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Webster, Sir Charles Kingsley (1886–1961), historian, was born at Rye Ground Lane, Formby, Lancashire, on 25 April 1886, the sixth of the seven children of Daniel Webster, shipping agent, and his wife, Annie Willey. He was educated at Merchant Taylors' School, Crosby, Liverpool, and at King's College, Cambridge, where he was a history scholar. After gaining a first class in part two of the historical tripos in 1907, he was awarded the university Whewell scholarship in international law. In 1910 he won a fellowship at King's College on the strength of a dissertation on foreign policy between 1814 and 1818. The diplomatic history of the nineteenth century continued to be the focus of his academic interest for the next forty years. His first article, ‘Castlereagh and the Spanish colonies’, appeared in the English Historical Review in 1912 (27.78–95), and he took part in organizing the International Congress of Historical Sciences, which met in London in 1913. Although he worked for long periods in foreign archives, King's College, Cambridge, continued to be his base until he accepted the chair of modern history at the University of Liverpool in March 1914.

The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 led Webster to volunteer for military service in 1915, but poor eyesight precluded a combatant role and he took a commission in the Army Service Corps. In 1917 he was transferred to an intelligence section of the general staff at the War Office, of which his former tutor, H. W. V. Temperley, was the head. He prepared papers on the Balkans and the possible creation of ‘Jugoslavia’ after the war, on the circumstances in which an armistice might be concluded, and, more especially, on the military and political future of Palestine. He became interested in Zionism and came to admire Chaim Weizmann. His pre-war research had concerned the settlement at the end of the Napoleonic wars, and, on the strength of it, in the summer of 1918 he was seconded to the Foreign Office to advise on how earlier mistakes might be avoided. He prepared a Foreign Office handbook, published by Oxford University Press in 1919 (revised, 1934), entitled The Congress of Vienna, which became a classic. At the peace conference Webster acted as secretary to the military section of the British delegation. During the war, on 7 July 1915, Webster married Nora Violet, daughter of Richard Perry Harvey, who had been brought up in Italy. It was a happy marriage in which Nora supported him in his many public activities. There were no children.

In 1919 Webster returned to Liverpool, but his academic life was now combined with a passionate interest in current affairs and a fervent hope that the new international organizations would succeed. He worked energetically for the League of Nations Union. In 1922 he was invited to take the chair of international relations in Aberystwyth (University of Wales), founded by his friend David Davies (later first Baron Davies) and his two sisters, in memory of the fallen of the First World War, and with a remit to promote peace between nations. Nothing could have been more congenial to Webster, and the terms of the appointment were also generous. He was obliged to spend only one term a year in Aberystwyth and was free to travel and accept appointments at other universities for the rest of the time. He travelled worldwide, and in 1927 agreed to spend one term every year at Harvard. The failure of the United States to join the League of Nations deeply disappointed him, and in 1925 he helped to organize a lobby of the churches of Wales to the churches of America in an attempt to sway American opinion.

While at Aberystwyth Webster wrote his two major books on the foreign policy of Lord Castlereagh, the first (published in 1925) covering the period 1815–22, the second (1931) that from 1812 to 1815. Both were massive works of scholarship, based on the archives which were now becoming open to scholars. In the course of examining the attempts then made to establish international peace, he rehabilitated Lord Castlereagh as one of the major (and often progressive) figures of British foreign policy.

In 1932 Webster moved to the newly established Stevenson chair of international relations at the London School of Economics (LSE). In 1934 he gained access to the Palmerston papers at Broadlands and began his work on Palmerston's foreign policy. An early fruit of this was his Raleigh lecture ‘Palmerston, Metternich and the European system, 1830–1841’ (PBA, 20, 1934, 125–58). He had hoped to complete the first part of his study, covering the period up to 1841, in 1940, but the Second World War intervened and the two-volume work was not published until 1951.

In London in the 1930s Webster was active in public speaking and journalism, and an outspoken opponent of appeasing Hitler. He had been a member of the Royal Institute of International Affairs since its foundation in 1919, and when, on the outbreak of the Second World War, the institute set up its foreign research and press service, based at Balliol College, Oxford, to furnish information and advice to government departments, Webster became head of its American section.

Webster undertook a successful lecture tour in the United States in the spring of 1941 and must have seemed the ideal choice when asked to take charge of the British Library of Information in Washington, DC. This was a government organization entrusted with influencing American opinion in Britain's favour. Unfortunately it proved the most frustrating year of his life. From the beginning he complained of being overworked, under-resourced, and denied the support promised in advance by the government. It turned into a clash of personalities, and in February 1942 Webster offered his resignation at almost the same time as Brendan Bracken, the minister of information, informed him that he was amalgamating the library with the British Press Service, and that Webster's post had consequently become redundant.

Webster expected to return to the LSE, but was asked instead to go back to the foreign research and press service. In April 1943 this gained official status as the Foreign Office research department. In September 1942 Gladwyn Jebb brought Webster into the economic and reconstruction department of the Foreign Office. There was a general belief that there would have to be ‘a period of convalescence’ after the war. Webster's papers in the LSE library show that he received and commented on a wide variety of drafts concerning domestic as well as international affairs. The latter ranged over future relations with Europe, the Commonwealth, the United States, the Soviet Union, and the Arab states. But the subject with which Webster was most closely concerned was replacing the now discredited League of Nations with a new organization: the United Nations. He was an expert adviser at both the Dumbarton Oaks conference in the summer of 1944 and the San Francisco conference in April 1945. He kept detailed diaries in which he sometimes gave vent to his own feelings, including his exasperation with Winston Churchill. Extensive extracts were later published (see Reynolds and Hughes). Immediately after the war he became adviser to his old friend Philip Noel-Baker, then minister of state at the Foreign Office, and was alternate at the second preparatory commission of the United Nations, which met in London. He attended the first meetings of both the general assembly and the Security Council in January 1946 and the final meeting of the League of Nations in April. He was made KCMG in the new year's honours list in 1946.

Webster returned to academic life, but continued to be active in UNESCO. He was particularly interested in international co-operation between scholars. He worked for it when he became president of the British Academy (of which he had been a fellow since 1930) in 1950. As president (1950–54) he represented the British Academy in the Union Académique Internationale from 1948 to 1959. He was also energetic in the International Congress of Historical Sciences, with which he had been associated since 1913, presiding at the Stockholm meeting in 1960. He tried in particular to re-establish relations with scholars from behind the iron curtain, which had cut off Russia and eastern Europe from the west. He was showered with honours and invitations, among them honorary degrees from Oxford, Wales, Rome, and Williams College, as well as an honorary fellowship at King's, Cambridge. He retired from his chair at the LSE in 1953.

In 1947 Webster gave the Ford lectures in the University of Oxford, speaking on the history of the European state system, but after the publication of Palmerston in 1951 he turned to an entirely new field, the official history of the Anglo-American bombing offensive during the Second World War, which he wrote with Noble Frankland. He saw the proofs but did not live to see the publication of the four volumes. After a short illness he died of cancer at University College Hospital, Gower Street, London, on 21 August 1961; his wife survived him.

As Reynolds remarks (Reynolds and Hughes, 1), Webster was a figure more familiar in American than in British history, an academic specialist from outside the civil service who played an important advisory role in forming his country's policy—although Webster himself sometimes wondered how far his warnings had been heeded. He did believe in the ultimate efficacy of international organization, remarking that although he ‘had no illusions’ about the United Nations charter he did believe that it registered an advance in relations between states (ibid., 73). His meticulous and ultra-detailed scholarship, written straight from the archives, was in many ways out of fashion even when his Palmerston was published in 1951, but his academic work should be seen as part of his labours for peace and progress. Webster believed, as did others of his generation, that if they could understand the workings of the international system better, catastrophes like that of 1914 might be avoided, although as he ruefully observed in his Ford lectures, ‘I underestimated both the pace at which history would be made and the pace at which it could be written’ (PBA, 430). His physical frame was large and loosely assembled, and his dress untidy. Sometimes impatient or tactless, he was not sensitive to the impression made by his outspoken opinions; but he was so transparently a man of goodwill that he had no enemies.

G. N. Clark, rev. Muriel E. Chamberlain

Sources  

BLPES, Webster MSS · S. Bindoff, PBA, 48 (1962), 427 · P. A. Reynolds and E. J. Hughes, The historian as diplomat: Charles Kingsley Webster and the United Nations, 1939–1946 (1976) [incl. extensive extracts from Webster's diaries] · The Times (23 Aug 1961) · WW · WWW · Webster's letters, NL Wales · C. Weizmann, Trial and error: the autobiography of Chaim Weizmann (1949) · Burke, Peerage (1959) · b. cert. · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1961) · personal knowledge (1981) · private information (1981)

Archives  

BLPES, corresp. and papers · London School of Economics, papers · NL Wales, letters |  IWM, Chatham House corresp. · King's Cam., letters to Oscar Browning · King's Lond., Liddell Hart C., corresp. with Sir B. H. Liddell Hart


Likenesses  

W. Stoneman, photograph, 1937, NPG · W. Stoneman, photograph, 1953, NPG · photograph, repro. in Bindoff, PBA · photographs, London School of Economics

Wealth at death  

£44,838 4s. 7d.: probate, 30 Oct 1961, CGPLA Eng. & Wales