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George Cavenagh (1808–1869)

by Marjorie J. Tipping

This article was published:

George Cavenagh (1808-1869), journalist, was born in India, the youngest son of Major P. Cavenagh of the East India Co.'s army and formerly of County Wexford, Ireland. The major retired with the family to Bath, but lost a considerable fortune when the Bank of India failed. Most of his creditors were paid but little was left for his family. An older son, Philip, emigrated to Sydney where he was employed in the Survey Department. George Cavenagh arrived in March 1825 and became clerk to the bench of magistrates at Liverpool. In August 1827 he was agent for Frederick Boucher at Wallis Plain, where he acquired a small farm.

After a visit from their father the Cavenagh brothers became partners in a shipping venture in 1831, but Philip soon left Australia under a cloud and George bought a dairy business at Newtown. At this time he married Jemima Caroline, daughter of William Smith, former schoolmaster and official of the colonial commissariat in Sydney. They had eight children.

In 1833 he joined the staff of the Sydney Gazette as a clerk and some three years later succeeded William Watt as editor, unsuccessfully trying to invoke the law against Watt for living with a convict woman. Rumour had Cavenagh as sometime a footman; William Charles Wentworth called him 'a disgraced, discredited menial' and had to pay him damages of £225; in 1840 John Dunmore Lang issued a prospectus to a libellous satire on the 'nefarious conduct' of this 'noted swindler', which was never published. Foreseeing greater opportunities in the south, Cavenagh took his family, staff and machinery to Melbourne and on 3 January 1840 he published the first issue of the semi-weekly Port Phillip Herald. Its motto was 'Impartial, not neutral', and Cavenagh directed the paper with astuteness aided by an invective that could match that of any of his adversaries; this was particularly manifest during the early 1840s in his dealings with Judge John Walpole Willis. It involved him in much litigation and he was defendant in the first civil libel case in the colony. With George Arden, editor of the Port Phillip Gazette, he frequently spoke with one voice, and offered surety for Arden when Willis sent him to gaol. The Port Phillip Herald was, like its founder, Protestant in principle, but it was sympathetic towards Roman Catholics and was supported by the Irish community. This made his enemies nickname Cavenagh 'the big drum', either because he was supposed to have been a drummer boy or because they thought he was hollow and insincere. John Pascoe Fawkner, proprietor of the Port Phillip Patriot, was one of his greatest critics. Within eighteen months of its foundation the Herald had the largest circulation of the three Melbourne papers. Garryowen (Edmund Finn) was its star reporter. In 1849 it became a daily and was renamed the Melbourne Morning Herald and General Daily Advertiser. In 1841 Cavenagh had established a job-printing office and printed the first Melbourne Almanac and Port Phillip Directory. He retired in 1853 when control went to F. Sinnett & Co., but he returned to the management in December 1854 when (Sir) Archibald Michie gained control. He retired finally in the next year. At this time the paper was renamed the Herald.

Cavenagh was outspoken, shrewd and sagacious and, although he went through lean times in the depression of the 1840s, he acquired a considerable fortune. He was powerfully built, dressed well, and usually carried a riding whip round town, and used it on occasion; he himself had been the victim of assaults. As a member of the central committee of the Society for Separation, he waged a long and relentless campaign. He was an active supporter of Melbourne's earliest debating society, and its first amateur theatrical performances, and was a generous benefactor. He was a keen cricketer, and a founder and nine times president of the Melbourne Cricket Club. In his later years he took little part in public affairs; he died at his home in East Melbourne on 6 June 1869.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Mudie, The Felonry of New South Wales (Lond, 1837), pp 130-76
  • Garryowen (E. Finn), The Chronicles of Early Melbourne, vols 1-2 (Melb, 1888)
  • J. Bonwick, Early Struggles of the Australian Press (Lond, 1890)
  • R. Bridges, One Hundred Years: The Romance of the Victorian People (Melb, 1934)
  • T. L. Work, ‘Early Printers of Melbourne’, Australian Typographical Journal, Feb, Mar 1898
  • Argus (Melbourne), 7 June 1869
  • Herald (Melbourne), 1 Nov 1853
  • 3 Jan 1940: R. M. McGowan, A Study of Social Life and Conditions in Early Melbourne Prior to Separation (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1951).

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Citation details

Marjorie J. Tipping, 'Cavenagh, George (1808–1869)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 20 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (Melbourne University Press), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]




6 June, 1869 (aged ~ 61)
East Melbourne, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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