Aside from military history, I also specialise in local and maritime history. For my undergraduate dissertation at University, I worked on a biographical study of George Stebbing, a nautical instrument maker who lived and worked in Portsmouth between around 1800 and 1847. A fascinating character he certainly was, with all kinds of interesting connections, links and stories.
But arguably more interesting was his son Joseph Rankin Stebbing, born in 1809. Named after John Rankin, an acquaintance of his father and a local dock builder who built the dry dock where HMS Victory now resides, Joseph moved to Southampton early in his life, and set up an opticians and nautical instrument makers business.
But his importance did not end there. He rapidly became involved in local politics, becoming a councillor, Alderman and finally Lord Mayor of Southampton shortly before his death. He was also the founder and first President of the Southampton Chamber of Commerce, and a prominent freemason. He led the campaign to develop Southampton’s modern commercial docks as we know them today. Owning a significant amount of property, and involved in all manner of deals, campaigns and developments, he was at the centre of virtually everything that happened in the town. If anyone could be described as the father of modern Southampton, Joseph Rankin Stebbing must surely be that man.
But while on the outside he had a veneer of municial grandeur, his personal life was somewhat shady. Remaining a bachelor until his late 50’s, he married Mary Creed, inexplicably in Bermondsey, London. They had had two sons before being married, and both of these sons were cleverly hidden elsewhere when censuses were taken. But even more interestingly, It appears that in the 1871 census, a certain Agnes S. Early lived next door to the Stebbing’s. In later censuses, the S. was extended to Stebbing. It appears that the most esteemed man in Southampton’s modern history had an illegitimate child shortly before his death, with a teenage girl living next door.