Webb, Richard Davis (1805–72), printer and philanthropist, was born in the Cornmarket, Dublin, where his parents had a linen business; he was eldest among seven sons of James Webb and Deborah Webb (née Forrest). The Webbs and Forrests were members of the Society of Friends; Jacob Poole (qv) was married to his mother's sister, and in 1867 Richard Webb published Poole's poems and glossary of Wexford dialect. Richard was educated in quaker schools at Mountmellick and at Ballitore, Co. Kildare, where he became friendly with Mary Leadbeater (qv), sister of the influential schoolmaster Abraham Shackleton (qv). Schoolfellows, mostly but not all from quaker families, many of them to be associated with Webb in his lifelong philanthropic endeavours, included James Haughton (qv) and Jonathan Pim (qv). After his apprenticeship, Webb set up (1828) a bookselling and printing business in South William St.; in 1833 he went into partnership with Robert Chapman in new premises in what was then Great Brunswick St. (latterly Pearse St.). In 1839 he further expanded his business by installing a new steam press, and around 1852 he and his son Alfred began a partnership as R. D. Webb & Son.
Like many quakers Webb was particularly opposed to slavery and, at the age of 19, he supported a quaker-led anti-slavery campaign by signing a petition to parliament circulated by the London Yearly Meeting. The abolition of slavery in British colonies and dominions in 1834 brought about only a temporary lull in the activities of abolitionists. It became clear that abuses of power, even in British colonies, still continued in a new guise, and that British and Irish economic relations with America still involved the tacit encouragement of a country profiting by the products of slavery. Webb became increasingly involved in the campaign to free American slaves, and by 1838 was a leading member of the Hibernian Anti-Slavery Society. He and his brothers James and Thomas, as well as his wife and his father, attended as delegates the world anti-slavery conventions in London in June 1840 and in 1842, where he met William Lloyd Garrison and became his lifelong friend and supporter, even after the split between Garrison and others in the abolitionist movement hardened during the 1840s. Webb worked for the establishment of the Anti-Slavery League in 1846. He and his family also undertook responsibility for collecting and shipping contributions to the fundraising Boston bazaar.
Webb was a vital link between European and American activists. He helped to organise many of the visits of American lecturers to Britain and Ireland, and his voluminous correspondence with Garrison and others is a valuable source of information for historians. Webb's opinions of contemporaries were not always favourable, and his judgements were sometimes strongly worded. He distrusted Daniel O'Connell (qv) and became disillusioned with Fr Theobald Mathew (qv), who had been one of his early heroes. Webb wrote a good deal in periodicals on both sides of the Atlantic, and edited and published the Anti-Slavery Advocate (1852–63). It circulated in Britain as well as in Ireland. He wrote and printed in 1862 a life of John Brown, the abolitionist leader of an insurrection at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, who was hanged in 1859. Webb also published the autobiography of the famous black abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, one of the many visitors who stayed in Webb's Dublin home; however, Webb quickly came to distrust and dislike Douglass and his associates.
Abolitionists frequently made common cause with campaigners on other social issues, and Webb was no exception. He supported temperance, women's rights, anti-militarism, and efforts for peace worldwide, and opposed the opium trade, England's war with China, capital punishment, and the corn laws. As well as printing most of the leaflets used in the effort to promote temperance, Webb's premises were used as a depository for the tracts of first the Dublin Temperance Society and then its national successor, the Hibernian Temperance Society, in both of which he was an active member. In 1838 he, James Haughton, and Richard Allen (qv), all quakers, founded the Irish Temperance Union, and published the Irish Temperance and Literary Gazette. American radicals influenced Webb's thinking on many issues, and his views were frequently more advanced than those of his fellow quakers in Ireland. A friend of the Young Irelander Thomas Davis (qv), he was sympathetic to Irish nationalism. In 1842 he wrote that many quakers were ‘rank tories’ (Harrison, 38), and he resigned from the Society of Friends in 1851, though still retaining many associations with former colleagues.
In 1852 he printed and published the elaborate Transactions of the Central Relief Committee, compiled by Jonathan Pim. This dealt with the relief operations in Ireland in which quakers had been involved throughout the great famine of the 1840s, and also included statistics and recommendations for reforms. Webb had helped quaker efforts to provide food for the poor in Ireland, and in April and May 1847 had travelled on fact-finding missions in Connacht for the Yearly Meeting. His contributions to quaker historiography included his edition of Mary Leadbetter's The Leadbetter papers, which he printed and which was published in London (1862); also in 1862 he published Betsy Shackleton's Ballitore seventy years ago. He frequently published comments on Irish conditions and politics in the Manchester Guardian and elsewhere; his commitment to the causes in which he believed so strongly ended only with his death on 14 July 1872. He was buried in Temple Hill graveyard, Blackrock, Co. Dublin.
He married (30 May 1833) Hannah Waring (d. 1862) from Waterford city; they had two daughters and two sons – one of whom was Alfred John Webb (qv), who dedicated his biographical dictionary to his father.