Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Isaac Selby (1859–1956)

by Frank Strahan

This article was published:

Isaac Selby (1859-1956), lecturer and historian, was born on 3 November 1859 at Greenwich, Kent, England, son of Isaac Selby, joiner, and his wife Isabella, née Gilhome. In 1868 the family migrated to New Zealand. Young Isaac attended school at Dunedin, studied at night, and began to accumulate a vast store of information about history, religion, philosophy, science, literature and the arts. He moved to Melbourne in 1882, then returned to Dunedin. At the office of the registrar of marriages, Auckland, on 28 October 1885 he married Jessie Beatrice Chapman; they were to have a daughter and two sons.

Back in Melbourne, Selby made a living from public lecturing and debating. He praised the virtues of Unitarianism and teetotalism, and attacked Catholicism in general and the Jesuits in particular. In the late 1890s he and his family travelled to San Francisco, United States of America, where a businessman Donald McRae introduced them to the Universal Spiritual Association. Isaac repudiated the society as Catholic, but Jessie came under its influence and refused to leave San Francisco. He sailed to Australia alone in 1901. After standing unsuccessfully against H. B. Higgins for the House of Representatives seat of Northern Melbourne at the Federal election in March, he attributed his defeat to 'the sinister hand of Rome'.

In 1904 Selby returned to San Francisco. When his wife petitioned for divorce, he countered by suing McRae for alienating her affections. Judge James Hebbard found against Selby, granted the divorce and gave Jessie custody of the children. On 28 November Selby entered Hebbard's court and fired a revolver at him: the bullet lodged in the back of the judge's chair. He was sentenced to seven years imprisonment, transferred to a hospital for the insane, and released in 1910 on the condition that he immediately leave for Australia.

Selby resumed lecturing and debating, in Melbourne and at country centres. His performances, often supported by musicians, singers and photographic slides, continued until the 1950s. As part of a protest against the planned resumption of the old Melbourne cemetery, he formed the Old Cemetery and Soldiers' Memorial Union in March 1918 to 'Save the Old Cemetery and build in the centre of it a monument to the Heroic men who have fallen at the front'. In 1920 he joined the (Royal) Historical Society of Victoria. About that time he inaugurated the Old Pioneers' Memorial Fund to promote the study of history and to lobby for the erection of a statue of John Batman in the Flagstaff Gardens.

In 1924 the fund published Selby's book The Old Pioneers' Memorial History of Melbourne, in which he commended the growth of charitable organizations, praised developments in literature, the arts, science and industry, and endorsed free education, the eight-hour day and the White Australia policy. In the following year he published a pantomime, Hinemoa, in the same volume as his history, Memories of Maoriland. His other works included The Old Pioneers Memorial Almanac (1935).

Selby never remarried. A disappointed lover named Gertie had written to him in 1924: 'You seem to overrule my thoughts when we are together'. He was sometime minister of the Church of Christ, Carlton. During World War II he lectured on the history of warfare and presided (1941-42) over the Russian branch of the Victorian division of the Australian Red Cross Society. He died on 26 March 1956 at Parkville and was buried in Fawkner cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • San Francisco Chronicle, 29 Nov 1904
  • Argus (Melbourne), 4 Mar 1954
  • Age (Melbourne), 27 Mar 1956
  • Selby papers (University of Melbourne Archives and Royal Historical Society of Victoria).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Frank Strahan, 'Selby, Isaac (1859–1956)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 22 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (Melbourne University Press), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


3 November, 1859
London, Middlesex, England


26 March, 1956 (aged 96)
Parkville, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.