Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Webber, William Thomas Thornhill (1837–1903)

by George P. Shaw

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

William Thomas Thornhill Webber (1837-1903), by unknown engraver, 1885

William Thomas Thornhill Webber (1837-1903), by unknown engraver, 1885

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, A/S29/06/85/101

William Thomas Thornhill Webber (1837-1903), Anglican bishop, was born on 30 January 1837 in Upper Grosvenor Street, London, son of William Webber, surgeon, and his wife Eliza, née Preston. Educated at Tonbridge School, Kent, Norwich Grammar School and Pembroke College, Oxford (B.A., 1859; M.A., 1862), he was made deacon in 1860 and ordained priest in 1861. Webber was curate at Chiswick in 1860-64 and vicar of St John the Evangelist, Holborn, from 1864. The archbishop of Canterbury E. W. Benson nominated him to succeed Mathew Hale as bishop of Brisbane. Webber was consecrated on 11 June 1885 in St Paul's Cathedral, London, and enthroned on 17 November in St John's Pro-Cathedral, Brisbane.

Skilled in fund-raising, administration and the style of team organization identified with inner-London clergy houses, Webber was a mildly ritualistic Tractarian who held strongly anti-Erastian views of the exclusive rights of bishops and synods to determine Church matters. His insistence that the Church of England had a 'duty to care for the Nation's life' reflected the influence upon him of J. B. Lightfoot and Thomas Arnold, and indicated his eclectic approach to theology.

In 1886 Webber addressed synod on the threefold strategy which shaped his episcopate: the sub-division of his diocese, the recruitment of a talented clergy and the eradication of 'mere congregationalism' which limited parochial commitment to local concerns. He appointed coadjutor bishops to look after the distant regions, raised £10,000 to endow a new diocese of Rockhampton, removed Church property from local trustees to a Church of England corporation and subsidized clerical stipends. He also commissioned John Loughburgh Pearson to design a cathedral, like Truro's, as a symbol that 'the Diocese—not the Parish—is the unit of the Church'.

Webber brought clergymen from Oxford and Cambridge for five-year tours of duty in Queensland. In 1887 he had synod petition for the establishment of a university and in 1897 he established a theological college in All Saints Rectory, Wickham Terrace; his hope that the college would be attached to the tertiary institution was dashed by an Act of 1899 which excluded theological studies from the proposed university. Webber led the Bible in State Schools League in Queensland, urged the diocese to establish secondary schools, appointed missioners to minister to railway navvies and to the Chinese, attracted to the diocese a sisterhood which cared for orphans, and endowed a brotherhood for priests in western Queensland.

Despite economic difficulties, Webber raised £65,000 for diocesan projects in 1885-95 and another £32,000 towards the cathedral whose foundation stone was laid in 1901. He toured England four times, pursuing for the colonial churches a portion of the profits expropriated from Queensland by English and other investors. Falling ill in 1902, he returned to Brisbane where he directed the building of the cathedral and persuaded synod to elect a bishop coadjutor. Webber died on 3 August 1903 of heart disease and was buried in Toowong cemetery. His Queensland estate was sworn for probate at £9041, a substantial proportion of which was bequeathed to his diocese.

Select Bibliography

  • Church of England Diocese of Brisbane, Proceedings of Synod, 1884-1904 and Year Book, 1890-1904
  • K. Rayner, The History of the Church of England in Queensland (Ph.D. thesis, University of Queensland, 1962)
  • Webber papers (Church of England Diocesan Archives, Brisbane).

Citation details

George P. Shaw, 'Webber, William Thomas Thornhill (1837–1903)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 23 March 2018.

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

View the front pages for Volume 12

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2018

William Thomas Thornhill Webber (1837-1903), by unknown engraver, 1885

William Thomas Thornhill Webber (1837-1903), by unknown engraver, 1885

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, A/S29/06/85/101

Life Summary [details]


30 January 1837
London, Middlesex, England


3 August 1903

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence