Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Ebenezer Syme (1825–1860)

by C. E. Sayers

This article was published:

Ebenezer Syme (1825-1860), journalist, was born on 15 September 1825 at North Berwick, Scotland, third son of George Alexander Syme, schoolmaster, and his wife Jean, née Mitchell. Educated by his father at the parish school, he studied theology at the University of St Andrews. He was the most religious of the Syme brothers and the most troubled in conscience. As a missionary student he preached in village kirks of a Sunday, tramping from St Andrews in all weathers. In 1845 he attended classes at James Morrison's liberal Kilmarnock Academy, but soon noted in his diary, 'I can see no medium between high Calvinism and the new theology'. He went to Liverpool intending to study the Chinese language and become a missionary to the heathen. Rejecting any absolute creed, he soon became a zealous street-corner preacher in Liverpool, Manchester and other north country industrial towns and in Scotland; it was an austere life of poverty. In 1850 he became a missionary for the north of England Unitarian Christian Association, and in May was installed as pastor of a Unitarian chapel in Sunderland. But in May 1851 he noted in his diary: 'Determined at last to leave the pulpit and engage in business'.

In July Syme became assistant to John Chapman, London bookseller and proprietor of the Westminster Review, for which he wrote regularly: he was acquainted with Marian Evans (George Eliot), Joseph Cowen, G. J. Holyoake and Horace Greeley, and gave frequent public lectures. In April 1853, partly for health reasons, Syme, his wife Jane Hilton, née Rowan, of Manchester, whom he had married about 1848, and three young sons sailed for Australia in the Abdalla. They reached Melbourne in July and he soon became a regular contributor to the Argus and helped to launch and edit the Diggers Advocate, a short-lived journal which supported the most radical demands of the diggers. Edward Wilson, owner of the Argus, disagreed with the manner of Syme's defence of the Eureka prisoners and lost a trenchant, if at times hysterical, editorial writer. He had drafted resolutions passed at the Melbourne public meeting of 6 December 1854 in defence of the Eureka men. Later that month he joined David Blair as editor of the Age in a co-operative attempt to keep it afloat. But the enterprise failed and in June 1856, although penniless, he bought the business with £2000 guaranteed by several mercantile and progressive friends. David Syme joined as partner on 27 September 1856.

Syme was a valiant fighter and an incisive journalist, but no businessman. A strong vein of radical idealism ran through his writings, but he was diffuse in argument and gave little thought to commercial results. His weapons were the bludgeon and the cutlass, never the rapier. He pitilessly attacked and scandalously libelled opponents. He supported every radical movement of the time: the eight-hour day, manhood suffrage and equal electorates, unlocking the land, abolition of state aid to religion and free and secular education. Under his uncompromising editorship the Age gained influence on the goldfields and in working-class areas of Melbourne, but it made little money and antagonized merchants, importers and squatters. In 1856-59 he represented the Loddon in the Legislative Assembly, but, although his ability was widely respected, he was a lone wolf in politics.

Syme's health worsened under the strain of almost single-handed management and editing; he was forced to retire late in 1859 and died on 13 March 1860, aged 34. His wife, four sons and a daughter survived him and went to England, but all the children returned to Victoria.

Select Bibliography

  • C. E. Sayers, David Syme: A Life (Melb, 1965)
  • D. Elder, Ebenezer Syme and the Westminster Review (Melb, priv print, 1967)
  • Ebenezer Syme papers (State Library of Victoria).

Citation details

C. E. Sayers, 'Syme, Ebenezer (1825–1860)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 25 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (Melbourne University Press), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


15 September, 1825
North Berwick, East Lothian, Scotland


13 March, 1860 (aged 34)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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