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McKinnon, Thomas Firmin (1878–1953)

by Desmond MacAulay

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

Thomas Firmin McKinnon (1878-1953), journalist, was born on 9 June 1878 at Yass Plains, New South Wales, second son of Scottish-born Laughlin McKinnon, farmer, and his wife Margaret, née Faulder. Firmin spent some boyhood years on his uncle's property, then worked for the Yass Courier and subsequently as a journalist in Sydney (receiving his basic training with the Daily Telegraph from 1903) and as editor of a Lismore newspaper. He achieved some notoriety by assisting Bennet Burleigh in 1904-05 to cover the Russo-Japanese war and dispatching the news of the Russians' naval defeat.

McKinnon joined the Brisbane Telegraph about 1907, the year that his future wife, Rockhampton-born Emma Louise Powell—the only woman journalist on its staff—joined the paper. On 20 January 1911 Firmin and Emmie became foundation members, and he secretary, of the Queensland Journalists' Association. His brief secretaryship of the Australian Journalists' Association, Queensland district, led to a lifelong friendship with Reginald Spencer Browne. McKinnon was then appointed editor of the Darling Downs Gazette, a post formerly held by Emmie's uncle, Rev. J. H. L. Zillman. Emmie's father, Rev. William Powell, married the couple in his South Brisbane parsonage on 30 March 1912 with Methodist forms.

In 1913 McKinnon joined the Brisbane Courier as parliamentary reporter and in 1919, under R. S. Taylor as editor, was appointed associate editor, principal leader-writer and literary columnist. His colleagues nicknamed him 'the Encyclopaedia'. In 1925-42 he was Queensland correspondent for The Times, London. In 1928 he wrote the introduction for the memorial edition of George Essex Evans's Collected Verse. He corresponded increasingly with authors like (Dame) Mary Gilmore, Vance and Nettie Palmer and Henry Mackenzie Green and among Queensland writers he singled out William Baylebridge. The McKinnons participated actively in Brisbane's cultural life. Emmie was State president (1927) and later a life vice-president of the Lyceum Club and a founding member (1921), honorary general secretary and later president of the Queensland Bush Book Club. Firmin, recognized as a tireless literary lecturer and mentor of many young writers, was also honorary secretary and later a life member of the (Royal) Historical Society of Queensland, and vice-president (1941) of the Queensland Authors' and Artists' Association.

On Taylor's death in June 1932, McKinnon was appointed the Courier's last editor before its merger with the Daily Mail in August 1933. Sir Keith Murdoch by-passed him for the editorship of the Courier Mail but, because he had acted in the position in August-December until the arrival of Tingey Foster, folklore has endowed McKinnon with the reputation as first editor. In 1935 he attended the Empire Press Conference in South Africa. North of Sydney, McKinnon was perhaps the most formidable reviewer of Australian books. In 1940 he assisted Edmund Morris Miller with the chapter 'Poets and Poetry: Queensland' in Australian Literature from its Beginnings to 1935. His Anglocentric conservatism, however, allowed little sympathy for certain literary trends. In his reviews of Rex Ingamells's Jindyworobak Anthology, 1938 and of C. B. Christesen's first issue of Meanjin Papers McKinnon concluded that it was not a good period for Australian poetry.

In the 1940s and early 1950s he was also a regular Courier Mail art reviewer who fought on behalf of art groups and institutions and sought increased financial backing for them. He succeeded Spencer Browne as part-time editor of Queensland Trustees' Quarterly Review in 1943 till his retirement on 14 June 1946, after which he edited Queensland Newspapers' House News from August 1947 to mid-1951.

Slightly built, meticulously dressed and an inveterate pipe-smoker, McKinnon was conservative and reserved, but with a dry sense of humour: a gentle, likeable and respected man. He died from cancer at his home at Highgate Hill, Brisbane, on 11 March 1953 and was cremated with Anglican rites. Childless, he was survived by his wife and three sisters.

Select Bibliography

  • Queensland Newspapers Pty Ltd, House News, 16 Dec 1949, 20 Oct 1950, 2 Apr 1953
  • Royal Historical Society of Queensland Bulletin, 108, Apr 1953
  • Journalist, Apr 1953
  • Southerly, 15, no 3, 1954
  • Courier Mail (Brisbane), 30 Apr 1935, 3 Dec 1938, 28 Dec 1940, 24 June 1946, 12 Mar 1953, 16 Jan 1964
  • H. J. Summers, History of the Australian Journalists' Association, Queensland (1952, typescript at A.J.A., Brisbane)
  • McKinnon materials (in various manuscript collections), and Bush Book Club papers (University of Queensland Library)
  • Oxley Committee minutes (State Library of Queensland)
  • private information.

Citation details

Desmond MacAulay, 'McKinnon, Thomas Firmin (1878–1953)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mckinnon-thomas-firmin-7400/text12867, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 21 May 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

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