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George Alexander Syme (1822–1894)

by C. E. Sayers

This article was published:

George Alexander Syme is a minor entry in this article

David Syme (1827-1908), newspaper proprietor, was born on 2 October 1827 at North Berwick, Scotland, fourth and youngest son of George Alexander Syme (1791-1845), schoolmaster, and his wife Jean, née Mitchell. G. A. Syme was a classical scholar, radical in both church and state, who became parish schoolmaster at Montrose, his native town, and from 1822 parish schoolmaster and clerk of the kirk session of St Mary, North Berwick. Never a popular citizen, he was strong-willed, obstinate in his opinions, nervous, arrogant, shy, brusque, inarticulate and awkward with his fellows. He passed these characteristics to his sons, especially to David, who like his brothers and sister, was taught by their father in the schoolroom attached to their house, but only he failed to escape from its atmosphere of close study, severe discipline and curt control. Much of his shyness, his nervous inability to join his fellows in business or companionship, arose from complete obedience to his father although Syme was never physically unkind to his sons. Of this David wrote in later years: 'It was difficult to understand my father's attitude to us boys. He had naturally a kind disposition; he was a devoted husband and no-one ever asked him for help that he did not freely give … but his affection for us never found expression in words'.

His father's death left David at 17 'fairly stranded … I had received a sound English education and a fair knowledge of Latin, but I had no training whatever to fit me for a profession or business career, and no friends or relations to help me'. He first thought of religion as a profession, but not with the Church of Scotland, which had been renounced by his brothers George and Ebenezer. He studied for two years under James Morison at Kilmarnock, but lost enthusiasm for a 'doctrine of Salvation by faith in its most literal sense'. He toured Germany as a student, worked for some time as a proofreader's assistant on a Glasgow newspaper; then early in 1851, he went via Cape Horn to California seeking gold, but found little and no place for an introvert. By mid-1852 he was in Melbourne, and in the next three years prospected with some success on Ballarat, Bendigo, Castlemaine and Beechworth diggings. In 1855 he lost a possible fortune at Egerton near Ballarat when a promising claim was jumped.

Syme then turned to road contracting and was making a useful living when Ebenezer bought the insolvent Melbourne Age for £2000, and invited him to take up a share. In September 1856 Syme put up some cash and his contracting business to obtain a half-share. He helped to manage the paper but returned to contracting late in 1857. When Ebenezer retired in 1859 Syme reluctantly returned to the business, and on Ebenezer's death next year he began his fifty-year career as publisher and editor of the Age.

To the extent that he addressed the unprivileged, Syme continued his brother's policies but he was not so passionate an advocate. He had convictions, though his approach to them was opportunist: but when he adopted his beliefs as campaigns he clung to them with fewer nervous misgivings than had Ebenezer. Early in 1860 he reduced the price of the paper from 6d. to 3d., in a bid to raise the circulation of only about 2000. This essay in newspaper publicity marked him as an entrepreneur of courage and yielded immediate results. The Age had been diffuse in approach to public issues; Syme began to concentrate on three main practical policies: land for the people, protection for native industries, full rights of self-government. He fought for them ruggedly, determinedly, and as he mellowed came to believe that he was their inventor, not merely their powerful advocate. He did revivify them, especially protection, but primarily as a newspaper entrepreneur. At different periods and with varying intensity the Age suffered from their advocacy, but great persistence enriched the business and made Syme powerful and, in his heyday, feared. His land policy, selection of crown lands before survey, had been pressed by radicals even before Syme arrived in Victoria, but he saw it as a means of breaking the squatters' monopoly and creating a farming population.

Syme came slowly to accept protection as a fiscal policy. It had been debated on public platforms, and given newspaper space (notably by James Harrison in the Geelong Advertiser), at least nine years before Syme supported it early in 1860. By that time the agitation had spread to Melbourne; and if the Age was to sustain its tone as a radical paper it had to take some stand on the matter. Syme claimed in later years (and the claim was kept alive for him by others) that his was the first voice and the power that made protection the fiscal faith of Victoria. He did indeed foster the faith in the editorial and the news columns of the Age, and his thinking on the fiscal issue was far ahead of public opinion, but land settlement remained the first plank in his reform platform. Yet some immediate means had to be found for using idle capital, for attracting fresh funds, and for employing the workless artisan. His solution, and it was almost an expedient, was the creation of manufacturing industries. His editorial theme became during 1861: 'cheap land, abundant labour and fiscal protection must go hand in hand in this country before it attains to the prosperity of which it is so eminently capable'. Nevertheless, in 1863, when tariff reformers believed that practical protection was at hand, he was not prepared to make protection a major public issue and advised caution. James McCulloch, although a free trader, responded to the aroused public demand, made a protective tariff a major election issue and was returned late in 1864 with 58 supporters in a House of 75 members. Willy-nilly the Age acclaimed the result, although warning that 'a sudden change might be productive of mischief, and bring the principle of protection into disrepute'. Thereafter Syme was the apostle of protection, preaching it in and out of season. For thirty-five years before Federation, Victoria had a high protection wall that was at Syme's bidding if not wholly of his making. This was his greatest newspaper achievement.

Syme fought for protection without thought of his own well-being once he was convinced of its rightness as a public policy. The Age, which was his whole life, was threatened by a constant campaign fostered by free-trade interests. His strength as a publisher grew through the late 1860s; steadily increasing circulation evidenced greater popular influence, but also caused stronger attempts to stifle the newspaper, if possible to ruin it. In the early 1860s the government and his commercial adversaries had withdrawn advertising, which fell to 12 columns of a 56 columns newspaper, an uneconomic proportion. Syme replied by reducing the price of the Age to 2d. in 1863 and to 1d. in 1868. Circulation increased markedly to 15,000 at the end of that year but the size of the paper dropped from 56 to 36 columns because of the shrinkage of advertising and the need to reduce expenditure to offset the price reduction. But the greater circulation brought back profitable advertising and for the first time the paper began to prosper. The business was aided by the success of the weekly Leader from 1856 and by taking over the morning Herald in 1868, converting it to an evening paper and then disposing of it.

For the next forty years, though he wrote little himself, Syme used the Age's power for fearless and ruthless prosecution of his public policies. Never scrupling in his methods of attack against his opponents, he used the bludgeon as his chief editorial weapon. Politicians were fair game: his method was to put a man on a public pedestal, or assist him to it, and extol his strength, with a warning about consequences should he backslide: examples were Graham Berry and McCulloch, who was, however, never unreservedly accepted by Syme. It was not uncommon for the public pedestal to become a public chopping-block, with Syme sometimes a flaming accuser, sometimes a discreet defender. He never relented editorially on public men whom he regarded as enemies of his policies. John O'Shanassy was an example; deep personal enmity between them was aggravated by Syme's constant opposition to the Irish Roman Catholic approach to public questions, such as state aid to religion and church schools, and by his contempt for lay advocates.

The resounding electoral success of Berry's high protection liberals in 1877 brought great popularity to the Age. Syme felt that the time had come for a final showdown with the interests which he considered blocked the way to radical reforms and democratic needs; and which he specified as the importers and free traders who were gathering their strength to resist Berry's tariff, the squatters whose hold on arable land was checking agriculture, and the Legislative Council whose restrictive franchise and wealthy membership made it representative of both merchants and squatters. The council was cowed into passing a discriminatory land tax, but it laid aside a bill for permanent payment of members of the Legislative Assembly which had been sent up to it as a tack to the appropriation bill. After Berry had dismissed judges of the County courts, magistrates and other senior public servants, the council agreed to payment of members. But in a long conflict until 1881 over Upper House reform, the council defeated Berry and Syme for, although its constituency was widened, its powers remained intact. Throughout the 1880s the Age did not control governments, though it exercised powerful influence and helped to bring about the coalition of 1883.

Despite popular belief, Syme had been neither the founder nor the sole owner of the Age. When Ebenezer died in 1860 the business had to provide for his widow and five young children, and for David and his young wife. The loose arrangement, which had made Ebenezer and David equal partners, now became a binding partnership, with Ebenezer's widow, Jane, and David sharing the profits equally, and David in full control of the business. Jane returned to England during 1862, with an agreed weekly payment from the paper's revenues, to be offset against profits. The deed of partnership, originally for seven years, was renewed from time to time until 1877. Next year a change was made.

Syme at all times acknowledged Jane Syme his equal partner, and declined to have direct dealings with her children. A legal opinion upheld this when Jane gave a power of attorney to her eldest son, William Holden, a doctor at Stawell, Victoria. Her third son, Joseph Cowen, employed in the Age counting-house from late 1868, was a forceful character who felt that he and his brothers should have a share in the business, either directly or on behalf of their mother. Syme was pressed to give Joseph part of it. This was eventually arranged by Jane (who had remarried) accepting £8250 for her partnership share, her children renouncing any interest they may have had in the business under their father's intestacy, and Joseph being made a partner with a quarter-share. This partnership was announced on 22 March 1878 with a new imprint: 'Printed and published by David Syme & Co.'. Joseph's name was added on 21 October 1879: 'printed and published by David Syme and Joseph Cowen Syme under the style David Syme & Co.'. The partnership survived twelve stormy years. Uncle and nephew were long estranged, writing to each other on business matters but rarely meeting. After protracted negotiations, Syme agreed to buy Joseph out with £140,000. From 21 March 1891 the imprint read: 'Printed and published by the proprietor David Syme at the Age office Collins Street east, Melbourne'. In 1901 his income from the paper was about £50,000.

Syme's journalism encouraged several libel actions. Wood v. Syme (1865), Langton v. Syme (1877) and the most celebrated of them all, the great railways case of the 1890s, Speight v. Syme, were partly politically motivated. Richard Speight, chairman of the Victorian commissioners from 1883, inherited a lavish programme inspired by politicians. It was a period of boom in public spending. From late 1890 the Age strongly criticized his administration, accusing him of extravagance, incompetence, dereliction of duty, and contempt of parliament and the public. Speight and his two commission colleagues were suspended by the Shiels government in 1892, and soon issued writs against the Age alleging libel on eleven counts. Speight's action was heard first, over ninety-two sitting days, and ended with a verdict for him for £100 on one count, and disagreement on the other counts. A second action occupied eighty-eight sitting days and resulted in a verdict on one count for Speight, with nominal damages, and for Syme on the other counts. The case cost him an estimated £50,000 in costs, but the result brought him unprecedented popular acclaim.

Syme had few professional or social intimates. Public men were embraced within his dour favour so long as they accorded with his will, and were as easily cast out. They were to be used to espouse his policies, a not altogether selfish ambition for he believed that his views were for the public good. Intimacy on that basis was not easy to make or keep. He sought no public popularity and shunned social life. Men like A. L. Windsor and G. F. H. Schuler, his chief editors and leader-writers, and A. B. Robinson, his financial editor and personal financial adviser, were able and loyal lieutenants, but outside the office he had little contact with them. Charles Pearson, a treasured contributor and sought by Syme to criticize the drafts of his books, was another who was not socially encouraged. Perhaps it was not within Syme's ingrown shyness to make a move that could have led to warm relations.

An exception was Alfred Deakin. Theirs was a rare friendship, first encouraged by Syme and enjoyed by both for many years. The idealistic young Deakin and the hard-bitten middle-aged newspaper publisher were unlike each other in almost every way. Yet Syme had a genuine affection for Deakin, who became his protégé in journalism and politics and wrote, 'He was always most gracious and considerate to the very young man whose enthusiasms he criticized with a generous simplicity conveying no hint of the legitimate authority to which his age, ability and experience fully entitled him'. Deakin worked part time for the Age for almost five years from May 1878. In that period Syme moulded his journalistic and political thinking. Deakin's impressions of Syme (in notes made in 1881) revealed a broad sympathy with him: 'He had a fine intelligence, open, accurate and aspiring, limited in its scope but admirably thorough in all its work'. Their relations were almost breached several times, notably in the last stages of the campaign for federal union and in the early years of Federation, but their friendship survived. Deakin wrote after Syme's death: 'I saw him to the last and was one of the few whom he admitted to his intimacy in all public or political matters'.

The Age grew in circulation from 38,000 in 1880 to 100,000 about 1890 and to 120,000 in 1899; in proportion to population it had by far the largest circulation of any daily newspaper in the empire. Although he always distrusted Duncan Gillies, Syme was taken in by the boom of the late 1880s, was bewildered by the collapse of Victorian prosperity in the early 1890s, and had little policy to offer except rigid retrenchment and persecution of the railways commissioners as scapegoats. Yet the 1890s was probably the period of the Age's greatest political influence; it backed the successive ministries and Syme had an almost complete power of veto, at least, over appointments to them. Although he had consistently supported the growth of trade unions, he disapproved of the nascent political Labor organization and continued to the end to support Victoria's radical liberals. The ten Victorian delegates elected to the 1897 Federal Convention were the ten on the Age 'ticket'. In 1898 the overcoming of Syme's doubts about safeguarding Victorian and protectionist interests in the draft constitution enabled a massive favourable vote in the referendum. In 1898-99 a sustained campaign attacking the deficiencies in technical education led to the appointment of the Fink royal commission. After 1900 Syme's power to make ministries declined; although he had much to do with the dismissal of William Irvine in 1904 he could not prevent the succession of his old enemy, Thomas Bent.

Syme's undoubted power as a publicist encouraged the quicker development of things that became an accepted part of the fabric of Victoria than might otherwise have been the case. He encouraged small farming, especially dairying, irrigation and water conservation, the opening-up of mallee lands, crédit foncier loans for farmers. He supported the anti-sweating movement and reforms in factory and shops legislation, with wages boards an attendant instrument of better wages and working conditions. A state bank and a state note issue, and direct taxation were among other progressive causes which he did much to bring about.

Practical farming engaged much of Syme's tireless attention outside his newspaper office. On his Yarra Valley properties, on a narrow strip of flats, Syme was cultivator, grazier, dairy-farmer, stock-breeder and orchardist. He introduced to Victoria Kerry and Dexter dairy cattle from the Irish county Kerry, and experimented with pasture improvement and drainage. He poured thousands of pounds into these lands, but he was no idle rich man playing at being a farmer; everything he did had a serious purpose.

Syme won a minor international reputation as a political economist. His Outlines of an Industrial Science (London, 1876), a vindication of protection and state socialism, owed something to the work of Friedrich List and Carey and other American protectionists. Syme was a friend and ally of Cliffe Leslie in attacking the methodological foundations of 'English' political economy. The book was translated into German and published in an American edition, but attracted little attention in England. Syme published articles in the field of political economy in the Westminster Review, the Fortnightly Review and the Melbourne Review. His Representative Government in England … (London, 1881), was a general attack on the system of English parliamentary government as it had developed from Walpole's time, especially on government by party; the Age from time to time, finally in a sustained campaign in 1904, vainly argued the virtues of ministries directly elected by lower houses. On the Modification of Organisms (Melbourne, 1890) was a criticism of Darwinian theory from an evolutionist position; Syme contended that all modifications of organisms originated in the cell — 'the psychological as well as the physiological unit'. In his last book, The Soul: A Study and an Argument (London, 1903), Syme argued that matter and energy never perished; they were only transferred, and therefore the organizing power would not perish with the body that was its handiwork.

Syme was a slim six feet (183 cm) in height, with deep-set eyes, a thin straight mouth and iron-grey hair and beard, grim and gaunt in appearance, smiling rarely. For much of his later life, he suffered from a poor digestion. His family life made a secure retreat from the world and, though he may not have been very warm towards his children and grandchildren, he was a much better parent than his father had been.

Syme kept a close hold on his newspaper business until almost the end of his life. He was once asked why he did not get away from it again on a world tour, as he had in 1866, 1882 and 1887. He answered, 'I'm getting old and all my interests are here. It's my business interests which absorb my attention. I'm different from you; I'm a man with few friends'. He died at his home, Blythswood in Kew, on 14 February 1908. On 17 August 1858 at St James's Anglican Church, Melbourne, he had married Annabella Johnson who survived him with five sons and two daughters. His estate was valued for probate at £880,000; he had contributed generously to charity and founded a prize for scientific research at the University of Melbourne in 1904. His widow and sons carried on the business as a trust; Herbert (1859-1939) was chairman and general manager, Geoffrey (1873-1942) controlled the editorial department, and the last surviving son Oswald (1878-1967) became chairman until and after 1948 when the trust was converted to a public company which still has the trade name, David Syme & Co.

George Alexander (1822-1894), second son of the family, was born at Montrose and studied theology at the University of Aberdeen. Rejecting a call in the Established Church of Scotland, he was for a time incumbent of the Free Presbyterian Church at Dumfries. He broke from the Church over dogma, and fell under the influence of Morrison at Kilmarnock Academy, which he attended for some time. About 1847 he became minister of a flourishing Baptist church at Nottingham, England. He held this pulpit for fifteen years, was active in radical causes, then became a secularist after association with G. J. Holyoake. His health was bad and in 1863 he migrated to Australia, to employment on the Age. He had editorial charge of the paper in 1866 and later edited the Leader until 1885. He was afflicted with a great nervousness throughout his life; kindly, calm and considerate when unexcited, he was incoherent under stress. He died at Melbourne on 31 December 1894. Aged 31, at Lancaster, England, he had married Susannah Goodier; a daughter died but his son, Sir George Adlington Syme (1859-1929), became a world-famed surgeon.

Select Bibliography

  • E. E. Morris, A Memoir of George Higinbotham (Lond, 1895)
  • A. Pratt, David Syme, the Father of Protection in Australia (Lond, 1908)
  • W. Murdoch, Alfred Deakin (Lond, 1923)
  • B. Hoare, Looking Back Gaily (Melb, 1927)
  • G. Cockerill, Scribblers and Statesmen (Melb, 1944)
  • J. A. La Nauze, Political Economy in Australia (Melb, 1949), and Alfred Deakin (Melb, 1965)
  • A. Deakin, The Crisis in Victorian Politics, 1879-1881, J. A. La Nauze and R. M. Crawford eds (Melb, 1957)
  • A. Deakin, The Federal Story, J. A. La Nauze ed (Melb, 1963)
  • C. E. Sayers, David Syme: A Life (Melb, 1965)
  • W. S. Robinson, If I Remember Rightly, G. Blainey ed (Melb, 1967)
  • Age (Melbourne), 1854-1908, C. E. Sayers (ed), Age centenary supplement, 16 Oct 1954
  • David Syme papers (State Library of Victoria).

Citation details

C. E. Sayers, 'Syme, George Alexander (1822–1894)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 24 June 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

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