Paper in mourning

On 19 October 1827 Andrew Bent issued what must surely be one of the most curious newspapers ever printed in Australia—the famous ‘mourning’ issue of the Colonial Times. It was printed in protest at a recently passed Act requiring newspapers to be licenced at the Governor’s pleasure. This measure deliberately targeted Bent and his paper. And everyone, including Bent himself, knew he was not going to get one.

The paper appeared in its normal four-page format. On the front page the masthead and advertisements were much as usual, and the back page was crammed with more advertisements. But when its unsuspecting readers opened up to read the news on page two, they were in for a shock.

ES Hall gave this account of it in his newspaper the Sydney Monitor.

The first Colonial Times newspaper published after the commencement of the Acts of Council which have laid prostrate the press of a community of free Englishmen, has come to hand. It exhibits a most singular appearance. The second page is in deep mourning! The lines which divide the columns are a quarter of an inch thick, but the space between such divisions, instead of being filled, as formerly, with leaders and politics, are all empty! There is a notice however at the top of this lamenting and dismal-looking page, of which the following is a copy … While the novelty of the design caused us to smile with one eye, we felt greatly disposed to melt with the other; only that our indignation stopped our emotion.

This was the notice:

A few years later newspapers such as the Australian and the Cornwall Chronicle used cartoons to protest at press restrictions. Bent did not have the resources to do that, so he let his typography do the talking.

Andrew Bent’s early newspapers were among the first titles to be processed by the Australian newspaper digitisation project, now incorporated into the discovery portal Trove. But this highly significant document in the history of Australian press freedom was, for reasons which I will discuss below, never included—until now. Finding and reproducing the Mourning Issue for the public record has been a long term passion-project for me.

I am delighted that it has now been digitised, together with other issues up to the end of 1827, which were also missing.  I have sponsored this small project myself, hoping I have not trodden on any toes in doing so. It is a small thing to do to honour Bent’s memory. I would like to thank the Trove team at the National Library of Australia for coordinating the project, and the State Library of New South Wales for making their precious volume available and undertaking necessary preservation work prior to scanning.

View newly digitised issues online

Background

The first move to impose a licence on newspapers in Van Diemen’s Land was made by Lieutenant Governor Arthur in 1824. Arthur had barely stepped off the boat when Andrew Bent made an audacious move to shake off government control from his newspaper. Arthur immediately asked his then superior, Governor in Chief Sir Thomas Brisbane, to pass an Act requiring newspapers to be licenced. To make things easy he sent him a draft drawn up by Van Diemen’s Land Attorney General Gellibrand. Arthur was thwarted, initially by a technicality, in that the Legislative Council in Sydney, though imminent, had not yet formally convened. Then, after an appeal by Bent, who sent his editor Evan Henry Thomas to Sydney to plead his case, Brisbane confirmed the printer’s right to publish free of any such restriction. He went further, allowing WC Wentworth and Robert Wardell, recently arrived in Sydney, to conduct their independent newspaper, the Australian, without government interference. He also removed the censorship, such as still existed, from the Sydney Gazette. Brisbane’s decisions effectively meant that newspapers in the two convict colonies were now less restricted than they were in Britain.

H. Meyer. Henry, Earl Bathurst, ca 1810. National Library of Australia nla.obj-136004230-1

In Downing Street, Secretary of State for the Colonies, Lord Bathurst, was dismayed by Brisbane’s laissez-faire approach, especially after perusing some colonial newspapers—apparently those blithely sent by Brisbane to show how innocuous they were. When Brisbane’s replacement Ralph Darling came out he bore with him a dispatch instructing the colonial governors to impose restrictions on newspapers. The total absence of restraint being ‘highly dangerous in a society of so peculiar a description’, these laws should go even further than those which applied in England. They included provisions for a stamp duty, registration of printers, the making of recognizances and the compulsory deposit of copies, and also a requirement that newspapers should be licenced by the governors.

Arthur saw these instructions when Darling passed through Hobart on his way to Sydney in December 1825. On 9 March 1826 Arthur’s Executive Council, lamenting the ‘baneful influence’ of the Colonial Times, and with a copy of Gellibrand’s draft Act from 1824 in hand, moved that they be put into immediate effect. An Order in Council which had been proclaimed by Darling while in Hobart meant that Van Diemen’s Land could now pass its own local laws. Arthur’s own copy of the instructions was still in transit from England. Bent had by this time been tried (twice) for libels against the government, and although convicted, had not yet been sentenced.

There were delays. Arthur wished to act in tandem with Darling in New South Wales, but, for reasons unnecessary to detail here, Darling was in no rush although his attitude to press laws was to change later.

On 14 December 1826, in Hobart, Chief Justice Pedder certified that the two proposed Van Diemen’s Land Acts (nos. 2 and 3 of 1827) were not repugnant to English law. Both were passed by the Legislative Council on 15 September 1827, published in the official Gazette on 22 September and came into effect on 15 October. Chief Justice Forbes, in Sydney, later refused to certify the licence clause in a similar Act there, demonstrating more judicial independence than his counterpart in Hobart, as well as a better understanding of the law.

The main purpose of the act imposing a licence—as the preamble made very clear—was to shut down Andrew Bent’s outspoken newspaper which was so troublesome to Arthur’s regime. By this time a second opposition newspaper, the Tasmanian, had appeared on the scene, edited by no less a person than the man who framed the original draft act in 1824—Gellibrand—now dismissed and disgruntled.

B Lauvergne [Hobart Town from the harbour]. This view shows the town in December 1827 when D’Urville’s expedition was in Hobart. Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts, TAHO

Bent’s convict editor Francis ED Browne, later revealed that the mourning issue was the brainchild of Bent’s gentlemen supporters Anthony Fenn Kemp, William Kermode and Samuel Hood, the latter two being responsible for writing the advertisement. Browne, at the time of writing, was terrified he would be sent to Maria Island penal settlement for assisting Bent, so he carefully distanced himself from these events and doubtless exaggerated the extent to which he had tried to tone down Bent’s paper.

Later commentary

The existence of the mourning issue, noted in other newspapers of the day as we have seen, was also known to later writers. These include James Fenton (1884) James Bonwick (1890), Cecil Allport (writing in the Mercury in 1923) and EM Miller (1952). It is not clear whether any or all of them had actually seen a copy, although Allport’s description of it suggests he may have. It is also mentioned briefly in Bent’s entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography. Yet when I went looking on Trove to see for myself what this bibliographic curiosity looked like, it was nowhere to be found. The last issue for 1827 was 12 October, published just before the Act came into force.

There was a gap until the first number for 1828, when the paper appeared with a new masthead, and its title shortened to The Colonial Times. The catalogue records then on Trove suggested, misleadingly, that the missing issues were never published and the old title had ceased on 12 October.

The paper’s numbering suggests that the intervening issues were indeed printed, 12 October being no. 597, while the first issue for 1828 was no. 609. Furthermore, a blow by blow account of each number published right up until the end of 1827 appeared in Bent’s published version of the correspondence regarding his unsuccessful application for a licence. This appeared in his own newspaper, in the Sydney Gazette and in pamphlet form. In between the letters, a narrator relates how each consecutive number appeared either ‘silent’, a ‘mere shadow’ of its former self, or, in an evocative turn of phrase unlikely to have originated from Bent himself, ‘shivering like a ghost on the banks of the Styx’.

Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW, DSM/323/1

Limitations of Trove

Gideon Haigh recently described Trove as ‘arguably the greatest single contribution to social science research in Australian history’ (Australian, 18-19 June 2022). It is indeed an amazing resource for historians and I have daily reason to be grateful for it, especially for the digitised newspapers, which now include all of Andrew Bent’s titles, amounting to some thousands of pages. But it does have limitations. Apart from the general danger of research being skewed by concentrating only, or mainly, on those sources which have been digitised, or the difficulties of dealing with an over-abundance of search results, there are gaps in coverage which are not always apparent until a researcher delves deeply into the detail of a topic. Some of this missing material has been quite crucial for my own research and hunting down hard copies has been time consuming and challenging. Three examples from the Hobart Town Gazette of 1825 are:

  1. a known missing page

2. a missing supplement for 20 May, showing Bent’s repayment of his government loan (there is no way of knowing from Trove that these colonial accounts are actually missing)

3. a chunk of text missing from the important leading article of 7 January

Of course the very early papers are most vulnerable to such gaps, especially those printed before compulsory deposit was introduced in 1827. We are lucky that so much has actually survived.

Historians of colonial Tasmania should, however, be concerned by gaps in coverage of the Tasmanian. The earliest issues of this newspaper (thirty-three numbers spanning 3 March to 11 October 1827) are missing, as is the entire year for 1829. Fortunately hard copies do still exist.

Many years before Trove was ever envisioned, Australian libraries had begun preserving their fragile newspaper collections on microfilm. Indeed, many current newspaper titles are still routinely microfilmed not long after publication as a preservation and space saving strategy. When the newspaper digitization project began the only sensible and cost effective way to scan the huge mass of Australia’s historic newspapers was to do so from the existing microfilms, warts and all. Consequently, the image quality is often poor and the OCR (optical character recognition) text transcription horribly garbled, a huge problem which is gradually being addressed by a dedicated army of volunteer text correctors. If pages were missing, torn, or illegible in the original hard copy, or even missed because during filming two pages were inadvertently turned over together, these deficiencies were carried over onto Trove. That said, I would not for one moment wish to be without it.

Two treasure hunts

My quest to find a copy of the famous mourning issue intersected with another challenge. In 1849 Andrew Bent sold a bound set of his newspapers for the years 1816 to 1831 (encompassing both the Hobart Town Gazette and the Colonial Times) to the Tasmanian Government. Some of these later went missing from the Chief Secretary’s vaults, most probably in the 1920s. I wanted to establish which volumes, if any, remained in Hobart, and, if I could, where the missing ones had ended up. This exercise involved several visits to Hobart and various excursions into the early newspaper holdings of other institutions. It was not easy. Library catalogue records for newspapers often do not itemize which issues are held, merely giving a span of years, so the only way of establishing what is actually held is to call the material in from the stacks.

Further, while all newspapers are by nature ephemeral, the missing issues of the Times for 1827 were, of course, even less likely to have been kept by their original recipients as they contained no news!

My first small success was to stumble across the four December numbers in the Crowther collection in Hobart. They were included in an original Bent binding from 1826, which was among a number of old bindings salvaged by Crowther from the government printing office.

WL Crowther Library, State Library of Tasmania

Finding these established that the Colonial Times was definitely issued, and retained its original long title, until the end of December 1827. This enabled the catalogue records to be corrected, at least.

Colonial Times 14 Dec 1827 Note Bent’s ‘advertisement’ giving an update on the licence negotiations. WL Crowther Library, State Library of Tasmania

I eventually discovered that Bent’s volumes for 1816-1818 and 1824 had made their way to other collecting institutions. Then, with the assistance of the ever helpful and patient staff at Libraries Tasmania, I finally located and viewed their early Gazettes, establishing that several volumes were indeed Bent’s own and that the only year left unaccounted for was 1820. As for the Colonial Times, Bent’s annotated volumes for 1825, 1826 and 1828 remain in Hobart (in off-site storage) and are the volumes which are digitised on Trove. The volumes for 1830-1831 are also still there; The highly collectible 1829 volume is not, but it was never included in Bent’s deal in the first place. The only 1827 volume I have been able to find in Hobart is the incomplete one which has been microfilmed and is thus on Trove. It is definitely not Bent’s. I have thus far been unable to locate Bent’s volume for 1827.

Success

Later, after checking holdings in the State Library of New South Wales, but without any great hopes, I unearthed a bound volume of the Colonial Times for 1827. I was excited to see it was in its original binding of plain blue paper over boards.

State Library of NSW

The words ‘Colonial Times, 1827’ were still visible along the spine.

The pages were in remarkably good condition, although the binding was rather fragile along the spine. I hardly dared to breathe as I opened it – very carefully of course. The issues were mostly addressed to T. Scott, Esquire (i.e. surveyor Thomas Scott). But my disappointment that it was not Bent’s own volume soon turned to elation. The volume was complete! I can still remember that spine-tingling moment, several years ago now, when I saw with my own eyes, the elusive mourning issue.

Colonial Times 19 October 1827. State Library of NSW

The only other complete volume for 1827 which I have been able to identify is in the British Library. Craig has viewed this on microfilm. It appears to be complete and includes the mourning issue. However, it is pretty clearly not Bent’s own volume either. I remain troubled by a nagging feeling that I must be missing something. I find it hard to believe that Bent’s volume, so very desirable as it was and still would be, could simply disappear off the face of the earth. Perhaps one day it will turn up.

Concluding remarks

Late in 1828, Arthur received instructions from his superiors in London that the licence provisions which he had dutifully enacted as instructed, had now been deemed repugnant to English law and must be repealed. Bent had won a moral victory, but although he revived the Colonial Times for a while, his business prospects had sustained great damage.

I hope you enjoy the newly digitised material, including the considerable amount of political commentary (four entire pages in one instance) the printer managed to sneak in under the heading ‘Advertisement’.

2 Comments

  1. What an interesting story and piece of research. Thanks for sharing. Cheers John

    On Mon, 10 Oct 2022, 4:00 pm ANDREW BENT: Father of the Free Press

    Like

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