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Edwin Colin Simpson (1908–1983)

by Richard White

This article was published:

Edwin Simpson, by William Pidgeon, c1940

Edwin Simpson, by William Pidgeon, c1940

National Library of Australia, 5487739

Edwin Colin Simpson (1908-1983), author and journalist, was born on 4 November 1908 at Petersham, Sydney, only child of, he thought, Melbourne-born Henry Frank Simpson, mechanic, and his New South Wales-born wife Margaret Olive, née Langby. During an argument when he was 18, Colin’s mother told him that his real father was a neighbour, Captain Hazlingden, a merchant seaman whom he had always called ‘Uncle’. His mother, a nurse, ran a private maternity hospital. When her marriage experienced difficulties, she took her son to live at Hill End, where her sister and brother-in-law ran the Royal Hotel. Colin felt different from his bare-footed schoolmates, who called him ‘Doc’ and built him a shed where he could write.

Completing his schooling with a commercial course at Kogarah Boys’ Intermediate High School, Simpson later commented defensively that ‘It wasn’t what I wanted but it was all we could afford’. As a bright student and keen writer (despite the fact that his reading was largely limited to boys’ comics) he found work in advertising. Catts-Patterson Co. Ltd allowed him to attend some lectures at the University of Sydney. He moved into journalism on the eve of the Depression, working with Sydney’s Daily Guardian, Daily Telegraph and Sunday papers. In 1931 Kenneth Slessor invited him to be the third contributor to a slim but elegant volume of poetry, Trio. On 23 January 1937 at St Philip’s Church of England, Sydney, he married Estelle Maud (Claire) Waterman, a graphic artist who assisted him to refine his broad Australian accent and illustrated his books. He helped to establish the magazine Pix in 1938 and ‘Fact’, a supplement in the Sunday Sun, in 1941. His big scoop was exposing the Ern Malley hoax in 1944: Tess van Sommers, an editorial assistant hoping for a cadetship, got the story through her friendship with Harold Stewart, one of the hoaxers. Simpson, as the senior journalist on ‘Fact’, took it over.

After four months in the United States of America studying magazine publishing and reporting the birth of the United Nations in 1945, Simpson worked for three years for the Australian Broadcasting Commission, writing radio documentaries, mostly for a travel series called ‘Australian Walkabout’. In one early assignment he retraced the Sandakan death march in British North Borneo and recorded the memories of the six survivors; the script was published as Six from Borneo (1948). He was attached to the 1948 American-Australian scientific expedition to Arnhem Land led by Charles Mountford, producing radio features and making important recordings of the didgeridoo.

Simpson then began a book based on his experiences with the ‘Australian Walkabout’ series, but his interest in Aboriginal anthropology took over. The result was Adam in Ochre (1951), which sold 56,000 copies in the next twenty years, attracted international attention and popularised the realisation that Indigenous Australians were not dying out. He followed it with Adam with Arrows (1953) and Adam in Plumes (1954), both on New Guinea. His only novel, Come Away, Pearler, was released in 1952.

In 1956 Simpson published his most successful book, The Country Upstairs, on Japan. Despite successful British and American editions, he found it difficult to make ends meet from writing alone. He temporarily moved back to advertising, with Hansen-Rubensohn Pty Ltd: it ‘paid pretty well’. His clients included Victa Mowers Pty Ltd (‘turn grass into lawn’) and Malgic Adrenaline Cream.

With more secure backing from Angus & Robertson Ltd, Simpson returned to writing with Wake Up in Europe (1959) and a series of travel books. He often picked the next must-see destination. Seeking international sales, he rejected the strident Australianness of his main travel writer competitor, Frank Clune, and instead presented a self-consciously sophisticated persona, indicated by an interest in the arts and being frank about sex. He nevertheless defended the ordinary tourist against anti-tourist ‘snobs’. Much of his travelling was on package tours, with ‘facilitation’ from Ansett Airways Pty Ltd, Thomas Cook & Son (Australasia) Pty Ltd and other companies. Fiendishly disciplined, he brought a sense of business efficiency to his writing: his books needed to sell and he maintained control over their design and marketing.

In 1963 Simpson became a founding member of the Australian Society of Authors and, after visiting Scandinavia, led the ASA campaign for Public Lending Right, publicising the issue by withholding The New Australia from libraries in 1971. Three years later PLR was achieved; his role was recognised with his appointment as OBE in 1981. Another cause he promoted was the humane treatment of animals, especially brumbies.

Tall, thin and tanned, with a moustache and with a taste for silver Swedish jewellery, Simpson became a suave presence on television, hosting programs on books and authors, though his c.1940 portrait by W. E. Pidgeon (National Library of Australia) shows a more raffish figure. Predeceased by his wife (d.1976) and survived by their two daughters, he died on 8 February 1983 at Kirribilli and was cremated. The ASA named an annual lecture in his honour.

Select Bibliography

  • MD: Medical Newsmag, vol 12, no 1, 1968, p 204
  • H. de Berg, interview with C. Simpson (typescript, 1974, National Library of Australia)
  • Simpson papers (National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Richard White, 'Simpson, Edwin Colin (1908–1983)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 23 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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