Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Webb, William Alfred (1878–1936)

by Reece Jennings

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

William Alfred Webb (1878-1936), by unknown photographer, c1914

William Alfred Webb (1878-1936), by unknown photographer, c1914

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 4219

William Alfred Webb (1878-1936), railway administrator, was born on 16 May 1878 at Eaton, Ohio, United States of America, son of William Porter Webb, medical practitioner, and his wife Nancy Lavinia, née Campbell. Educated locally, at the age of 12 he left home and began work as a messenger-boy on the Colorado Midland Railway. He rose from traffic clerk to telegraphist, studied shorthand at night-school and became stenographer to the general manager. Appointed secretary to the president of the Colorado and Southern Railway in 1900, by 1911 Webb was assistant to its vice-president. He became general manager of the Texas Central Railroad and in 1914 general manager, operations, of the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railroad Co. His rapid promotion in the private enterprise American railroads had given him a practical grounding in every aspect of rail management.

When the United States entered World War I the government assumed control of all railroads and in 1918 Webb was made general manager, under Federal control, of a large regrouped system of south-west lines. Tensions between North and South railway managements, personal and parochial conflict, and Federal obstinacy placed Webb in an untenable position and he resigned in 1919. He was appointed a member of Railroad Board of Adjustment No. 1, Washington, D.C., which was principally concerned with the settlement of industrial disputes. Eleven months later, amid post-war national railroad discord and uncertainty, he again resigned to become vice-president and general manager of the St Louis south-west system. In 1922 he was elected president of the prosperous Cambria and Indiana Railroad. Once more he resigned, having accepted the position of chief commissioner of the South Australian Railways. His salary of £5000 per annum was to be a source of much future criticism.

With his wife Alice, née Van Stone (whom he had married on 4 December 1907 at Denver, Colorado), and their two sons, Webb arrived in Adelaide on 16 November 1923. A tall, well-built, clean-shaven man, he had a striking personality and force of character. Inheriting an outdated and uneconomic system, characterized by fragmented authority, ponderous decision-making and a complex, pyramidal administrative structure, he revolutionized railway management by rationalizing the basis of operations. He recognized the need to reduce gross and to augment net ton miles by increasing full carload lots, and introduced large trucks and locomotives, heavy track, stronger bridges and efficient practices. His most important changes to working methods occurred in 1924-26: the train control organization was introduced in 1924, high capacity bogie freight cars in 1925 and large power locomotives in 1926. Webb's dramatic railway rehabilitation left few aspects untouched by forced technological change and innovation, and even included the complete reconstruction of the Islington workshops.

Remembering the catastrophic attempts of the United States government to institute central control of railroads in World War I, Webb decentralized the S.A.R. administration, giving his carefully chosen divisional superintendents almost complete autonomy over the lines within their jurisdiction, while he concentrated on high managerial policy. He created a public management system which was less interventionist and tried to deliver services efficiently. Despite his advanced ideas, he had no time for trade unions, or for those who did not embrace the virtues of hard work for a fair wage. He was merciless, though not vindictive, to subordinates who did not measure up to his exacting standards.

His programme was costly and sometimes extravagant. It occasioned continuous political and public controversy, interspersed with vitriolic personal attacks from numerous and influential enemies. Webb pushed ahead with his plans, regardless of the source of criticism, and did not disguise his contempt for the parliamentary process or its representatives. His expenditure became an issue in South Australian elections. The effects of significant railway deficits on the State's shaky financial situation partly accounted for the defeat of both the Hill Labor government in 1927 and the Butler Liberal administration in 1930.

Having declined the offer of a further term, Webb returned to America in May 1930, unhappy but wealthy. The strain of the previous seven years had not been helped by his refusal to take any holidays, and the former teetotaller had been driven to whisky by the pressure of endless criticism. His public image was not enhanced by a final argument over his allowances and by the revelation that he did not have to pay any income tax.

Following his departure the re-elected Hill government sought to tackle the financial problems of the Depression. Webb's administrative reforms were dismantled and the old hierarchy was reinstated to preside over forty years of technological stagnation and traditionalism. For all that, his rehabilitation of the S.A.R. did enable it to undertake an enormous transport task in World War II and laid the footing for the reforms of Australian National Railways when it later took over the country lines of the S.A.R.

In 1935 Webb was appointed general manager of the Texas Centennial Exposition; credited with its success, he was approached to become manager of the projected World's Fair, New York (1939). Since 1933 he had been troubled by hypertensive cardiac disease. The long hours and the strain of organizing the centennial worsened his condition. Webb died of an intercranial haemorrhage on 9 August 1936 at Dallas, Texas. After a state funeral, he was buried in the Hillcrest memorial cemetery with Presbyterian forms. His wife and sons survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • R. I. Jennings, W. A. Webb, South Australian Railways Commissioner, 1922-1930 (Adel, 1973)
  • R. I. Jennings, The Introduction and Evolution of Safe Working Systems on the South Australian Railways 1854-1986 (Ph.D. thesis, Flinders University, 1988), and for bibliography.

Citation details

Reece Jennings, 'Webb, William Alfred (1878–1936)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/webb-william-alfred-9026/text15895, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 26 August 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2016

William Alfred Webb (1878-1936), by unknown photographer, c1914

William Alfred Webb (1878-1936), by unknown photographer, c1914

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 4219