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SA Newspapers : Early history

newspapers early history

The history of the South Australian press begins in London in 1836. In that year two men - Robert Thomas, a seller of law books in Fleet Street, and George Stevenson, editor of the Globe newspaper - founded a partnership to publish a newspaper in the new, experimental British colony of South Australia. On Saturday 18 June 1836, the South Australian gazette and colonial register, price sixpence, appeared on the London streets. Just a few weeks later both men, with their families, were at sea, the Stevensons on board the Buffalo, and the Thomas family on the Africaine, heading for the other side of the world. In mid November the Africaine sailed into Holdfast Bay, followed at the end of December by the Buffalo.

It was not until 3 June 1837 that the second issue of the South Australian gazette and colonial register - the first newspaper actually printed in South Australia - appeared. Thomas and Stevenson had brought with them a printing press, type, and paper, as well as a young apprentice printer named Osborne. Unfortunately Osborne was lost on Kangaroo Island with a young doctor named Slater when a party from the Africaine were set down to walk across the island. The party was forced to leave the two men when Osborne became ill and, although a search party was sent back and it discovered their tracks, the two were never seen again.

With this and other setbacks, the Register (as it came to be known) had a shaky beginning. It was first printed, intermittently, in a rush hut off Hindley Street. Stevenson was also private secretary to the governor, Sir John Hindmarsh. When it was claimed that this fact meant the Register was biased in its views, James Hurtle Fisher, the representative of the Colonization Commissioners, established a rival newspaper. Archibald MacDougall was brought over from Hobart as the printer, complete with printing equipment, and in June 1838 the Southern Australian was published, with Charles Mann as editor. One year later, the founding of the Egotist, Adelaide guardian, Adelaide chronicle and the Port Lincoln herald signalled the beginning of a golden age of decentralised newspaper publishing. It was also a time when newspaper publishing was an expensive and risky business, not least due to the high price of imported paper and ink, coupled with quite small circulations. Newspapers were therefore quite expensive, each copy tending to be read by a number or people. Early Australian newspapers would probably have been passed around, and also read out loud in public places such as pubs, as well as in the home. It is estimated that London newspapers of the period were each read by thirty persons. (R.B. Walker, The newspaper press in N.S.W. 1803-1920, p. 57)

Economic conditions in the first two decades of settlement had a major impact on the infant press. The severe depression of 1841 saw the closure of some early fledgling newspapers such as the Adelaide Chronicle. More lasting changes were brought by the Victorian gold rush of 1852, which drew away a majority of the South Australian male workforce. Businesses closed down, forcing newspapers to follow. The Register, Observer and Adelaide times managed to survive, although the Times closed in 1858, just as a new title, the South Australian advertiser, was launched.

South Australia can claim two newspaper firsts. In 1841 the first illustrated newspaper in Australia appeared, the satirical Adelaide independent, published by the auctioneer, Nathaniel Hailes. This contained a series of 'pen and ink sketches' produced as crude lithograph inserts in the newspaper. In 1848 the first non-English newspaper in Australia was also published in Adelaide, the German language Deutsche Post.

Early newspaper production was labour-intensive. In 1840, three years after its founding, the Register was running five printing presses and employed a staff of 21 - the editor, ten compositors, three pressmen, two binders, a collector, a clerk, a delivery man, and two boys as runners. Caleb Page, who worked for almost 70 years with the newspaper, described how in the 1850s type was set by hand, one letter at a time, and each of the newspaper's four pages were printed individually, on enormous cylinders, with the printing machine making 'a noise like quartz-crusher' (Observer, 9 June 1923, p. 15). In 1855 the Register became the first newspaper in South Australia to be printed by steam-driven presses.

The gathering of news was highly competitive by the middle of the 19th century, with two daily morning titles competing for readers. Reporters were sent to Port Adelaide to travel out with the pilots to board ships newly arrived from London and obtain the latest overseas news. In 1858 a telegraph line was completed between Melbourne and Adelaide, via Willunga, Goolwa, Robe and Mount Gambier (Observer 28 February 1857, p. 6). This enabled Adelaide reporters to send news direct to Melbourne, as well as receive inter-state news. An evening newspaper, the Telegraph, was founded and named to commemorate this development. However, major advances came with the completion of the Overland Telegraph Line in 1872, linking Adelaide direct with London, via a submarine cable between Darwin and Java. This revolutionised reporting, and gave Adelaide an Australian monopoly, being the place where overseas news arrived first.

The year 1858 also saw the birth of what was eventually to be the Register's major competitor, the South Australian advertiser. The Advertiser was founded by an ex-Register editor, the Rev John Henry Barrow. By the 1870s, under the editorship of John Langdon Bonython, who eventually came to own the Advertiser, this newspaper had become a rival to the older title. In 1930 the Register company was taken over by the Melbourne Herald group under Keith Murdoch. The Advertiser had already been bought out by this group a short time before, and in 1931 the Register was subsumed into the Advertiser, and South Australia's oldest newspaper ceased to be.

In the early 20th century newspaper formats developed into the format with which we are familiar today. Although the Melbourne Herald in 1889 was said to be the first Australian daily to place news stories on its front page, this trend was not followed by other newspapers until well into the 20th century. Country newspapers began placing news articles on the front page much earlier than the dailies. In Adelaide the Advertiser made the change in February 1942.

'Early newspaper days', Observer, 9 June 1923, p. 15

Hope, Penelope. Voyage of the Africaine: a collection of journals, letters and extracts from contemporary publications, South Yarra, Vic.: Heinemann Educational Australia, 1968

Hussey, Henry. More than half a century of colonial life and Christian experience: with notes of travel, lectures, publications, etc., Adelaide, S. Aust.: Libraries Board, 1978

Pitt, G.H. The press in South Australia, 1836-1850, Adelaide, S. Aust.: Wakefield Press, 1946


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