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Prior, Samuel Henry (1869–1933)

by Peter Kirkpatrick

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

Samuel Henry Prior (1869-1933), journalist, was born on 10 January 1869 at Brighton, South Australia, tenth of eleven children of Samuel Prior, farmer from Cornwall, and his wife Jane, née Geake. His father farmed at Brighton for over fifty years and was the first to cultivate what became known as Prior barley. Samuel Henry was educated at Glenelg Grammar School and the Bendigo School of Mines and Industries, Victoria. He tried teaching but soon joined the Bendigo Independent as a mining reporter. Sent to Broken Hill, New South Wales, to report on a silver mine in 1887, he stayed as a mining agent. On 1 March 1888 at East Melbourne he married Alice May Marsh.

Prior briefly edited the Broken Hill Times and its successor, the Broken Hill Argus. From about 1889 he edited the Barrier Miner for fourteen years, displaying a liberal spirit strongly imbued with the nationalism of his age. He was a champion of trade unionism and of Federation; he had been a delegate to the Australian Natives' Association Inter-Colonial Conference on Federation in Melbourne in 1890.

Seeking a wider outlet for his talents as a financial journalist, Prior sent pieces to the Sydney Bulletin. These so impressed Jules Francois Archibald that he invited Prior to join the staff. He accepted, taking over from James Edmond as financial editor in 1903; under his astute control the 'Wild Cat' columns increased in importance. He also wrote theatre criticism.

In 1912 Prior was made associate editor; in 1914 when Archibald sold his Bulletin interests to him, he became a major shareholder and in 1915 senior editor. The event was looked on with some reservations by the Bulletin's Bohemian contributors, but Prior was deeply committed to literature, and could turn his hand with distinction to criticism, short stories and even verse. Over the years he corresponded with and encouraged many writers. He could handle difficult artistic temperaments, and was one of the few people whom Henry Lawson would allow to alter his copy.

If Prior's Bulletin seemed to have lost its rowdy edge, this also reflected changes in Australian society. He maintained his basically liberal stance, and in his advocacy of responsible free enterprise was perhaps not so ideologically distinct from the Bulletin's founders as some have assumed. Rightly or wrongly, he himself believed that the paper had no political bias: 'In its permanency THE BULLETIN is beyond party', he once wrote.

During his editorship it was probably more carefully produced than before, for he would stop the presses to correct a letter or a misplaced comma. Its reputation for financial journalism was enhanced by the launching of the Wild Cat Monthly in 1923. Moreover, it was Prior's Bulletin which D. H. Lawrence praised in Kangaroo as 'the only periodical in the world that really amused him'. His Bulletin it became in fact when in 1927 William Macleod sold his shareholding to him, making Prior both manager and editor.

In 1928 Prior inaugurated the first Bulletin novel competition, which brought to light Marjorie Barnard's and Flora Eldershaw's A House is Built and Katharine Susannah Prichard's Coonardoo as equal first-prize winners. At Norman Lindsay's suggestion, in 1932 Prior established the Endeavour Press to publish Australian writers.

With all his faith in the destiny of the nation and the paper he served, Prior was a very private man and shunned publicity. His underlying shyness caused many to see him as cold and aloof, and few, indeed, called him by his first name. He was tall, with a face and a demeanour that earned him the nickname 'Pharaoh' among a group of editors touring the Western Front in World War I. His home life, however, was said to be ideal. David McKee Wright captured him well when he wrote:

Shy as a blossom on a winter bough,
From all except the gods he hides his brow;
Yet on Olympus must his fame survive
Who wears, unseen, the kindest heart alive.

Afflicted for many years with iritis, a painful inflammation of the iris, he died of heart disease at his Mosman home on 6 June 1933 and was cremated with Presbyterian forms. His wife, daughter and three sons survived him; his second son Henry Kenneth succeeded him as Bulletin general manager, and initiated the S. H. Prior memorial prize for a work of Australian literature in 1935. The family retained control until Consolidated Press Ltd bought the Bulletin in 1960.

A bust of Prior by Macleod and an oil portrait by an unknown artist are held by the family.

Select Bibliography

  • B. Kennedy, Silver, Sin and Sixpenny Ale (Melb, 1978)
  • P. Rolfe, The Journalistic Javelin (Syd, 1979)
  • Newspaper News, 1 Jan 1930
  • Bulletin, 29 Jan 1930, 14 June 1933, 29 Jan 1980
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 7 June 1933
  • W. E. Fitz Henry, The Gentle Bohemian and Other Bulletin Essays, in Fitz Henry papers (National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Peter Kirkpatrick, 'Prior, Samuel Henry (1869–1933)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/prior-samuel-henry-8120/text14181, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 18 September 2014.

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

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