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Edward Wilson (1813–1878)

by Geoffrey Serle

This article was published:

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Edward Wilson (1813-1878), by unknown engraver, 1878

Edward Wilson (1813-1878), by unknown engraver, 1878

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, A/S16/02/78/180

Edward Wilson (1813-1878), journalist and philanthropist, was born on 3 November 1813 at Covent Garden, London, third son of John Wilson and his wife Mary. His father, son of a small Nottinghamshire farmer, was apprenticed to a linen-draper and became a partner in a firm of linen merchants. The business prospered and was transferred to Bond Street and the family moved from Hampstead to a Surrey estate. Educated at a Hampstead school Edward left at 16 to enter the business. At 21, after his father's death, he moved to Manchester which he believed to be 'a better field for exertion and enterprise', worked in a large firm, dabbled in journalism, studied French, read widely and, to the regret of his family, became keenly involved in radical politics. Early in 1840 he helped to launch a calico-printing firm near Manchester; it failed after a year and Wilson found that his two partners had not told him that they had borrowed their capital. He lost his inheritance and savings.

In a miserable frame of mind, Wilson decided to migrate to try sheep-farming, and sailed for Sydney in August 1841. He soon moved to Melbourne and took up a small farm on the Merri Creek near Brunswick. In 1842 he leased the Eumemmering cattle-run at Doveton near Dandenong with J. S. Johnston, but they did not prosper and sold out in 1846. For the next eighteen months Wilson dabbled in various activities; letters to the Argus over the signature of 'Iota' attracted attention. In 1848 he visited South Australia on horseback and was delighted by Wakefieldianism and the success of small-scale agriculture. 'It is England', he wrote, 'with a finer climate, with a virgin soil, with freedom from antiquated abuses, with more liberal institutions, with a happier people; and this is what I always thought and hoped Australia would become'. Later that year Johnston persuaded him to buy the Argus from William Kerr for £300; Wilson had to borrow money and Johnston became joint-proprietor in 1849. The issue of 15 September 1848 was Wilson's first; from 18 June 1849 the paper became a daily. Circulation declined to about 250, but by the close of 1850 equalled the combined circulation of rivals and by late 1851 had risen to 1500. Wilson successfully met the challenge of the gold rushes. The Argus absorbed the Melbourne Daily News from 1 January 1852 and only the Herald and the Geelong Advertiser survived as competitors for the goldfield market. He brought out forty compositors from England and in mid-1852 doubled the paper's size and reduced its price. Circulation rose from 5000 in May 1852 to almost 20,000 late in 1853, advertisements snowballed and the number of employees grew to about 140. But costs were outrageous and Wilson was almost ruined. He was saved by Lauchlan Mackinnon, who late in 1852 bought into the partnership. Mackinnon took over the management, raised the price and increased advertising rates, thus ensuring the journal's prosperity. Wilson and Mackinnon were regarded by their printing employees as hard but fair employers, even when in 1857 they effectively reduced wages by introducing another contingent of migrant compositors.

For over five years Wilson provided the most influential opposition to the government of Charles La Trobe and the Colonial Office. G. W. Rusden remarked that 'he lent his great energy to the disastrous task of lowering respect for lawful authority'. Wilson won strength and support from his prominence in the 1849 campaign to prevent the landing of convicts. The upright La Trobe was christened 'The Hat and Feathers', pilloried often for his 'sneaking treacherous course', libelled as a tool of the squatters and accused of nepotism and corruption. No allowances were made for the emergencies of 1851 and 1852, and the diggers were inflamed by exaggerated reports of the venality and inefficiency of the goldfields administration. The climax in April-May 1853 was the standing advertisement in the paper: 'Wanted a Governor. Apply to the People of Victoria'. In a dispatch of 3 May La Trobe condemned the 'studied and systematic incitement to disorder' by the Argus. His friends had rallied to his support and in April 1849 Wilson had been committed for libel against (Sir) William à Beckett, but the charge was withdrawn probably because à Beckett was the only judge available; in March 1851 Henry Moor won a farthing from Wilson for libel; (Sir) William Stawell, T. T. à Beckett and others took over the Herald in order to fight the Argus but could not compete financially.

With the influential slogan, 'Unlock the Lands', Wilson's other main offensive was on the pastoralists' 'ruinous monopoly'; he continued to classify members of the Legislative Council as squatters or liberals long after the squatters had lost their dominance. His attacks on the council and the Melbourne Town Council were unrelenting; William Westgarth, an ally, frequently wished he could be saved from his friend. The propagandist tone of the Argus was extreme; yet it was not untypical of the English press of the day, even of The Times which was Wilson's ultimate model. He believed in the virtue of controversy for its own sake; he desired above all to stir the colonists from their apathy and to promote political consciousness; he carried his dogmatic belief in the independence of the press to the extreme of shunning personal contact with politicians and government officers. He was incorruptible, and fearless in making enemies; his desire for commercial success was far less important than pursuit of truth and justice as he saw them. Though frequently mistaken and unfair, he exposed many governmental inefficiencies and scandals. His columns were open to any radical group or charitable movement.

Wilson's appearance matched his public role: a tall, swarthy, sombre man, a commanding figure with dark penetrating eyes behind spectacles, looking like a well-to-do tradesman rather than a gentleman. Yet even the most unlikely contemporaries such as Rusden contrasted his fierce and intolerant public role with his personal charm, geniality and generosity. He drove himself unremittingly as editor, writing much and keeping very long hours. 'Get a rough trotting horse and do your ten or twelve miles [16 or 19 km] a day', he advised a successor. ' “Cold bathing” and horse-exercise were my solutions in time of greatest pressure'.

Late in 1853 Wilson began to have doubts about his policy; the Argus was toned down and veered and wavered as the democratic movement it had helped to create gathered strength. There is much to be said for David Blair's attack in 1854 ('Caustic', The Anatomy of the Argus, Melbourne): 'The diggers showed signs of revolt; the government yielded … You have systematically shelved the diggers' interests ever since'. Governor Sir Charles Hotham was treated lightly by the Argus, and Wilson grew to regret many of his early excesses. By early 1855, he was looking for a successor as editor; he retired in September but did not find a replacement till August 1856 when George Higinbotham was appointed. Meanwhile he had set up as a model gentleman-farmer near Keilor and enjoyed the relaxation. He had shown 'signs of being overfagged, and thought it better to stop in time', he told (Sir) Henry Parkes and warned him against overworking and burning out. Parkes thought Wilson 'a Radical of the Radicals' when they met in Sydney; Wilson was captivated by Parkes and looked forward to working together, 'hunting sycophancy, and corruption, … and unpatriotic selfishness to their kennels … There is so much of similarity in our positions; so much resemblance in the kind of work we have to do, and I believe, in the sincerity of spirit and purity of purpose with which we have entered upon its performance …'

Wilson welcomed the arrival of (Sir) Charles Gavan Duffy in 1856 and promised him a list of fifty desirable reforms of which he produced twenty-six: the first was 'Justice to the Aborigines'. Later, in 1874, he shocked members of the Royal Colonial Institute by his vigorous condemnation of British treatment of aboriginal peoples. He spent time investigating the penal systems of Victoria and Tasmania and had presented radical evidence to the select committee on penal discipline in 1857: the whole system was erroneous, criminals should be treated 'to a great extent as lunatics', and capital punishment should be abolished. He also founded a ragged school for the gutter-children of Melbourne. But his chief interest early in his retirement was the introduction of European birds, fish and animals; in February 1861 he formed the Acclimatisation Society, as an offshoot of the Victorian Zoological Society, and was largely responsible for the foundation of parallel societies in the other colonies and of nine Victorian branches.

Despite his radical views, Wilson became alarmed at the speed of democratic advance. Victoria, he wrote to Parkes in April 1858, needed 'an adult population born upon the soil to keep in check the evil and restless designs of the hungry adventurers with us. I fear the game is up … It is a bitter pill for me and particularly as the Argus is an aider and abettor. Higinbotham is a most estimable man, but occasionally wild in his opinions'. In December 1856, May 1857 and April 1858 the Argus included a civilized series of exchanges between proprietor and editor on the subject of democracy, part of which was republished as Enquiry into the Principles of Representation, the most important contribution to the contemporary debate. Wilson still called himself a 'staunch democrat', supported direct taxation, and approved of manhood suffrage; but he believed that equal representation would give the working class perpetual power, and tyranny and class legislation would be inevitable. The problem of the day was 'conservatising democracy', property had to be protected, the best solution would be to represent equally the eight major economic interests of society. In Principles of Representation (London, 1866), which was written with the help of his old friend Catherine Spence and reprinted from the Fortnightly Review, Wilson proposed a House of Commons composed of 180 local members and 25 representatives of each of 19 interests (of whom unskilled labourers and women were two).

Wilson always allowed his editors a free hand on policy; the precise circumstances of Higinbotham's resignation as editor in 1859 are not known. H. E. Watts and Gurney Patmore were appointed as editors and the Argus began its ninety-year run of unmitigated Toryism. Wilson was no more content: he later referred to Watts so infuriating him 'with his Tory articles, that really one felt almost impelled to head a mob to go and break one's own office windows'.

In the late 1850s Wilson travelled widely among the Australasian colonies. His travel-jottings were published as Rambles at the Antipodes (Melbourne, 1859). His sight was now beginning to fail and in 1859-60 he visited England for advice, travelled on the Continent and served on the committee of the General Association for the Australian Colonies. In 1862 he again went to England; on the homeward voyage his sight deteriorated so badly that he returned immediately, and late in 1864 he had an operation for cataract; he regained good vision in one eye, but decided to remain in England close to the best medical aid. He lived at Addiscombe near Croydon, but in 1867 bought Hayes Place, Kent, the eighteenth-century home of the Pitts. Surrounded by nephews and nieces, he dispensed endless hospitality aided by a small army of servants; the amenities included a small zoo which contained emus, kangaroos and monkeys. Colonial visitors were always welcome; he was on close terms with the Darwins, Archbishop Tait, Edward Lear and Hugh Childers; children adored him.

Wilson continued to be very active in public affairs, and used the National Liberal Club as his London headquarters. In 1863 and 1864 he led the protest against the continuation of transportation of convicts to Western Australia, especially when a British royal commission reported in June 1863 in favour of it: 'In the first place Sir' (he asked the editor of The Times on 1 August), 'will you allow me to observe that we colonists claim to be the equals of you Englishmen — in no sense whatever your inferiors?'. Concurrent letters from him to the Argus helped to persuade the Victorian government to organize the eventually successful resistance.

In 1864 Wilson was active in the formation of a society to promote assisted migration, and in 1869 read a paper to the Society of Arts on 'A Scheme of Emigration on a National Scale'. In 1870 he gave another paper to the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science 'On Colonies as fields of experiment in Government', and recommended observation of the 'intensely interesting experiments' proceeding in 'so vast and varied a laboratory'. He was a founder of the (Royal) Colonial Institute in 1868, and a member of its council until 1875; when he then was appointed a vice-president, he was the only councillor who was neither titled nor a privy councillor. He often spoke in discussions, gave several papers and was a pioneer imperial federationist who looked forward to direct representation of the colonies in the House of Commons. He was a member of the institute's committee formed in August 1869, which proposed an imperial conference and a standing committee to advise the imperial government, and which was the proximate cause of the Higinbotham resolutions. Wilson's letter to The Times headed 'National Disintegration', on 10 November 1869 rallied support for the subsequent 'Cannon Street meetings'.

The Argus continued to prosper: all debts were cleared by the early 1860s and the annual net profits rose to about £22,000 in 1872. Wilson and Mackinnon had taken in Allan Spowers as a junior partner in 1857. All three proprietors remained in England and control of the Argus was given entirely to the local board except when the proprietors jointly issued instructions, which rarely occurred; Wilson's representative on the board was Gowan Evans whom he paid £1000 a year. After a disturbed period of editorship, Wilson's protégé F. W. Haddon, who had been his private secretary, was appointed in 1867 after a period as editor of the Australasian. Wilson remained interested in developments in journalism, read all the London papers every day and looked forward eagerly to the penny illustrated daily. He held to his view that a newspaper should be as cheap as possible and that all profits should come from advertisements. He looked back with pride to the period when John Bright displayed the Argus as an example of what a newspaper could be in the absence of stamp and paper duties.

But Wilson was entirely frustrated in his plans for the Argus—'the great work of my life'—for he had lost control. Although he held a majority interest, Mackinnon and Spowers took a purely business-like view and under the terms of the partnership agreement regularly combined against him to resist any change, especially the price reduction from 3d. to 2d. for which he constantly agitated. The circulation of a few thousand barely increased with the years, while the Age sold four or five times more; Wilson fumed at the growing influence of his 'arch-enemy … that wretched beast and impostor', David Syme. Wilson deeply feared that Syme might wreck the Argus and issued frequent warnings and exhortations. His partners saw no reason to disturb such a profitable enterprise and Mackinnon, though fond of Wilson, came increasingly to refer to his timidity, morbid depression, inclination to panic and the total lack of business capacity of the 'poor man'. Each side offered to buy the other out.

There were added depths of irony which increased Wilson's distress. His determination that his editors must have a free hand came under increasing strain as Haddon, in his view, followed a militant and offensively expressed ultra-conservative policy. Wilson welcomed his profits, for he had plans for their ultimate use, but held firm to his radical views. In 1877 he wrote to his old friend Johnston, who was Mackinnon's representative on the board, berating him for abandoning his liberal ideals: 'I feel just as much … identified with the cause of the people at large as ever I did in our old days of '48 and '50, when we fought such sturdy battles against La Trobe and his pack of parasites. It seems all very well to rave about the vices of universal suffrage and the rest; but … we must manage to get along with [it]'. He was sick and tired of the Argus's 'meanness of spirit' and 'old-womanish Toryism'.

After several heart attacks, Wilson died peacefully on 10 January 1878. His remains were taken to Melbourne and interred on 7 July according to the rites of the Church of England. He was unmarried. In his will he made twenty-six legacies of £100 a year to old female friends in the colonies, but the bulk of his estate was used to form the Edward Wilson Trust which since his death has distributed several million dollars to Victorian charities, especially hospitals. A bust by Thomas Woolner is in the State Library of Victoria.

Wilson was an outstanding journalist who was briefly of crucial importance and commanding influence. A vivid and vigorous writer, he had the great journalist's qualities of high moral conscience, absolute honesty, intolerance of hypocrisy and disregard of self-interest; his emotions, however, sometimes led him into indefensible positions. His radicalism was standard English of his time, but was strengthened by marked independence of thought and intellectual curiosity in diverse fields. Always humane, he lost much of his early shyness and awkwardness and mellowed into a convivial man of considerable charm.

Select Bibliography

  • A. S. W[ilson], John Wilson: Edward Wilson (Lond, priv print, 1884)
  • W. Westgarth, Personal Recollections of Early Melbourne and Victoria (Melb, 1888)
  • J. Bonwick, Early Struggles of the Australian Press (Lond, 1890)
  • G. Serle, The Golden Age (Melb, 1963)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 14 Jan, 8 July 1878, 30 Dec 1911
  • Haddon papers (State Library of Victoria)
  • Henry Parkes letters (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Wilson papers (State Library of Victoria)
  • J. S. Johnston letters (University of Melbourne Archives).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Geoffrey Serle, 'Wilson, Edward (1813–1878)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 19 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

Edward Wilson (1813-1878), by unknown engraver, 1878

Edward Wilson (1813-1878), by unknown engraver, 1878

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, A/S16/02/78/180

Life Summary [details]


3 November, 1813
London, Middlesex, England


10 January, 1878 (aged 64)

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