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Born: 27 Jan 1918 –  died: 12 Jul 1990
Clothed - 22 Sep 1936
Solemn Vows- 20 Sep 1941
Priest - 21 Jul 1946

Anthony Damian Webb was born in East Grinstead on 27 January 1918. He was the elder son of Geoffrey Webb, the artist, whose work for Churches, particularly in stained glass, was well known between the wars. Anthony was educated at Ladycross and Ampleforth and the summer term of 1936 was his last in the school. In those days it was normal to decide on a career or vocation in life on leaving school at the age of 18. After all, 90% of the young of the country had left school and started work by the age of 14, so 18 on the national average was a bit late to begin life, and there was nothing special about Anthony Webb's request to join the novitiate in the monastery. He had a close friend whose father was up at Exhibition that year. This man came from Lancashire, spoke straight and to the point and he knew well his son's friend Anthony. Fr Paul Nevill, the Headmaster, took him aside and asked him if he thought Anthony was suited to the novitiate and likely to survive. He reflected for a moment and then said he thought him well suited and he would survive on one condition - that he was given access to a workshop and tools to work with. This was essential, the friend's father said, because Anthony was not the sort of human being who could survive on a diet of psalms and singing in choir; he had so strong a creative streak that he would always need to have the opportunity of making things, of working with his hands.

At the time it was something of a revolution in the novitiate when, on Fr Paul's initiative, such a workship was provided and Fr Damian's creative streak was given an outlet. What his friend's father had perceived in him was no ordinary gift for banging things together. While in the school he had made his mark as an artist and had learnt a high standard in woodwork from Albert Butler, who was a very fine joiner, and from Robert Thompson of Kilburn, but what became apparent in those early days was that he was no mere imitator. He stamped his own perception and personality on anything he made, and what he liked above all was the challenge of a problem in design and construction - preferably one which had not been or could not be solved by others.

Woodwork was not enough for his creative instinct which as time went on found other outlets. After three years in the monastery he spent four years reading Biology at St Benet's Hall Oxford. He enjoyed Oxford and developed some interesting views on creation, on the meaning of the living world, reflected in a journal article in 1950. But his genius was practical and he was too much occupied in whatever was his dominant problem at the time to write much.

He had a theory about the tone of a violin; so he made a violin to experiment. Then he made a power tool to work on the inside of the sound-box. When his question was answered he lost interest, because another question had arisen. A humming-bird hawk-moth had never been photographed in the act of feeding, so he made a glass flower to deceive it and got the photograph, which then was published round the world. He made an observation hive for bees to pursue his experiments in tracking them. He made a perilous hide swaying on the top of a tree from which he photographed herons at Gilling. He photographed badgers at night and any number of other living things in Europe and Africa, when he had a chance to go there in 1973. His photographs were always good and often brilliant. No-one else could be trusted to develop or print his work. He made a machine which controlled his green-house, watered the plants, operated the shutters and the cameras day and night for time-lapse photography. He played the flute, the violin, the guitar, Northumbrian pipes and various other instruments. He discovered and revived the Ampleforth Sword Dance and taught a group of boys to perform it with swords that he made himself. There were no Northumbrian bagpipes to be had when he wanted them, so he made a set. There were many other things he designed and made in the intervals of teaching biology and metalwork also, for it was he who started the metalwork shop.

It was a consequence of Fr Damian's inventiveness and the variety of his gifts, that he gave the impression of being unable to stick at any one thing for any length of time; there was some truth in that, because he had too many creative ideas in too many different disciplines chasing each other in his mind. Moreover while each idea and his pursuit of it possessed him, he found it difficult to think or talk of anything else. It meant that the experience of being taught by him was unique in the wide interest and high standard of performance it brought those who could respond, but it made him less effective in ordinary teaching which gets results for the average candidates through patient repetition rather than flights of creative imagination. So much was he possessed by the current creative idea that it dominated his conversation and limited the scope of others in attempting to make a contribution. His enthusiasms were infectious but also at times overwhelming.

In 1957 Fr Damian went out to parish work in Workington after some local experience at Kirkbymoorside. He moved to Leyland in 1966 and in 1969 became Catholic Chaplain to Cardiff University. He was at Cardiff for three years and retained to the end a close friendship with many of his students of that time and their growing families. In 1973 he was made parish priest of Garforth, where he dealt with interminable structural problems on the property. In 1983 he moved to Bamber Bridge as assistant and died there suddenly on 12 July this year.

It was about the time that he moved to parish work that an interest developed which proved more lasting and thorough than many others and in which his achievements made him a well known authority. This was concerned with children's games and dances. Fr Damian had a striking gift for communicating with children and, with the help of his various musical instruments, he was able to persuade them to sing and dance their traditional games for him. He recorded these street games and made many remarkable photographs of the children. He got to know the Opies and co-operated with them in some of their publications. He built up a remarkable collection of tapes and photographs. On the morning of his death he offered Mass for the children in the Primary School in Bamber Bridge. All had been arranged for him to take a photograph immediately afterwards of one of their singing games for the Oxford University Press, but the sudden onset of his illness prevented him.

More important to him as a priest was his pastoral work with children. He devised liturgies and hymns for them in parish and school context. He was able to make them feel that the liturgy was for them and their prayers something precious between them and God, not a way of following the incomprehensible prayers of adults; under his direction they felt at ease on their own territory and responded eagerly. In all he made some 30 broadcasts on radio and television both of children's games and children's prayer. What he did in his children's liturgies was not specially contrived for broadcasting; in the school and in the parish he was doing it all the time, and the prayer and singing of the children was memorable because they were always so natural and manifestly at home in their response.

Fr Damian went a number of times to Fatima in the fifties and became a regular pilgrim there. He explained the devotion, which meant much to him, in an article in the Journal 'Regina Mundi' in 1954. There are hints in that article of a cosmic vision of creation which was closely linked to his understanding of life as a biologist. It was that understanding that led him to meditation on Psalm 103 (104) in which he found a celebration of creation, of life, of God's glory revealed in life on this earth. It was a vision which he communicated brilliantly in a meditative lecture or presentation of the psalm which will be remembered by all who were present when he gave it. He used slides from his photographs of nature with extracts of music to fit the pictures. This presentation of Psalm 103 is in many ways his best memorial; the world of nature, life and living beings, the interdependence of all God's creatures, photography, music, the word of Scripture - all are there and suggest the unity behind his diverse gifts and interests. He presented this meditation as a 'live show' himself on many occasions, but fortunately he left his text and directions; since his death a video has been made of it. It is good that this work has been preserved as a reminder of Fr Damian and an inspiration to others.

N.P.B. [Abbot Patrick Barry]


Details from the Abbey Necrology

DOM ANTHONY DAMIAN WEBB         12 July 1990
1918   27 Jan       Born East Grinstead
1932-36             Educ Ampleforth
1936   22 Sep       Habit                    Abbot Matthews
1937   22 Sep       Simple Vows                "      "
1940      Sep       Renewed Vows for 1 year  Abbot Byrne
1941    9 Apr       Tonsure                    "     "
       20 Sep       Solemn Vows                "     "
1943   23 Jul       Subdeacon                Bishop Shine
1945   22 Jul       Deacon                     "      "
1946   21 Jul       Priest                   Bishop McCormack
1940-43             St Benet's Hall Nat Sc 3
1955      Sep       Parish Priest at Kirbymoorside
1957    8 Feb       Assistant at Workington
1966      Sep       Assistant at Leyland
1969      Sep       Chaplain to Cardiff University
1972      Jul       Year's sabbatical
               East Africa - retreats
1973   21 May       Parish Priest at Garforth
1983      Sep       Assistant at Bamber Bridge
1990   12 Jul       Taken ill suddenly & died in Preston hospital 
               Buried at Ampleforth
               Articles in Amp Journal & other periodicals. About 25 
               broadcasts, mostly BBC radio on children's songs & dances. 
               Illustrating `Opie' & OUP books

Sources: AJ 95:2 (1990) 24
© Ampleforth Abbey Trustees   February 2000   Top