Webb, Thomas Ebenezer (DNB12)

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WEBB, THOMAS EBENEZER (1821–1903), lawyer and man of letters, born at Portscatho, Cornwall, on 8 May 1821, was eldest of the twelve children of the Rev. Thomas Webb, who owned a small estate in Cornwall, by his wife Amelia, daughter of James Ryall, of an Irish family. After education at Kingswood College, Sheffield, where he was afterwards for a time an assistant master, he won a classical scholarship at Trinity College, Dublin, in 1845. He was moderator in metaphysics there in 1848, obtained vice-chancellor's prizes for English, Greek, and Latin verse composition, and distinguished himself at the college historical society. He was always a brilliant talker and an eloquent speaker. Well read in English literature, he from an early age contributed verse and prose to the press and to ‘Kottabos’ and other magazines. In 1857 he took the degree of LL.D. at Dublin, was elected professor of moral philosophy at the university, and published ‘The Intellectualism of Locke,’ a brilliant but paradoxical attempt to show that Locke anticipated Kant's recognition of synthetic a priori propositions. His literary gifts were greater than his philosophical powers. But he was re-elected to his professorship in 1862, and next year was chosen fellow of Trinity College—a post which he enjoyed for the next eight years.

Meanwhile Webb was called to the Irish bar in 1861, and took silk in 1874. He was regius professor of laws at Trinity College from 1867 to 1887, and was also public orator from 1879 to 1887. In 1887 he withdrew from academic office to become county court judge for Donegal. He filled that position till his death. He was elected bencher of the King's Inns in 1899.

Apart from his professional duties Webb was keenly interested through life in politics and literature. In 1868 he stood without success in the whig interest for the University of Dublin. But in 1880 he abandoned his old party, and was thenceforth a rigorous critic of liberal policy in Ireland. In a pamphlet on the Irish land question (1880) he denounced proposed concessions to the tenants as ruinous to freedom of contract, though he approved legislation enabling tenants to purchase their holdings. He was hostile to Gladstone's home rule scheme of 1886 (see his pamphlets ‘Ipse Dixit on the Gladstonian Settlement of Ireland,’ and ‘The Irish Question: a Reply to Mr. Gladstone,’ 1886). He regarded home rule as a step towards separation.

In 1880 Webb produced a verse translation of Goethe's ‘Faust,’ which is more faithful and poetical than the versions of his many rivals. In 1885 there followed ‘The Veil of Isis,’ essays on idealism which failed to establish his position as a philosopher. His latest years were largely devoted to formulating doubts of the received Shakespearean tradition. With characteristic love of paradox he claimed in ‘The Mystery of William Shakespeare: a Summary of Evidence’ (1902), to deprive Shakespeare of the authorship of his plays and poems. He was well acquainted with Shakespeare's text, but had small knowledge of Elizabethan literature and history.

Webb's favourite recreation was hunting, and he long followed the Ward and Kildare hounds. He died at his residence in Dublin, 5 Mount Street Crescent, on 10 Nov. 1903, and was buried in Mount Jerome cemetery. He married in 1849 Susan, daughter of Robert Gilbert of Barringlen, co. Wicklow; she survived him with three sons and a daughter.

[Private information; personal knowledge; The Irish Times, 11 Nov. 1903; The Times, 12 Nov. 1903; Athenæum, 14 Nov. 1903; Who's Who, 1903.]

R. Y. T.