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Astley, William (1855–1911)

by B. G. Andrews

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

William Astley (1855-1911), journalist and author under the pseudonym 'Price Warung', was born on 13 August 1855 in Liverpool, England, the second son of Thomas Astley, jeweller, and his wife Mary, née Price. In November 1859 the family of seven arrived in Melbourne and settled at Richmond, where William attended St Stephen's School, and later the Model School in Carlton.

Astley began his career as a journalist when in 1875 he edited the Richmond Guardian, and for the next fifteen years he trekked over south-eastern Australia. In 1876 he went to Echuca to work on the Riverine Herald, but a nervous illness seems to have incapacitated him from 1878 to 1880. He resumed work with the Victorian country press, probably at Casterton, then acted as Melbourne correspondent for interstate newspapers before moving to Sydney in 1883 to edit the Australian Graphic. Next year he was in Tasmania, and at St John's Anglican Church, Launceston, on 22 September 1884 he married Louisa Frances, daughter of John Cape, thirteen years his senior. In the next six years Astley worked successively for the Warrnambool Standard, the Sydney Globe, the Bathurst Times, the Tumut Independent, the Storekeeper (Sydney) and the Nhill Free Press.

William and Louisa finally settled in Sydney in 1891, and in the early 1890s 'Price Warung' won recognition as a leading radical journalist and short-story writer. Four series of his convict tales were published in the Bulletin between 1890 and 1893; their indictment of the British administrators of the 'System' added valuable literary fuel to Jules Francois Archibald's anti-imperialist fire. Tales of the Convict System was issued separately in 1892, and Tales of the Early Days, which contains his most sustained work, in 1894. In his political commentary, published in the Bulletin and in the Bathurst Free Press and Mining Journal, Astley attacked the Dibbs government and campaigned vigorously for both Federation and the Labor Party; and he corresponded freely with Sir Henry Parkes, Edmund Barton and George Black. A series of financial and personal disputes led, however, to the termination of his contract with the Bulletin and to his return to an editorial chair. In 1893 he managed the Australian Workman, which published part of a novel, 'The Strike of '95'; in the same journal, as 'The Workman', he renewed his support for the parliamentary Labor Party.

Astley resigned from the Australian Workman in November 1893 and returned to freelance work. His researches into Australian history were continued, and in Melbourne George Robertson published three more of his works: Tales of the Old Regime, and the Bullet of the Fated Ten (1897) and Half-Crown Bob, and Tales of the Riverine (1898), both reprintings of earlier contributions to the Bulletin, and Tales of the Isle of Death, Norfolk Island (1898), serialized in 1897 in Truth. Astley also organized the successful People's Federal Convention held in Bathurst in November 1896; his knowledge of the provincial press was useful to Barton and Robert Garran in the Federation campaign in 1898, and he wrote several pamphlets between 1901 and 1904 advocating Bathurst as the site for the national capital.

Dogged by ill health Astley drifted steadily into poverty after 1893; several business and publishing ventures failed and he had to dispose of the library of Australiana that he had been collecting since the 1870s. He was prosecuted for false pretences in 1897 and, according to Frederick Broomfield (1860-1941), Astley became addicted to morphia. He was a recluse and an invalid, at least from 1908, when the Commonwealth Literary Fund in its first awards gave him a pension of £26. He died at Rookwood Benevolent Asylum on 5 October 1911.

Astley's interest in Australian history was aroused when he was 15 and he later claimed to have devoted every penny of his savings for twenty years and to have sacrificed his health collecting data for his stories. His surviving papers reveal that he relied heavily for his information on personal testimony, particularly from old hands of the convict days; the Bulletin claimed that in the 1890s there were 'marvellous collections of old ghosts about Old Sydney … and Astley was on hand-shaking terms with them all'; he also gleaned much from early Tasmanian and Sydney newspapers and from parliamentary papers. He stressed the authenticity of his fictional representations of convict life, and studded his stories with reproductions of printed and manuscript documents. But his lens was narrow and often distorted: the tales were mostly set in the secondary punishment centres of Norfolk Island, Macquarie Harbour and Port Arthur, where conditions were grimmest, and their gross historical inaccuracy, particularly in the first two series, belies Astley's contention that, allowing for 'minor anachronisms', he was committed to the 'obligations that bind the historian'. Seduced by a bitter personal hatred of the 'System', he was consistently guilty of overwriting and unnecessary editorial intrusion. The best of his stories are the imaginative reconstructions of convict freemasonry in 'Secret Society of the Ring' and 'The Bullet of the Fated Ten', 'The Felicitous Reminiscences of Scourger James' and 'Captain Maconochie's “Bounty for Crime”.' In these stories his work compares favourably with that of Marcus Clarke.

Robert Garran described Astley as being, about 1898, 'of middle height, with full beard, square-trimmed, black and just beginning to grizzle; gold pince-nez, very precise and alert … He was always short of money, and very sensitive of the point. I remember that his cheques given for “loans” were not always very good security; but he was so sensitive on the point of honour that no one liked to suggest this to him'. But to Garran he was nevertheless 'very likeable' and 'a good talker'. Astley was a prominent speaker on the free trade and Labor platforms.

Select Bibliography

  • J. V. Barry, ‘An Unacceptable Foreword’, Meanjin Quarterly, vol 20, no 1, 1961, pp 96-101
  • Bulletin, 1890-97, 10 Oct 1911
  • Bathurst Free Press and Mining Journal, 1891-98
  • manuscript catalogue under Astley (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Palmer papers (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

B. G. Andrews, 'Astley, William (1855–1911)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/astley-william-2906/text4175, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 12 December 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

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