The History of the Popular Press in Australia

Professor Toni Johnson-Woods, English Department, University of Queensland

In 1865, post-goldrush Victoria Australia was peopled by over half a million English, Irish and Scottish immigrants who brought to their new homeland their old reading habits. It can be readily imagined that many of the immigrants who came to Australia were familiar with the penny periodicals, and so they sought that which was familiar for their reading material. They looked "homeward;" to Great Britain for economic patronage, political guidance and good literature. Indeed, Tasmanian Walch's Literary Intelligencer (a trade journal) devoted whole pages to advertisements for Blackwood's, Once a Week, All the Year Round, Punch, and Illustrated London News. Walch's general/book store stocked over 30 magazines in addition to those order on pre-paid subscriptions. These English publications were sold at their English cover price, making local competition difficult. The Melbourne Review in its 1876 inaugural editoral suggested that magazines devoted to "fiction and light literature" failed because of the "abundant supply of English periodicals". This did not unduly deter local publishers and they kept trying.

Spurred by the phenomenal success of the English press, many local publishers attempted to create a successful periodical, unfortunately many did not last past a few issues. Failed magazines are not a purely Australian phenomenon: "[t]he world over magazines developed to a pattern which is an almost biological evolution. Everywhere they began as small, unpopular failures; everywhere they struggled, ceased publication, and were followed by other magazines which shared their fate" (Greenop 5-6). Though early magazines floundered Australian press flourished and many English visitors were surprised by its quality and quantity. Anthony Trollope writes that the Melbourne Argus and the Sydney Morning Herald were the best daily newspapers outside England (Australia 459). After his visit to Australia, English novelist/journalist David Christie Murray wrote in England's Contemporary Review:

In one respect Australian journalism surpasses the English. We have nothing to show which will at all compare with the Australasian or the Leader; but it is easy to see that they and their congeners of other cities (which are worthy of the same high praise) owe their especial excellences to local conditions. These great weekly issues give all the week's news, and all the striking articles which have appeared in the daily journals of which they are at once the growth and the compendium. They do much more than this, for they include whatever the gardener, the agriculturist, the housewife, the lady of fashion, the searcher of general literature, the chess-player, the squatter can most desire to know. They provide for all sorts of tastes and needs, and between their first sheet and their last they render their readers what we in England buy half a score of special journals to secure. The reason for their existence is simple. There is not population enough to support the specialist as we know him at home, and an eager and inquiring people will be served (305-06).

An examination of 25 colonial periodicals revealed over 800 serialised novels (approximately 200 Australian, 500 imported, and 100 of ambiguous setting and subject matter) up until 1890. These figures demonstrate the pervasive nature of fiction in Australian periodical press. Indeed, many weekly publications world wide used fiction as a method to ensure a consisteny audience. Weekly fiction writing provided authors worldwide with a venue, and Australia was no different. Indeed colonial authors, because of the lack of an established book trade, had few (if any) other options. Local writers too could respond immediately to local issues and concerns. But being a local production did not ensure success. As an imitator of the Illustrated London News, the first issue of the Illustrated Sydney News (ISN) on 8 October 1853, precariously balanced itself between "home" and the young colony. It defined the duality of its potential readership thus:

A very large proportion of our population have had their tastes cultivated, and their intellectual faculties sharpened, by European education and refinement. We trust also that the native Australians will hail our humble effort as the harbinger of that glorious era in the history of a nation, when the sciences that elevate, and the arts that refine the mind, are the ambition and the boast of its population. (ISN 6).

Much later a tongue-in-cheek editorial, the paper outlined to would-be contributors what they sought:

All matter sent in should savour of the Australian soil, and there should be the ring of summer gladness in every syllable. References to the eucalyptus are permissible, but the wattle is barred. . . . The aims of the ILLUSTRATED SYDNEY NEWS are lofty and humanising, but the editor does not wish to hold a brief for any political party, sect or people. (ISN 24 September 1892:10)

But the editor was only following what the Australian Journal had written thirty years earlier. For Massina and Company, a Melbourne publishing company, had seen that the need was there for a cheap, local, miscellany one based on the penny periodical back "home". Using the London Journal and the Family Herald as a template, the Australian Journal was the first to ensure "Colonial Literature for Colonial Readers!".

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