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Rupert Albert Geary Henderson (1896–1986)

by V. J. Carroll

This article was published:

Rupert Albert Geary Henderson (1896-1986), newspaperman, was born on 26 February 1896 at Camperdown, Sydney, eldest of five sons of Sydney-born Robert Francis Geary Henderson, a gentleman of independent means, and his second wife Isabel Jane McLymont, née Caldwell, from Victoria. Rupert was educated at Glebe Superior Public School. After leaving school and an unhappy home at age 13, he went to sea in coastal ships briefly, and then worked as a solicitor’s clerk in Sydney. He was a top sprinter with the South Sydney Harriers’ Amateur Athletic Club. On 5 December 1914 he married Helene Mason at St James’s Church of England, Sydney. Encouraged into journalism by the club’s secretary, he was appointed a cadet reporter on the Sydney Morning Herald in June 1915.

Over the next seven years Henderson became chief shipping reporter, Newcastle representative and chief political reporter in Sydney. In 1923 he was appointed to take charge of the Herald’s business and journalism in London. Before he left, he was introduced to (Sir) Warwick Fairfax. Henderson returned to Sydney in 1926, straining at the leash in various editorial and administrative jobs until he became secretary to the general manager, Athol Stuart.

When Stuart left in 1938 Henderson became general manager. At 42, he was dynamic, urgent and immediately in charge, setting up a major re-equipment program for the printing plant in Hunter Street. Divorced in 1937, he married Hazel Harris on 27 September 1939 in New York. Back in Sydney Henderson threw himself into the newspaper industry’s affairs, succeeding Sir Keith Murdoch as chairman (1940-49) of Australian Associated Press Pty Ltd. With Murdoch, he organised a partnership between AAP, Reuters and the New Zealand Press Association, becoming a director (1947-50), Australian trustee (1952-61) and chairman of trustees (1961-78) of Reuters Ltd. As president (1942-46) of the Australian Newspaper Proprietors’ Association, he handled the clashes with the Commonwealth government over newsprint rationing and censorship which culminated in a famous confrontation in 1944 with the minister for information, Arthur Calwell, and resulted in a victory for the ANPA. Calwell never forgave the proprietors and, in another clash in 1946, he referred, in parliament, to Henderson as `that Quilp-like creature’, a reference to the repulsive dwarf and money-lender in The Old Curiosity Shop.

`Rags’, as Henderson was known behind his back, became managing director in 1949, shortly after the Sunday Herald was launched. In mid-1951 he reacted to the threatened publication of a new financial newspaper by bringing out a weekly, the Australian Financial Review. This was the start of the basic strategy he called `protecting the crown jewels’— that is, the advertising revenues generated by the Sydney Morning Herald. The strategy entailed keeping other large publishers out of New South Wales, limiting the growth of the Fairfax company’s great Sydney rival, (Sir) Frank Packer’s Consolidated Press Holdings Ltd, and acquiring ownership of radio and television.

Henderson bested Packer and the bigger Herald & Weekly Times Ltd group of Melbourne in takeover contests for Associated Newspapers Ltd (the Sydney Sun, the Sunday Sun and the Sungravure magazine group) in 1953, and Truth & Sportsman Ltd (the Daily Mirror and Truth) in 1958. O’Connell Pty Ltd, a company financed and ultimately controlled by Fairfax, bought Truth & Sportsman Ltd from Henderson’s occasional lunch companion Ezra Norton. Two years later, against Warwick Fairfax’s wishes, Henderson sold the company, renamed Mirror Newspapers Ltd, to Rupert Murdoch. In December 1955 the John Fairfax-Associated Newspapers newspaper operations had moved from the city to a vast new building at Broadway.

The rapid expansion of the firm strained the private company’s finances and John Fairfax Ltd was floated as a public company in 1956, raising £2 million with a public share issue. The family retained a controlling interest of slightly over 50 per cent. Henderson’s goal was to protect not only the `crown jewels’ but also the family’s interest. He encouraged family members with small holdings to sell their shares to larger holders, particularly to W. O. Fairfax and his son James. In this way the family interest was not dispersed and control weakened, as was the case with the Syme family’s holding in the company publishing the Age in Melbourne—a circumstance that ultimately led to John Fairfax Ltd’s buying control of the Age.

Henderson took the company into television (ATN-7, Sydney, which started transmission in 1956, and QTQ, Brisbane, three years later). He again beat Packer by acquiring a controlling interest in Newcastle Newspapers Pty Ltd (1961) and by converting the Australian Financial Review to a daily (1963) after Packer had briefly challenged with a business paper of his own, the Australian Financial Times (1961-62). In 1964 Henderson and Arthur Shakespeare, chairman and managing editor of Federal Capital Press of Australia Pty Ltd, implemented a long-standing agreement when Fairfax bought the Canberra Times. Later that year he outbid Packer to buy the Australian assets of the Associated Television Corporation Ltd, London, in a frenzied day of negotiations with (Lord) Lew Grade and his lawyers. This purchase gave John Fairfax Ltd broadcasting assets which became Macquarie Broadcasting Holdings Ltd, the Australian franchise for Muzak and greatly enlarged television investments. As a takeover deal it was the greatest `bonzana’ (a favourite Henderson malapropism) of them all.

In 1961 Henderson and Calwell had met again. W. O. Fairfax concluded that the Menzies government had lost its way, and the Herald backed the Australian Labor Party, led by Calwell, in the 1961 Federal election. Henderson told Calwell that he did not agree with this policy but, with typical energy, threw the company’s resources behind Calwell’s campaign. Menzies won by two seats. When Menzies called an early election in 1963 W. O. Fairfax decided that the government was back on the right track and the Herald swung behind Menzies. Henderson was not consulted. This time Menzies won handsomely. Fairfax ran the politics; Henderson ran the business, the success of which added to Fairfax’s political weight.

After his retirement as managing director of John Fairfax Ltd in 1964, Henderson remained a director until 1978. He continued as chairman of Amalgamated Television Services Pty Ltd until 1974, and of Australian Newsprint Mills Holdings Ltd and Macquarie Broadcasting Holdings Ltd until 1978. Still interested in every aspect of the company’s affairs, he threw up ideas for television programs, and for turning the Newcastle Morning Herald and Miner’s Advocate into an Australian Manchester Guardian and the Canberra Times into an Australian Washington Post. He was an outstanding example of the last generation of big business leaders who grew up in the companies they ultimately led, who knew and lived their operations, and who could act quickly and decisively, without a retinue of investment advisers but with the close counsel of the company’s solicitors. At a time when newspaper industry leaders traditionally received knight-hoods, he gained no official honours.

Although small and bony, Henderson was a formidable, potentially volcanic, presence. He used language and gestures with explosive force. Even his silences were intense. Events tended to be either `bonzanas’ or `disasters’. To the few people close to him he was brilliant, attractive and difficult. In the company he was on Christian name terms only with the other directors. Working long hours in his panelled fourteenth-floor Broadway office, he rarely took holidays although he spent most weekends at his property near Exeter on the Southern Highlands of New South Wales. He often travelled on business to New York and London, where he was an avid theatre-goer.

When Packer rang Henderson’s office he would ask for `Ebenezer’, a reference to another Dickens character, Scrooge. Henderson was as careful with his own money as he was with that of the company. Although he had been left five houses when his father died, he liked to reflect on his humble beginnings. In 1945 he had formed a business partnership with Hanne Anderson, who was soon to become W. O. Fairfax’s second wife. The partnership acquired control of the Wagga Wagga Daily Advertiser and, later, the Illawarra Mercury. In 1959 Henderson bought Hanne Fairfax’s share at the time of her divorce. These Henderson family interests were expanded by the purchase of newspapers in the Riverina and at Goulburn and a substantial share-holding in Riverina & North East Victoria TV Ltd, which owned broadcasting licences in Albury and Wagga Wagga. In 1969 John Fairfax Ltd bought the Illawarra Mercury for $2.4 million, thus completing the geographical defensive perimeter—Wollongong, Canberra and Newcastle—around Sydney. The Riverina television interests were sold to Prime Television (Victoria) Pty Ltd for $14.4 million. Henderson’s family companies still owned the Wagga Wagga Daily Advertiser, some smaller country newspapers and substantial investments, including property, when he died on 9 September 1986 at Potts Point, Sydney. Predeceased by the son of his first marriage, he was survived by his wife and their daughter and was buried in Northern Suburbs cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Souter, Company of Heralds (1981)
  • J. Fairfax, My Regards to Broadway (1991)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 12 Sept 1986, p 2
  • R. A. Henderson and W. O. Fairfax files (John Fairfax Holdings Ltd archives, Sydney).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

V. J. Carroll, 'Henderson, Rupert Albert Geary (1896–1986)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 24 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

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