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Webb, Thomas Prout (1845–1916)

by Charles Francis

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

Thomas Prout Webb (1845-1916), lawyer, was born on 22 January 1845 at Newtown (Fitzroy), Port Phillip District, son of Robert Saunders Webb, the first commissioner of customs and treasurer of the district, and his wife Ann, née Fisher. In September 1836 Webb's parents had come to Melbourne from Sydney, and his sister Ann (b. December 1836) is claimed to be the first white girl born in Melbourne. Webb was a pupil at Melbourne Church of England Grammar School on its opening day 7 April 1858 and retained a close interest in the school. In 1863 he entered the University of Melbourne where under Professor W. E. Hearn he studied arts and law (B.A., 1867). He went on to study at King's College, London (B.A., 1867), read law at Lincoln's Inn from November 1867 and in 1869 gained the Inns of Court scholarship in constitutional law and legal history. He was called to the Bar on 10 June 1870.

Webb returned to Melbourne in 1872 and was admitted to the Victorian Bar. In 1874 he published the first edition of his most notable work, Compendium of the Imperial Law and Statutes in Force in the Colony of Victoria …, a useful and scholarly analysis of the origin of the various jurisdictions of the Victorian Supreme Court, of the extent to which the principles of English common law governed Victorians, and of the applicability of imperial statutes to the colony. On 29 July 1875 at St James's Church, Melbourne, he married Katherine, daughter of J. T. Smith and established a home, Bronte, in Dendy Street, Brighton. He practised in Equity until 1884, edited a collection of Victorian statutes and was also chief collaborator with Hearn in preparing an immense code of Victorian law based on a Benthamite-Austinian view of jurisprudence.

On 6 October 1884 Webb became master in equity and lunacy of the Supreme Court of Victoria and successively acting-commissioner of titles (1885), commissioner of patents (1890), commissioner of trade marks (1891), commissioner of taxes (1895) and registrar of land tax (1903). As master he was confronted with intricate probate problems, and as commissioner of taxes with both income and land pressure groups. With income tax in its infancy he helped significantly in its development, assisting in the drafting of many bills. As a public official he was able and hard working, firm but tactful, endeavouring as far as possible 'to make the unpleasant duty of taxpaying as little irksome as possible'. He was appointed a Q.C. on 12 March 1900.

Of deep learning, much charm and wide interests, Webb attracted many friends. He had inherited his mother's artistic talents and was a noted amateur artist who exhibited water-colours at the Victorian Academy of Arts for some years. In 1901 he was president of the Old Melburnians' Society. When he died of heart disease on 22 November 1916, handsome tributes were paid to his great abilities. Buried in the Anglican section of Melbourne cemetery, he was predeceased by a son and survived by his wife, a son Keith Esmond, who became a metallurgical and mining engineer, and by a daughter, both of whom died without issue. Family papers and letters and Webb's mother's sketch-book are in the hands of his descendants.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Smith (ed), Cyclopedia of Victoria, vol 1 (Melb, 1903)
  • Australasian, 4 May 1867, 23 Feb 1895
  • Punch (Melbourne), 4 Aug 1904, 2 Feb 1911
  • Argus (Melbourne), 23 Nov 1916.

Citation details

Charles Francis, 'Webb, Thomas Prout (1845–1916)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/webb-thomas-prout-4823/text8045, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 16 October 2018.

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

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