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  The Webbs at Chantilly and Gouvieux, A Reminiscence

A reminiscence provided by Bill Webb, Australia, scion, on both sides of his family, of several generations of English-born, French-based trainers. He was the son of the successful trainer, William Joseph Webb (1877-1954) and Emily Cunnington, the latter the tenth child of trainer George Cunnington and his wife Maria Carter Cunnington. Translation and annotation by Patricia Erigero.
©Bill Webb and Thoroughbred Heritage 2008

WILLIAM WEBB 1848 - 1923

[William Webb] was my father's uncle. He was born in London's East End -- his family documents were destroyed in the 1940/41 London bombings. At the age of ten he began his apprenticeship with W. Butler, the Duke of Bedford's trainer. At the age of twenty he became the head stable lad under Boyce, and after that [was head stable lad] with Matthew Dawson, trainer for the Duke of Falmouth. These stables gave him a good foundation, it was quite a hard trade -- not some forty-hour work week.

William Webb Sr. on cob
William Webb (1848-1923) on his cob. Photo courtesy Bill Webb ©2008
Some of Webb's Big Winners
Poule d'Essai des Pouliches
Sakountaia (1886)
Semendria (1900)
Poule d'Essai des Poulains
Rezuelo (1888)
Fra Angelico (1892)
Prix du Jockey Club
Sycomore (1886 d/h)
Chêne Royal (1892)
Ragotsky (1893)
Grand Prix de Paris
Fitz-Roya (1890)
Ragotsky (1893)
Dolma Baghtché (1894)
Semendria (1900)
Prix de Diane
Semendria (1900)
Grande Poule (Prix Lupin)
Puchero (1890)
Chêne Royal (1892)
Le Sagittaire (1895)
Palmiste (1897)
Prix du Nabob
Pacific (1880)
Ravioli (1894)
Grand Prix de Deauville
El Rey (1879)
Le Sancy (1889, 1890)
Le Sagittaire
Grand Criterium
Perplexité (1880)
Le Sagittaire (1894)
Baron Schickler was looking for a trainer for his French stable, his friend the Duke [Falmouth] recommended William to him, and in 1878 William left Newmarket for Chantilly to establish this enterprise. He was part of the large wave of English [trainers] going to Chantilly during this period. He did not speak a word of French, but it wasn't necessary because Chantilly, at this time, was a "city" dominated by the English. He became an immediate success, and his training abilities exceeded those of other trainers. For more than five years he was number one! His knowledge of English racing enabled him to send a crack that won an English "classic" (imagine that in 1890). One year he won more than sixteen thousand pounds sterling (an enormous sum). At the peak of his career he had won more than 36,000 pounds. The stables included thirteen greys -- all aces -- famous horses like Le Sancy, Semendria, Beatrix, Le Justicier, and many others. He won the Grand Prix de Paris, the Prix de Diane, the Grand Prix de Deauville, etc.

From a personal point of view, he was not a man who suffered "idiots." He lived hard, but he liked to live. He advanced many jockeys. The most famous was Tommy French, who was very celebrated. He rode the Royal family's horses during this period, he and his wife stayed as guests of the King of Romania, and he rode in Germany, Belgium, etc. He died young, at age 42 in 1910 (due to the drink?). His wife became my godmother, and has been a widow for more than 40 years. Tommy was associated with the first group of twenty trainers that established themselves at Chantilly -- thus one was French. Another [person trained by Webb] was Jimmy Johnson, the head stable lad (that my father took on when he became a trainer). Jimmy was a man of the old school, speaking not a word of French. I remember that he gave me a tricycle as a gift when I was small! These men were totally dedicated to horses. They were taught the art of raising horses by my father.

In 1880 William returned to England to marry his sweetheart, Phoebe Issacson. She died during the birth of a child at the age of thirty-six (a common situation). William was shattered, and never re-married.

William had a brother, Henry, who joined him in France. He was a jockey and later a trainer [for the Comte de Moltke-Huiltfeld, M. de Monbel and A. Meric, with winners such as Ganelon and La Serqueuse]. He died without children. He also had a sister, Alice, who was younger. On February 18, 1877, at the age of twenty-one she had a boy child -- it was my father, also named William. He was a "bastard" and had a miserable life, because the family was very poor, etc. William arranged for his nephew to join him at Chantilly, and he adopted this little boy as if he were his own son. He left [England] on October 20, 1886 for France at the age of nine. His uncle saved him from a horrible destiny.
Because he spent three years at a school near St. Denis, the boy learned French, and was the only one in the household able to speak it, becoming the interpreter. At the age of twelve William placed him in the stables under the tutelage of Jimmy Johnson. Later, he [the boy] worked in the business, determining the engagements and became the "travelling head lad," and going to Baden-Baden, Biarritz, Deauville, and England. He learned the craft of the trainer.

William Webb's Greys at Martinvast
William Webb's "Greys," all winners, at Baron Schickler's Martinvast c. 1896, Webb, mounted on a grey, in center. Photo courtesy Bill Webb ©2008


My father began his career as a private trainer for Mr. Ephrussi, having a share of the establishment as part of the "deal." He lived with his small family of two boys at Primrose Cottage, part of Mill Cottage (still in existence). That beneficial association established my father as a trainer. Ephrussi committed suicide! Fortunately, the Comte de Portales recommended him to Mr. [Maurice] Caillaut, the Minister of Agriculture, who owned Mill Cottage. It was a hugely successful association, winning the Prix de Diane [In 1913 with Moia by MacDonald II-Mathilde] and other great races.
William Webb in 1912
William Joseph Webb (1877-1954) in 1912
Photo courtesy Bill Webb ©2008

In October 1913 he suffered a personal disaster when his first wife died of cancer, leaving him with two young boys. In April of 1914 he married Emily Maria Cunnington (my mother) -- the last daughter of George Cunnington. The war [World War I] put an end to horse training, but the family continued to live at Mill Cottage, which became a center for the evacuation of the wounded. In 1916 my sister Beatrix was born there (she died in February 2002), and my other sister, Rosie, appeared in 1919 (she died in 1998). I was born in 1927, a surprise to the entire family. I weighed only 1-1/2 kilos and "they" decided I would not live, but I had other ideas.

During the war, my father fattened pigs. After the war, they [the family] moved to a place in the Rue des Cascade and he [my father] began training for Jean Pratt (Noily Pratt) and went to live at "Pavillion Arach" (still in existence), quite near Aigles. When Jean Pratt died, they rented a large stable, "Calistrate," owned by Marchal Marchant, at Gouvieux, and after a few years my father bought the big stables at 3, Rue de Lamorlaye, owned by the Comte de Bouregard (who had gone "broke") and became a public trainer. He trained for the Comtesse de Lastour, the Comte Bamberger, Jean Juge, the American Lawrence, and especially Mr. Paul Machado of Brazil. He was a good friend of the Comte de Dampierre, along with many others.

Meller's Helleniqua (by Agathos) won the Cambridgeshire, 1938
Six Avril
Machado's Six Avril (by Town Guard) winning Prix de la Esperance, 1938
Photo courtesy Bill Webb ©2008

During the 1930s (during the depression), my father had a continuous period of success. In 1938 a small mare with the heart of a lion [Helleniqua], belonging to Mr. [Jacques] Meller, won the Cambridgeshire in England at odds of 100/1 [Helleniqua, barely 15 hands, beat the 17 hand Khasnadar by a neck, with Domaha a short head behind in a thrilling finish. A winner of 16 races, she had been taken to Newmarket to sell, but had no takers at 450 guineas before the race; after, she sold at Newmarket December to Sol Green for 750 guineas and was shipped to Australia. Her owner, Meller, said of her race, "It is the crowning point of my career as an owner [53 years on the turf], and I don't care if I never win another race."]

The war [World War II] started in 1939 and the establishment was requisitioned by the French Army. That was the end of his career. You know the rest. [Webb, along with other non-collaborating English trainers and jockeys and 4,000 other British-borns caught by the war, was interned at the St. Denis concentration camp by the Germans, from the invasion to the end of the war. Webb was interned for four years. His wife and eldest daughter, as British subjects, were arrested in December 1940. Mrs. Webb was released in May, 1941, because her son (author Bill Webb) was under the age of sixteen. The daughter remained interned until July, 1944, when she was part of an exchange of British women for German soldiers, some wounded from the North African campaign, and some Germans from South Africa.]

Released from St. Denis, he returned a broken and disappointed man. He could not confront the robbers who had plundered our large house. He didn't have the means nor the heart to begin with nothing, in spite of the assistance of his many friends. He sold the property and went to live at Newmarket, in England. He was very disappointed, because the English were not tolerant of the "colonials," and he was not accepted. The Jockey Club gave him a pass to the grounds of the racecourse, but that is all. The English are "snobs." He missed his friends in France, but he never admitted it.

[An obituary for William J. Webb, who died 24 July 1954, said he "...was typical of the English and Continental professional trainer of the old class, conscientious and painstaking to a degree in the interests of his patrons, courteous to all and thoroughly competent." After returning to England, although he never could train again, he served as a bloodstock consultant to breeders in France, Argentina and Uruguay, and was commissioned to make purchases for the Rothschilds and Machado, among others.]

Webb with yearlings
William J. Webb (center) and his staff breaking yearlings. Photo courtesy Bill Webb ©2008


I was born in France, and started my education at the local primary school. In 1938 I was sent to a small prepatory school with the view of learning English. My parents brought me home when war was declared, as it "seemed safer" than returning to England. During the war, when Germans troops occupied our large home, my mother and other sister survived in the coach house. We grew vegetables, raised rabbits -- we ate one per week -- and even had enough to fatten two pigs.

I was repatriated to England, not knowing anyone, and without qualifications. I joined the Royal Navy and served for two years in the Far East. After my discharge, I studied agriculture, and then worked for various firms. I worked for a Unilever subsidiary in East Africa, and after my marriage was employed by Dow Corporation in England. We farmed in Norfolk, and then emigrated to Western Australia, owning and operating a large cattle ranch, but ran out of money. The Bechtel Corporation employed me as a manager on the Mount Newman Project in Western Australia, and eventually, as personnel manager, I worked in Indonesia, North Africa, the Middle East and Saudi Arabia, and London. Still working for Bechtel, I returned to Australia with my family, and working out of Melbourne, assisted in staffing a New Zealand enterprise. I retired at age 62. I am now 81, and happily married to Daphne, my wife of 56 years. We have two children, and four grandchilden.

Les Anglais in France
IntroductionCross-Channel Exchanges The Families Reminiscence:
The Webbs

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