The Argus, the daily morning newspaper published from 1846 to 1957 in Melbourne left behind an interesting history and influenced and provoked the political domain of those years. ‘The Herald’ and ‘The Age’ were its rivals with their own agendas; none, impartial.
The Argus began its life on 2nd June 1846 as “THE MELBOURNE ARGUS’’, under the control of William Kerr. William Kerr arrived in Sydney from Scotland in 1832. He worked as a tutor, a schoolteacher and then became a journalist with Colonist and Sydney Gazette. In 1939, Kerr moved to Melbourne and worked in Port Phillip Herald for a short time. In 1841, he joined Pasco Fawkner’s Port Phillip Patriot as Editor and after five years established the short-lived Melbourne Courier. The Courier failed, but Kerr’s admirers helped to start the Melbourne Argus, a four sheet, handset, twice weekly (appearing on Tuesdays and Fridays) with very independent views.
Kerr, with strong views on political issues of his time and unrestrained language, was constantly in trouble with authorities and fellow citizens. He had strong urban sympathies against the strong squatting interests. When a series of letters on land settlement problems began to arrive from outside contributor, signing himself as IOTA of Eumemmering Creek near Dandenong, Kerr recognised its merit and published them. Iota was a 32-year-old son of a London businessman and he had come to Australia in a spirit of adventure and enterprise. At the time he had pastural property at Eumemmering Creek, but freelance journalism attracted him and he took a keen interest in public affairs. His name was Edward Wilson. Born in London on 3rd November 1813, Wilson had some experience in Journalism before coming to Australia. He lost all his savings and inheritance after launching a calico printing firm near Manchester with two other partners. Wilson left for Sydney in August 1841, then moved to Melbourne and began farming near Brunswick. The Eumemmering cattle run he leased near Doveton with James Stewart Johnston, did not prosper, so sold in 1846.
Libel suits were a constant occurrence which ate away the profits made by the newspaper. In 1848 Kerr became insolvent, as a result of the damages arising from the libelling of registrar of the new Anglican Diocese, Henry Moor. Melbourne Argus was taken possession of by the Sheriff and sold under the hammer. Edward Wilson bought the Newspaper for £300. Kerr continued as the editor for some time and under Kerr and Wilson Argus remained extremely radical. James Stewart Johnston became joint proprietor in 1849.
They changed the paper’s name to ‘’ The Argus’’ and incorporated the Patriot, lineal descendant of John Pascoe Fawkner’s first Melbourne Journal. The first newspaper with the changed name, THE ARGUS was published on 15th September 1848. It continued to publish twice a week for some months, then every other day. On 18th June 1849, THE ARGUS became a daily newspaper. It continued to grow in circulation and as it grew it started absorbing its weaker competitors such as THE COURIER and DAILY NEWS. THE ARGUS on those days were a four-page newspaper starting with about nine columns of advertisements, two thirds of which were Gazette notices.
Melbourne was still in its teenage years as a white settlement, printing presses and skilled printers were non-existent in that struggling township. Running a newspaper was a hard menial job. But things were about to change for both The Argus and the city of Melbourne. In 1850, Gold was discovered in Victoria and the next chapter was prosperity. THE ARGUS bought out a competing newspaper ‘’Melbourne Daily News’’ in January 1852 to get possession of its press. A body of compositors playfully known as 40 thieves under Hugh George of The Times London was brought out by THE ARGUS. THE ARGUS modelled itself like The Times. By mid- 1852, THE ARGUS doubled its size and reduced its price. It also chronicled the proceedings of Victoria’s Parliament by introducing skilled shorthand reporters. From a circulation of 5,000 in 1852, it has risen to 20,000 by the late 1853.
Even with the increased circulation THE ARGUS was struggling to survive. Wilson got a new partner in 1852. Lauchlan Mackinnan, son of a Scots Clergyman joined the business which relieved Wilson of the business management of the paper and allowed him to focus on the editorial side. Mackinnan’s shrewd business sense saved THE ARGUS. He raised the price of the newspaper and advertising rates and brought in migrant compositors to reduce the wages.
Wilson was a very opinionated journalist and turned his guns on Governor Charles Latrobe, at times demeaning La Trobe in public eye. In May 1853, an advertisement in THE ARGUS which read, ‘Wanted a Governor. Apply to the People of Victoria’. He also launched a campaign to stop bringing cheap convict labour to Victoria. He inflamed digger unrest by his exaggerated reporting of the goldfields administration’s shortcomings. He coined up a slogan, ‘Unlock the Lands’, against the pastoralist’s ruinous monopoly.
Thirty years later, in 1880, The Age published an article titled, ‘’ The History of Argus’’, detailing the sins of Wilson years among other notorious style of reporting adopted by The Argus over the years. The excerpts of the article are as follows.
“The Argus newspaper commenced very early in its career to develop that truculency, for which it is now notorious. The first Governor of Victoria, whom the Argus hunted out of the colony, not ceasing even when his wife lay dead at his house to jest at his grief. Mr La Trobe was a scholar an artist and a gentleman but lacked the talent to grapple with the unexpected difficulties caused by the rush to the goldfields. Perhaps it was because of his kindly manners and experience of cultured society that the newspaper that represented the purely trading interest, selected him for the attack. He was reviled in the foulest language. A standing advertisement headed the Argus: “’ Wanted a Governor’’ and when failing health and domestic bereavement rendered him an object of compassion even to his enemies, The Argus continued its attack, and openly glorified in the sufferings of its victim. Nor did it pause here, It laid itself out to attack the Queen’s Troupes and to incite opposition to the control of constables and Police. A perennial flow of those half timid sneers, gushed in its columns, and ‘’silver laced puppies’’ was the mildest term used towards those supporters of law and order, the officers of Police.
THE BETRAYAL OF THE DIGGERS
The Government imposed tax on the Gold diggers in the shape of Gold license, and this tax was necessarily the most unpopular. It was collected moreover in an offensive way, and the large body of orderly and intelligent men – many of them barristers, artists, officers in the army, younger sons and cadets of good houses – protested against it. The Argus espoused their cause and why? The game suited the trade policy of the paper. But when the diggers urged by The Argus to revolt, revolted, The Argus turned round and “ever strong upon the stronger side’’, called for swift and stern punishment. The unlucky defenders of Eureka Stockade believed, – some deluded men do now – in the honesty of the paper, which compared the visits of the Goldfield Commissioner to forays of Tcherkessian Bandits.”
The Article goes on to describe the treatment Charles Hotham, Charles Darling, Sir George Bowan and Mr Bramwell received from The Argus and how The Argus tried to damage the credit rating of the Colony.
By the end of 1850s Wilson’s health began to fail and he gradually withdrew from actively involving in the business. In 1857, Wilson handed over the editorship to George Higginbotham. In 1859 and 1862 he went to England for health reasons, and in 1864 he went to England for eye operation after which he stayed there, controlling Argus from London. Higginbotham had prior experience working as a Parliamentary reporter for London Morning Chronicle and he used to write for Melbourne Morning Herald before joining THE ARGUS. His principled liberalism struggled to cope with THE ARGUS’s opinionated reporting. Charles Bright who worked under him as reporter later recalled that Higginbotham’s dislike in making snap decisions on political issues and his scrupulous attention to every detail from leading article to minutest paragraph, led to slowness in publication. Higginbotham resigned in July 1859 after having a clash with Edward Wilson. Higginbotham became the Chief Justice of Victoria in 1886 and served in that position until 1892. At a speech he made at Brighton on 28th January 1866, he called The Argus, “The Organ of Melbourne Chamber of Commerce’’ and spoke of it as a ‘’Newspaper while it is the advocate of the interests of a class, professes to represent the opinions of the public’’.
In 1859 Mr H. E. Watts and Gurney Patmore took over the editorship from Higginbotham, who, in turn, handed over to Mr A. L. Windsor, who was succeeded by Mr F. W. Haddon. All were nominees of Edward Wilson, and Mr Haddon carried on the Wilson tradition until the nineties.
After Wilsons return to England, Argus lost none of its fire. It took the side of the Legislative Council so strongly in the constitutional struggles of the 1860’s that the Premier of Victoria, James McCulloch was rash enough to summon the Printer Hugh George before the bar of the Assembly to answer for an article he had published. George duly appeared on 20th March 1866 and applied for a counsel to represent him. When this was refused, he declared that the article was no more than a fair criticism upon a statement made by a servant of the crown in his public capacity in a public place. George was ordered into custody and released after 3 weeks.
Meantime, Allan Spowers, a schooldays friend of Wilson, interested himself in THE ARGUS, and after having helped in tiding it over some difficult times found himself as junior proprietor. The partnership of Wilson, Mackinnon, and Spowers owned THE ARGUS until its incorporation as a company in July 1936, and these interests remained as large shareholders. Wilson’s representative on the board was Gowan Evans whom he paid £1000 a year and later F.W. Hadden took over. Wilson died on 10th January 1878.
In the 1890’s linotype machine setting revolutionised the newspaper industry, which increased the efficiency at The Argus too. In 1906, Dr Cunningham became editor, who didn’t deviate from the path set by F.W Haddon. In 1926, Argus moved from its Collins Street premises to a new premises at the corner of Elizabeth and Latrobe Streets.
In 1933, Argus launched the Melbourne Star an evening newspaper in competition to The Herald. Its daily circulation reached 60,000 but the support anticipated from advertisers didn’t materialise resulting Argus to cease its publication on 18th February 1936. With the incorporation of the company, further modernisation was undertaken, and on September 13, 1937, the paper was extensively remodelled. Among the changes was the placing of news on the front page.
In the 1940s and 50s the company was experiencing a rough ride financially due to rising costs of production and increased competition. In June 1949, The Argus was acquired by London based Daily Mirror Newspaper group.
On Monday 28 July 1952, The Argus claimed to be the first newspaper in the world to print a high-speed action news picture in full colour. In what was a technological marvel for its time, there were coloured photos of sporting events on the front and back pages. On 16th July 1953, Argus published Its popular Thursday section Women’s Parade in full color. The Argus did print in colour regularly and was popular as ever in the 1950s. But the paper was making huge losses. Argus was ahead of its time and published colour photos for the Olympics, the Melbourne Cup and the Queen Elizabeth’s visit of Australia. The color printers they purchased were very expensive and unreliable. It was said at that time that printing problems resulted in The Argus missing some early morning sales as it was not distributed until after 10am on some days.
On 19th January 1957, The Argus published for the last time after 110 years in circulation. It closed down due to continuing heavy losses and 500 of its employees were issued dismissal notices. The company’s other media operations like its interests in radio and Television were not affected.
The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1957) Mon 3 Jun 1946 Page 14 History of The Argus is the History of the State
The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1957) Mon 3 Jun 1946 Page 11 A Brief History of THE ARGUS
The Age (Melbourne, Vic. : 1854 – 1954) Thu 26 Feb 1880 Page 5 A HISTORY OF THE ARGUS NEWSPAPER.
Leader (Melbourne, Vic. : 1862 – 1918, 1935) Sat 28 Feb 1880 Page 23 A HISTORY OF THE ARGUS NEWSPAPER.
Portland Guardian (Vic. : 1876 – 1953) Thu 16 Apr 1936 Page 3 Melbourne “Star” Ceases Publication