State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 53 October 1994


A Rich Fund for Future Historians

Colonial Victorian Newspapers in the State Library of Victoria

The State Library of Victoria holds an outstanding collection of newspapers published in Victoria during the nineteenth century — for the latter part of which the colony was the most populous in Australasia and, correspondingly, produced the largest number of papers.
How was this collection created? None too soon: the Copyright Act 1869, which included the requirement that a copy of each issue of a newspaper be delivered to the Public Library of Victoria within two months of publication, helped to get papers moving in the direction of the cultural institution founded sixteen years earlier. In their Annual Report for 1872, the Trustees of the Public Library, Museum and National Gallery of Victoria express gratification that a very large number of papers had indeed been received, the items displaying “a remarkable intellectual and literary activity on the part of the Metropolitan and Provincial Press”. Further evidence of their pride in the press, that same year they had arranged for copies of issues produced throughout Victoria on or around April 15 to be collected for display at the London Exhibition. Attesting today to that action, bound volumes with almost identical sets of the sample issues are now held in the University of Melbourne's Baillieu Library and in the State Library of Victoria's collection.
Subsequent Annual Reports of the Trustees reveal that contributions were being made consistently throughout the 1870s. However, the recorded rates — ranging between 500 and 700 papers per month — suggest somewhat less than full observance of the law. It is in the 1880s, under the regime of a new librarian, the historically-minded, far-sighted and energetic Thomas Bride, that Victoria's newspapers came to be properly appreciated, assembled, housed and utilised. The Trustees’ Report for 1882 describes the newspaper collection as “a rich fund for the investigations of future historians”, with measures having been taken to secure complete deposit of current press output and, through the soliciting of donations and making of purchases, to fill gaps in retrospective holdings. Thus, for instance, the 88-volume collection of the late John Pascoe Fawkner — as publisher in 1838 of the first newspaper for the putative colony, generally known as the ‘founder’ of the Victorian press —
had been acquired. Thereafter, newspaper acquisitions would increase annually by leaps and bounds, the intake for 1888 amounting to over 31,000 papers and annual totals rising steadily in the years following.
Early in the 1880s the growing newspaper collection was made more accessible; the accommodation quickly becoming inadequate, however, plans were soon in train to relocate it (plus ça change . . !). Eventually, in June 1888 newspapers, along with patent specifications, were transferred to the basement of a new extension and thus, it was hoped, were provided with a “suitable home for many years to come”.
How comprehensive is the nineteenth-century newspaper collection now in the custody of the La Trobe section of the State Library? There is good reason to accept that by the 1890s one copy of each issue of the 250 or so titles being published regularly in city, suburban and country Victoria for the colony's population of well over one million was customarily being deposited in the Public Library, as the law demanded. Substantially all such copies are in the collection today — though some are in a terrible state of actual or imminent decay.
There are large gaps, however, relating to earlier years, particularly for the 1850s and 1860s, the twenty-year period before the enactment of the copyright legislation in 1869 and after the expiration of the New South Wales legislation applying in Port Phillip to 1849 that required signed copies of all newspaper issues to be deposited in the Colonial Secretary's Office in Sydney — legislation that favoured preservation and, therefore, their availability for later acquisition by donation, purchase or duplication. Many of the scores of titles not represented at all were evanescent productions from new ‘rushes’ on the goldfields, their onetime existence surmised from allusions in diaries and letters or itemising in various official lists. Even for those that are represented, often it is only by one or two issues, or perhaps just a torn fragment.
It is very important to stress here the efforts in recent years of the La Trobe Library staff, and particularly the initiative of the Newspaper Librarian Deirdre Willmott, to go as far as humanly possible towards eliminating the lacunae — obtaining if not the transfer at least the acquisition of microfilm copies of items in the State Library of New South Wales, and also undertaking comprehensive and fruitful circularising of historical societies, museums and libraries throughout Victoria. The only extant items not procured now would have to be in the private hands of those unaware of their importance or unwilling to part with them.
Newspapers are a primary record of Victoria's history. Just to scan a list of nineteenth-century titles is to be given a synoptic impression of the State's history, its geography, its politics, its culture. The majority of the papers’ titles — hundreds of them — carry the place of their publication — the names given by the British settlers to the townships built on territory taken over from the aboriginal inhabitants being thus culturally validated
and reinforced. Just a few examples: the Melbourne Advertiser in 1838 for a tiny township that would become a large metropolis; the Ballarat Times in 1854 for a goldfields settlement that would grow into a very large provincial town; the Rupanyup Spectator in 1885 for a new Wimmera wheat belt township that would remain small; the Majorca Leader, the Majorca News and the Majorca and Carisbrook Independent simultaneously in the early 1870s — no fewer than three papers for a flourishing goldrush township today quite gone.
“The Newspaper collection is a uniquely valuable archive … a gold mine for investigations of historians.”
Some titles underline the topography — a mountain range in the Alpine Gazette issued at Bright, a river system in the Murray Gazette published at Rutherglen. Some imply the resource base of the locality — Ballarat's Miner and Weekly Star for instance, and from Hamilton, the Western Agriculturalist.
Some titles reflect a political agenda: the three Geelong papers that in the late 1840s joined in press agitation for the separation of Port Phillip from New South Wales and its creation as an independent colony named after the young Queen — the Victoria Colonist, the Victoria Courier and the Victoria Advocate; Chiltern's Federal Standard that in 1860 was an early advocate of Australian federation; published first at Shepparton and later transferring to Melbourne, the Victorian Farmers’ Gazette that aimed in the 1880s, well before the time was ripe, to convert a widely supported but controversial rural movement, the Victorian Farmers’ Protection Association, into a country political party.
The Victorian collection is a microcosm of the whole English-speaking nineteenth-century newspaper universe. There is a basic common format for papers of the early years. Following the contemporary Times of London model, each issue comprises a single sheet folded once to make four tabloid-size pages. Advertisements occupy the space below the masthead on page one and on all or most of page four, while the middle spread contains an editorial and columns of political news and comment, and accounts of local doings.
Papers of the 1860s, however, begin to display marked diversity. This of course was brought about by global developments in printing and communications technology as much as by the growth of political and social structures in Victoria. There are metropolitan dailies, mostly of broadsheet size and with eight or twelve or more pages — in Melbourne's boom years the Age sometimes had twenty-four. Besides the already well-known and studied daily papers (the Age, Argus, Herald and Daily Telegraph) there are short runs of numerous titles yet to be examined and written into the State's general and newspaper history — for example, the sporadic and short-lived attempts from the late 1860s at a second evening paper for Melbourne: the Evening Star; the Express; the Evening Tribune; the City
; the Echo; the Evening Post; and the Evening Standard.
Beginning in the 1850s but really taking off at the end of the 1860s are the metropolitan weekly papers carrying a wide range of reading matter as well as compacted and digested news and sometimes extending to forty-eight pages — the longest running and largest publications being the Australasian companion paper to the daily Argus, the Leader associated with the Age, and the Weekly Times with the Herald. Calling for more attention are the smaller circulating and shorter-lived Melbourne weeklies, some more radical than the by-and-large conservative press of Victoria — in the 1880s, for instance, the People's Tribune and the Sun, both vehicles for the women's suffrage movement.
There are sizeable papers for sizeable country towns, along with the small four-pagers mentioned above remaining the norm for tiny townships and for suburbs. There are no Sunday papers; unlike some other colonies, in this regard Sabbatarian observance held sway and an attempt in 1889 to start a paper on the Christian sabbath provoked the passing of the Sunday (Newspapers) Act specifically to prevent this.
One also sees, with the passage of years, dramatic changes in content. The most striking perhaps is that brought with the development, from the early 1850s, of telegraph services. By 1869 Victoria had a complex network linked to all Australian colonies except Western Australia; and in 1872 it was linked overland and undersea to Great Britain. Concomitantly came agencies to package and sell cable ‘intelligence’ to the press. Thus one may notice, increasingly how standard and up-to-the-minute messages in tersely worded telegraphese jostle with expressions of old-style and individual journalistic verbosity: messages that convey results of elections and of parliamentary victories, defeats, scandals and, in a close second place to the political topics, results of Melbourne and interstate cricket matches, horse-races and other keenly followed sporting activities; from overseas, news of wars, of labour strikes, of sensational crimes …
Politics, for the nineteenth-century press of Victoria is the dominating subject — as indeed in newspapers of the time throughout the English-speaking world. On reading, the papers prove to be highly politicised, especially from the time of the instituting of representative parliamentary government in the mid-1850s. Looking at places of publication, one notices that whenever two papers were issued simultaneously in a country town, they usually expressed opposing political positions, representing on the one hand squatters, inherited wealth, conservative liberalism, free trade, on the other, selectors, small traders, reformist liberalism and protection — and thus aligning up with the positions of the deeply opposed Melbourne Argus and Age respectively. This can be demonstrated quite spectacularly by looking at what all papers of the colony around a particular date have to say on a specific, contentious political matter. So doing, one gains new and rich insights into the processes
at work in colonial Victoria to manufacture and influence ‘public opinion’.
Literature has a significant place in the papers: indeed, the value of Victoria's colonial newspapers as sources for literary and cultural history is only beginning to be realised. Dating from the mid-1860s and becoming ubiquitous and prominent in the 1870s is the regular inclusion of ‘literary’ content, most strikingly of serialised novels. While much of the fiction is by best-selling British authors, of perhaps more interest for Australian cultural history is the fact that so many aspiring Australian novelists are represented, including many who have since become part of the late colonial literary canon — such as Rolf Boldrewood, Ada Cambridge, Mary Gaunt, Catherine Martin, ‘Tasma’ — as well as a host of lesser lights. Notwithstanding their limited budgets, even small country and suburban papers provide fiction, through including syndicated literary supplements produced in Melbourne — this being one of the several activities providing grounds to see this capital city as the heart of Australian journalism and newspaper production in the late colonial period.
The State Library of Victoria collection, comprising for the nineteenth century hundreds of individual newspaper titles and hundreds of thousands of individual issues (and how many more for the twentieth now nearing its end?) is a uniquely valuable archive for the study of all aspects of Victoria's history; one which many scholars and researchers of various persuasions have yet fully to appreciate and exploit. No less than in 1882, it is a gold mine for the investigations of future historians. But even more challenging now, over a century later, are the problems and responsibilities facing the custodial providers of this precious, unique and fragile resource.
Elizabeth Morrison

Notes On Contributors

Andrew Lemon is a freelance writer and historian.
Morag Loh is a freelance writer, curator and historian.
Thomas A. Darragh is Director of the Geological Museum of Victoria.
Walter Struve is a Librarian in the Research Section of the State Library of Victoria.
Jill Wilson is the Acquisitions Librarian in the State Library of Victoria.
Elizabeth Morrison made a close study of nineteenth-century newspapers when writing her Ph.D. thesis, ‘The Contribution of the Country Press to the Making of Victoria, 1840–1890’.
Deirdre Willmott is the Newspapers Librarian in the State Library of Victoria.