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Norton, John (1858–1916)

by Michael Cannon

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

John Norton (1858-1916), newspaper-proprietor and politician, was born on 25 January 1858 at Brighton, Sussex, England, only and posthumous son of John Norton, stonemason, and his wife Mary Margaret, née Lynch. His mother married Benjamin Herring, a silk-weaver. Norton said later that he had fled from his stepfather's cruel treatment. After experiencing boarding-school, he claimed to have become secretary to a naval architect about 1878, joined a walking tour of Europe in 1880 and worked on the Levant Herald in Constantinople (Istanbul).

In 1884 Norton migrated and reached Sydney on 5 April. He soon rose to chief reporter on the Evening News. He became a leading propagandist for the emerging labour movement: in 1886 the Trades and Labor Council of New South Wales accredited him official delegate to trades union congresses in London and Paris. After a controversial tour and triumphant return, he went back into daily journalism. In 1888 he published (and contributed to) an Australian edition of the American compilation, The History of Capital and Labour in all Lands and Ages. Next year he became editor of the Newcastle Morning Herald. Dismissed for repeated episodes of drunkenness, he returned to Sydney to join Truth, a new weekly journal of sport, crime and exposé articles, started by radical politicians W. N. Willis, A. G. Taylor and W. P. Crick. Norton became editor and part-owner in 1891 but repeated drunkenness cost him his position. In 1893-95 he helped to organize the Chamber of Manufactures of New South Wales on protectionist lines.

After tortuous litigation Norton acquired Truth, on terms, in 1896. He introduced an even more sensational formula of abuse of many figures in authority from Queen Victoria ('flabby, fat, and flatulent') to local councillors, especially berating 'wowsers' (a word he claimed to have coined). His articles and alliteration (Lord Dudley was accused of 'libidinous lecheries and lascivious lapses') were immensely popular with the working class and Truth's circulation skyrocketed. However, in 1906 Charles John Haynes was acquitted of malicious libel in the Newsletter; he had accused Norton of blackmail, murder and moral turpitude. Norton had managed to beat off most libel suits, including seditious and criminal libel actions, and often entered counter-suits, as against Benjamin Hoare (1913-14). When he had to pay damages to Archbishop Clarke in the aftermath of Canon Nash's case, he tried unsuccessfully to recover the £3000 by sueing his solicitor David Herald for negligence.

However, Truth also campaigned for much-needed reforms and continually exposed scandals and frauds in public life. Starting in 1900 Norton published local editions of Truth in Queensland, Victoria (1902) and Western Australia (1903). For many years South Australian and Tasmanian editions were printed in and distributed from Victoria.

In 1898-1901 and 1904-06 Norton represented Phillip and Flinders wards on Sydney Municipal Council. In June 1898 he was elected to the Legislative Assembly for Sydney-Fitzroy as a Protectionist, but five weeks later lost his seat at the general election. As an Independent he represented Northumberland in 1899-1904 and in 1904 won Surry Hills. In 1906 he blamed W. A. Holman for an article in the Worker commenting on Norton's unnatural silence over the land scandals and excoriated him in the House. Holman accepted his challenge to resign their seats and contest Cootamundra. Norton soon withdrew from the contest and also lost the Surry Hills by-election. In 1907-10 he was member for Darling Harbour. He had been defeated for the Senate in 1901 and 1906. Partly because of his independent stance, his political career was one of rancorous vilification rather than legislative achievement. For a time he belonged to the Republican Union. Although protected by bruisers, he was apt to resort to physical violence: such episodes included firing a revolver at R. D. Meagher, who had horsewhipped him, in Pitt Street in 1898 and assaulting a fellow-member in the House in 1903.

In 1896 Norton had begun living with Ada McGrath, daughter of an Irish farmer. Their first child Ezra was born three weeks before their marriage at St James' Church, Sydney, on 29 April 1897. The relationship was tempestuous. Norton when drunk often assaulted his wife who sometimes assaulted him in return; they separated several times. Their daughter Joan was born in 1907. Norton spent most of 1911-12 in Europe, being nursed through bouts of alcoholism and bronchial ailments by his unmarried niece Eva Pannett. After his arrival in Sydney with Eva, the Nortons separated for the last time; an attempt by John to abduct Joan to England failed upon threat of imprisonment. Judicial separation was granted in 1915 on the grounds of Norton's habitual drunkenness, cruelty, and adultery with a servant.

Short in stature with a bald, bullet-shaped head, Norton was rarely seen without 'his black hat jammed over his face'. He was obsessed by Napoleon and filled his large house at Maroubra, which he named St Helena, with statues, busts and portraits of the emperor and other Napoleana. In World War I he presented St Helena to the State government for convalescent soldiers and made many other secret benefactions. On 9 April 1916 Norton died in Melbourne of kidney disease and was buried in the Anglican section of South Head cemetery, Sydney. Huge crowds attended the funeral.

Norton left his estate, including his rich publishing empire, valued for probate at £140,331 in two States, to his daughter with substantial benefits to Eva Pannett. His will was successfully challenged by his wife and son. When Joan died in 1940, Ezra was left in sole control of the newspapers. Mrs Norton died in 1960: despite an intervening marriage she was buried alongside John.

As proprietor of the only national newspaper with separate State editors and a huge circulation, Norton had an influence on popular attitudes of his time which was more far reaching than has been generally recognized. His attacks on royalty and British governors emphasized Australian nationalistic feeling; his exposés of capitalist abuses hastened social reforms; his xenophobia strengthened the White Australia policy; his own sincerely held religious beliefs impelled exposure of spiritualist and other charlatanry; and his articles on prostitution, slums and disease alerted people to significant social evils. At the same time he suffered from the frequent sin of muckraking journalists: of alleging evils where none existed and sometimes printing unfair attacks on innocent people. His frequent alcoholic excesses crippled a mind of undoubted brilliance, prevented him from attaining any substantial political achievement, caused great suffering to his family, and finally killed him at the peak of fame and fortune.

Select Bibliography

  • C. Pearl, Wild Men of Sydney (Lond, 1959)
  • M. Cannon, That Damned Democrat (Melb, 1981), and for notes and bibliography
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1903, 1, p 22
  • Sydney Mail, 1 Oct 1898
  • Australasian (Melbourne), 8 Oct 1898, 6 Dec 1913
  • Bulletin, 3 Nov 1904
  • Town and Country Journal, 18 July 1906
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 3, 4, 5, 8, 9 Oct 1906
  • Argus (Melbourne), 29, 30, 31 July, 2 Aug 1913.

Citation details

Michael Cannon, 'Norton, John (1858–1916)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/norton-john-7863/text13663, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 22 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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