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William Henry Traill (1843–1902)

by B. G. Andrews

This article was published:

William Henry Traill (1843-1902), public servant, journalist and politician, was born on 7 May 1843 in London, son of John Heddle Traill (1819-1847), customs clerk and Orkney islander, and his wife Eliza Dunbar, née Heddle. Educated for the Indian army in Edinburgh, he had by 1861 arrived in Queensland, where he was employed as a station-hand at Dalby. Two years later he visited the Westove estate in the Orkneys that he had inherited from his grandfather Thomas Traill (1793-1859), but it was so heavily encumbered that he returned to Queensland to manage Maroon station near Beaudesert. He moved to Ipswich and on 23 April 1866 at Brisbane he married Jessie, daughter of James Lewis. In 1866-67 he was a draftsman in the Victorian Department of Mines and in 1869-73 a clerk in the Queensland Department of Public Lands, where he worked under Gresley Lukin.

Traill's real interest lay in journalism. While a public servant he contributed a column, 'Passing Thoughts', to the Queensland Express, which led to an appointment, again under Lukin, on the Brisbane Courier and the Queenslander, investigating 'dummying' on the Darling Downs. His interest in land administration was enduring: in 1877 his explanatory digest of the 1876 Lands Alienation Act was published by the Queensland government, and in New South Wales he was a member of the board of inquiry which in 1887 recommended reorganization of the Lands Department. Briefly proprietor of the Darling Downs Gazette, he returned to the Courier and Queenslander until 1878, when he moved to Sydney to become editor of the Sydney Mail and began contributing to the Sydney Morning Herald and the Echo.

In 1880 Traill, now Reuters agent in Sydney, became a leader-writer on the radical Bulletin. On 8 January 1881 its founders J. F. Archibald and John Haynes published 'The Larrikin Residuum', Traill's sober attack on the behaviour of 'satyrs and bacchantes in soiled tweed suits and squalid finery' at Clontarf on Boxing Day. The proprietors of the picnic grounds wrote protesting their innocence, Haynes composed a cheeky rejoinder ('The Bulletin's Home Thrusts', 15 January) and thus ensued the Clontarf libel action and the imprisonment of Archibald and Haynes for failing to pay legal costs. Well before their incarceration in March 1882, Archibald and Haynes had handed over control to Traill and become salaried sub-editors. Appointed editor in June 1881, Traill by August was also proprietor and publisher; although he allowed Archibald and Haynes to purchase a quarter-share in the business when the Bulletin Newspaper Co. was constituted in 1883, he remained firmly in charge until he sold out in April 1886.

The Traill regime was a period of consolidation for the Bulletin. In the first year the task was mainly one of survival: Traill continued to write the editorials, churned out most of the pars that were packed into the 'Plain English' and other columns he instituted, and helped repair and run the machinery he bought and had installed at new premises in Pitt Street. As circulation slowly improved he guided the Bulletin in new directions, developing its nationalist and protectionist themes and giving it a slogan, 'Australia for the Australians', and a distinctive red cover. On trips to the United States of America and England he secured the services of its most famous black and white artists, Livingston Hopkins and Philip May. Inevitably there were set-backs: sales fell for a time when the price was increased to 6d., Haynes left after disputes with Traill over economic policy, and Hopkins more than once threatened resignation when Traill tried to 'improve' the new processes of reproducing illustrations that he had brought back from America. But by the time he left to go into politics, his boundless energy had saved the Bulletin: he had changed it from a smart Sydney weekly into a magazine with broad national appeal and set it on its way to becoming the legendary 'Bushman's Bible'. Without minimizing the contribution of Archibald, Alfred George Stephens and James Edmond to the phenomenal success of the Bulletin in subsequent decades, it was Traill, Stephens claimed, who 'made the paper' by turning 'an insolvent concern into a thriving business'. Traill also introduced into the management William Macleod, another sober Scot whose heavy ballast helped sustain and restrain Archibald.

Traill's subsequent career was something of an anti-climax. After two failures to enter parliament he topped the poll in South Sydney in 1889. Although a committed protectionist he took an independent and idealistic line on most other questions and never achieved ministerial rank. Defeated in 1894, he failed in various farming and mining ventures and was declared bankrupt in April 1896: his creditors included Archibald and Macleod. On his discharge in August he returned to Queensland and worked on a variety of journalistic assignments; among other commissions he prepared A Queenly Colony: Pen Sketches and Camera Glimpses (Brisbane, 1901). He died of heart disease in Brisbane on 21 May 1902 and was buried in the South Brisbane cemetery. On 11 March 1871 at Brisbane he had married Agnes Lewis, half-sister of his first wife; she survived him, together with their four sons and two daughters, and the daughter of his first marriage.

As a leader-writer Traill was able but ponderous; his prose exhibited the fundamental seriousness of his character and suited his imposing manner. He gave an impression of largeness: ruggedly built, with enormous eyebrows and a black beard, he habitually wore a tam-o-shanter perched precariously on his head as he hurled 'Jovian thunderbolts' through teeth clenched around a coarse cigar. Although he struck terror into the hearts of flippant poets scrounging a handout from the Bulletin, he was warm and generous towards those whom he trusted. His Bulletin friends remembered him with affection and his parliamentary colleagues respected him as a man of principle — a 'model of propriety', as Sir Henry Parkes put it, 'in language and the graces of oratory'.

Select Bibliography

  • W. Traill, A Genealogical Account of the Traills of Orkney (Kirkwall, 1883)
  • D. J. Hopkins, Hop of the ‘Bulletin’ (Syd, 1929)
  • A. C. Macleod, Macleod of ‘The Bulletin’ (Syd, 1931)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Victoria), 1868, 2, 51
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Queensland), 1871, 513, 1874, 2, 250
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1887, 2, 57
  • A. G. Thomson, ‘The early history of the Bulletin’, Historical Studies, no 22, May 1954
  • Bulletin, 1880-86, 31 May 1902, 29 Jan 1930
  • Sydney Mail, 10 Jan 1880, 31 May 1902
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 14 June 1894
  • Newsletter (Sydney), 15 Apr–16 Dec 1905
  • ‘The genesis of the Bulletin’, Lone Hand, May-Dec 1907
  • manuscript catalogue under Traill (State Library of New South Wales)
  • bankruptcy papers, 10,787/7 (State Records New South Wales).

Citation details

B. G. Andrews, 'Traill, William Henry (1843–1902)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 15 July 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]


7 May, 1843
London, Middlesex, England


21 May, 1902 (aged 59)
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

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