Australia's First Newspaper.
(BY H. M. GREEN.)
The queer little quarto-sized double-sheet that was Australia's first newspaper, and its first editor, who was still queerer, deserve more attention than they have yet received though various articles have been wrltten about them. The general appearance of the "Sydney Gazette" we all know, either from reproductions or from the originals in the Mitchell Library: the formal, faded, battered and yet pretentious, look that attaches to the contents as well as to the surface of its pages and is not the mere reflection of its all sorts of paper, its wornout type, and its blurred and dingy ink, amateurishly compounded out of
charcoal and shark oil.
The first issue of the "Sydney Gazette" appeared in 1803, fifteen years after the founding of the colony, though a Government printing press had been already in existence for eight years. The first editor, George Howe, was not the first printer, about whom hardly anything is known, except that he was probably a convict, that his name was Hughes, and that after a few years he dis- appeared from public knowledge. Howe also was an involuntary emigrant. The son of a printer in the West Indies, he had worked in various London printing establishments, including that of the "Times," then itself a newcomer to the journalistic world. But, tired of the case, according to one story, Howe adopted the profession of highwayman, in which he had so many escapes as to win the nickname, "Lucky George." However, he was caught at last, and, under still another name, "George Happy," he was transported to Botany Bay, where, being "an ingenious man," he obtained almost at once, and under his baptismal name again, the position of Gov- ernment Printer in succession to Hughes.
A year later, in 1803, in pursuance ol Gov- nor King's desire "that the settlers and inhabi- tants at large should be benefited by useful information being dispersed among them," was entrusted with the foundation and con- duct—under censorial supervision—of our newspaper. A second object of King's was
the more efficacious publication of Govern- ment orders and proclamations, and these, or in their absence in any particular week— for the paper appeared only weekly—some important advertisement, constituted the in-
troduction and principal part of the opening page. The rest of the paper consisted of local news, dressed up humorously whenever there was any excuse and sometimes when there was none; oversea news cut out of English papers or built up out of private letters and verbal information obtained from the latest arrivals by ship; advertisements, practical and instructive articles, and letters, many of which obviously originated in the printing office. There was for some years no lead article, though the first issue of the "Gazette" contained an "address" to the reader, and other similar communications appeared now and then, particularly when Howe felt obliged to urge upon his subscribers the fact that he could not live and supply them without money. For he had to support himself, except that until he was pardoned he drew convict rations; it was some time before he received a salary. And in the early days of the colony even of those who could read, not all troubled to do so, and by no means everyone who was induced to enter his name as a subscriber could be induced also to pay his bill.
What with the pecuniary difficulties thus arising, the state of his types, the rarity of any paper that would take ink, the insufficiency of respect paid to an office of which few besides himself realised the importance, and the necessity of publishing nothing that could possibly offend the governing bureaucracy, poor Howe had a rather thin time of it. The censorship was by no means merely nominal, for in later and freer years Howe complained querulously of "sentences altered until he could scarcely recognise a fraction of the original import, paragraphs struck out that were vital to the sense of consistency of the articles, and sometimes whole columns am- putated." His typographical troubles were also very real; there was, of course, no local type foundry, and though he is said to have received fresh type in 1809, appearances would hardly lead one to believe it. On one occa- sion he had to use blanks for lack of e's. And there were similar troubles about paper. He advertised again and again for paper
almost any kind, and any size, even paper that might have been "from any accident, from damp or slight mildew . . . rendered unfit for writing." This mainly accounts for the varia- tion of the "Gazette's" dimensions, and in the number of its pages, as well as for its occa- sional brownish or bluish colour. One issue was so greasy that upon it even the best of type and ink would hardly have been legible; another was printed on ordinary grocer's brown wrapping paper.
The tone of the "Sydney Gazette," author- tative and yet filled with deference for all authority, pompous in a stiff, affected 18th century fashion, and mingling a pre- carious dignity with inappropriate lapses into a humour that is sometimes deplorable, arises quite as much from Howe's personality, as from the circumstances against which he had to struggle. Harassed, complaining, absurd, he was yet an indomitable and even a heroic figure, pathetically conscious of the loftiness of his office and his mission, while, at the same time, he squirmed beneath the "morti- fying embarrassments" and the "excessive in- attention" that was paid to him and his just demands. The forefather of Australian jour- nalism, to be obliged to sue in person for small payments; to be obliged to touch his hat to an inferior, but overbearing, official, whom he knew to be guilty of impropriety (to say the least of them) which he must wink at, insupportable indeed! Howe was concerned with the importance of the Press as a moral and educational, as well as an informative, agency, and he did his best in the
cause of "uplift."
Though hardly an educated man, he was by no means unread; he had a rever- ence for (among other things) the Eng- lish classics, and aimed, it is clear, to cast a literary colouring over the "Gazette." He succeeded, too, in a way, for its readers cannot help feeling a man of at least a bookish world in the background; a crude and far-removed reminiscence of Johnson per- meates the paper's style, especially that of the letters to the printer—for Howe's office was not dignified with the title of editor for many years—and of his complaints about his hard- ships, which afforded most of his few oppor- tunities to expand. When he is strongly moved his voice rises to shrillness, and he may become, at the same time, pathetic and amus- ing; both consciously, I should say, for there was an element of genuine humour in our first editor, however he misused it sometimes; and, in spite of his continual effort after dignity, he was always practical, and also always idealistic, since he was willing even to be laughed at in the interests of something that he placed above himself. He was pre- pared, indeed, to suffer any discomfort if it would help him to impress his public and
enforce his point.
In England (he cried once), newspapers are paid for before they quit the office; here, we are told, after years of patient forbearance, that accounts furnished shall be liquefied when the person to whom presented shall think proper to pay. This is an insult . . . Men of sense and feeling do not act so, and without sense or feeling what is the use of man? Is not the Printer of a paper . . . to be paid at any time? Dreadful conception! . . . N.B.—The year's accounts are furnished.