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March 03rd 2003 print

Michael Connor

Nativity Sydney

This is us. In 1803, when George Howe began publishing the Sydney Gazette, most of our families had not arrived in the new homeland. But from the very beginning of our first newspaper its editor captured something familiar and typically Australian.

The Introduction to Pig Bites Baby! Stories from Australia’s First Newspaper (Duffy and Snellgrove, 2003). 

This is us. In 1803, when George Howe began publishing the Sydney Gazette, most of our families had not arrived in the new homeland. But from the very beginning of our first newspaper its editor captured something familiar and typically Australian. 

In Britain shoplifters, pickpockets, rapists who hadn’t been hanged, marines, military officers, sheep stealers, pig stealers, free settlers, wives and children, forgers, government officers, thugs, horse thieves, and reprieved highwaymen, were rowed out to tiny ships and exported to Port Jackson. Landed on a foreign shore they fell in love with the scenery, even sometimes with its wandering inhabitants, and set about creating a new homeland, and a thing that would be called Australia. This peculiar mixture of rogues and sluts and ladies and gentlemen carried with them a love of gardens, passionate yet tolerant politics, a strong need for unobtrusive order, a sometimes naïve friendliness towards strangers, and a marvellously sardonic humour.Their new society was an odd thing. It’s definitely us, but it was so different. It was Nativity Sydney. It was so young, and not always respectable. Most of its population was also young, and male. Sex, despite disease and unpleasant and uncertain remedies, and even a lack of women, preoccupied many of them. Business was also interesting, and theft.

These ancestors came out of the eighteenth century. They lived within a ranked society where manners made the gentleman, or lady, and filth and desperation described the underclass. The higher ranking were sensitive to a thousand cuts of insult, and ready to defend their honour with badly aimed pistol shots. Beautiful manners and angry barbarism complimented each other. 

Living in Sydney was dangerous, exciting, and seldom boring. It was stupid to sleep in a room with a pig. Uncovered wells were a threat which could turn a stroll into a descent into Hell. Crossing from one side of town to the other could become an adventure – slipping off the bridge across the Tank Stream or tumbling into holes in Pitt Row threatened bones and lives. Visiting a brothel on the Rocks, as one did, you may have made the acquaintance of some of the colony’s elite, who you might also have bumped into at Church – as long as you were Anglican and not afraid of falling bell towers. 

There were harsh penalties for being caught misbehaving, different ideas about sanitation, and it didn’t do to be afraid of earthquakes, lightning storms or being swept away in floods. Bring contemporary illustrations to life and you would find men and women scratching at lice and smiling through rotting teeth, and an offensive stink of unwashed clothes and bodies. 

Finding their way around this world, settlers needed to read the Sydney Gazette, their only newspaper. Its columns offered a lively panorama of their society. They delighted in tales of mangled corpses, and invitations to view a chained body hung from a gibbet on an island in the harbour. Dangled before them was the chance of combining a visit to the market with the viewing of an unlikeable criminal standing in the public pillory with his ears nailed to the headboard. Life was rich in the attractions it offered. A paedophile floatingt out to sea on a door, with two holes for his legs, encircled by sharks. A bushranger walking into Hobart Town carrying a human head. Finding a naked man coming down his chimney so overcame one Sydney man that he screamed loudly and blacked out for twenty minutes. Settlers were subtly advised not to do away with themselves when they read of a stake being driven through the corpse of a successful suicide. As believers in law and order they were comforted to learn that a runaway convict  had got as far as New Zealand, and then been eaten by the natives. Their newspaper brought useful tips for gardening and health. The milkmaid who informed her fellow citizens that scalds could be treated by applying fresh cow dung was performing a useful service. 

The Sydney Gazette was published from 1803 until 1842. This selection of extracts is from 1803 until early 1810. From Sydney’s foundation in 1788 until 1810 it had a distinct character. It was a period of establishment and struggle, of new fortunes and new beginnings – Nativity Sydney. Governor Macquarie arrived at the beginning of 1810 and the colony grew up into a very different sort of place. 

The newspaper was written for a small number of people living together in a tiny place. On one side they were held in by the blue Pacific and on the other by the Blue Mountains – some of them believed that China sprawled just over the mountains, while others listened to stories which told of a mysterious white settlements lying inland. Although their civilization had only nibbled into the great space of unexplored territory which lay around them the colony was open to ships travelling from the United States, China, Tahiti, New Zealand, England. Mentally, the colonists had the freedom of the world. 

When publication began there were only about 7 000 colonists in New South Wales. There were fewer than 600 free settlers, and only 400 military and government officers. Sydney had less than 700 houses and its population was under 2 500. The inhabitants were free and easy in their morals. By 1806 of 1 808 children, 908 were illegitimate. Of the 1 216 women living with men only 360 of them were married.

 Convicts were not kept in prison. They were governed by rules, and assigned to work, but unless they reoffended they lived in relative freedom. New South Wales was their place of exile. In this odd society convict and ex-convict yobs and gentlemen lived close together. Between the two groups there were often surprisingly close ties. Bumping together in military cots or four-posters the masters and convict women made interesting connections and the social ranks also drew together as business competitors, rivals, and partners. Wealthy ex-convict entrepreneurs had more in common with wealthy officer or ex-officer farmers and businessmen than they did with convicts or poor ex-convicts. Money has always talked to money, especially in Sydney. Simeon Lord, the great business adventurer, was transported for theft. In time he made sure that his warehouse was guarded by watchmen with loaded guns to keep away his light-fingered successors. George Howe was a convict when he began his newspaper and he preached the strict punishment of lawbreakers. 

In the collected stories the Sydney Gazette uses different words to describe some things with which we are familiar. There are bushrangers, but the places they infest are called the woods not the bush. There is no frontier, but there are out-settlements. There is no Pitt Street, no George Street, no Castlereagh Street. These ancestors navigated the dust, or mud, of Pitt’s Row, the Back Row, Chapel Row, and other tracks and streets around the Cove and on the Rocks. 

Convict or free, everyone read the Sydney Gazette, for its news and for the Government Orders which touched all their lives. In the beginning the newspaper stated it would never print political or personal slandering, ‘Information is our only purpose’, and government censorship ensured the promise was kept . Fortunately George Howe, its editor (he called himself the printer), was a gifted observer. His little journal was printed under great difficulties but it always offered its readers more than just government orders and proclamations. In its two or four page editions readers found advertisements, sailing announcements, letters, occasional poems, and colourful stories about their neighbours. 

This book is not political history, but stories about people. The governors are certainly present, usually referred to in these extracts as ‘HIS EXCELLENCY’, but this is not their story. Though, of course, they were interesting. Philip Gidley King became governor in 1800 after being lieutenant -governor of Norfolk Island where he produced two illegitimate children with a convict woman (he named the boys Norfolk and Sydney). In 1806 he was succeeded by William Bligh, a blustering bully who made King burst into tears. On 26 January 1808 Bligh was overthrown in the Rum Rebellion and the colony was administered by officers until Macquarie arrived to restore order in 1810. 

What the Sydney Gazette lacked in politics it made up for in its weekly chronicle of what the neighbours were getting up to. The gentlemen, free settlers, government officers and military officers, were also getting up to quite a bit, but censorship (and Howe’s instinct for self-preservation) ensured that few of their escapades were recorded. Even when they rebelled against Bligh that big event coincided with a period when the Gazette ceased publication because of a lack of paper. However other dramatic events of the period were covered – the convict insurrection at Castle Hill and the disastrous Hawkesbury Flood. 

Howe’s father established a newspaper at St. Kitts in the West Indies and George was born there in 1769 sniffing printer’s ink. Moving to England he worked on newspapers including the Times. In March 1799 he was sentenced to death for shoplifting, but the sentence was commuted to transportation to New South Wales. He already had a young son, Robert, and his wife and family were permitted to travel out with him on the Royal Admiral. His wife died on the voyage and when the ship docked in November 1800 he arrived as a widower and a convict, with a young boy to look after. Howe is listed among the human cargo as ‘George Happy alias Happy George’. Perhaps the name means he had a carefree character, or perhaps he was a miserably gloomy speck of creation, only blissfully happy when recording dismal events and the misbehaviour of his contemporaries. 

Soon after Howe arrived, Governor King made him the government printer, and later gave him permission to publish a weekly newspaper. His first Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser began appearing in Saturday 5 March 1803. If prison, transportation, and the death of his wife had not brought misery into Howe’s life, the Sydney Gazette did. Ink had to be made, paper was sometimes almost impossible to obtain; at one time Howe was even begging to buy damp and mildewed paper. The press was shaky, the type was old and he did not have a great deal of it, subscribers didn’t pay their bills, and the government officers who checked his text before publication were capable of slashing great chunks of text after they had been typeset, completely ruining his pages. Only in 1810 did Governor Macquarie allow him a salary of £60. Governor King described him in a despatch to London as ‘an ingenious man’ – he needed to be. 

The new newspaper editor, or printer, was among the prisoners granted conditional pardons in 1803 to celebrate King George III’s Birthday. In 1806 he received a full pardon. In his personal life he had a relationship with Elizabeth Easton with whom he had a family of five children between 1803 and 1810. Later he married a different woman. His eldest son Robert makes an occasional appearance in some of these articles. He was born in 1795 and began work on the paper at a young age.

At first the Sydney Gazette was printed in a room in Government House, which stood on the space now occupied by the Museum of Sydney in Bridge Street. Later, special premises were built for it on Macquarie Place and then it moved to George Street. Until 1824 it had no competitor in Sydney. 

Probably George Howe wrote most of the stories in this book. From the beginning he encouraged contributors and it may be that he used texts from other hands to fill his pages. As a writer he could sometimes be long-winded – perhaps there was not much news or the governor had slashed an interesting article before publication and a filler was needed – but he could also tell a good story. The best of his articles climax with a flash of detail that illuminates rather ordinary tales. For instance, in the section on Suicides is a banal story which only the final mention of a wooden leg makes brilliant. 

In the 1930s one writer, who seems to have missed the point, criticised Howe for producing a newspaper that was ‘moral to the point of priggishness, patriotic to the point of servility, pompous in a stiff, eighteenth century fashion; and mingles a more than precarious dignity with inappropriate lapses into a humour that is sometimes deplorable.’ In the early 2000s there will be shudders at his speaking of the unspeakable.

In the State Library in Sydney is a memorial window to the printer and his heroic enterprise. It lacks the pungent smell of printers’ ink, the boxes of stained type, the sadly diminished stacks of paper, the used quills, the untidy mounds of damp proofs, and George’s workmanlike mess of subscribers letters, texts for advertisements, complaints, and unpaid bills. 

Stories in this collection have been grouped thematically under alphabetical headings, which begin with Accidents and end with Wit. John Green, a rapist and very temporary Australian, gets his own section. Howe published so much on the Aborigines that material relating to them has been divided under two separate headings. Animals are well represented. George Howe was passionately against cruelty to animals. Dogs, pigs, snakes and sharks are treated separately – there are surprisingly few cats. Most children appear in the section on Families, which chronicles mainly awful things that befell them, the adventures of orphans are given separately.

Men and women cast on shore since 1788 had survived, and some were even prospering. Lumped together they created a society, in some ways very much like the one they had left behind, in other ways very different. Their creation was carelessly made, and full of life. Macquarie destroyed the tumbledown world of early settlement and began building with architect’s plans and yellow stone. His loving, Georgian creation is still about us, and the last section of this book, 1810, deals with the opening year of his new rule as he destroyed and remade this lovely, rackety, robust, old world.