Ronald A. Webster (1944-1994), a silversmith and amateur songwriter living in Solihull in the early 1970s, wrote the lyrics for what became Roger Whittaker’s biggest-selling single.
We don’t have much information about Ronald Arthur Webster, other than he was born in Birmingham in 1944 and died in 1994, aged 49. He was married twice and had two sons who were born in Solihull in the 1970s. The family seems to have lived in Myton Drive, Shirley from at least 1974 until around 1979, after which they moved to Kings Heath. Ron Webster later moved to America where he died.
According to contemporary newspaper articles, the inspiration for the lyrics came to him one rainy night when he was returning home to Solihull from Hockley, where he worked as an engraver. Information from a family member is that the company he worked for was called Lancaster’s. He was travelling on the upper deck of a Midland bus with wet and dripping windows and wished he were somewhere warm instead.
There doesn’t appear to be any other contemporary information about the song’s inspiration. One theory that has been suggested to us is that it could be based on Captain Matthew Flinders’ return to England. We wondered whether it referred to someone in the British Empire returning to England to fight in the First or Second World War. However, a family member tells us that they think it’s unlikely that the lyrics were inspired by any particular historic event.
Recording by Roger Whittaker
Ron Webster told the Coventry Evening Telegraph (10th September 1975) that he had been writing songs in his spare time for about 15 years and had written The Last Farewell with Roger Whittaker in mind but before the singer had invited listeners to his radio programme to submit lyrics which Roger Whittaker would set to music.
There were one million submissions and Roger Whittaker did one each week for 26 weeks, including Ron Webster’s The Last Farewell. Roger Whittaker included the song on his 1971 album, New World in the Morning (released in the US/Canada as A Special Kind of Man).
In 1975, the wife of a program director at WSB Radio in Atlanta, Georgia, heard the song whilst travelling in Canada. When she returned to the USA, she asked that the track be played on the station and it became the most requested song on WSB’s playlist. It was released as a single, becoming number one in 11 different countries, and selling more than 11 million copies worldwide.
Many artists have covered the song, including Elvis Presley, who recorded the track in 1976 for his album, From Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee. This cover version was released as a posthumous single in the UK in 1984.
A cover version of The Last Farewell was released in 1978 by the Ship’s Company and Royal Marine Band of H.M.S. Ark Royal, pictured at the top of this page. The ship was launched in 1950 and was Britain’s biggest warship until it became non-operational in December 1978 after returning to the UK following a tour of the Mediterranean.
(Photo credit: Isaac Newton, CC BY-SA 2.5 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5, via Wikimedia Commons)
Radio Birmingham broadcast a programme about the composer on 24th January 1978 – The Engraver who struck gold: Ron Webster, songwriter.
If you have any further information about Ronald A. Webster, please let us know.
Library Specialist: Heritage & Local Studies