Gilbert Tom Webster was born in Bilston, Staffordshire, on 17 July 1886, the son of an ironmonger. He was educated at the Royal Wolverhampton School, and at the age of fourteen got his first job as a railway booking-clerk. Self-taught as an artist, Webster won prizes in competitions for humorous drawings run by the Birmingham Weekly Post, Manchester Evening Chronicle, and Athletic News. Around 1909 he joined the staff of the Birmingham Sports Argus, on a three-year contract. He was contracted to draw twelve cartoons a week, but often did twice as many.
In 1912 Webster moved to London to work as a political cartoonist on the Daily Citizen, whilst also working for the Daily News and Star and the Golf Illustrated. The Daily Citizen was backed by the Labour Party, but Webster was not suited to political cartooning, and on one occasion Ramsay MacDonald, Labour Party chairman, wired the editor “TELL WEBSTER NOT TO BE FUNNY”. He soon moved back to sports cartooning, and pioneered a new style. Press photography was growing in popularity, and the illustrated Daily Mirror had the largest circulation in Fleet Street. “I saw the red light,” Webster later recalled, “and realised that I had to find something the camera could not do”. He began to develop his characteristic “running comment” cartoon style, but in June 1915 - ten months after the outbreak of the First World War - the Daily Citizen folded.
In November 1915 Webster volunteered for the army, giving his occupation as "Bank clerk". Sent to France in May 1916 as a Lance Corporal, he saw action in the Battle of the Somme. Wounded in the neck at St. Eloi in November 1916, Webster was invalided home soon afterwards, then spent six months in hospital before being discharged in July 1917. Webster then worked as a freelance cartoonist, contributing to London Opinion, but he also became involved with film animation, working for the Birmingham Film Producing Company on the cartoons “The History of a German Recruit” (1917), “Charlie at the Front” (1918) and “Charlie Joins the Navy” (1918). It was hard to find continuous work in wartime. “There’s my old flat”, Webster later joked to Lord Northcliffe, as they drove past the Savoy Hotel. “Did you use to live at the Savoy?” Northcliffe replied in surprise. No, Webster replied, he had spent three nights on a bench nearby, looking for work.
In 1918 Webster managed to get a job as sports cartoonist on Northcliffe’s London Evening News. He was so successful that in 1919 Northcliffe transferred him to its sister paper the Daily Mail. Offered £1,500 a year, he demanded - and got - £2,000. “Do not use many of Tom Webster’s cartoons, and always put them at the bottom of the page”, Northcliffe told the Daily Mail’s editor, conscious of the growing power of his cartoonist. But Webster’s up-to-the-minute “running comment” cartoons, refined by his experience of film animation, became a feature of the Daily Mail, and gained an enormous following.
“I don’t believe in simply getting incidents,” Webster wrote of his cartooning method, "I am always after a story.” His narrative cartoons began life at the sporting events themselves. These often took place in the evening, and Webster had to work quickly to catch the deadline for the next day’s paper. Drawing rapidly in pocket sketchbooks, sometimes without even looking at the paper, he created the reference material for his cartoons. Then, as he explained, “I have to settle the sequence of the episodes, work up to the climax of my comic story, and pencil the whole thing in, within half an hour. This leaves me about three-quarters of an hour for finishing in ink.”
Webster’s speed was sometimes even greater. In July 1919 his three-column cartoon of boxer Jimmy Wilde defeating Pal Moore at Olympia was on the Daily Mail presses little more than an hour after the fight ended. To increase speed still further, the paper later provided Webster with a chauffeur-driven Daimler, fitted with an easel, so that he could start drawing on the way back to the office. His record completion speed was allegedly eighteen minutes, whilst returning to the Daily Mail from a boxing match.
In August 1920 Webster went on a month-long tour of the USA, sending back cartoons of sporting events and Hollywood stars. That year the first album of his work was also issued with the title “Tom Webster of the ‘Daily Mail’ Among the Sportsmen”. The run of 70,000 copies was quickly sold out, and it became the first of a twenty-year series of annuals.
Webster’s cartoons were now so popular that he influenced the way people viewed sporting events. The Daily Mail put placards at sporting events, saying “TOM WEBSTER IS HERE!”, so that spectators would buy the paper next day. “After the Prince of Wales”, wrote the journalist Hannen Swaffer, “Tom excites more attention than any man I have ever seen at a sporting gathering”.
In October 1921 a racehorse called Tishy was talked up as the favourite for the Cesarewitch at Newmarket, but came in last. Her owner said the defeat was “simply inexplicable”, but Tishy had a habit of changing her stride, so Webster drew her as a permanently cross-legged failure. She became one of his stock characters, and such a symbol for sporting disaster that she reportedly became unbackable. When Tishy was killed in an accident in July 1923 Webster produced a memorial cartoon, and continued to include references to her in his work.
Webster also worked with the animators W.D. Ford and Joe Noble of Napoleon Films to produce a series of cartoons based on his work, starting with “Tishy”, which premiered in December 1922. They also produced “Inman in Billiards” and “Jimmy Wilde”, both in 1923, Melbourne Inman and the boxer Jimmy Wilde being two sportsmen who featured prominently in Webster’s cartoons. By 1924 Webster was reputedly the highest-paid cartoonist in the world, and in that year he was part author of the “Cartoons” revue at London’s Criterion Theatre. This included two more animated cartoon sequences by Joe Noble, the first being a parade of Webster’s cartoon characters, who formed an “anti-cartoonist league”.
Webster was a Conservative who occasionally included anti-socialist references in his cartoons. On the night of the May 1929 General Election a series of his cartoons was projected onto a giant screen in Trafalgar Square. Later that year, in New York, Webster married Mae Flynn, a former member of the Ziegfeld Follies, and their wedding was covered by the newsreels. They had their honeymoon in Hollywood, where Webster drew Charlie Chaplin, whom he had known earlier in England.
Webster played golf with Herbert Chapman, manager of Arsenal Football Club, and in 1933, according to one version of the story, Webster’s habit of wearing a red sleeveless sweater over a white shirt inspired Chapman to redesign the club’s red shirts to incorporate their trademark white collar and sleeves. According to Webster's family, he produced the design himself, and was rewarded with a shirt signed by the players on the sleeves and the directors on the collar. In December 1933 Webster began providing humorous commentaries for sporting items on British Movietone News, and in June 1934 he made his first appearance on television, celebrating the event in a cartoon.
Webster was divorced in 1933, and in December 1935 married Ida Michael, an American showgirl who had starred on Broadway in the Earl Carroll Vanities, and later danced in the Dorchester Cabaret in London. In 1936 Webster was one of the artists commissioned to decorate the liner Queen Mary. Webster produced a coloured frieze of sporting caricatures, eighteen inches deep, which ran around the walls of the first-class gymnasium.
Webster sketched his cartoons about one and a half times published size, using “any sort of cardboard with a decent surface”. He then inked them in using a Waverley pen. He was using mechanical tint as early as 1919, but most of his work was shaded where necessary with cross-hatching.
The outbreak of war in 1939 reduced the number of sporting events, and Webster turned to other work. In November 1939 he appeared in an ENSA concert for the troops in France, alongside Gracie Fields, in an event covered by British Movietone News. In May 1940 Webster resigned from the Daily Mail to continue this work. He performed in concert parties in France and Belgium, as a cartoonist and comedian, as well as doing some work as a war correspondent.
In 1944 Webster returned to cartooning with the Sunday Empire News, a Manchester-based paper with a two-million circulation, mainly in the Midlands and North. In 1953 he joined the News Chronicle. Webster retired in 1956, and died at his home in London on 21 June 1962. He was survived by his second wife, two daughters, and a son.
- Gilbert Tom Webster's army pension record, the National Archives London, WO 364.
- Daily Mirror, 21 April 1924, p.4 col.2, “Stage ‘Cartoons.’”
- Daily Mirror, 6 September 1929, p.3 col.4, “Tom Webster Married.”
- Denis Gifford, “Is There Still Life After Animation?”, The Guardian, 29 March 1980, p.10.
- BCA Archive, Pat Adams “Tom Webster”, October 1985.
- BCA Archive, Colin Seymour-Ure “Tom Webster (1886-1962) - ‘The Best Cartoonist Now Writing’.”
- Martin Thorpe “The Day Arsenal Saw Red on White”, The Guardian, 26 February 1994, p.18.
- Richard Onslow, ‘Webster, (Gilbert) Tom (1886–1962)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004.
- http://www.arsenal.com/history/kit-design (viewed September 2009)
- Information from Tom Webster's daughter, Maureen Pritchett.
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