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Jessie Stobo Webb (1880–1944)

by Kathleen Fitzpatrick

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Jessie Stobo Watson Webb (1880-1944), historian, was born on 31 July 1880 at Ellerslie station, near Tumut, New South Wales, only child of New Zealand-born Charles Henry Webb, grazier, and his Scottish wife Jessie, née Watson. Her mother died in giving birth to her and her father was killed in an accident when she was 9 years old. Sent to Melbourne to her mother's family, she was educated at Balaclava College and the University of Melbourne, graduating (B.A., 1902; M.A., 1904) with first-class honours in history and political economy, and in logic and philosophy; she shared the J. D. Wyselaskie scholarship in English constitutional history and won the Cobden Club medal. In 1908 she joined the history department at the university and remained there for the rest of her life, becoming a senior lecturer (1923) and acting professor (1925, 1933-34 and 1942-44).

Her main interest was in ancient history, particularly that of Greece, and she spent her leave at the British School of Archaeology in Athens and in visiting classical sites, on one occasion travelling through Crete on a mule. In 1922-23 she accompanied Dr Georgina Sweet on a journey from Cape Town to Cairo. Ancient history, as Webb taught it, was exciting: she kept abreast of the archaeological work which was revolutionizing the subject and communicated to her students her sense of being at the frontier of knowledge. Sir Keith Hancock recorded that it was the living interest of history as taught by Jessie Webb and (Sir) Ernest Scott which caused him to become a historian rather than a classical scholar. Gladly as Webb learned and taught, the most earnest efforts of her colleagues could not persuade her to write or publish. She underestimated her ability and scholarship, and probably felt handicapped by distance from ancient sites, great libraries and professional colleagues which could not be bridged by rare periods of overseas leave.

Webb was a splendid example of the 'new woman' of the generation which came to maturity in the 1890s. Almost alone from childhood, she developed a character both independent and responsible, and confronted life with courage and indomitable gaiety. She was highly intelligent, wise, witty and very kind. Emancipated herself, she did all in her power to help other women to lead fuller and more interesting lives, but as she was rational and good-humoured her feminism aroused no hostility and she was as much liked by men as by women. She was a founder of University Women's College, the Victorian Woman Graduates' Association (president 1924-25), the Catalyst Society of professional women and the Melbourne Lyceum Club (president 1920-22). In 1923 she was alternate delegate to the League of Nations assembly.

Having continued, as acting professor, to administer the history department from her hospital bed, Webb died of cancer on 17 February 1944 at St Kilda and was cremated. She is commemorated in the Jessie Webb Library of the history department at her university.

Select Bibliography

  • W. K. Hancock, Country and Calling (Lond, 1954)
  • Historical Studies, no 9, Oct 1944
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Kathleen Fitzpatrick, 'Webb, Jessie Stobo (1880–1944)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 12 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (Melbourne University Press), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


31 July, 1880
Tumut, New South Wales, Australia


17 February, 1944 (aged 63)
St Kilda, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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