Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Webb, George Henry Frederick (1828–1891)

by Robert Miller

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

George Henry Frederick Webb (1828-1891), by unknown engraver, 1886

George Henry Frederick Webb (1828-1891), by unknown engraver, 1886

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, A/S01/06/86/88

George Henry Frederick Webb (1828-1891), judge, was born at Lambeth, Surrey, England, son of Samuel Ody Webb, naval officer, and his wife Isabella, née Sweet. Although educated for the navy, he joined the staff of W. B. Gurney, the well-known parliamentary shorthand writer. About 1849 he married Matilda Field (d.1860).

In poor health, Webb sought a warmer climate and in 1852 arrived in Melbourne with his wife. He planned a twelve-month visit but liked the colony and decided to stay. He became a reporter on the Melbourne Argus but on 14 December 1853 joined the civil service as a stenographer. Next year on 12 October he was appointed government shorthand worker at £610 a year. He organized a staff of shorthand writers for both the government and the Supreme Court and in 1855 reported the proceedings of the Eureka treason trials. In 1858 he attended the course for articled clerks at the University of Melbourne and won the Chancellor's Exhibition at the end of his first year; he was admitted to the Bar on 6 December 1860. In 1862 he applied for a readership in the university's Law School and was appointed on 3 February; eighteen days later he yielded to pressure to resign, ostensibly because his admission to the Bar was so recent. His application for the same post in March 1864 was rejected.

With Alfred Wyatt, Webb had published in 1861 the first of a series of Reports of Cases in the Supreme Court of Victoria; they were joined by (Sir) Thomas à Beckett in 1864. In 1866 Webb resigned from his government post to work as a barrister; he built up a successful equity practice although he also appeared in a number of notable divorce cases. So high was his income that in 1874 he declined the Supreme Court judgeship left vacant by (Sir) Edward Williams. On 14 January 1879 Webb was appointed a Q.C. In 1881 he was one of ten original shareholders in a company formed to finance the building of Selborne Chambers to house members of the Bar. Always interested in matters relating to his profession, he won certain privileges for Victorian barristers which allowed them to be called to the English Bar. Defeated by (Sir) Hartley Williams and J. W. Stephen in 1874 for the Legislative Assembly seat of St Kilda, he failed again in 1883 and 1886 to enter parliament.

On 4 May 1886 on the retirement of Sir Robert Molesworth, he agreed to take over the vacancy on the Supreme Court; the first locally trained barrister to reach the bench, his appointment was popular. His clear and concise grasp of the law and especially of facts and figures made him an exceptionally rapid worker in court, and he was remembered as 'invariably kind and courteous', especially to junior members of the Bar. With an ironical sense of humour, he was a bright and at times brilliant conversationalist and a logical and trenchant arguer.

Shortly before his appointment Webb and his family had taken a trip to Europe via India; while away his daughter died, and he contracted smallpox and suffered an attack of bronchitis from which he never fully recovered. Ill health plagued him and he was given twelve months leave in March 1889. He resumed his work but on 26 September 1891, aged 63, he died of influenza and chronic bronchitis at his home at Caulfield; he was buried in the Melbourne general cemetery. A Congregationalist, on 16 April 1862 at Elsternwick he had married Sophia Sarah Agg who survived him with a daughter; a son and two daughters of his first marriage had predeceased him. His estate, valued for probate at £49,691, was left to his wife and daughter, with legacies to his nieces in the colony.

Select Bibliography

  • J. L. Forde, The Story of the Bar of Victoria (Melb, 1913)
  • A. Dean, A Multitude of Counsellors (Melb, 1968)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 12 Nov 1883, 5 May 1886, 28, 29, 30 Sept 1891
  • Illustrated Australian News, 26 May 1886, 1 June 1891
  • Australasian Sketcher, 1 June 1886
  • Age (Melbourne), 28 Sept 1891
  • private information.

Citation details

Robert Miller, 'Webb, George Henry Frederick (1828–1891)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/webb-george-henry-frederick-4822/text8043, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 20 October 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2018

George Henry Frederick Webb (1828-1891), by unknown engraver, 1886

George Henry Frederick Webb (1828-1891), by unknown engraver, 1886

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, A/S01/06/86/88