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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Smythe, Robert Sparrow (1833–1917)

by M. Shillingsburg

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Robert Sparrow Smythe (1833-1917), journalist and entrepreneur, was born in March 1833 at Lambeth, London, son of Robert Smythe and his wife Elizabeth. He served in London as a proofreader for Robson, Levey & Robson, printers, and probably studied law reporting, for he was competent in shorthand. Migrating to Australia in 1855 in search of better health, Smythe became parliamentary reporter on the Register in Adelaide and later editor of the Illustrated Post (Illustrated Australian News), one of the first pictorial papers in Australia. Moving to Melbourne, he wrote for the Age and in 1859-80 part-owned and edited the Chronicle (St Kilda). After working as a music and drama critic for newspapers in New South Wales and South Australia, he lived for many years at Deepdene, Melbourne.

In 1862 Smythe turned to theatrical management, accompanying the tenor and soprano duo, the Bianchis. Then followed a five-year tour with French violinists Poussard and Douay in whose musical company he met English-born Amelia Elizabeth Bailey, a popular coloratura soprano, whom he eventually married in Melbourne on 18 October 1881. He also managed the French pianist Boulanger, the magician Robert Heller, the German tragedian Daniel Bandmann and others. During Smythe's 1863 tour of Asia, India and South Africa he claimed to be the first manager to conduct a company into Japan after the 1854 port treaty, and to take professionals to the Himalayas and the Transvaal.

His first Australian 'discovery' was the popular lecturer Rev. Charles Clark; Smythe piloted him around Australia annually for four years, and eventually on tours of North America and South Africa. After this success, Smythe began about 1872 to specialize in lecture management, taking Australians to Europe and America, and bringing scientists, explorers and literary personalities from there to Australasia. He accompanied English astronomer R. A. Proctor, war correspondent Archibald Forbes, journalist G. Augustus Sala, authors Annie Besant and Professor M. D. Conway, preacher Dr Talmadge and explorer Henry Stanley.

During the 1890s Smythe acted as agent for the French writer Paul Blouet ('Max O'Rell'), baritone Charles Santley, and Sir Charles and Lady Hallé, and was widely respected as one of the best managers in Australasia. In September 1895 he announced tour management as his full-time occupation. His most triumphant 'lion' was Mark Twain who, as a bankrupt in 1895, accepted Smythe's longstanding invitation to tour the world.

Smythe's varied experiences, geniality and excellence as a raconteur made him a popular companion. His short, stocky stature and bushy moustache provided the stuff of caricature for the press. Active in management until 1913, he died at Deepdene on 23 May 1917 and was buried with Anglican rites in Box Hill cemetery. His estate was sworn for probate at £14,956. His wife, two daughters and a son survived him.

The son Carlyle Greenwood Smythe (1865-1925), journalist and manager, was born on 16 September 1865 at Ambala, India, while his parents were in the Punjab. He grew up in Melbourne where he was educated at Hawthorn Grammar School and Trinity College, University of Melbourne (B.A., 1888). During a brief journalistic career, he was for three years editor of the Belgian Times in Brussels and author of a history of Belgium. From the Twain tour of 1895 he became Robert's partner in lecture management. When his father retired, Carlyle conducted Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Mrs Besant, 'Max O'Rell' and Captain Amundsen, and wrote several magazine pieces about his experiences. On 11 November 1903 he married Elsa Dorette Bode at St Barnabas's Anglican Church, Balwyn. After suffering serious burns to his hands, he went to live at Deepdene; he became a music and drama critic as well as a writer on international policy for the Argus and other papers. Survived by his wife, he died on 15 December 1925 at Nice, France, where he had undergone surgery. His estate was sworn for probate at £19,825.

Select Bibliography

  • Punch (Melbourne), 24 July 1913
  • Age (Melbourne), 24 May 1917, 18 Dec 1925
  • Argus (Melbourne), 24, 26 May 1917, 18 Dec 1925
  • Referee (Sydney), 30 May 1917
  • Australasian, 26 Dec 1925.

Citation details

M. Shillingsburg, 'Smythe, Robert Sparrow (1833–1917)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 14 August 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

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