Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Whyte, William Farmer (1877–1958)

by Gavin Souter

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

William Farmer Whyte (1877-1958), journalist and author, was born on 13 December 1877 at Bombala, New South Wales, and named William James Rodney, fourth of eight children of Henry Peter Whyte, an Irish-born storekeeper, and his English wife Constance Sophia Rodney, née Ricketts. After attending Bombala and Orange Superior Public schools, William joined the Bombala Times and, from the age of 19, worked in Sydney as a journalist on the Daily Telegraph.

Then he travelled—to Auckland, New Zealand, as a sub-editor on the New Zealand Herald (1907-10), and to Samoa and Tonga. He contributed to the Cyclopedia of Samoa (Sydney, 1907) and collaborated with H. J. Moors on With Stevenson in Samoa (London, 1910). On 30 June 1909 he married his first cousin Hilda Gorman Cusack Whyte in St Paul's Anglican Church, Auckland. Whyte toured the United States of America in 1910 as manager of a Maori troupe which performed in New York, Chicago and San Francisco; he interviewed President Taft, Andrew Carnegie and Thomas Edison for articles commissioned by the Sydney Morning Herald and other Australian newspapers.

In September Whyte joined the Sydney Morning Herald and became that paper's most versatile descriptive writer, 'touching nothing'—as his editor Thomas Heney observed in Dr Johnson's words—'which he did not adorn'. Due to the Commonwealth Electoral Act's requirement that editorials on Federal elections and referenda should be signed, W. Farmer Whyte's name became well known for his vigorous wartime editorials in an era of predominantly anonymous journalism.

Tall and prematurely greying, Whyte had sensitive features dominated by an aquiline nose. His engaging personality, professional ability and varied interests won him a wide range of friends. In 1918 he chaired the Australian Journalists' Association's inquiry into the general subject of education for journalists. He was an active member of the (Royal) Australian Historical Society and the Sydney branch of the Dickens Fellowship, honorary secretary of the Shakespeare Society of New South Wales (1911-16) and joint honorary secretary of the State's Shakespeare Tercentenary Memorial Fund in 1916. An omnivorous reader and a writer of verse, he particularly admired Shakespeare, the French classics and the romantic school established by Victor Hugo.

Although he was twice appointed to newspaper editorships, Whyte's tenure at the Brisbane Daily Mail (1918-21) and the Sydney Daily Telegraph (1921-23) was relatively brief. Preferring self-employment, or perhaps simply uncomfortable in editorial chairs, he joined the Federal parliamentary press gallery in Canberra in 1927. There, for the rest of his life, he conducted the Federal News Service, supplying political articles and his Canberra Times column ('Over the Speaker's Chair') to country newspapers throughout Australia. In 1937-39 he edited a monthly magazine, Australian National Review, about which he corresponded with Miles Franklin. He enjoyed chess, was involved in local social and community life, and remained a member of the Johnsonian Club, Brisbane, and the Bread and Cheese Club, Melbourne.

In 1952 Whyte edited the Australian Parliamentary Handbook and in 1955 published an extensive, though not definitive, biography of the prime minister whom he had known for much of his own career, W. M. Hughes. Farmer Whyte worked to within a few days of his death in Canberra on 16 November 1958. Survived by his wife, two sons and two daughters, he was buried in Canberra cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • Lone Hand, 1 July 1918
  • Sydney Mail, 28 Aug 1912, 1 June 1922
  • Canberra Times, 17 Nov 1958
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 17 Nov 1958
  • John Fairfax Ltd (Sydney) archives
  • Miles Franklin papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Mary Gilmore papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Gavin Souter, 'Whyte, William Farmer (1877–1958)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/whyte-william-farmer-9090/text16027, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 24 August 2017.

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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2017