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Webb, Leicester Chisholm (1905–1962)

by John Warhurst

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

Leicester Chisholm Webb (1905-1962), by unknown photographer

Leicester Chisholm Webb (1905-1962), by unknown photographer

Herald & Weekly Times Portrait Collection, State Library of Victoria, H38849/4835

Leicester Chisholm Webb (1905-1962), political scientist, public servant and journalist, was born on 17 May 1905 at Leicester, England, son of New Zealand-born parents Leonard Francis Webb, land surveyor, and his wife Jessie, née Chisholm, a nursing sister. The family home was at Invercargill, New Zealand. Leicester was educated at Waitaki Boys' High School, Oamaru, and Canterbury College (B.A., 1928, N.Z.; M.A., 1929), Christchurch, where he graduated with first-class honours in history.

Employed as a political journalist with the Press, Christchurch, Webb worked in the press gallery in Wellington and as a leader-writer. He studied for two years at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, for a time under the distinguished theorist (Sir) Ernest Barker, and then briefly at the Graduate Institute of International Studies, Geneva. Back at Christchurch, he married with Anglican rites Caroline Mabel West, daughter of Bishop C. W. West-Watson, on 29 December 1932 at Christ Church Cathedral. He returned to his position on the Press and to part-time lecturing in political science in the history department at Canterbury College. During this period he wrote The Control of Education in New Zealand (Wellington, 1937) and began research on the colonial history of Canterbury. He also produced a book entitled Government in New Zealand (1940).

Webb became director of current affairs in the Army Education and Welfare Service in 1942. He was 'soon helping, quite unofficially, to draft Ministerial statements on wartime economic policy'. By 1943 he had joined the Economic Stabilization Commission; he was director of stabilization in 1944-50. He was also head of New Zealand's Marketing Department in 1948-50. These positions involved him in international trade negotiations which brought him into contact with leading Australians such as the economist (Sir) Douglas Copland. Webb was president of the New Zealand Institute of Public Administration. When he informed the government in 1950 that he was resigning, the prime minister (Sir) Sidney Holland personally intervened to delay his departure so that he could complete a major project, The New Zealand Economy 1939-1951 (1952).

In May 1951 Webb was appointed reader in political science, a discipline still in its infancy, at the Research School of Social Sciences, Australian National University, Canberra; he was also head of department. He quickly established his Australian credentials with a study of the 1951 referendum on the banning of the Communist Party of Australia. This was published to general acclaim as Communism and Democracy in Australia (Melbourne, 1954). In 1956 Webb was made professor of political science. He was also acting head of the department of international relations in the Research School of Pacific Studies in 1958-60.

Webb's personal academic pursuits were broad. He maintained his interest in public administration and public broadcasting. Initially concerned with political ideas, especially liberalism, his research ranged widely over Australian politics, international relations and comparative politics. Under his guidance, the department's major theme was the actions of corporate groups, such as political parties, pressure groups and business organizations in pluralist democracy. He was sceptical of the growing influence of American behaviourism on the study of politics. In 1958 he edited Legal Personality and Political Pluralism. Next year he sketched his ideas in an inaugural lecture, Politics and Polity (Canberra, 1960). His absorption in church and state issues extended to Italian politics: he published Church and State in Italy, 1947-1957 (1958). He also wrote about the politics of Pakistan and co-ordinated a study of the South-East Asia Treaty Organization.

President of the Australian Political Studies Association and the Canberra branch of the Australian Institute of International Affairs, Webb was active in the Australian Institute of Political Science and regularly wrote the 'Political Review' in its journal, Australian Quarterly. He was a valued member of committees for both the Australian Broadcasting Commission and the Australian Broadcasting Control Board. In 1955 he had used his experience in applied economics to conduct, for the minister of the interior, an inquiry into milk supplies in the Australian Capital Territory.

Webb stood 5 ft 10½ ins (179 cm) tall, with auburn hair and a slight build. He was a private and reserved man, 'totally unostentatious', and wholly devoted to his family. He had played Rugby Union football in his youth and later coached at Canberra Grammar School, but his 'real love and joy' was his regular weekend trout fishing. A lay preacher at St Paul's Church of England, Manuka, he was a member of the diocesan and general synods. Just before his death he was elected chairman of the Australian Commission of the Churches on International Affairs. While some of his university colleagues queried his performance as a departmental head, he was an unfailingly generous man and 'his support and affection for his protégés was unlimited'.

Caroline Webb shared in her husband's research. Prominent in women's organizations, she was national president (1961-62) of the Pan-Pacific and South East Asia Women's Association. She and Leicester died together from injuries received as passengers in a motorcar accident on 23 June 1962 on the Midland Highway, near Ross, Tasmania. Survived by their two sons and two daughters, they were buried in Canberra cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Quarterly, 34, no 3, Sept 1962, p 7
  • Australian Journal of Politics and History, 8, no 2, Nov 1962, p 224
  • Canberra Times, 25 June 1962
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 25 June 1962
  • Mercury (Hobart), 25 June 1962
  • Times (London), 25 June 1962
  • Press (Christchurch, New Zealand), 26 June 1962
  • R. S. Parker papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Webb personal file (Australian National University Archives)
  • private information.

Citation details

John Warhurst, 'Webb, Leicester Chisholm (1905–1962)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/webb-leicester-chisholm-11989/text21495, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 22 December 2014.

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

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