Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Howe, George (1769–1821)

by J. V. Byrnes

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

George Howe (1769-1821), printer, editor, publisher and poet, was born on the island of St Kitts in the West Indies, the son of Thomas Howe, government printer at Basseterre on St Christopher's Island. George and his brother were both apprenticed to the printing trade. His later work indicates that his education was thorough along the classical lines of the eighteenth century, and that he was well read in European literature.

In 1790 Howe went to London and worked on The Times and other newspapers. He married and his son Robert was born in 1795. In March 1799, together with a companion, Thomas Jones, and under the name of 'George Happy alias Happy George', he was tried at the Warwick Assizes for shoplifting at Alcester; he was sentenced to death but this was commuted to transportation for life. Robert Howe later referred to Alexander McLeay as 'the benefactor of myself and my poor mother', and it was probably McLeay who enabled Howe's family to embark with him in the Royal Admiral. He arrived at Sydney in November 1800, but his wife died on the voyage. Howe himself recovered from a serious illness in 1801 and attributed his survival to D'Arcy Wentworth.

Almost immediately Howe became government printer, and the range of his printing far exceeded the broadsheets and orders of his predecessor, George Hughes. In 1802 he issued the first book printed in Australia, New South Wales General Standing Orders, comprising Government and General Orders issued between 1791 and 1802. On 5 March 1803 he began the publication of the first newspaper, the Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser. Robert helped in the printing office when the paper began and 'had the honour, even in those infant days, of gaining the smile and eliciting the astonishment of the King's Representative when he saw us perched on a stool'. According to Robert the old printing press was worth only £2 and they had to manage with a mere 20 lbs. (9 kg) of type; but Howe was an 'ingenious man' and managed in spite of the inadequate press, a chronic shortage of ink and paper, and the refusal or inability of many of his subscribers to pay their debts. He was conditionally pardoned in 1803, and fully emancipated in 1806.

Howe formed an irregular alliance with Elizabeth Easton and between 1803 and 1810 she bore him five children, one of whom, George Terry Howe, later became the first newspaper editor in Launceston. To add to his income he opened a stationery shop and became a private tutor. He offered to teach reading, writing and mensuration and 'the Grammar of the English tongue upon the principles of Drs Lowth, Johnson, Priestly and other celebrated writers who have united their efforts in improving the Grammatical structure of their own beautiful and comprehensive language, which every Englishman ought to be acquainted with, but few attain that have not had the advantage of a classical education'.

Howe's shop and his tutoring enabled him to survive between 30 August 1807 and 15 May 1808, when because of the quarrel between Governor William Bligh and his enemies the Gazette ceased publication. The reason given was lack of paper, but Robert Howe later revealed that the government stores had large stocks of paper. After Bligh's arrest Howe had to threaten to publish the names of his debtors unless they paid him within a fortnight.

In 1810 Howe's printing office was almost destroyed by lightning, but the newly-arrived Governor Lachlan Macquarie renewed his appointment as government printer, and next year granted him a salary of £60. Howe's economic position improved still further when in 1812 he married Sarah, the widow of Edward Wills, who had inherited a profitable store from her husband. Of her five existing children, Sarah married Dr William Redfern in 1811 and Eliza married Major Henry Antill in 1818; a son, Horatio Spencer Wills, became editor of the Gazette and published the first paper edited by a native-born Australian, The Currency Lad, which first appeared in August 1832.

After his marriage Howe became more active in commerce. In 1813 he joined Mrs Mary Reibey in a speculation in sandalwood. In 1817 he became one of the fourteen foundation subscribers to the Bank of New South Wales. In 1813 he published the first natural history and art book printed in the colony, Birds of New South Wales with their Natural History, a collection of eighteen coloured plates of Australian birds with short descriptions of their habits and environment. The artist was John Lewin. In 1819 First Fruits of Australian Poetry, containing two poems by Barron Field, the first book of poetry published in Australia, came from his press. Howe was preparing to publish the first periodical magazine when he died on 11 May 1821. He left property worth £4000.

Robert Howe was dissipated as a young man and in 1819 fathered an illegitimate son. Next year, however, he experienced a spiritual awakening and, in his own words, was 'wonderfully and mercifully visited by God and snatched from infamy in this world and Hell in the next'. He joined the group of Methodists who were working in Sydney and their influence, particularly that of Rev. Ralph Mansfield, was apparent when he published The Australian Magazine; or, Compendium of Religious, Literary, and Miscellaneous Intelligence, the first periodical to appear in Australia. The first number appeared in May 1821 and the publication continued until September 1822. In the meantime, in 1821 Robert Howe had married the colonial-born Ann Bird, who finally agreed to rear Robert's natural son as her own. She bore him four more children, Robert Mansfield, Alfred Australia, Ann Wesley and Mary McLeay, whose names commemorated the strongest influences in Howe's life.

Although his education had not been thorough, Robert Howe continued to edit the Gazette which he had helped his father to publish, but the tone of the paper changed completely. Morality and religion became its main themes. Howe considered that to be 'Printer to Immanuel' was more important than being government printer. A plan to establish another press devoted exclusively to the aims of the Wesleyan mission did not eventuate; but the Gazette reflected Howe's conviction that religion was the only possible means of progress in Australia and the only way to rescue the colony from the 'depths of awful depravity to Righteousness in the Son of God'. This outlook, together with the Gazette's traditional policy of supporting the government, made it impossible for Howe to join the struggle for the freedom of the press between 1826 and 1829. Added to this was the fact that Alexander McLeay, his old benefactor, had become colonial secretary. Despite criticism, the Gazette prospered and for a short time in 1827 became the first daily newspaper in the colony. Robert Howe also continued his father's tradition as a publisher. In addition to religious tracts, in 1826 he published Wild Notes from the Lyre of a Native Minstrel, the first book of poems written by a colonial-born poet, Charles Tompson, whose work had already appeared in the Gazette.

Howe's own personal life was never really happy. On the night of 15 June 1822 he was attacked while returning from a meeting at the Methodist chapel. He could not avoid a number of libel actions arising from the strong denunciation of those who opposed his policy, and in 1827 Redfern publicly horse-whipped him. He wrote that he was 'debilitated through excessive fatigue, mental anxiety and unprecedented and unexpected domestic disquietude and grief to which I have for years submitted'. In 1827 he made a will in which he left most of his estate to his natural son and £100 a year to his wife. Next year he revoked this and left his wife an 'equal division' of his effects which amounted to over £10,000. Contemplating retirement, he installed Mansfield as co-editor of the Gazette; but on 29 January 1829 he was drowned while fishing near Pinchgut and his widow became the proprietor of the paper.

George and Robert Howe had performed important work. To have a newspaper as early as 1803 was of inestimable benefit to both government and settlers. A series of the New South Wales Pocket Almanack, issued in conjunction with the Gazette from 1806, supplemented the dissemination of news and knowledge throughout the colony. The Gazette kept the settlers in touch with home. News from England and excerpts from English literature kept loyalty to England alive. From the beginning George Howe encouraged education and published material calculated to aid both teachers and pupils. He also fostered literature and before 1810 printed more than forty poems, many of which he wrote himself. During Macquarie's administration he printed a further seventy poems including the patriotic odes of Michael Robinson. He has, therefore, a strong claim to the title of 'Father of Australian Literature'. The main difference between George and Robert was that, whereas George Howe advocated reason and common sense, Robert fostered religion.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Howe diary, 1822-23 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Bonwick transcripts, biography (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

J. V. Byrnes, 'Howe, George (1769–1821)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/howe-george-1600/text2851, published in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 1 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

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