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Blaikie, George Neil (1915–1995)

by Peter Kirkpatrick

This article was published online in 2019

George Neil Blaikie (1915–1995), journalist and historian, was born on 5 May 1915 at Arncliffe, New South Wales, second of four sons of Victorian-born parents John Coventry Blaikie, bank manager, and his wife Jessie McAllister, née McLennan, formerly a nurse. Educated at Sydney Grammar School, George later recalled that his writing career began with a poem published in the Sydney Mail that ‘typified schoolboy spirit’ (Blaikie 1966, 21). His proud father showed the poem to his clients, including Sir Joynton Smith, who secured George a job as copy boy at Smith’s Weekly in December 1931.

Blaikie later described himself as ‘a highly-trained Presbyterian lad, Sunday school teacher, Bible class leader, and an ex-Chancellor of the Rockdale Order of the Burning Bush’ (Blaikie 1966, 21). This piety was no bulwark against the rowdy spirit of Smith’s Weekly, where he was initially subject to much good-natured pranking. However, as Adam McCay later informed him, ‘You are now initiated into the brotherhood of the happiest souls in Australian journalism’ (Blaikie 1966, 29).

By 1935 Blaikie was second-in-charge of Smith’s Melbourne office; in 1938 he was its Adelaide editor. In 1936 he had commenced, but did not complete, a diploma of journalism at the University of Melbourne. He returned to Sydney in 1939 as head of Smith’s reporting staff. Claude McKay described Blaikie as ‘the most capable reporter ever to serve’ the paper during this period (1961, 248). On 29 April 1940 he married Margaret Raitt at Sandringham Presbyterian Church, Victoria.

Beginning full-time duty in the Citizen Military Forces on 17 March 1942, Blaikie trained as a gunner. On 6 September he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force. The same month he was commissioned as a lieutenant. He served with the 2/11th Field Regiment, Royal Australian Artillery, in New Guinea and on Bougainville between September 1944 and December 1945. During this time he regularly wrote items for Smith’s Weekly. Demobilised in Australia on 30 January 1946, he transferred to the Reserve of Officers. He returned to Smith’s, which republished his and other articles lamenting a declining birth rate in a pamphlet, Where Are Our Children? (1948). The paper was clearly fading by then, but he stayed loyal until it closed in October 1950. Later, in the best-selling Remember Smith’s Weekly? (1966), he became its chief chronicler.

After a failed late bid to save Smith’s, Sir Keith Murdoch formed some of its staff into a Sydney-based production unit with Blaikie in charge, attaching them to the Brisbane Sunday Mail with the aim of eventually establishing a new national weekly. Murdoch’s plan died with him in 1952, but Blaikie and the unit continued to thrive. Believing ‘that if you got behind the dust and dates and found the human beings in history, the subject could be fun’ (Blaikie 1963, title page), he began a series on ‘Famous Australian Disasters’ in 1951 that became the syndicated historical feature ‘Our Strange Past.’ Based on his research in the Mitchell Library, his lively, often out-of-the-way ‘true-life’ (Riggert 1995, 105) stories proved a major success, and he eventually wrote around three thousand of them. He collected the choicest in Scandals of Australia’s Strange Past (1963), Skeletons from Australia’s Strange Past (1964), Great Australian Scandals (1979), and Scandals Strange but True (1984). Great Women of History (1984) came from features he wrote for the Australian Women’s Weekly. His most influential work was Wild Women of Sydney (1980), a racy account of the criminal careers of Tilly Devine, Kate Leigh, and Nellie Cameron that helped ensure their survival as figures of urban folklore.

Having retired at the age of sixty, Blaikie kept writing, and also sometimes appeared on television as a guest of Mike Walsh or Don Lane. He was five feet eleven inches (180 cm) tall and blue-eyed; his most distinctive features were his high-domed bald head and military moustache. In his leisure he liked gardening and fishing, as well as surfing when younger; he was also a skilled pianist who wrote humorous songs. He was appointed AM in 1988. Survived by his wife and two sons, he died on 12 October 1995 at Turramurra, and was cremated.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Blaikie, George. Interview by Hazel de Berg, 12 August 1969. Transcript. Hazel de Berg Collection. National Library of Australia
  • Blaikie, George. Remember Smith’s Weekly?: A Biography of an Uninhibited National Australian Newspaper, Born: 1 March 1919, Died: 28 October 1950. Adelaide: Rigby, 1966
  • Blaikie, George. Scandals of Australia’s Strange Past. Adelaide: Rigby, 1963
  • Foyle, Lindsay. Personal communication
  • McKay, Claude. This is the Life: The Autobiography of a Newspaperman. Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1961
  • National Archives of Australia. B883, NX110300
  • Riggert, Ella. ‘George Blaikie Dies Aged 80.’ Sunday Mail (Brisbane), 15 October 1995, 105

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Peter Kirkpatrick, 'Blaikie, George Neil (1915–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/blaikie-george-neil-19122/text30695, published online 2019, accessed online 24 September 2019.

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