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Webster, William (1860–1936)

by Christine Wise

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

William Webster (1860-1936), by T. Humphrey & Co., 1908

William Webster (1860-1936), by T. Humphrey & Co., 1908

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23184886

William Webster (1860-1936), quarryman and politician, was born on 7 June 1860 at Everton, Lancashire, England, son of John Webster, labourer, and his wife Elizabeth, née Poynton. One of a large family, William left school at 13 to work in the Welsh quarries. Migrating to New South Wales in 1879, he quarried stone at Pyrmont and, by diligent saving, was able to bring the rest of his family to Sydney. By 1880 he was prominent in the Quarrymen's Union of New South Wales and financial secretary of the Trades and Labor Council. On 7 June 1883 at St Clement's Anglican Church, Marrickville, he married Jane Buckney. Webster Bros, the quarrying firm he founded at Marrickville, was among the first in New South Wales to observe an eight-hour day and standard wage.

Having been a member of the Marrickville Municipal Council from 1887, Webster surmounted the legal technicalities of the case arising from a disputed election to the Petersham Council in 1890 to act successfully as his own counsel: when a new election was ordered, he was returned with an overwhelming majority. Defeated in the 1890s when he stood for the New South Wales Legislative Assembly seats of Canterbury, Petersham and Wickham, he withdrew his candidature for Marrickville during the 1893 depression when his building business collapsed. Webster returned to his trade at Narrabri, quarrying stone for the Moree courthouse. Despite his previous opposition to the Federation bill, in 1901 he contested the Federal seat of Gwydir. From 1901 to 1903 he was the first Labor member to represent Moree in the assembly where he invoked reform of land administration. A hardworking local politician, he made it his business to know 'the pet name and birthday of every child' in his electorate. In 1903 he resigned and won Gwydir for Labor. He never forgot his constituency and, though swamped with considerable correspondence, took care to attend personally to letters and requests.

He was an instigator, member and chairman of the royal commission on postal services (1908-10) whose critical findings on the service under the Deakin administration became a catalyst for the government's defeat. In pursuit of these criticisms, Webster—'the man with the iron jaw'—delivered a famous stonewalling speech on 9 July 1909 which lasted 10 hours and 57 minutes; a time limit, adopted three years later, preserved his record. In the first Hughes government Webster was appointed postmaster-general on 27 October 1915. In 1916 he left the Australian Labor Party over conscription: as one of the twenty-four ex-members who joined Hughes in the National Labor government, he retained his portfolio until 3 February 1920. Webster successfully impeached the Department of Works for waste and extravagance in developing the Federal capital. He was defeated in the December 1919 election.

Retiring to Wentworthville, to his books, his garden and an occasional game of bowls, Webster died on 8 October 1936 at Parramatta and was cremated. His wife, daughter and two sons survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • L. F. Fitzhardinge, The Little Digger (Syd, 1979)
  • P. M. Weller (ed), Caucus Minutes, 1901-1949 (Melb, 1975)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1902, 5, p 750
  • Lone Hand, 16 June 1919
  • Punch (Melbourne), 4 Oct 1910, 25 June 1914, 11 Nov 1915
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 28 Oct 1915, 14 Feb, 9 May, 10, 23 Oct, 2 Nov 1916, 21 Aug 1919, 9 June 1933, 12 Oct 1936.

Citation details

Christine Wise, 'Webster, William (1860–1936)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://labouraustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/webster-william-9033/text15909, accessed 21 November 2017.

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