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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Curnow, William (1832–1903)

by M. J. B. Kenny

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

William Curnow (1832-1903), clergyman and journalist, was baptized on 2 December 1832 at St Ives, Cornwall, England, son of James Curnow, miner, and his wife Jane, née Hallow. He was educated for the Wesleyan Methodist ministry, which he entered at 21 and was soon sent to Australia. He arrived in Sydney on 23 May 1854 in the American Lass with Rev. William Kelynack and other ministers. Briefly at Newcastle, he served at Maitland and Parramatta, where he married Matilda Susanna Weiss on 16 March 1858. After a year at Bowenfels, he was transferred to Queensland, serving in Brisbane and at Ipswich until he was recalled to York Street, Sydney, in 1862. After three years there and three at Bourke Street, he served at Goulburn in 1868-71, before returning to York Street.

Described as a 'prince of preachers', Curnow was much sought-after as a speaker on public affairs. His experiences as a co-editor of the Christian Advocate and Wesleyan Record in 1864-68 and 1871-73 interested him in journalism; from about 1873 he contributed articles to the Sydney Morning Herald. Suffering from a throat ailment, he visited England in 1874, but returned uncured. After two years at Forest Lodge he became a supernumerary minister in 1877. Meanwhile he had impressed the Fairfax family with his aptitude for journalism and he was appointed to the Herald's editorial staff in 1875. Ten years later he edited their Sydney Mail for five months and on 1 January 1886 he succeeded Andrew Garran as editor; he resigned from the Wesleyan ministry on 22 January.

Curnow once claimed that 'when a man joins a newspaper he sinks his personality, and you don't know what he does', and he remains the least known of all the Herald's editors. Within this anonymity he guided its policies—it approved a properly constituted and representative Federal parliament; it was apprehensive about Labor and opposed the payment of parliamentarians because it would interfere with the independence of parliament and bring undesirables into politics. Curnow's policies were conservative and his language temperate. Although he and the paper believed in free trade Sir George Dibbs found him 'a fair and open opponent'. An obituarist in the rival Daily Telegraph claimed that 'His judgment was sound, though if ever it erred it was on the side of caution. His methods were judicial rather than aggressive'.

Curnow loved music and was a frequent theatre-goer; at his country home at Eastwood he created a 'charming garden'. He retired early in 1903 in failing health, and died aged 70 of cerebro-vascular disease at his home at Newtown on 14 October 1903 and was buried in Rookwood cemetery. He was survived by his wife, two sons and two daughters.

Mrs Curnow, with Maybanke Anderson and Louisa Macdonald, helped to establish free kindergartens and was a founder of the Women's Literary Society and of the Women's College, University of Sydney. Lady Poore in her Recollections of an Admiral's Wife (London, 1915) described her as 'a light-hearted and intelligent lady of eighty'—in 1909 she founded the Optimists' Club of New South Wales with Lady Poore as president and Sir George Reid as patron. She died aged 92 on 15 September 1921.

Select Bibliography

  • A Century of Journalism: The Sydney Morning Herald (Syd, 1931)
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 15 Oct 1903
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 15, 16 Oct 1903
  • Sydney Mail, 21 Oct 1903
  • Australian Worker, 18 June 1908.

Citation details

M. J. B. Kenny, 'Curnow, William (1832–1903)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 29 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

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