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Penton, Brian Con (1904–1951)

by Patrick Buckridge

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Brian Con Penton (1904-1951), journalist, novelist and polemicist, was born on 21 August 1904 at Ascot, Brisbane, fifth child of English-born parents Reginald Penton, commercial traveller, and his wife Sarah, née Bennett. Brian attended New Farm and Windsor state schools, and Brisbane Grammar School (1918-19). In 1921 he found work as a copy-boy on the Brisbane Courier, at the same time as did Ray Lindsay, second son of Norman Lindsay. Over the next three years Penton advanced to general reporting.

In the oratory of the Liberal Catholic Church, Ann Street, Brisbane, on 6 January 1924 he married Olga Saville Moss (d.1972); they were to remain childless. Olga was a clever and sophisticated woman, some seven years his senior, who taught Latin and English at Brisbane Girls' Grammar School. Resigning from the Courier in 1925, Penton worked his passage to London where he languished in a Bloomsbury 'bedsit' for six weeks before coming home. On his return, the couple moved to Sydney where he obtained a job as a reporter on the Sydney Morning Herald and began to make a name for himself as the author (1926-28) of a regular column of satirical commentary on proceedings in the State and Federal parliaments. He used the column, 'From the Gallery', to develop his political views, which he described as those of a 'classical liberal'. In addition, he did some speech-writing for the prime minister S. M. (Viscount) Bruce, and for his predecessor W. M. Hughes with whom he formed a close bond which lasted many years.

By 1928 Penton's column had angered influential figures in Canberra sufficiently to have him recalled to Sydney. He resigned from the Herald soon after and sailed for London, where Olga joined him six months later. They both tried—and failed—to interest British publishers in two comic novels they had written about contemporary life in Sydney. Penton had more success with Norman Lindsay's novel, Redheap (1930), which Faber & Faber Ltd had undertaken to publish, and which Penton—by then a close friend of Lindsay—had agreed to shepherd through the process. In London, Penton found himself some reporting and sub-editing with the Daily Express and the Daily Mail, but his main interest was in the Fanfrolico Press—a small but moderately successful subscription printer and publisher of fine books—which P. R. ('Inky') Stephensen, Jack Lindsay and John Kirtley had established. Soon after his arrival he became its new business manager, ousting Stephensen with whom he long continued to have hostile relations. By 1931 the press had folded, but by this time Olga was earning a good salary teaching Latin at Pitman's College, and receiving substantial royalties on a Latin textbook she had written in her spare time.

While in London, Penton was introduced to the expatriate Australian novelist 'Henry Handel' Richardson. He and Norman Lindsay, who had arrived in London, visited her at her home, and Penton visited by himself several times and also exchanged letters with her. He was deeply impressed by Richardson's work. The novel he began to write at this time, Landtakers (Sydney, 1934), was envisaged as the first part of an Australian historical trilogy modelled on The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, and focusing on the same central dilemma of the divided colonial psyche.

The Pentons returned to Sydney towards the end of 1933. Brian had been offered a job as a regular columnist with the Telegraph, which had recently been acquired by Associated Newspapers Ltd, publishers of the Sydney Sun. The new column, known as 'The Sydney Spy', appeared on weekdays for almost two years. Its distinctive blend of tones and topics—urbane, mocking and iconoclastic, with an extraordinary range of cultural reference—made Penton something of a cult figure in Sydney. His reputation was enhanced by the critical success of Landtakers, the story of Derek Cabell, an English immigrant to the Moreton Bay settlement in the 1840s, though its passionate 'debunking' of the myths of pioneering heroism scandalized some readers—as intended. The sequel, Inheritors (1936), completed in Spain two years later, dealt with the lives of the second generation of the Cabell family. It proved less popular and was never reprinted.

In 1935-36 Penton was the defendant in two controversial libel suits (the first of a number in his career) brought by the author Vivian Crockett and the publisher Stephensen of a novel, Mezzomorto (1934), which Penton had reviewed unfavourably in the Bulletin. Penton lost both suits, which pleased his enemies, such as Miles Franklin, and alarmed admirers, such as Nettie Palmer. It may have been a turning-point in his career, but it coincided with his employment by Consolidated Press Ltd which had taken over the Telegraph in 1936. Under a dynamic new proprietor and managing director, (Sir) Frank Packer, Penton began to rise in the company, becoming news editor of the Daily Telegraph, then editor in 1941, following Sydney Deamer and C. S. McNulty.

Through the late 1930s Penton had made a major contribution to the distinctive style of the Daily Telegraph. That new style, particularly as it appeared in his own articles and reviews, was irreverent, progressive and individualist, critical of 'red tape' and censorship, and seriously committed to improving public awareness and promoting a modern and civilized urban lifestyle. The Daily Telegraph of the mid-1940s, under his direction, was a triumph of editorial co-ordination and flair.

Penton's intellectual focus in the early years of World War II was on the complacency, mediocrity and pettiness of much of Australian public life and national culture. With Cyril Pearl, editor of the Sunday Telegraph from 1939, and with the implicit backing of Packer, Penton attacked both major political parties, the education system, achievements in art and literature, and the nation's general unreadiness to mobilize effectively for war. Outside Consolidated Press he formed close alliances with Dr H. V. Evatt, Dr Frank Louat, W. C. Wentworth and other like-minded people, and conducted an anti-government 'Win-the-War' campaign in the lead-up to the 1940 Federal election. In 1941 Penton published a booklet, Think—or Be Damned, and two years later a longer, more reflective book, Advance Australia—Where? (London, 1943).

In 1944, as the subject of another portrait by (Sir) William Dobell, Penton was marginally involved in the controversy surrounding the award of the 1943 Archibald prize to Dobell for his portrait of Joshua Smith; and he was centrally involved in the 'Censorship Crisis' in which the Federal Labor government attempted to muzzle criticism from the press by seizing entire editions of several newspapers in Sydney and some other capital cities, beginning in May with the Daily Telegraph and the Sunday Telegraph. Penton and Pearl, backed by the three Sydney press proprietors, led the counter-charge against the censors and Arthur Calwell who sued Penton for £25,000 damages in a libel suit which was eventually settled out of court. Penton wrote a blow-by-blow account of the events in Censored! (1947).

In mid-1944 he visited the United States of America and London, and observed the devastation of Normandy, France. On his return, he signalled his increasingly hard anti-union stance by his boots-and-all support for Packer against the Australian Journalists' Association and other unions in the journalists' strike in October. Penton maintained this stance through the industrial conflicts of the late 1940s and in a series of attempts by Consolidated Press to have the A.J.A. deregistered. His, and the paper's, wartime support for the Labor government turned to uncompromising support for (Sir) Robert Menzies' new Liberal Party.

Penton's private life was always controversial: his bohemian appearance and behaviour, his compulsive pursuit of women, and his refusal to defer to convention in the conduct of his two, long-term, extra-marital liaisons with Sadie Bull and Zélie McLeod made him (and them) some enemies. He was a noted bon viveur and an enthusiastic sailor. A member of Royal Prince Alfred Yacht Club, he owned and skippered a cutter, the Josephine, winning the first Montague Island race (1947) and competing in the Sydney to Hobart races in the late 1940s.

Brian Penton died of cancer on 24 August 1951 at St Luke's Hospital, Sydney, and was cremated with Anglican rites. He had been one of Australia's great newspaper editors, an important novelist, a passionate but critical Australian nationalist, and a courageous liberal campaigner for what he called 'a civilized mode of social living together'.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Lindsay, Fanfrolico and After (Lond, 1962)
  • D. Horne, Confessions of a New Boy (Melb, 1985)
  • P. Buckridge, The Scandalous Penton (Brisb, 1994) and for bibliography
  • Penton papers (State Library of New South Wales and University of Queensland Library).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Patrick Buckridge, 'Penton, Brian Con (1904–1951)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/penton-brian-con-11367/text20307, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 23 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

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