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Sir Edward Sheldon Cunningham (1859–1957)

by John Salmond

This article was published:

Sir Edward Sheldon Cunningham (1859-1957), journalist, was born on 21 July 1859 at Battery Point, Hobart, son of Benjamin Marriot Cunningham, shipping manager, and his wife Jane Eccles, née Neilson. As a child, Cunningham lived in New South Wales and later Bendigo, Victoria. He went to private schools but owed his education mainly to his talented and cultivated mother. In 1874 he began his newspaper work as office-boy for the Bendigo Advertiser. After three years there, he went back to Tasmania to work on the Hobart Mercury, initially as a proofreader, but, after he had mastered shorthand, as a general reporter.

In 1879 Cunningham answered an advertisement for a parliamentary reporter for a 'mainland newspaper', which turned out to be the Melbourne Age. He was offered the job and accepted. Though hired as a political journalist, he also served as the paper's court reporter and police roundsman. Melbourne Punch remembered him as 'always the sedate, earnest young man, with more liking for work than for play'. His skill at seeking out a story soon became apparent. He was the only reporter present when Ned Kelly was taken from the train bringing him to Melbourne after his capture; Cunningham had deduced correctly that the police would remove Kelly at the North Melbourne station rather than Spencer Street. His reports of the trial were masterpieces of meticulous, yet dramatic journalism.

In 1880, while covering the Melbourne exhibition of that year, Cunningham struck up a friendship with David Watterston of the Argus. In 1881 he was invited to join the Argus as its chief parliamentary reporter. In 1884-85, as special correspondent, he travelled to the United States of America with Alfred Deakin. On this tour he became convinced of the adaptability of American irrigation techniques to Victorian conditions, and it was partly as a result of his urging that the Chaffey brothers came to the colony. In 1887 he accompanied Deakin to the first Colonial Conference in London.

In 1885 Cunningham was appointed chief of the reporting staff of the Argus. He made a name for himself as a good organizer and judge of men, with an ability to co-ordinate to the best advantage the output of the brilliant reporters working for him. As a man of energetic habits, who 'put a prodigious amount of go' into his work, he found the strain of a 4 a.m. publishing time too much for his health and in 1896 he resigned to take an extended holiday in the south of France. In London next year he was engaged by cable to represent the Argus at the Queen's Jubilee celebrations and to report the proceedings of the colonial conference. Editor F. W. Haddon, whom Cunningham greatly admired, said of these dispatches from London: 'you could hardly have had a better, more evenly balanced, concise, yet effective description'.

Cunningham rejoined the Argus in Melbourne in December 1897. Early next year he was appointed to assist the new editor Howard Willoughby, serving in the same capacity under Watterston from 1903 until July 1906 when he himself became editor. In 1909 he was one of six delegates at the first Imperial Press Conference in London chosen to receive the honorary degree of doctor of laws from the University of Glasgow. From then on he was always referred to in the Argus as Dr Cunningham.

Cunningham was not a 'literary editor' in the style of his predecessors; under his administration news assumed far greater importance. While some had mourned the demise of the Argus as an organ of culture, Cunningham was hailed on his retirement as editor in December 1928 as 'one of the best known and most highly respected figures in Australian journalism' who had 'kept the Argus abreast of the times without sacrificing dignity or decency'. (Sir) F. W. Eggleston, however, criticized him for lack of enterprise. In 1929 Cunningham was appointed to the paper's board of trustees and as editorial adviser to the director. In 1936 he was knighted for his services to journalism. He retired in 1938 and became a trustee of the Edward Wilson estate.

Cunningham was a member of the Melbourne and Australian clubs, enjoyed gardening, especially growing camellias, and was a fine amateur carpenter. He had married Maud Mary Jackson with Anglican rites at Sandhurst on 29 September 1886; they had no children. He died on 28 April 1957 and was cremated, having been predeceased by his wife in 1931. His estate was valued for probate at £28,253.

Select Bibliography

  • C. McKay, This is the Life (Syd, 1961)
  • H. Gordon, An Eyewitness History of Australia (Adel, 1976)
  • Newspaper News (Sydney), 2 Jan 1929
  • Australasian (Melbourne), 19 Sept 1896, 12 Mar 1898
  • 21 July 1906
  • Punch (Melbourne), 11 June 1914
  • Argus (Melbourne), 31 Dec 1928, 26 Mar 1929, 16 Nov 1931
  • Age (Melbourne), 21 July 1953, 21 July 1956, 29 Apr 1957
  • F. W. Eggleston, Confidential Notes: Journalists and Press Barons (Australian National University Library).

Citation details

John Salmond, 'Cunningham, Sir Edward Sheldon (1859–1957)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 24 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

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