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Whitworth, Robert Percy (1831–1901)

by Helen K. Almanzi

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

Robert Percy Whitworth (1831-1901), journalist and author, was born at Torquay, Devonshire, England, son of John Whitworth, engineer, and his wife Ann, née Dawson. He was brought up in Lancashire and Cheshire and was a barrister's clerk when he married Margaret Rivers Smith on 9 September 1854 at Manchester Cathedral. Next year they migrated to Sydney where, according to his own account, his activities included acting—he reputedly played Laertes to Gustavus Vaughan Brooke's Hamlet—and horse-breaking in the Hunter River district. He joined the staff of the Empire in Sydney and later began several short-lived magazines. He became a riding-master but returned to journalism after a severe fall.

In 1864 Whitworth arrived in Melbourne after some time in Queensland, and with Ferdinand Bailliere began a series of gazetteers of various Australian colonies. In Melbourne he worked with the Age, the Argus and the Daily Telegraph and for a time edited the Australian Journal. He was a proprietor and editor of Town Talk in the late 1870s and contributed to Melbourne Punch and other magazines. He wrote several plays, one of the most successful being the farce, 'Catching a Conspirator', in 1867. For many years he was one of Marcus Clarke's boon companions and in 1880 was closely involved with him in the adaptation of a political farce, 'The Happy Land', which satirized the government of (Sir) Graham Berry. The only surviving manuscript of the text is in Clarke's handwriting but bears both his name and Whitworth's. They also combined in 'Reverses', a comedy of manners which was never performed. Whitworth was a pallbearer at Clarke's funeral.

He spent at least four years in New Zealand and was living in Dunedin in 1870. He was a reporter for the Otago Daily Times and as 'The Literary Bohemian' contributed 'clever and witty' pieces to the Otago Witness. Whitworth's pamphlet, published in Dunedin in 1870, describing the possibilities of the Martin's Bay settlement on the west coast of Otago, earned him a bonus of £50 from the Otago Provincial Council. He later used his knowledge of the Maoris to write Hine-Ra, or The Maori Scout … (Melbourne, 1887).

Whitworth was a prolific miscellaneous writer. He published successful collections of his short stories: in 1872 Spangles and Sawdust and Australian Stories Round the Camp Fire, and in 1893, with W. A. Windus, Shimmer of Silk: A Volume of Melbourne Cup Stories. He wrote several novels and edited collections of stories. He compiled a Popular Handbook of the Land Acts of Victoria, New South Wales, South Australia, and Queensland (1872), The Official Handbook & Guide to Melbourne … (1880) and the second (biographical) volume of Victoria and its Metropolis: Past and Present (1888). He wrote a cantata, Under the Holly (1865), and A Short History of The Eureka Stockade (1891), and edited and contributed to several miscellanies. His wide knowledge of life in the city, bush, goldfields and theatre is reflected in his work.

A very well-known Melbourne journalist in his prime, he was described by Randolph Bedford in his later years as a 'faded Apollo'. He died of apoplexy at Prahran on 31 March 1901, aged 69 and 14 weeks, almost forgotten as a writer but lamented by a few as a 'Bohemian of the spontaneous type—not the factitious'. Buried in the Melbourne cemetery, he was survived by two sons and a daughter, all born after 1867.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Bedford, Naught to Thirty-Three (Syd, 1944)
  • B. Elliott, Marcus Clarke (Oxford, 1958)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 1 Apr 1901
  • Table Talk, 4 Apr 1901
  • Otago Daily Times (Dunedin, New Zealand), 11 Apr 1901
  • Bulletin, 13 Apr 1901.

Citation details

Helen K. Almanzi, 'Whitworth, Robert Percy (1831–1901)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/whitworth-robert-percy-4846/text8091, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 31 July 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

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