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Bright, Charles (1832–1903)

by F. B. Smith

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

Charles Bright (1832-1903), journalist, lecturer and insurance secretary, was the son of Philip Bright, goldsmith and watchmaker of Doncaster, Yorkshire, England. He completed his education at the high school of the Mount-street Institute, Liverpool, and afterwards, while employed as an import clerk, acquired Pitman's shorthand at a Sunday school. He also espoused spelling reform and had his introduction to press work through a phonetic newspaper.

In 1853 Bright journeyed to Victoria, but once on the Eureka lead at Ballarat he eschewed digging for catering and instituted under canvas the 'Cosmopolitan' restaurant. The prosperity of this venture induced spoliation by the neighbouring Irish 'black mob' and Bright returned to Melbourne. There he was recommended to Edward Wilson, editor of the Argus, and began his career in colonial journalism as police court reporter, soon veering to reporting the Legislative Council as junior to Butler Cole Aspinall. In July 1855 he was engaged as chief reporter to a newspaper in Hobart but when the new Victorian parliament began next year Bright returned to write for the Melbourne Morning Herald. He also at this time edited a literary weekly, My Note Book (1856-59), his contributors including Richard Horne, Charles Whitehead and James Neild.

Bright rejoined the Argus early in 1858 and took up the eight-hour movement, writing an ode for its anniversary and delivering an inaugural address at the new Trades Hall. Next year he became editor of the Examiner, a weekly published by the Argus proprietors, but when this journal was absorbed by the Australasian in 1864 Bright returned to the Argus as commercial editor. He also studied law at the University of Melbourne but his final examinations in 1863 loomed just as he began editing Melbourne Punch and Bright never completed the course. Punch, under his direction till 1867, was a witty, gossipy success. These were Bright's best years as a journalist: Melbourne, lively, isolated, self-absorbed, was the right matrix for his talents. His political writings included a stinging report on the settlement at Adam Bay, Northern Territory, arising from his voyage in the South Australian on the first steam circumnavigation of Australia in 1864-65, and conservative, free trade articles in the Spectator, a weekly published between 1865 and 1867 to counter protection.

In 1867 Bright redeployed his energies by obtaining the secretaryship of the London and Lancashire Insurance Co., whilst remaining a freelance for the Melbourne dailies and in 1869 contributing to Marcus Clarke's Humbug. His financial activities quickly ramified, particularly into building speculations through the Modern Permanent Building Society. Bright's growing independence was reflected in his nomination in 1871 as Protectionist radical candidate for East Melbourne in the Legislative Assembly, but his timely conversion reassured insufficient electors and he ran third among five candidates. He also emerged as vice-president of the Education League, dedicated to the implementation of non-sectarian public education, and as a councillor of the local option movement.

Amongst his new causes Bright cherished transcendentalism and spiritualism. He was probably of Jewish family but had been educated as a Christian. However, at 16 he had rejected orthodoxy and was a deistic free-thinker when the Argus in 1869 commissioned him to investigate the spiritualist fad in Melbourne. Bright was converted by his discoveries. In 1874 he resigned his insurance post to become a full-time lecturer for the Victorian Association of Progressive Spiritualists. Soon afterwards the Melbourne Unitarians approved his sermons on divine immanence in the natural order and he began to lecture to them too. Thence he travelled the platform circuit of Australasia and the United States and involved himself with numerous free-thought groups and journals in Sydney and Melbourne. Vibrant and neat, with a rich top of white hair, Bright had presence; his voice was mellifluous, his style courteous, whimsical and hortatory.

His American tour in the later 1870s brought him the Australian press directorship of the Mutual Life Insurance Co. of New York when he settled at Sydney in 1880. There he continued his free-thought activities, but after the Parkes ministry finally suppressed Sunday free-thought meetings in theatres in 1887 Bright restricted his ministrations to the Hyde Park Unitarian Church. Between 1886 and the mid-1890s he also wrote for the Age.

Bright was twice married: in 1858 to Josephine Bertrand, by whom he had Ethel, Charles and Beatrice, and from whom he was divorced; and in 1883 at a civil ceremony in Sydney to Annie Pillars, widow and formidable spiritualist, feminist and editress. Bright died in Sydney on 17 April 1903 aged 71. He was an easy, competent man, keen to make the best of life both in this world and the next.

Select Bibliography

  • Table Talk, 18 Nov 1892
  • F. B. Smith, Religion and Freethought in Melbourne, 1870 to 1890 (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1960).

Citation details

F. B. Smith, 'Bright, Charles (1832–1903)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 24 October 2016.

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

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