Miserable Rags or the Resplendent Light of Publicity: The Early Newspapers of Victoria 1838 - 1851

[Tim Hogan]

Tim Hogan illustrates the history of our Newspapers

In 1883 Australia was described as the land of newspapers, with the proportion of people subscribing to a newspaper being 10 times that of England. Tim Hogan, Newspaper Librarian at the State Library of Victoria, described briefly a few of the earliest papers.

John Pascoe Fawkner published the first newspaper, "The Melbourne Advertiser" on 1st January 1838. Undeterred by not having a printing press, the first 9 editions were handwritten. Pencilled lines kept the writing straight, but Garryowen in his "Chronicles of Early Melbourne" stated that the 'calligraphy was the most creditable part' of the 'miserable rag.' The weekly paper was, as the name suggested, full of advertisements with the occasional news article. It was available at Fawkner's Hotel.

On the 5th March 1838, following the arrival of a hand operated press, the first printed paper appeared. However, Fawkner's paper was short lived as he did not have a licence. The Newspaper Act actually required him to present himself in Sydney with 2 separate sureties of 300 pounds. Following an amended Act, Fawkner started "The Port Phillip Patriot and Melbourne Advertiser" in 1839 and the "Geelong Advertiser" in 1840.

The second newspaper, the "Port Phillip Gazette," owned by George Arden, aged 18 and Thomas Strode, aged 26, began in 1838. Like other early papers, its opening editorial was very flowery. It described Melbourne as no longer being a wilderness echoing to the 'shrill cooee of the savage.' Arden promised that commentary on politics would be kept in abeyance. However his political comments became so libellous that he spent time in gaol and was also involved in a duel with medical doctor, Barry Cotter.

The forerunner of today's "Herald-Sun" was the "Port Phillip Herald," first published on 3rd January 1840 by former law clerk and milk man George Cavenagh, from Sydney. His first editorial included lofty sentiments about fearlessness of the press and stated it would concentrate not on 'men but measures.'

The "Melbourne Argus" began in 1846 with William Kerr as editor. He had worked on the "Port Phillip Patriot" and Charles La Trobe said the 'tone of the "Argus" was as discreditable as that which distinguished the "Patriot."' Kerr was so libellous that he was forced to give up his paper. "The Argus" edited by Edward Wilson took its place in 1848 and went on to have a bigger circulation than all the other papers combined. Its beginnings were radical but it became more conservative.

"The Standard" was introduced in 1844 by George Darly Boursiquot who was notorious for his love making with all the ladies in the town. His paper became "The Standard and Port Phillip Gazeteer" in 1845. Other newspapers started in the 1840's but only lasted a short time.

Lady Jane Franklin from Tasmania wrote in 1839 that the "Port Phillip Patriot" was wretchedly printed, the "Port Phillip Gazette" was better presented but Arden was very bigoted. Asked by Governor George Gipps in 1848 to report on the state of newspapers in Port Phillip, Superintendent Charles La Trobe described the local papers as having 'no principles.' They showed 'ignorance, disregard for the truth and recklessness amounting to malevolent libel;' "The Port Phillip Herald" was 'without talent' and the "Patriot" 'dealt with abuse and misrepresentation of persons or facts.' He noted hovever that the respectable Port Phillip citizens, whose subscribed papers were delivered to them by local urchins, seemed to be content with what they received. Any paper was apparently better than no paper.

The worst critics of the papers were the editors themselves. Arden described Cavenagh as a 'venal editor' and 'dirty creature.' Fawkner described Cavenagh as editor of an 'intolerant and bigoted, lyingly censorious journal.' Arden complimented the "Patriot" on being an 'old woman, with low and impudent vulgarity . . . . like a fish hag.'

Newspaper publishers struggled with the poor quality papers, inks, cleaning fluids, and printing machines which came from England. Shortages of printers and compositors meant that some employees were totally unfit to perform their job, especially when drunk.

The publishers deserved credit for their efforts. By 1849, on a steam driven printing press, the "Port Phillip Herald" could print 3,000 newspapers an hour. Quite a change from a few hand written papers which appeared weekly in 1838.

(The above is a report on Tim Hogan's address at the General Meeting on 12 July 2008)

Contributed by Jan Hanslow (PPPG Member No. 1057)

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