State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 53 October 1994

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Newspapers

The Time Machines

Sometimes I feel as though I have spent half my life in the Newspaper Room, in its various guises, of the State Library of Victoria. Particularly now when you are doomed to consult most newspapers on microfilm readers in dimly-lit surroundings with a motorised hum in your ears. It is more than ever like entering your own private time machine. Choose your newspaper and dates, find the right roll of microfilm and a reader that works, and you are on your way.
I first fell under the spell of the historic newspaper when I was a schoolboy in the 1960s. A far-sighted teacher borrowed back copies of the Mansfield Courier from the newspaper office which still printed the weekly local paper in much the same way as it had in the 1870s. We read of the shooting of the policemen, Scanlon, Kennedy and Lonigan, by the Kelly gang in 1878, and the escape of Constable McIntyre. It made me realise that this was a real event, something that had really happened, not so long ago after all, involving real people who lived and worked in the town. There is a big, white wedding cake of a memorial to the three policemen in the main street of Mansfield, but its significance was brought home to me by my reading of these contemporary reports, written by men who knew them.
Then, in the other columns, was all the trivia and ritual of town life which went on irrespective of the rare drama. Advertisements for drapers and iron-mongers, carters and barbers, butchers and blacksmiths barely changed, month after month. Detailed reports told everything that could possibly be said about Shire Council meetings and charity gala days. Paid testimonials to proprietary medicines — liver pills, tonics, cough mixtures, hair restorers — jostled with depictions of miraculous new trusses. Mansfield of 1878 came to life, and I could hear the horses and wagons on the gravel streets of the town.
My first taste of newspapers on microfilm came a few years later when I was studying British History at university. Our projects on Chartism in the 1840s had us turning to a microfilmed set, newly supplied by the History Department, of the agitators’ famous newspaper, The Northern Star. What a joy it was to read at first-hand the populist oratory of Feargus O'Connor. “Moral suasion is all humbug,” he would say, to the outrage of his more moderate sympathisers. To read of the anti-climactic Chartist Demonstration in 1848 and the march to Kennington Common was, for me, like being there, the time and place evoked in a way that no later historian could hope to match.
During the same undergraduate course, Don Mackay — a marvellous teacher of history — sent me down to the State Library of Victoria where I read about Lord John Russell and the ‘Papal Aggression’ in 1850–51, when conservative and evangelical Englishmen shuddered at the prospect of Roman Catholics taking hallowed English
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names such as Westminster for their archbishops. My source was the London Times, and in those days I was able to work through the ‘hard copy’ in the State Library — the actual newspapers themselves in their stout bindings.
“The satisfaction to the user was that whether you wanted last week's Sun News-Pictorial or the London Times of 1851, it would usually be placed in front of you in a matter of minutes. And it would be the object itself.”
The Newspaper Room then lived on the ground floor of the library, below the domed reading room. Half of the vast area was concealed from view by a timber-panelled wall. The other half was furnished with generous-sized tables where you could spread out your huge volumes with plenty of room to spare. There was a cold linoleum floor, swept every morning just before opening time by a small contingent of cleaning ladies who scattered sawdust across the whole area and then swept it towards the centre of the room where they gathered it up again. Behind the counter stood the newspaper attendants, one of whom was certain to be called Derek. Once you ascertained that the Library actually held the newspaper you wanted, it was a matter of minutes to put in your request and to have the volumes in question retrieved from the stacks behind or from the basement below. I later learned that the basement was a catacomb of oversized newspaper volumes, often stuffed into shelving which was unsuitable for such big items. But the satisfaction to the user was that whether you wanted last week's Sun News-Pictorial or the London Times of 1851, it would usually be placed in front of you in a matter of minutes. And it would be the object itself.
Immediately I rediscovered what I had learnt from my adventures through the Mansfield Courier — that there was an indefinable magic in reading and handling the actual artefact. Very few libraries in Australia could claim to hold such extensive back issues of the Times, so it was a privilege and a stimulus to my historical interest to be able to read original copies of the paper. My recollection is that the Times was in good condition.
I very rapidly discovered that there were major differences between the London Times and the Northern Star — and the Mansfield Courier, for that matter. The way they spoke, the things they said, the way they pontificated from their editorial pulpits, all differed mightily. To read the Times and the Northern Star on the march to Kennington Common, for instance, is to marvel at how two people can observe and interpret the same event in totally different ways.
This final year in my undergraduate degree also took me frequently to the State Library newspaper room to research my fourth-year thesis. This was on an Australian topic. We had been studying issues of morality in the nineteenth century, so I decided to write on the long and unsuccessful campaign to legalise the totalisator system of betting on horse racing in Victoria between 1880 and 1906. While there were other sources that I consulted, it was the newspapers and periodicals that gave me the foundations on which I built my study.
I made the acquaintance of the Melbourne-based religious periodicals — the evangelical Southern Cross, the Methodist Spectator and the Salvation
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Army's War Cry. I discovered that as well as the daily newspapers most often quoted by historians — the Argus, the Age and the Herald — there was a fourth paper in Melbourne in the 1880s, the Daily Telegraph. It died in the depression of the 1890s, but in its prime it was an influential mouthpiece of a morality lobby, powerful businessmen of evangelical leanings who were lampooned by their opponents as land boomers, humbugs and wowsers.
Although newspapers are put together by many contributors, they seem to have a soul, a voice, a life of their own. There is usually a house style of writing and a cast of mind in the reporting which reflects either the ownership of the paper or the influence of a strong editor. Taken over a period of years, papers have their times of strength and times of weakness. The Southern Cross, for example, was forceful and strident in the 1880s when it had lots of sin and prosperity to complain about, but it was much less pointed in the following decade. When you read a consistent run of a newspaper covering several years, it begins to take on its own personality. The nineteenth-century Argus, for example, becomes a character in the historian's mind almost as distinctly and individually as its detested opponents such as Graham Berry.
How irresistible is the prose that poured at such length from the pens of reporters in the last century, crammed by patient typesetters into columns of tiny print. They were writing for the moment. Many showed little concern or sense of responsibility that their words might last for more than a day or two, so they could be as prolix, as damning or as inaccurate as their editors would allow.
I became fascinated by the conventions that were used in describing certain events. Annual celebrations such as the Melbourne Cup were covered by particular newspapers in virtually the same way and the same format, year after year. Each paper took its customary stance. In my thesis I noted that the 1880 Cup was, to the Southern Cross, a shameful manifestation of “the villainy, the course sensuality, the vulgar greed and roguery”. The Daily Telegraph, which could not afford such open hostility, said that “The people of Victoria have no reason to be otherwise than proud of the human Great Exhibition which the yearly race-meeting brings together”. The Leader, a weekly stablemate of the Age, remarked that “if Victoria is ‘going to the dogs’, she certainly travels kennel-wards in royal style”. And the Australasian, the weekly companion to the Argus, described the weather: “The country never looked fresher or greener than it does now. The sky never was of a clearer blue …” The ritual description of the weather in reports, of public occasions allowed reporters to draw on a repertoire of classical allusions, many of which reached the status of cliché. A really dismal downpour was regularly rendered as a “pluvial demonstration”.
By the end of this project I had sampled many late nineteenth-century Melbourne newspapers, all of which were supplied to me in hard copy in the State Library. The newspaper room had only a partial air of scholarly pursuit, since you frequently shared your table with the homeless and lonely in search of warmth and entertainment, or men who sniffed as they examined back issues of the Sporting Globe to test their latest racing systems.
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After I finished my degree I soon found myself working for a living in the State Library, having secured a job in the Archives Section, which in those days occupied large portions of the Library's various basements. Here I was able to see for myself the vast runs of various newspapers, and to appreciate the problems they posed for the Library. At least in the nineteenth century the daily paper were comparatively slight, although dense in detail with their multiple columns of tiny print. Modern papers wallow in page after page of newsprint, so that a month of the Age today would take up as much shelf space in the library as half a year of the paper a century, ago.
A shelf of bound newspapers standing side by side, like library books, usually meant that the ones at the end of the rows tended to be crushed by the weight of their fellows leaning against them. The atmosphere in the basement felt rather dank, and the place was certainly not air conditioned. There was a fatalism about the prospects of improving storage conditions for newspapers. The Library had little money for conservation, and the endless shelves of bound newsprint made too daunting a prospect for remedial action.
After about three years the Archives Section separated administratively from the Library to become the Public Record Office, and in about 1975 it transferred most of its holdings to Laverton. I left to become a freelance writer and historian, but my path kept returning to the newspaper room. The removal of the Archives from the Library led to several major rearrangements of space. The newspaper room was shifted out of its old quarters to a smaller space on the second floor of the La Trobe Library building, while the former area was carpeted and transformed into a Reference and Information Centre.
In the meantime I had been working slowly, part time, on a history thesis for my Master of Arts degree. This was a biography of James Balfour, a somewhat forgotten figure now who was at the turn of the century a politician, businessman and influential Presbyterian layman — one of the proprietors of the Daily Telegraph, it transpired. The extensive Balfour Papers on which I based my thesis were at that time in private hands, but they have since come to the Manuscripts Collection in the State Library. The Scottish-born Balfour was always in love with newspapers, and amongst the treasures in his archives are hand-written copies of his Pilrig Free Church Watch Tower of 1846–47 which at the age of fifteen he produced for his friends. If I may quote from my book, The Young Man From Home, “It was, like the adult journals that inspired it, a melange of improving articles, local church gossip, exhortations and the wisest aphorisms”. In an early issue he tried to float a joint stock company to raise 4 to buy a printing press and added “N.B. This advertisement is quite serious and no joke”. But on this occasion he failed.
James Balfour was convinced of the power of the press, and believed that strong, ethical papers were needed to combat the materialism and godless-ness so evident to him in most of the popular publications. “I consider the maintaining of a Christian press only second to the support of the Gospel ordinances,” he wrote later. He was involved in the launch of a Melbourne twice-weekly paper, The Banner, in 1853, which carried the masthead ‘Righteousness Exalteth a Nation’. The paper's
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prospectus said that it was a “Protestant Journal, advocating the great principles of the reformation, as founded on the Word of God”. Although largely free of the sanctimonious tone which marred many church papers, it still found that there was insufficient market for a paper which declared war on “certain prevailing vices of the colony” and the “rabid spirit of Mammonism”, and it folded within a year. The State Library of Victoria holds several issues. I strongly doubt that there are any others in existence.
Undaunted by this experience, Balfour later joined a much larger syndicate headed by his colleague and former Bible-class student, Matthew Davies, to buy the Daily Telegraph in 1883. This paper had been born in 1869 by disaffected staff from the evening Herald, and it also brought into existence the Weekly Times — which in 1994 is celebrating its 125th anniversary. Most of the run of the Daily Telegraph is to be found in the State Library, and I sampled a fifteen-year span fairly extensively. The Telegraph's new consulting editor was the Rev. W. H. Fitchett, who had already breathed fire into the Southern Cross. Fitchett was a popular preacher and attractive wordsmith, and his 1897 book Deeds Which Won the Empire became a best-seller and made him a household name, as did his forty-six years as ‘President’ of the Methodist Ladies’ College in Kew.
Under the direction of Fitchett, the Telegraph tried to avoid the stigma of being what one detractor called a “goody-goody” paper. It was as substantial a paper as its two morning competitors, and spent heavily to obtain a monopoly on the Reuter's cable news service from Europe. It gave much more space than the other papers to matters of an improving nature but bestowed little attention on such popular pastimes as football and horse racing. It also gave Davies and his colleagues a fairly easy run as they built up their commercial empires in the 1880s and as these empires began to collapse amidst scandal and criminal charges in the 1890s. After sampling a good deal of the Melbourne press over this period, I concluded:
“One would not dispute the lofty motives of the proprietors, and it was hardly more unreasonable for a collection of evangelicals to wish to promote their ‘ultra views’ in a newspaper than it was for David Syme to promote his with the Age or Brodzky his with Table Talk. But newspapers are corrupting organisms, and the natural desire to put the best light on matters closest to the hearts of proprietors creates a multitude of temptations. Newspaper owners believe what they read in their newspapers; and newspapers can sometimes place their owners in positions of enormous power and influence.”
By 1892 the proprietors were so enmeshed in their sticky financial affairs that there was little time to attend to the Telegraph, which accordingly lost circulation and money. The last issue was published on 2 May and in a sequence of negotiations, the Weekly Times ended up, still as a going concern, in the hands of the Herald.
My adventures with Balfour introduced me to Maurice Brodzky's weekly, Table Talk, which led the campaign to reveal the level of corruption beneath the land boom. Again, the State Library was the place to go to find an almost complete set from its foundation in 1885
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to its sale to the Herald in 1902 and on until its ultimate demise in 1939. With its heavy concentration on the arts, theatre and the doings of Melbourne society, Table Talk, even in its later and silliest years, is always a diversion and entertainment for the researcher.
And of course there was Truth, the Sydney weekly owned by John Norton which launched a Victorian edition in 1902. Addicted to aggressive alliterative, Norton's Truth mauled and muckraked, crusaded and campaigned, and profited from prurience as it found sexual irregularity, humbug and corruption under every stone it turned. Norton popularised the expressive term ‘wowser’, and Truth happily described James Balfour as “the keystone of the whole wowseristic edifice”. I found that the historian could not ignore Truth. For all its vitriol and wicked distortions, it often broached subjects which the respectable newspapers chose to ignore. The copies I consulted were in the State Library.
My career as a professional historian began with three local histories, on the suburbs of Box Hill, Northcote and Broadmeadows. For local history the source material is wide and various, with important collections to be found in municipal offices, historical societies, State and Federal archives, parliamentary papers, local libraries, and in the hands of individuals. But the local newspaper is a key source for the historian and in some cases the only remaining source of important information.
Few localities are blessed with a newspaper right from the start — although in the case of Melbourne it helped that one of its founders, John Pascoe Fawkner, had already conducted a newspaper in Tasmania. Usually the papers come quite a bit later. In the case of Box Hill and Broadmeadows, which both began life as small country towns, there begin to be occasional references in district papers. My first pot of gold in Box Hill was the South Bourke Standard, published from Hawthorn from 1861 to 1873. Every now and then it deigned to mention Box Hill, and for me it emphasised the ways in which particular areas began to develop regional interests and identities.
For the local historian, the State Library of Victoria is an outstanding resource because of the huge range of local newspapers which it collected, beginning in the nineteenth century. Nor is the coverage restricted to Victoria. A surprising number of towns and cities throughout Australia have examples or runs of their newspapers in our State Library. It is an illustration of Victoria's central position in the economic development of Australia, and underlines the Victorian connection with many parts of Australia where intensive settlement came later, such as rural Queensland and the goldfields of Western Australia.
You can also smell the romance or the sheer desperation in the early days of local newspapers. The first trial issue of the Northcote Leader, for example, consisted largely of advertisements for businesses in Brighton, twenty miles distant. On 26 June 1889 the first issue appeared of Box Hill's own newspaper, The Reporter, started by two brothers Bright. One of the joys of reading the local press is to see the editorial advice freely dispensed with all the authority of the London Times. Another is the mischievous pleasure of hindsight. The Reporter objected to female suffrage because “No one, for a moment, believes that a wife or daughter would
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vote against the political opinions of the head of the house” and that “the next thing we expect to hear of is that the husband will have to stop at home and mind the baby while the wife goes out to work or to — vote.”
There are endless such treats to compensate for the grind of reading or skimming through issue after issue. Local papers survived on large slabs of syndicated material, but occasionally there are ventures into original literature. One of my favourites was the Reporter's serialization of ‘The Rose of Nunawading’, a pot boiler about “what the world would call a handsome man”, wealthy, English, a successful speculator “now rusticating at Blackburn, living on his means”. Appearing in 1889, this tale was doubtless intended to add some social cachet to the subdivisions in the area, which were beginning to languish after the fervour of the boom.
When I first began consulting the Reporter in the Library, a programme was under way to microfilm as many of the newspapers as possible. Although I much preferred working from the originals, I could see why. Many years of the Reporter, for instance, were not bound and indeed were physically beyond being bound. They came to you wrapped in brown paper and they were folded into quarters. No matter how carefully you handled them, it was impossible to prevent them from tearing now and again, or from shedding tiny fragments. These papers were old and frail, and no-one at the time of their birth gave thought to them as permanent records. The most disconcerting thing for me, as I took my notes, was to see a small section corning loose which contained some unique piece of information — the date of the opening of a public building, or a note of its builder, which no longer existed in any other source whatsoever. Without microfilming, it would be impossible for these papers to be made available, even under restrictions, to the researching public.
“Microfilm readers brought problems of focus, of incomplete images, of text unreadable because it is lost in the gutters of thick bindings, of scratches and damage to the film”
Microfilm was, understandably, hailed as the solution to problems of conservation of and access to historic newspapers, and some imagined that it would allow the Library to dispense with the bulky gloom of interminable hard copy. But it must not be seen as such an elixir. Anyone who had used it will know its imperfections — problems of focus, of incomplete images, of text unreadable because it is lost in the gutters of thick bindings, of scratches and damage to the film. While it is possible to spend many hours reading hard copy, even the friendliest of microfilm reader machines can leave you dizzy or nauseous after a few hours. And, of course, the microfilm lacks the immediacy of the original. It can also be important to realise, for instance, that during World War II the Box Hill Reporter and many other local newspapers were restricted to printing on inferior grade papers.
Some fascinating newspaper families owned, at various times, the local papers which I came to know so well. The Mott family, for example, are a dynasty in local and regional newspapers. They ran the Essendon Gazette which for years included coverage of Broadmeadows, and at one time they
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ran the Northcote Leader. Sydney Sampson bought the Box Hill Reporter in 1919 after he was tipped out of his Federal seat of Wimmera by the Victorian Farmers’ Union. He used its columns to editorialize against socialists and the VFU, and he was happy to give his nephew, Robert Gordon Menzies, a push when the young man first sought election to the Victorian Legislative Council in the 1920s.
It was sad to see a general decline in the standards and the extent of coverage of local newspapers, particularly after World War I. Stories tended to become perfunctory, and detailed reports of mundane matters such as Council meetings, annual meetings and the opening of flower shows, were dropped because they needed too much time from reporters. The modern age decided that fact rather than interpretation was too boring. Men such as the Whalley brothers who ran the Northcote Leader for years in the early part of the century were careful and grammatical writers. Their successors in more recent decades have tended to be inexperienced, young or inept journalists, ignorant of their history and of their community. It is a harsh truth that the modern local paper is, with a few honourable exceptions, of only marginal use to the local historian.
There is not scope to take you further on my time machine: much have I travelled in the realms of newsprint. Yet it is worth referring in brief to my most sustained project, the researching and writing of The History of Australian Thoroughbred Racing, of which two of the projected three volumes have now been published. The project began when I was researching pictorial detail for the artist Harold Freedman's mural depicting the history of racing in this country. Illustrated newspapers were a gold mine, and again the State Library of Victoria has an excellent collection. It is fascinating to chart the history of illustration in the popular press, and to see the impact of photography in newspapers, beginning at the end of the nineteenth century.
Over the past ten years or more the Picture Collection at the State Library has been engaged in a sustained and expensive project to make photographic copies of pictures in the Victorian illustrated newspapers, so that they can be more readily accessible by readers. It is a project which has been helped by donations from the Friends of the State Library and from associated donors such as the Ross Trust and the Edward Wilson Trust — Wilson being a prominent editor of the long-defunct Argus.
“Illustrated newspapers were a gold mine, and again the State Library of Victoria has an excellent collection.”
My racing project was researched over the course of several years, and during that time the Library continued to expand its collection of interstate newspapers on microfilm. In some cases the hard copy was available somewhere in the library, but in many cases these films came from libraries in the other States. In short, as time went by, it was increasingly possible to research my subject extensively from material in the State Library of Victoria.
As my work concentrated on the social and political side of horse racing as well as on the animals and their exploits themselves, papers such as the Australasian and Sydney's Town and Country Journal were indispensable. I have studied comparable newspapers
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and periodicals in each of the Australian capitals, as well as diving frequently into local papers for particular regional detail and colour. The research also took me back to the earliest Australian newspapers, and the world of Sydney when a raw town perched on the dirty shores of Port Jackson. In most cases I could find what I needed in the State Library of Victoria.
“I continue to regard with admiration the extraordinary collection of newspapers which our State Library possesses, and to reassure the Library itself that it is worth the effort of housing and caring for these unwieldy tenants.”
Racing, like a lot of Australian sport, is only just beginning to find its way into general histories, and in many cases the newspapers are the only available source of information. Then there were the specialist sporting newspapers themselves, beginning with Bell's Life in Australia and Bell's Life in Victoria in the 1840s, and moving through publications such as the Sportsman and the Referee. I found myself being scrutinised carefully by librarians when I ordered the Sporting Globe. It might not be the most conventional way to study Australian history, but it has been a thorough education.
Through it all I continue to be sidetracked far too often into the world beyond the subject I am studying. I spend a week in the 1950s and find myself immersed in the images of the time. It is endlessly fascinating to see the press at work over two centuries, shaping images, working on prejudices, dictating the issues which dominate discussion of the day.
The newspaper room in its ‘temporary’ quarters in the new north-east infill building is hardly an appealing space, and we can only hope that temporary is very temporary indeed. There are more microfilm readers than ever before, but also more microfilms and more customers. There are constant frustrations in using even the best of the machines. Most of the hard copy has been taken to off-site storage and is doubtless being stored under more favourable conditions, but even if you are allowed to see it, there are inevitable delays between ordering and receiving.
I trust that one day the technology and surroundings will be such as to make the process of consulting newspapers on microfilm an entirely pleasurable one. In the meantime I continue to regard with admiration the extraordinary collection of newspapers which our State Library possesses, and count myself fortunate that I live in Melbourne where I can consult them. Perhaps it is necessary for scholars and library users to emphasise the importance of that great collection of original or rare hard copies of newspapers, from the South Bourke Standard to the New York Times and to reassure the Library itself that it is worth the effort of housing and caring for these unwieldy tenants.
I also regard myself as fortunate that I served my historical apprenticeship at a time when it was not so difficult to read the same edition of the Mansfield Courier that Constable Mcintyre read, or of the Times which Lord John Russell consumed with his breakfast in 1851.
Andrew Lemon
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A delightful illustration from Table Talk, 10 July 1885, p. 13.