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Webster, Sir Robert Joseph (1891–1981)

by Diane Hutchinson

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Robert Webster, 1966 [detail]

Robert Webster, 1966 [detail]

National Archives of Australia, A1200:L59376

Sir Robert Joseph Webster (1891-1981), business leader and university chancellor, was born on 10 June 1891 at Hillgrove, New South Wales, eldest of five children of Ceylonese (Sri Lankan)-born Alexander James Webster, mining engineer, and his New South Wales-born wife Mary, née Ford.  Two years after Robert was born the family moved to Queensland, where he attended Charters Towers Central State Boys’ School.  In 1906 he began work as a telegraph messenger boy with the Postmaster-General’s Department.  Augmenting his skills by taking external courses, he quickly progressed to telephonist, then to clerical officer—with a transfer to Brisbane—and to telephone mechanic in 1914.  The department’s career hierarchy, together with his strong motivation and natural ability, made his advancement possible.

When war was declared in 1914, Webster was one of the first to volunteer.  With his civilian clerical knowledge and Militia experience in the Army Service Corps, he was appointed on 21 August as a second lieutenant in the Australian Imperial Force and posted to the 1st Light Horse Brigade Train.  He served on Gallipoli (1915) with the New Zealand and Australian Divisional Train, and on the Western Front (1916-18) as a captain with the 5th Divisional Train.  In January 1918 he was seconded to Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig’s General Headquarters as a staff captain.  For his service in World War I Webster was awarded the Military Cross (1917) and mentioned in despatches.  His AIF appointment terminated in Australia on 3 February 1919.

Webster looked for a new life through farming.  His leasehold block in the South Burnett area of Queensland proved a disappointment but the rural community provided a path into public life.  He successfully stood for local government, joined the district dairy co-operative board and, as an Australian Labor Party candidate, stood twice, unsuccessfully, for State parliament.  A regional growers’ representative on the Queensland Council of Agriculture, he was appointed to its cotton advisory board.  In 1926 he became general manager of a new statutory marketing authority, the Queensland Cotton Board.

Frank Keighley, a founder of Bradford Cotton Mills (from 1968 Bradmill Industries) Ltd, approached Webster in 1936 to take over the management of the company, located in Sydney.  Webster accepted and served as general manager (1936-40), managing director (1940-67) and chairman (1937-39 and 1960-76).  Under Webster’s leadership, Bradmill Industries grew from a small Sydney-based textile firm with fewer than five hundred employees to become the dominant Australian textile company with a staff of over six thousand people.  It introduced new technology, decentralised production to address a labour shortage, and implemented new management practices, including modern cost accounting and the appointment of personnel managers.

A foundation member of the Sydney division of the Australian Institute of Management, and national president in 1962-64, Webster was elected a fellow of the International Academy of Management in 1962.  He was a founder (and president 1962-70) of the Textile Council of Australia and was active in other industry and business associations.  He had been Commonwealth controller of cotton materials (1942-46) and, in the era after World War II, served on a number of government advisory bodies, including the Manufacturing Industries Advisory Council (1958-71).  By the 1960s he was one of a small group of politically active business leaders who served as the politicians’ 'reference point' on industry policy.

Webster was president (1950—61) of the trustees of the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences.  His most sustained community contribution was to Sydney’s second university, the New South Wales University of Technology (renamed in 1958 the University of New South Wales).  In 1947 Webster was appointed to a council responsible for overseeing the establishment of the university and two years later became a foundation member of its governing body, the university council, where he was a staunch advocate of the university’s role in technological and management research and education.  He was appointed deputy-chancellor in 1960 and chancellor in 1970; he retired in 1975, earning accolades from his peers and student leaders.

Appointed CBE (1956) and CMG (1959), Webster was knighted in 1963.  He received honorary doctorates of science from the University of New South Wales (1962) and the University of Wollongong (1976), textile-industry and business-community awards, and life membership of the Australian Golf Club.  On 17 December 1921 at St Brigid’s Catholic Church, Red Hill, Brisbane, Webster had married May Twigg (d.1949), a typist.  He married Daphne Iris Hendy, née Kingcott, a personnel officer, on 29 November 1954 at St Augustine’s Church of England, North Sydney.  Sir Robert died on 4 August 1981 in his home at Castle Cove.  His funeral service was held at St Andrew’s Cathedral, Sydney, and he was cremated.  Predeceased by his elder son (d.1953), he was survived by his wife and the three daughters and younger son of his first marriage.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Iverson (comp and ed), Leaders of Industry & Commerce in Australia (1963)
  • L. Glezer, Tariff Politics (1982)
  • A. H. Willis, The University of New South Wales (1983)
  • Origins: Newsletter of the UNSW Archives, no 11, November 2007, p 6
  • AIM News (Australian Institute of Management, New South Wales Division), September 1981, p 10
  • B2455, item Webster Robert Joseph (National Archives of Australia)
  • Webster papers (University of New South Wales Records and Archives)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Diane Hutchinson, 'Webster, Sir Robert Joseph (1891–1981)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/webster-sir-robert-joseph-15820/text27019, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 20 July 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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