The Vicar of Harwell

Harwell is a village in Oxfordshire, probably best know for giving its name to the airfield which became the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell, now the Harwell Science and Innovation Campus, and where I spent most of my career. It was, amongst other things, a pioneer in computing, the Harwell Dekatron Computer dating back to the 1950’s and the CADET computer, one of the first transistorised computers in the world.

I went there because, after my physics degree at Southampton, the diversity of projects being worked on at Harwell offered lots of interesting opportunities.

My Great-great-grandmother, Elizabeth Webster, born Elizabeth Reitze, (daughter of Justus Retize the immigrant baker) in Bethnal Green in 1828, died at Pillar House in Harwell village in 1924. She moved to Harwell some time before the 1911 Census, a long time before there was a Research Establishment there – so what brought her to Harwell ?

Elizabeth, daughter of one baker, married William Webster, son of another baker, in 1846. They had three sons and five daughters, one of those daughters being Ada Webster, my Great Grandmother who married John Robert Box. The youngest of their daughters was Alice Eborral Webster. My sister remembers being told that she had the nickname “baby” because she was the youngest in the family

Alice Eborral Webster (1868-1976)

She was born on the 11th April 1868 in Bethnall Green, and baptised at the church of St Stephen. Aged 12, the 1881 Census shows her at a boarding school at 4, Dartmouth Row, Lewisham, Kent run by Mary Hobbs (occupation Mistress of a Ladies School).


By 1891 Alice was living at Solent House in Portsea with sister Janet, and sister Edith, who was now married to Frederick Braund Box – a licensed appraiser, and brother to John Robert Box.

Frederick Braund Box married Edith Reitze Webster in 1887, three years after John Robert Box married Ada Webster.

Alice’s father, William Webster died in 1889, and her widowed mother Elizabeth was living in Penge in 1891, with her son (and Alice’ brother) William Justus Webster, and a Cook, a Housemaid and Joseph C Cole – an Attendant – whose job was presumably to care for William Justus Webster, who the Cenus describes as Imbecile. Today we would diagnose his condition as early dementia (he was only 41) , as he had certainly been a Cook’s apprentice in 1871. He had married Ann Neame Webb (1850-1913) in 1876, although she was elsewhere in the 1891 Census . He died on 17th May 1891.


By March 1901 Alice was living in Hemel Hempstead, with her mother.

Around July 1901 she married Harry Crowther, in Hemel Hempstead. I do not have details of the marriage, which is odd as Harry was a clergyman.

(coincidentally Alice’s sister Janet Wester, who was living in the same house in Portsea in 1891, also married a clergyman, Thomas Henry Austin (1845-1913), in 1900)

Harry Crowther (1869-1952)

He was born in Liverpool 11th April 1869, son of Henry Crowther and Margaret Jane (nee Riley).

He became a vicar, and I may have more on his clerical career, such as what took him to Hemel Hempstead in 1901, but have not tracked it down.

Harry and Alice’s life together (1901-1952)

Harry and Elizabeth came to Harwell in 1906 when Harry, aged 37, was awarded the benefice.

By 1911 Harry and Alice were living at The Vicarage, Harwell, with a servant and being visited by Sarah Ann Louisa Elliot. (she does not appear to be a relation, but was born around 1870, in Demerera, British Guiana – so her story is probably interesting too.)

Alice’s mother, Elizabeth,now aged 82 was living at Fairlawn, Church Lane, Harwell, conveniently close. She had a Housekeeper and a Servant in the 1911 Census. Elixabeth died, in Pillar House, Harwell in 1924.

Harry remained Vicar of Harwell until late1926, when he resigned on the grounds of ill health.

North WIltshire Herald 1th January 1927

They sold their furniture from the Vicarage and moved to the beneficial seaside air of the Somerset coast.

Berkshire and Oxfordshire Advertiser and Weekly Journal 8th April 1927

Adkins is still a local local firm, which had a office in Wantage when I lived there.

By 1939 Harry and Alice were living in Weston-Super-Mare in Somerset, where Harry died in 1952, aged 83.

Alice’s life after Harry

Alice was 84 when Harry died, and continued to live in Weston- Super-Mare.

At the age of 100, a notable age to reach in 1968, her picture appeared in the Weston Mercury.

Alice Crowther, aged 100

She continued, alert and lively, for several years, I remember visiting her some time in the early to mid 1970’s when she was less mobile, but still very alert.

She appeared again in the papers, celebrating her 107th birthday.

12th April 1975

Cornflake birthday feast for Alice, 107

Mrs Alice Crowther was 107 yesterday – and she celebrated with a birthday breakfast of dry cornflakes and an apple.

Mrs Crowther, above – widow of the Rev. Harry Crowther, vicar of Harwell from 1906 to 1926 – is a creature of habit and wasn’t going to change her breakfast for anything.

She now lives in an old people’s home in Weston-super-Mare but still eats the same thing every morning – cornflakes with no sugar or milk, one piece of bread and butter, an apple and a cup of tea.

But there were better eats to come for the birthday girl. A local baker made her a special cake with just seven candles for Mrs Crowther decided to start again after reaching 100.

She is the youngest of 12 children of a London wine merchant and has been a teetotaller since the age of 24. She is in good health except for trouble with her hearing.


She spends her mornings reading the Bible, large print biographies and non-fiction. In the afternoon she usually turns to historical romances and reads about two books a week.

Mrs Crowther moved from Harwell to Winscombe near Weston-super-Mare in 1926 before moving to the seaside resort when her husband died in 1952. She now lives in the Tranmore Rest Home.

“She enjoys being checked by the younger nurses and she gives as good as she gets” said the Matron. Mrs Diana Byrne.

Mrs Crowther usually goes to bed at 5:30pm, but yesterday she spent her afternoon enjoying a special party at the home. She has no known relatives but the staff joined in to wish her many happy returns.

12th April 1975

Note that she was the daughter of William Webster, the wine merchant in question, who was also a baker. I only know of 9 children, but there may well have been some who died as infants. ‘checked’ probably means ‘cheeked’ as in engaging in banter with the staff. She did, in fact have some relatives, including my immediate family, but none in Somerset.

She died on the 26th January 1976, aged 107.

When she was born in 1868 Queen Victoria was on the throne, and she lived though the reigns of Edward VII, George V, Edward VIII, George VI and into the reign of Elizabeth II.

She saw two world wars, and over a century of amazing change in every field.

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