George Stebbing, the fifth child of Thomas and Margaret Stebbing, was born in the Parish of St. Andrews, in Holborn, London, and was baptized on 26 February 1775. Little is known of his early years in London, but it is known that he moved to Portsmouth around 1800 and by the 7th May 1804 he was advertising in the Hampshire Telegraph for clients willing to purchase a range of instruments.
To Officers of the Navy, Army and Others
G. Stebbing from London, working Optician and Manufaturer of Optical and Mathematical Instruments, No. 29 Broad Street, Point, Portsmouth begs to acquaint them that he has improved the Day and Night Military and other Telescopes. It has been found by the experience of most nautical men that in rough seas and rainy weather, Telescopes can scarcely be used; to prevent such inconvenience a tube is fitted to the instrument that will slide four or five inches over the object glass which not prevents the spray of the sea, rain, mist etc. but corrects the rays of the sun so that the object is quite distinct. Also.......Microscopes, Sextants, Quadrants Compasses, Marine Barometers, Thermometers [and] Globes.....
Plainly Stebbing must have learned the instrument making trade in London and it is suggested that he moved to Portsmouth, partly because the trade in London was dominated by well-established family concerns, such as those of the Troughtons, the Adams and Robert Bate but also because the town would have seen a procession of potential customers in the form of Naval Officers passing through it.
Although Stebbings main residence and workshop were probably in Broad Street he had at least one other outlet at No. 5 Common Hard, Portsea. As Broad Street was outside the town walls he must have been keen to obtain more salubrious premises and he later moved to No. 66 High Street, almost opposite the Sally Port. He was certainly there in 1842 as his name appears on Charpentier's Strangers Guide published that year.
By the time he moved to Portsmouth Stebbing was probably already married to Mary and in 1803 their son George James was born. George was followed by Richard in 1805, Frederick in 1807, Joseph in 1810, Horatio in 1812 and Eleanor and Edwin in 1815. In May 1816, Mary died, shortly after the birth of another daughter Ann who only survived a few weeks.
Despite having moved to Portsmouth George Stebbing maintained close links to London where in 1807 he joined the Vintners Livery Company of London and followed this by becoming a Freeman of the City of London in 1816. His main residence though remained at Portsmouth where his reputation as an instrument maker continued to grow. In 1810 and 1826 he took out patents for the improvement of compasses and other nautical instruments. In 1812 he undertook various experiments with Matthew Flinders and Reverend James Inman, the Professor of Mathematics at the Royal Naval College (there is a memorial to James Inman in St. Ann's Church in Portsmouth Dockyard). In 1818 prototype Binnacles by Stebbing were extensively tested onboard a naval squadron sailing out of Cork, Ireland, and the pattern on trial was later adopted as standard by the Royal Navy.
Stebbing extended his range of business by accepting a Royal Appointment as Optician to the Duchess of Kent, a fact that he proudly displayed over his shop in High Street. He also cemented his position in local society by transferring his membership of the Freemasons from the Vectis Lodge to that of the Phoenix Lodge, also in High Street, before becoming the first Master of the Portsmouth Lodge in 1843. He was also instrumental in the founding of the Portsmouth and Portsea Literary and Philosophical Society in 1818.
The four eldest sons of George Stebbing followed him into the trade of instrument makers suggesting that he was setting up a dynasty to rival those in London. George Junior was sufficiently adept at the trade that he was taken on HMS Beagle as ships Librarian and Instrument Maker alongside Charles Darwin on the epic journey around the world and later set up his own business in direct opposition to his father. This seems to have caused a serious rift between them. Several other members of the family later moved to Southampton where they became pillars of the society there.
In 1822 George Stebbing married Charlotte Butcher of Mile End in Portsmouth and embarked on a second family; Charlotte Elizabeth, was born in 1823, followed by Emma Harriet in 1825, Charles Samuel in 1829, Fanny Clara Heather in 1829 and Julia Laura in 1832. Little is known of these children though all received bequests in Stebbing's Will which was read in 1847 following George's death. His business at 66 High Street appears to have been taken over by the Opticians Browning & Co who by 1859 had moved it to No. 52 High Street.
[This article is based upon the research carried out by James Daly in his dissertation on Stebbing which is available in Portsmouth Central Library and Portsmouth University Library. The article is published here by kind permission of James Daly. The full transcript was published in the Journal of the Southampton Local History Forum, No. 14 Winter 2008.]