Jessie Webb: a passionate historian and a woman of firsts

Jessie Webb was the first woman to join the RSHV. A passionate historian and a true individual who lived by her own rules, Jessie was instrumental in the establishment of the Historical Society of Victoria, or the Royal Historical Society of Victoria as it is now known.

Jessie Webb was a passionate, intelligent and adventurous woman. A historian and a woman of many firsts. 

Born in 1880, Jessie was raised by her maternal aunt in Elsternwick after being orphaned at the age of 9. A talented student, she graduated from the University of Melbourne with first-class honours in history and political economy in 1902. After completing her MA and working as a teacher and tutor, Jessie became the first woman appointed to the University of Melbourne’s history teaching staff in 1908. She was appointed Acting Professor in 1925, a position she held until her death in February 1944. Throughout her working life, she taught hundreds of students, including famous Victorian historian AGL Shaw. Jessie helped ignite in many a passion for history that would shape the future of historical studies in Australia.

On Friday 21st May 1909, Jessie Webb was one of seventy Melburnians who attended the first general meeting of the Historical Society of Victoria. She applied for membership, the first woman to do so, and was allocated the membership number 30. Jessie had been involved before this first public meeting though, offering the room she leased at the Block Arcade in Collins Street for the use of the burgeoning society. Without Jessie’s offices, the Historical Society of Victoria would have had nowhere to meet. 

Jessie was the epitome of a ‘new woman’: those intelligent, emancipated women who led rich intellectual lives on their own terms. We want to honour her and bring her story to light. We saw her as an inspirational figurehead for a new group, The Jessie Webb Society, that celebrates those whose contributions through bequests underpin the great work of the RHSV, as Jessie did all those years ago.

Jessie was a passionate historian and an active member of the intellectual community of Melbourne. In addition to being an RHSV member, she was also an original member of the Catalysts’ Society. As a foundation member of the Lyceum Club, she was a committee member from 1912 to 1939, serving as its President from 1920 to 1922. In the mid-1920’s she served as President of the Victorian Woman Graduates’ Association and in 1936 was a foundation member of University Women’s College at the University of Melbourne. She was certainly busy! She was a vocal and active member of her community, supporting and encouraging other women and sharing her passion for history and intellectual pursuits.

Her academic achievements were numerous, as was her sense of adventure. In 1922 she embarked on a seven-month journey from Cape Town to Cairo with her friend and colleague Dr Georgina Sweet. After completing this arduous journey, she then went on to travel through Greece and Turkey for five months with friend Elizabeth Lothian, a fellow teacher and classicist. It was during this journey that Webb was asked by the Federal Government to represent Australia as an alternate delegate to the 1923 League of Nations 4th General Assembly in Geneva. 

After returning home to many accolades, she resumed teaching, being appointed senior history lecturer in 1923. A few years later she travelled to Alice Springs with the pioneering garage owner and fellow Lyceum Club member Alice Anderson. Alice started her own business, an all-women garage that encouraged women to take part in the nation’s new motoring obsession. Alice viewed involvement and an understanding of motoring as a passage to female independence. So in 1926, the two women set off in a Baby Austin 7 to explore Central Australia for several weeks. These women made their own rules and were comfortable with their independence. They encouraged other women, as the Australian Dictionary of Biography states, “to lead fuller and more interesting lives”.

In 1936 Jessie set off again on another international adventure, travelling from England to North Africa, then back to France and by train to Athens, Turkey and down the Aegean coast. She then travelled back to Germany, then onto Syria and Iraq, visiting ancient sites and immersing herself in the discoveries and new technologies of the time. Jessie made the most of her professional leave and explored as many Ancient wonders as she could, honing her craft, exploring the world and eventually bringing her knowledge and passion back to Melbourne and her enamoured students.

Jessie Webb continued teaching and administering for the University until her final days. She died of cancer on 17th February 1944. She was 64 years old.

We wanted to honour her legacy and acknowledge her impact on the RHSV and her pioneering work as a female academic – which is still felt over 100 years later. So we have named our newest society, dedicated to those who leave Bequests to the RHSV, after her. We want to acknowledge those who take the time to become involved in organisations like ours, who are passionate about our history and endeavour to preserve it for future generations.

We will officially launch the Jessie Webb Society on 25th March 2020.