Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Howard Willoughby (1839–1908)

by Suzanne G. Mellor

This article was published:

Howard Willoughby (1839-1908), journalist, was born on 19 June 1839 at Birmingham, England, son of Benjamin Willoughby, accountant, and his wife Jane Georgiana, née Maddox. Educated at Birmingham and London, he arrived in Melbourne in 1857. He joined the Age in 1861 as a junior reporter, transferring next year to the Argus, where he first became known as an imaginative journalist by his dispatches from the Maori wars. His second major work was to study the convict system in Western Australia: his conclusions argued forcefully against the system and appeared in the Argus and as a pamphlet, Transportation. The British Convict in Western Australia (London, 1865).

In 1866 Willoughby left the Argus to be one of the three original Hansard staff, where he learned much of politics and continued to write for the press. In 1869-77, as first editor of the Melbourne Daily Telegraph, his style became distinctively crisp and pithy. However, he returned to the Argus where his career and abilities broadened. As chief of the news department and leader-writer, he developed his own and the paper's political power. A conservative free trader, Willoughby opposed the Berry ministry, constantly berating its actions. His weekly column, 'Above the Speaker' by 'Timotheus', which Alfred Deakin considered 'masterpieces of consistent and deliberate misrepresentation', enlivened politics and created interest by its aptness of phrase and anecdotes. He was a consistent enthusiast for Federation, and was sometimes consulted by the drafters of the constitution bills. In 1891 in Melbourne he published Australian Federation, its Aims and its Possibilities. Politicians and the public were cajoled and advised by him, especially in the Federal Convention and referenda periods.

Succeeding F. W. Haddon as editor of the Argus on 1 March 1898, Willoughby gave invaluable service with his 'long experience, ripe judgment, clear-sightedness, and fine sense of form'. Walter Murdoch described him as perhaps the best editor the Argus ever had, but found him 'stately, august, remote'. His handwriting used to drive compositors frantic but he treasured their most amusing mistakes. In 1903 he had to resign because of a paralytic stroke and was able to write only occasionally until his death at St Kilda on 19 March 1908. At St Mary's Church of England, Hotham, on 5 March 1870 he had married Emily Frances Elizabeth Jones; she survived him with one of their two sons and two of their three daughters. He was buried in the Melbourne general cemetery.

Willoughby's appetite for work was insatiable. As well as a pamphlet on spiritualism, he published The Critic in Church anonymously in 1872 and, in 1886, Australian Pictures Drawn with Pen and Pencil, in which he described the development and distinctiveness of Australian life in the style which had long before earned him the nickname 'Cock Robin'. A characteristic, stressed in the Argus obituary and echoed elsewhere, was that he rarely lost the respect of his opponents and even from them he was able to extract news copy. The Age reported his death 'with unfeigned regret'.

Select Bibliography

  • Walter Murdoch and Alfred Deakin on ‘Books and Men’, J. A. La Nauze and E. Nurser eds (Melb, 1974)
  • Age (Melbourne), 20 Mar 1908
  • Argus (Melbourne), 20 Mar 1908
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 20 Mar 1908.

Citation details

Suzanne G. Mellor, 'Willoughby, Howard (1839–1908)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 26 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]

Alternative Names
  • Timotheus

19 June, 1839
Birmingham, Warwickshire, England


19 March, 1908 (aged 68)
St Kilda, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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