Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Webster, Edward (1866–1928)

by Bruce Mitchell

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

Edward Webster (1866-1928), schoolteacher and co-founder of the Gould League of Bird Lovers, was born on 8 January 1866 at Richmond, New South Wales, fifth child of William Webster, an English-born engine-driver, and his wife Isabella, née Farquhar, from Scotland. Attending Cleveland Street Public School, Redfern, from the age of 4, by 1880 Edward was a pupil-teacher at Camden Public School. After a one-year course at the Fort Street Training School, in January 1886 he was appointed to Goulburn and then worked at Birchgrove, Sydney, and Croydon. Next year he was sent to half-time country schools at Browns Creek and Wallendibby, then at Murrambego and Wallendibby. From Tenderden (1889) and Glen Innes (1890) he was promoted to Young in 1893.

At Pitt Street Presbyterian Church, Sydney, on Boxing Day 1893 Webster married Dolleina Ross. In 1895 he was posted to Burke Ward Public School, Broken Hill, where 365 children endured crowded and unsuitable conditions. He had some success in securing new schoolrooms but the Websters' infant daughter died in 1897 from an illness that the doctor believed was 'largely influenced by the climate and local conditions'. Advised to leave the town for his health and that of his young son, he was sent to Bondi, Sydney, in 1898, then to Majors Creek. In October 1905 he became head teacher at Wellington, where he showed an enthusiasm for school drill and threw himself into the life of the town, becoming the choirmaster for a local choir of sixty voices.

In 1910 Webster's deputy Walter Finigan (1885-1976) drew his attention to the creation in Victoria of the Gould League of Bird Lovers—suggested by a teacher Jessie McMichael—and the celebration of Bird Day in October 1909. The idea followed from the Junior Audubon Society in the United States of America but in Australia honoured John Gould. On 22 October 1910 Webster and Finigan called a meeting at Wellington and established the Gould League of Bird Lovers in New South Wales. The chief inspector James Dawson ensured that the school system supported it. Children contributed a penny for a certificate and pledged to protect birds, mainly by not collecting their eggs. The movement spread to all States; New South Wales, however, with 10,000 members by 1917 and over 130,000 by the 1930s, had the largest membership. Webster was on the State committee while Finigan, promoted to Sydney, remained the league's secretary for several years.

Confident and ambitious, Webster applied in 1909 and 1910 for appointment as an inspector; although he was unsuccessful, he was promoted to the top teaching grade at the end of 1910 and moved to Sydney in 1913. He became headmaster at Darlinghurst and then at Cleveland Street Intermediate High School, where he remained until his death. With L. H. Allen, he contributed to a study, 'An Experiment in Imaginative Writing', published in the Records of the Education Society (Sydney, 1918). In 1928 Webster published The New Syllabus English Grammar for Primary Schools. He also conducted large choirs of school children in Sydney Town Hall.

Applying for promotion in 1910, Webster had expressed conventional views about the British heritage, religion and morality, but called for patriotism based on a respect for Australian nature. He regretted the lack of efforts to improve flannel flowers or 'that queen among bush flowers, the waratah', and believed that schools should work to 'eradicate the idea that nature is for exploitation for material gain'. Webster died of cancer on 24 March 1928 at his home at Manly and was buried in Rookwood cemetery. His wife, three sons and two daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • C. Barrett, The Bird Man (Melb, 1938)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 26 Mar 1928, p 12, 13 Sept 1928, p 8, 3 Nov 1928, pp 12 & 18
  • M. McPherson, History of Burke Ward Public School, 1994 (New South Wales Dept of Education)
  • Wellington school files (State Records New South Wales)
  • teachers’ records, and information from school history section of New South Wales Dept of Education.

Citation details

Bruce Mitchell, 'Webster, Edward (1866–1928)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/webster-edward-13241/text6377, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 26 September 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

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