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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Webb, Thomas Theodor (1885–1948)

by John Kadiba

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

Thomas Theodor Webb (1885-1948), Methodist missionary, was born on 11 April 1885 at Lyndoch, South Australia, third of five children of Alfred Walter Webb, an Adelaide-born miller, and his wife Martha Ann, née Baker, who came from London. Theodor spent his early childhood in the farming community of Perry Bridge, Gippsland, Victoria. At the nearby Ramahyuck mission he first encountered Aboriginal people and gained knowledge of their relations with White settlers.

Accepted as a candidate for the Methodist ministry in 1909, Webb studied at Queen's College, University of Melbourne, before being posted as a probationary minister to Wentworth, New South Wales, in 1911 and Ballarat, Victoria, in 1913. From 1914 he was a chaplain for workers constructing the trans-continental railway. On 5 March 1915 he was ordained. Commissioned chaplain in the Australian Imperial Force on 19 September 1916, he served on the Western Front in 1917-18 and rose to chaplain, 3rd class (major). After his A.I.F. appointment terminated in Melbourne on 4 October 1919, he preached in the Brunswick, Wonthaggi and Ararat circuits. At All Saints Pro-Cathedral, Bendigo, on 5 April 1923 he married with Anglican rites Eva Mary Ranson (d.1947), a schoolteacher.

The Methodist Missionary Society of Australasia made Webb superintendent of Milingimbi station, Crocodile Islands, Northern Territory, and chairman of the North Australia District in 1926. His appointment coincided with the election of a new general secretary of the M.M.S.A., John Burton, who visited the mission in 1927. Both men brought fresh insights to mission work and wrote on a wide range of missiological, historical and anthropological subjects. Webb was able to diagnose difficulties and appraise situations rapidly. He made a number of significant changes, abolishing the 'open-house' policy of feeding Aborigines, and in 1932 replacing the dormitory with a cottage system so that Aboriginal families could settle on the mission station.

In 1939 Webb produced the district's first clearly articulated policy statement, giving directives for mission work and imparting positive regard for the Aborigines and their culture. He initiated language study, contributed articles to Oceania and the Missionary Review, and published two informative booklets, The Aborigines of East Arnhem Land (Melbourne, 1934) and Spears to Spades (Sydney, 1938). The most profound thinker of the mission in his era, and the most anthropologically informed, he was encouraged by Professor A. P. Elkin. He gave the mission an intellectual leadership that was previously lacking, but was often frustrated by the apparent indifference of the Mission Board in Sydney.

Webb was 5 ft 9½ ins (177 cm) tall, with a heavy build and strong physique. A photograph portrayed him as stern, but he had a quick sense of humour, appreciated music and enjoyed singing. Forthright in expressing his opinions, he vigorously defended the rights and well-being of Aborigines. In 1939, in poor health and wishing to be reunited with his children who were at school in Victoria, he and his wife retired to Melbourne. However, he undertook deputation and translating work, and continued to preach in suburban churches. Survived by his son and daughter, he died of cardiorenal failure on 14 November 1948 at Richmond, and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • M. McKenzie, Mission to Arnhem Land (Adel, 1976)
  • A. Grant, Aliens in Arnhem Land (Syd, 1995)
  • D. Carment and H. J. Wilson (eds), Northern Territory Dictionary of Biography, vol 3 (Darwin, 1996)
  • J. Kadiba, 'Methodist Mission Policies and Aboriginal Church Leadership in Arnhem Land', in M. Hutchinson and G. Treloar (eds), This Gospel Shall be Preached (Syd, 1998)
  • Missionary Review, 5 Feb 1940, Dec 1948
  • Milingimbi Mission Review Reports, A431, item 1951/1397 (National Archives of Australia)
  • Methodist Overseas Mission papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

John Kadiba, 'Webb, Thomas Theodor (1885–1948)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 12 August 2020.

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

View the front pages for Volume 16

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