WEBSTER, David Lumsden [1903 - 1971]

David Lumsden Webster was born in Dundee on 3rd July 1903, the son of advertising agent Robert Lumsden Webster and his wife Mary Ann Alice. In 1913 the family moved to Liverpool, taking up residence in Wavertree at 66 Barrington Road L15. They lived at this house for many years before moving in the late 1930’s to a somewhat grander home at 6 Sunnyside L8.

David Webster attended the Holt High School and then Liverpool University, where he studied economics. He undertook postgraduate studies in education at Oxford in Liverpool but chose to begin his working life in the retail world, taking a post with the Lewis’s department store. He very soon made his mark and by 1932 had been appointed general manager of the group’s smaller store, the  Bon Marché. On the outbreak of the second world war he became general manager of Lewis’s.

Alongside his successful business career David Webster nurtured a great love for the arts, first flourishing in his university days for a short time it seemed to many that he might pursue a career on the stage. He was a keen participant in amateur dramatics and became a leading figure in the influential Sandon Society. He became a prominent member of the management committee of the Liverpool Philharmonic Society and in 1940 was appointed its chairman. In this role he resisted pressure to suspend concerts during the war and was responsible for recruiting Malcolm Sargent as chief conductor. During his stewardship the orchestra increased its concerts from 32 a year to 148 and it became a permanent body for the first time.

On the recommendation of another Lewis’s executive, Lord Woolton, Webster was seconded to the Ministry of Supply to improve productivity and quality at ordnance factories. On successfully completing this project in 1944 he accepted the offer of a post with the Metal Box Company.

However, at this point his life took a different turn. During the war the music publishers Boosey and Hawkes had acquired the lease of the Covent Garden opera house with the intention of establishing opera and ballet there. As a successful businessman and a proven arts administrator they saw David Webster as the ideal chief executive for the new organisation and in 1944 he agreed to take on the role.

He was the stay at the helm of the Royal Opera House for 26 years and, in the face of some opposition to his appointment, was to establish its outstanding reputation. He was the stabilising presence through numerous financial crises and through various policy changes and changes in musical director.   He was knighted in 1960 and was appointed Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order in 1970.

Outside of the Royal Opera he was a director of Southern TV and president of the Wagner Society. He held visiting lectureships at Bristol and Liverpool University.

His lifelong partner was James Cleveland Belle, whom he met while on business for Lewis’s in 1931. He retired in 1970, his departure being the occasion for a farewell gala for which Benjamin Britten composed a fanfare. He died in Brighton, aged 67, less than a year after his retirement.

David Webster was the subject of a portrait by the celebrated artist David Hockney, the painting being held by the Royal opera House. In 2020, facing desperate financial problems caused by the Covid pandemic, they decided to sell the painting. It was auctioned by Christies for £12,865,000.

66 Barrington Road L15

This was the Webster family home from their arrioval in Liverpool from Dundee  in 1913 until the late 1930's.

6 Sunnyside, Devonshire Road L8

Webster's home from c.1938 until he moved to London.

the Hockney painting of David Webster


There is a comprehensive entry for Adshead in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. The Wikipedia entry is also quite thorough.