury Chronicle, who printed the poem anonymously. Mary was appalled when she found out, until she heard that the newspaper had received letters of appreciation from its readers.


In 1912, she married Henry Webb, a teacher who supported her literary interests. They moved to Weston-super-Mare but soon returned to Shropshire, where they worked as market gardeners until Henry got a teaching job at the Priory School in Shrewsbury. They lived briefly between 1914-16 at Rose Cottage near Pontesbury and during this time she wrote “The Golden Arrow”, which was based on the Church Stretton area. It was published in 1917 and the money from this enabled them to move to Lyth Hill. Mary loved it there and they bought a plot of land to build Spring Cottage. During their time here she wrote Gone to Earth (1917) and The House in Dormer Forest (1920). In 1921, they bought a second property in London and moved there in the hope that she would be able to achieve greater literary recognition. While in London she wrote Seven for a Secret (1922) and Precious Bane (1924). However, recognition did not happen and by 1927 she was suffering increasingly bad health. As her marriage was failing as well, and she returned to Spring Cottage alone. Mary died in 1927 at St Leonards on Sea, aged only 46. She was buried at Shrewsbury and the Mary Webb Society unveiled a bust of her in the grounds of Shrewsbury Library in 2016.



Her books are :-


·         “The Golden Arrow” (1916)

·         “Gone to Earth” (1917)

·         “The Spring of Joy; a Little Book of Healing” (1917

·         “The House in Dormer Forest” (1920

·         “Seven for A Secret; a Love Story” (1922)

·         “Precious Bane” (1924) – this won the prestigious Prix Femina Vie Heureuse

·         “Poems and the Spring of Joy” (1928)


Her six novels are all set in South Shropshire, which has changed relatively little since her time. Her novel “Gone to Earth” was made into a film in 1950 and was filmed in the Stiperstones, Long Mynd and Much Wenlock areas. Many of the locals living in the Snailbeach area were used as extras and they still speak about the experience today.  It is the story of Hazel Woodus, who lived in the remote Shropshire hills with her father, who was a harpist and made coffins. She marries a local church minister, but also becomes the object of the local fox-hunting squire's obsessive love. Hazel is chased over the edge of a quarry trying to save her beloved pet fox from the local hunt. The title is the huntsman's cry denoting that the fox had escaped into its den. Her novel “Precious Bane” has been adapted for television twice. It is set in the years after the Battle of Waterloo and tells the story of Prue Sarn, disfigured by a harelip which her superstitious neighbours regard as a sign that she is a witch. She then falls in love with a weaver, Kester Woodseaves.


Most of the towns and villages mentioned in her novels under fictitious names are easily identifiable. For example, Silverton is Shrewsbury, Mallard's Keep is Bishop's Castle and Slepe is Ratlinhope. The museum at the Tourist Information Centre in Much Wenlock includes a lot of information on Mary Webb including a display of photographs of the filming of her novel “Gone to Earth” in 1950. Her time in the village of Pontesbury was commemorated in 1957 by the opening of the Mary Webb School.