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Philip Webster

Philip Cranworth Webster (1829-1893) was the owner of the Esplanade Hotel, an auditor, and a nurseryman. He is remembered for his house, Cranworth Villa, and for the trees that he planted. He was born in the parish of Cranworth nr Norwich. Philip Webster died in 1893 and was buried in the Skinner St graveyard. After the cemetery on Carrington St opened in 1899, his memorial was removed there, though probably not his remains, as the memorial is along the Heritage Trail, where there are no reinterments.

webster house

Webster's house, Cranworth Villa, at 195 High St, with large ficus macrophylla; my photo 2018

Heritage Council:
Philip Webster owned the house at 195 High Street (originally 241 High Street) which was built for him in 1886, having purchased the block a year earlier. In 1886, the property was listed in the Rate records as a dwelling house, garden and sheds.


Webster's modest memorial along the Fremantle Cemetery Heritage Trail.

Heritage Council:
Philip Webster was born in 1829 and died on 26 September 1893. He married twice, first to Maria Elizabeth (1825-1862) and then to Emily Caroline [or Catherine - church records] Duffield (1845-1868 [died of typhoid fever]). [But see below for a possible third wife.] Webster owned Fremantle's Esplanade Hotel in the 1860s and 1870s, and was listed as a nurseryman in the 1876. During the 1890s he was an auditor for the Fremantle Municipal Council. He has been remembered as 'a great lover of flowers'.


Memorial to Webster's first wife, Maria, not far along the same Heritage Trail in Fremantle Cemetery from Webster's own small memorial.

Heritage Council:
Records indicate that the Moreton Bay Fig Tree (Ficus macrophylia [sic: should be macrophylla]) was planted in the late 1880s by Webster in the grounds of his large house. This particular tree is purported to be the progenitor of many of the Moreton Bay Fig trees in Fremantle, including the Proclamation Tree (which was planted in 1890). Webster is also credited with planting the Moreton Bay Fig trees around Kings Square and St John's Church grounds.
Following Webster's death in 1893, the property passed to his Trustees. His son, Philip Cranworth Webster, and a Duffield relative were the executors of the will, which left the house to his housekeeper in trust during her lifetime. According to local legend, the will specified that one of the conditions of the will was that the housekeeper preserve the tree. (It should be noted that this speculation does not appear to have been verified against Webster's will.)
In 1896, the house was occupied by Frank Connor and Henry Stubbs, a butcher. Maud Morris, a boarding house keeper, was listed as the occupant in 1900. The following year, the house was used as the club rooms for the German Club, which had been formed in 1901 after a meeting in the Park Hotel. Mr L. Ratzzi, the German Consul, was the chairman and meetings were held in Manhattan House (195 High Street).
By 1904/05, Bunning Bros had purchased or leased the land to the north and rear of the house for use as a timber yard. A 1908 PWD plan shows a large brick house with full a length front verandah wrapping around the north-east elevation; a brick addition to the rear (not shown on a 1902 diagram), galvanised iron outbuildings (shown on 1898 plan).
In 1914/15, the property was listed in the Rate records as Buchholz Hall and Bunning Bros (club rooms and timber yard). In this year, title passed to Philip Cranworth Webster (1867-1948). The German Club closed in August 1914 due to World War I. Many of its members were interned.
By 1940, Bunning Brothers' timber yard had gone and there was a tennis court on the old yard site. By this time, the street numbers had changed and the Webster house was designated no. 195 High Street. Philip Webster junior died in 1948, and title to the property passed to his estate. By 1951/52, the house was occupied by Jean Mortimer and was used as an (unregistered) boarding house. Heritage Council.

J.K. Hitchcock:
On October 1, 1890, the anniversary of Trafalgar Day, the Moreton Bay fig tree in the triangle of Adelaide-street and Edward-street was planted by His Excellency the Governor, Sir William Robinson, in commemoration of responsible government being granted to the colony. The tree was provided by Phillip Webster, one of the auditors of the Fremantle Municipal Council, who, with the mayor and councillors, attended the Governor and handed to him a gold-painted spade with which he performed the ceremony. It was intended that the spade should be placed with the municipal treasures, but it disappeared. Webster, it should be recorded, planted most of the trees growing in St John's Church grounds. Hitchcock: 70.

John Dowson:
Philip Cranworth Webster collapsed while walking through one of his favourite places, Fremantle Park. He was taken to his home nearby at 195 High Street, a few doors away from Victoria Hall, and died soon afterwards sitting on his verandah. That was September, 1893, but Philip Webster's legacy lives on. His house is still there, and it is the first house in High Street when travelling from the beginning of High Street at the Round House. Webster built his two-storey ten room house in 1885 and besides his insistence on a verandah all round, he had constructed a conservatory for the raising of plants. While having various careers and interests, including building the Federal Coffee Palace, now Lance Holt School in Henry Street, his passion was plants and trees. The West Australian (22/8/1885) noted that 'many gardens now in Fremantle were in emulation of Mr Webster, who formerly had perhaps the finest collection of flowers in the colony.' In fact the area between his former house in Adelaide Street and the front fence was described as 'a panorama of multiflorous loveliness'.
Following Webster's death the High Street house had many uses, including being the German Club after 1901 and the timber yard for Bunnings from 1907. In his will Webster stipulated that the Moreton Bay fig tree in the front yard was not to be touched, and 107 years later it survives as the largest tree in High Street. He is also responsible for planting the huge Moreton Bay fig trees in Kings Square, and the Proclamation Tree opposite St Patrick's Basilica in 1890.
We need more Philip Websters out there planting trees. What is not commonly appreciated is that the Moreton Bay trees have a value of over one million dollars. John Dowson, personal communication.

Daily News, 1893:
We regret to announce the death of Mr. Philip Webster, of Fremantle. Mr. Webster died shortly after 4 o'clock yesterday, at his residence, High-street, from an apoplectic seizure. About ten years ago the deceased gentleman was prostrated with a similar attack, but he recovered his activity, and up till yesterday morning was apparently in his usual health. In the afternoon, he took a walk, and while passing through the Fremantle Park was seen to fall suddenly. As he did not again rise to his feet the attention of some bystanders was attracted, and it was found that Mr. Webster was in a fit. He was at once conveyed to his residence, which is only a short distance from the Park, and Dr. Lotz, who was passing through High-street, was called in attendance. Death, however, took place when the deceased was placed within the verandah of his house. Mr. Webster, who was 65 years of age, came to the colony about 35 years ago, and his first principal occupation was as manager of Carter & Co.'s drapery establishment. He was subsequently engaged in auctioneering and was afterwards in partnership with Mr. Marmion. He then entered into the wine trade, and for about twenty years carried on the business now conducted by Mr. George A. Davies in High street, Fremantle. Latterly he devoted himself to the business of a nurseryman, and he was also interested in town property and station investments to some extent. Last year, Mr. Webster built the fine building in Henry-street now known as the Federal Coffee Palace. The deceased leaves a widow and one son, and very general regret is expressed at his sudden death. Daily News, Wednesday 27 September 1893: 4 (News and Notes)

Gravestone of Emma Elizabeth Webster, d. 1905, in Fremantle Cemetery. The Heritage Council notes (above) that nurseryman Philip Webster had two wives, but not this third one. The Daily News obit (immediately above) notes that he left a widow, so it seems that he married for a third time, to Emma. Webster himself was buried in the Skinner Street Cemetery as the current one didn't open until 1898. His gravestone, but not his remains, was brought to the Heritage Trail in the Fremantle Cemetery (which is in Palmyra).

References and Links

Daily News, Wednesday 27 September 1893: 4 (News and Notes)

Hitchcock, JK 1929, The History of Fremantle, The Front Gate of Australia 1829-1929, Fremantle City Council.

Heritage Council entry

John Dowson, personal communication (above)

Entry for Webster's house

Garry Gillard | New: 29 August, 2015 | Now: 2 September, 2022