Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Webb, Francis Charles (1925–1973)

by H. P. Heseltine

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Francis Charles Webb (1925-1973), poet, was born on 8 February 1925 at Rose Park, Adelaide, third of four children and only son of Claude Webb-Wagg, a professional musician from Sydney, and his English-born wife Hazel Leonie, daughter of Francis Foy who had established Mark Foy's Ltd's store in Sydney. In 1927 Hazel died suddenly. Soon after, Claude (who seems to have had a prior history of mental illness) lapsed into chronic depression and in 1931 had himself admitted to Callan Park Mental Hospital in Sydney, where he died in 1945. He had placed his children in the care of their paternal grandparents, Charles and Amy Webb-Wagg, who lived in North Sydney. Although Charles was not a Catholic, Amy was, and the children were brought up in that faith. A profound and intense Catholicism was to occupy a central place in Francis's verse.

Educated at several Catholic schools on the North Shore, Frank manifested an early talent for poetry; one piece, 'The Hero of the Plains', survives from a set of seven poems that he wrote at the age of 7 for his grandmother's birthday. After attending the Christian Brothers' High School, Lewisham, for two years, he gained first-class honours and second place in the State in the Leaving certificate English examination for 1942. He deferred taking up an exhibition at the University of Sydney. On 10 June that year, as F. Webb, he published a poem, 'Palace of Dreams', in the Bulletin; both Douglas Stewart, its literary editor, and Norman Lindsay encouraged him.

In 1943 Webb started corresponding with Clem Christesen, founding editor of Meanjin Papers. In later years he felt more at home with Meanjin and the Melbourne literary community than with Stewart, Lindsay, and the Bulletin school. On 11 May 1943 Webb enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force. He trained as a wireless air gunner in Australia and Canada but did not see action. Returning to Sydney, he was demobilized on 5 March 1946 as a flight sergeant. He enrolled in arts at the university but failed to complete the year, withdrawing apparently to devote himself to his own thought and creative writing.

In the immediate postwar years, Webb's career flourished. Individual pieces appeared in the Bulletin, and in 1948 his book of poems, A Drum for Ben Boyd, was published, with illustrations by Lindsay. By then Webb had left for Canada, where he worked for two years, as a farm hand and as a publisher's reader and editor. He seems to have had, for the only time in his life, girlfriends, to one of whom he dedicated the poem 'For Ethel'. In 1949, wishing to return to his native land, he travelled by way of England, where he succumbed to the first of many distressing episodes that psychiatrists diagnosed as acute manifestations of chronic schizophrenia.

Reaching Australia in 1950 in the care of his sister Leonie and a special nurse, for the next few years he led an itinerant life, moving mainly between Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide, and publishing two collections of poems—Leichhardt in Theatre (1952) and Birthday (Adelaide, 1953). The title piece of the latter, a verse play for radio dealing with the final days of Hitler, was produced (1955) by the British Broadcasting Corporation.

In 1953 Webb flew to Vancouver, Canada, where he experienced electro-convulsive therapy. Back in Sydney, he travelled almost immediately to Britain. Crossing to Dublin, he was again taken to a mental hospital but released on condition that he return to England. There, after deliberately breaking a store window, he was committed to Winson Green, near Birmingham. He was later moved to Hellesdon and then David Rice hospitals, Norwich. The landscape and religious associations of Norfolk, the region of his forebears, gave him material for many poems.

Due to the intervention of David Campbell, Webb received a Commonwealth Literary Fund grant of £1000 in 1958. Late in 1960 he returned to Sydney. On 10 November he was admitted to Parramatta Psychiatric Hospital. The rest of his life was passed almost entirely in institutions, with brief respites when he was released on licence or, occasionally, absconded. Socrates and Other Poems was published in 1961. His Collected Poems, prepared for the press under his supervision, appeared in 1969. He died of a coronary occlusion on 23 November 1973 at Rydalmere Hospital, and was buried in Northern Suburbs cemetery.

Webb contrived to make major poetry out of his often desperate institutional experiences—the 'Ward Two' sequence, or from his English years, 'A Death at Winson Green'. After the early 1950s his interests moved to such personalities as St Francis of Assisi (in 'The Canticle', 1953), Socrates and the explorer Edward John Eyre. 'Eyre All Alone' (1961) became a vehicle for Webb's own spiritual pilgrimage. Other works displayed a fascination with landscapes and seascapes, and a passionate love of music. His verse is densely metaphoric, technically inventive, sometimes lyrical, always erudite, and often 'difficult'.

Questions about the relation between the condition psychiatrists described as schizophrenia, the sources of artistic creativity, and the nature of religious experience permeated Webb's entire output. Outside his work, he rarely achieved happiness. Yet he had the gift of friendship, attracting the lasting affection of fellow writers such as Stewart, Campbell, Christesen, Nan McDonald, Rosemary Dobson, Vincent Buckley, Chris Wallace-Crabbe, Craig Powell and Alec Hope. Sir Herbert Read described him as 'one of the greatest poets of our time . . . the most unjustly neglected poet of this century'. In his preface to the Collected Poems he quoted Webb's lines depicting the Norfolk painter Anthony Sandys as an equally exact description of the poet's own achievement:

Fullness, shadow: what to tell again
But the so tender voyaging line of truth.
Time shuffles a timid foot, will linger
While the tired cockcrow of your lifted finger
Opens dawn and a worn album of love and pain.
Brown eyes and hair flow humbly from the earth.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Griffith, God's Fool (Syd, 1991)
  • B. Ashcroft, The Gimbals of Unease (Perth, 1996)
  • H. P. Heseltine, 'Francis Webb, 1925-1973: A Tribute', Meanjin Quarterly, 33, Mar 1974, p 5
  • Poetry Australia, no 56, Sept 1975, p 5
  • Prime Minister's Department, series A3211, item 1969/3169 part 2 (National Archives of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

H. P. Heseltine, 'Webb, Francis Charles (1925–1973)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/webb-francis-charles-11988/text21493, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 26 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Webb-Wagg, Francis Charles
Birth

8 February 1925
Rose Park, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

Death

23 November 1973
Rydalmere, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence
Occupation