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Syme, Sir Geoffrey (1873–1942)

by Geoffrey Serle

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

Sir Geoffrey Syme (1873-1942), newspaper proprietor, was born on 3 March 1873 in South Melbourne, fourth son of David Syme, newspaper proprietor, and his wife Annabella, née Johnson. He attended Kew High School (1883-89) and the University of Melbourne (1891-92) where he took two years to complete first-year arts, being primarily interested in football. He then joined the Age and from 1898 was trained in management by his father who had chosen him as his successor. In 1901 Geoffrey worked briefly on the London Observer and on 15 January 1902 at Waddington, Yorkshire, married 18-year-old Violet Addison Garnett; intelligent and widely read, she discussed current events daily with him. In 1902 he began editing Every Saturday, forerunner of the Age's literary supplement.

Under the terms of his father's will, in 1908 Geoffrey was given editorial control of the Age and the Leader. His elder brother John Herbert (1859-1939), the business manager, objected, but Sir Samuel Gillott's legal opinion confirmed Geoffrey's position. For thirty-four years, assisted by editors G. F. H. Schuler, L. V. Biggs and (Sir) Harold Campbell, he dictated the Age's policy.

Idealistic and earnest, Syme determinedly attempted to carry on his father's radical protectionist if idiosyncratic policies, immediately identifying himself with the Deakin-Brookes Liberal grouping but opposing the Fusion of 1909 and providing much less than entire support at the 1910 election. Journalist Roy Bridges described Syme as 'keen of eyes, dark, dry, quiet and incisive'; his reputation for hardness and grimness may have masked shyness and reticence. A later Age man Herbert Mishael recalled Geoffrey's graciousness toward the staff he respected and how he upheld the ideal of 'a responsible, reliable, and well-written' paper not simply directed to money-making.

Under Geoffrey Syme the Age was sometimes characterized as 'the yacht', twisting and tacking on major issues. It strongly supported a Greater Melbourne Council and the exploitation of Victoria's coal resources by the state, but constantly attacked the State Electricity Commission and the Victorian Railways, often on flimsy grounds. The Age reviled the Bruce-Page government for abandoning the arbitration system, supported Labor at the 1929 and 1931 elections and Theodore's economic policies, but backed the Premiers' Plan. It constantly criticized rural subsidies and the University of Melbourne, but broadly supported Dunstan's State government.

Although Syme competed aggressively with rival proprietors, (Sir) Keith Murdoch's lively Sun News-Pictorial captured the popular market. By 1940 the Age's circulation was slightly less than in 1900. David Syme's complicated will made it difficult to modernize the paper, but in the late 1930s a new press was installed and the front page at last featured the news.

Syme took an interest in rubber and coconut-planting in Papua and established Dorset Horn sheep on his inherited Pendleside estate. His home, Blythswood, was at Kew. A golfer and racing man, he was a member of the Australian and Athenaeum clubs. In 1941 he was appointed K.B.E. Survived by his wife and four daughters, he died at the Mercy Private Hospital, East Melbourne, on 30 July 1942 and was buried in Boroondara cemetery, Kew, with Anglican rites. His estate was sworn for probate at £177,450. His younger brother Oswald Julian (1878-1967), a cattle-breeder and dairy-farmer at Macedon, took control of the Age. In 1948 it was converted to a public company in which the family retained a majority interest. Numerous takeover offers were resisted until 1972 when, following a partnership arrangement in 1966, Fairfax interests took control.

Select Bibliography

  • H. H. Peck, Memoirs of a Stockman (Melb, 1942)
  • R. Bridges, That Yesterday Was Home (Syd, 1948)
  • C. E. Sayers, David Syme (Melb, 1965)
  • Age (Melbourne), 16 Oct 1954, centenary supplement
  • Syme family papers (State Library of Victoria)
  • V. Condon manuscripts (State Library of Victoria)
  • H. Mishael, Lend Me Your Ears (manuscript, State Library of Victoria)
  • R. Priestley diary, 30 June 1937 (University of Melbourne Archives).

Citation details

Geoffrey Serle, 'Syme, Sir Geoffrey (1873–1942)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/syme-sir-geoffrey-8732/text15289, published in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 31 July 2014.

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

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