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The birth of the book in Terra Australis, 1802-2002

By Frank Morris

In the early 16th century when the printed word began to spread it was felt that one of the first effects it would have on our civilisation was to make proud men look upon learning as disgraced by being brought within reach of the common people. The intelligentsia were livid – apoplectic, in fact – when laymen “in humble life were enabled to procure books.” They even complained that the reputation of learning, and the respect and rewards it engendered, would be torn asunder “should it be thrown open to all men.” This attitude – base, invidious and repugnant as it was, persisted well into the first century after Caxton.

At daybreak on Sunday, May 13, 1787 – three hundred-odd years after William Caxton printed the first book, Dictes or Sayengis of the Philosophers, in England – a rudimentary printing press was on its way from that country to a vast unknown continent, the Great Southland, stashed among the baggage and chattels in one of the First Fleet transporters, Lady Penrhyn.

Against severe odds the eleven-strong fleet sailed through the heads and anchored in “the beautiful harbour,” completing “a grim and miserable” journey on January 26 eight months later. At dusk on that same day one of the most epoch-making events in the history of Australia took place. Governor Phillip and his Lieutenants, Richard Johnson and Philip Gidley King, and others, gathered at Sydney Cove and drank toasts to His Majesty, King George III and to the future success of the new colony. The next day it was down to work. And for the next few months “the peace of centuries was shattered” as convicts and marines proceeded to clear the land, erect houses, storage sheds and necessary buildings.

The original settlement expanded rapidly, but the printing press lay idle. In fact, the printed word would not see the light of day in the bustling colony for some years. Whether Governor Phillip or “some imiginative official” was responsible for loading the battered old wooden press and some old and worn type is not recorded. The action demonstrated considerable foresight. “Whoever did have the bright idea,” writes historian Harold Hunt (The Master Printers of Sydney; 1976), “did not realise there would be difficulty in finding any person competant to work the press.”
But, as the Australian writer/historian Clive Turnbull points out, the power of the printed word is “coterminous with the struggle of early politicians for democratic institutions.”

In the mid 1790s the convict George Hughes was “found equal to conducting the whole business of the press” and thus was made, under Governor Hunter, the first government printer. Hughes was known as “a very decent young man (who) had some abilities in the printing line.”
Fortunately, for the powers to be, he proved to be good with his hands; he had to not only make his own printing equipment, but also manufacture his own ink (using the crude method of grinding the carbons by muller and stone) and, when called for, build “other necessary appurtenances.” On a machine, which at best was only able to print 50 sheets an hour, he produced over 200 individual government orders and regulations between1796 to 1800; and also the playbills for the first two plays staged in the colony, Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer, in which Hughes was among the cast; and a month later, Shakespeare’s Henry the Fourth.

When Hughes was permitted to return to England, the press fell silent; but not for long, however. Among the populace was the colony’s very own Caxton, a convict, who had arrived on November 22, 1800, in the transport ship, the Royal Admiral. He was “not an Englishman, nor even a white-man, but a poor Creole, born on the island of St Kitts in the West Indies. He was George Howe (1769-1821), also known as George “Happy”, son of Thomas Howe, a native of Ireland. Howe snr migrated to the island in 1747, and later moved to St Christopher’s Island, where he “commenced the art of printing” at Bassetterre, the capital. Eventually, with his sons, as apprentices, he succeeded in becoming the government printer.

Howe was transported to NSW for shoplifting, a crime for which he could have been hanged. In his early thirties, he was a skilful and capable printer, who had had a classical education and was “well read” in European literature. Apart from the years he spent with his father, Howe went to London to hone his skills as well as improve his station in life; he worked as a compositor on The Times and other newspapers.

Although most of the inhabitants in the colony were “absorbed” in pursuits far removed from literature, the spirit of his trade “was still lively within him,” writes Frank Reddan in his treatice, George Howe: Australia’s First Printer (sic) [Kelvin Press; Cremorne, NSW; 1946].
From the moment he set foot on Terra Australis, Howe became totally adsorb in the idea of establising a press. He reasoned, according to Reddan, that he had nothing to trust but his own destiny.

Howe wasted no time in presenting his credentials to Governor Philip Gidley King. Governor King quickly realised that here was a tradesman who knew what the printing business was all about. Howe was immediately employed as the government printer at sixty pounds per annum, and soon proved his worth. So much so that King later mentioned Howe in his dispatches back to Lord Hobart in London, describing the journeyman printer as “an ingenious man.”

The confidence the Governor had in Howe was remarkable for the times; of that there is no doubt. To a certain degree he gave the printer a fairly free rein in the operation of the press, but not in what was printed. Printing was a “controlled experiment” and as such Government House would call all the shots. In Howe, though, he’d obviously devined a self-effacing person of deep convictions, hard-working, dedicated and, what is more, educated. For Howe, King was to open an exciting new world, and both, in time would deservedly share the inferential honour of being known as the “founding fathers” of Australian journalism. King granted Howe a conditional pardon in 1803; and a full pardon in 1806.

Howe became the patriarch of Australia’s first publishing dynasty long before Fairfax and Symes came into the picture. In this publication a few years ago [ ABC No 99; September 1998]*, I wrote of the Howes: “They were an extroadinary family … They had power and influence; and their individual achievements in newspaper, magazine and book publishing are etched in history.” For George “Happy” Howe, it began in 1802. By refining some of the primitive methods used by George Hughes, together with the same “relic” of a press, he managed pull off an amazing feat by printing the first book in Australia.

The title of this history-making tome was New South Wales General Standing Orders, which, as the extended title explains, were “selected from the General Orders issued by former Governors, from the 16th February 1791 to the 6th of September 1800; also General orders issued by Governor King from 28th of September 1800 to the 30th September 1802.”

Writes historian, Anne Robertson: “The work became scarce almost at once, for it would seem that only a few copies were ever printed … described by Sir John Ferguson as excessively rare, there are actually two copies of it in the Mitchell Library, exactly half the number of copies known still to exist.”

In fact, and advertisement appeared in the Sydney Gazette in 1818 in which it was “earnestly requested as a matter of serious public import and consideration” by the Judge-Advocate’s Office any information as to “where the original printed volume of Standing Orders … could be found.”
King’s faith in Howe had paid off: the Governor lost no time in reporting to Lord Hobart in London. He outlined the content and the scope of the book, and the separately printed addendum sheets, and stated his pleasure in being able to enclose copies of “the new publications.”
Howe had produced a “key document” which, writes Michael Richards [People, Print and Paper; National Library of Australia; 1988], is “apt reminder that print has from the start had a transforming effect of Australian life and culture.”

Over the next nineteen years, from 1802 to 1821, Howe published a welter of material, among which was the first newspaper in Australia (1803); the first almanac (1806); the first spelling book order by the Orphan School; the first illustrated book, John Lewin’s Birds of New South Wales (1813); a New Testament History and Hymns in the Tahitian Language; the first volume of verse and Barron Field’s First Fruits of Australian Poetry (1819). He also laid the groundwork for the printing of the first periodical, Ralph Mansfield’s Australian Magazine.

Howe died in 1821. His estate was worth four thousand pounds, a small fortune for that period. His son Robert, who had been working at his father’s side since the age of nine carried on as publisher and editor of the Sydney Gazette and produced Australia’s first periodical.

In his opening editorial, Robert Howe explains that the course his father took in employing his “then only son” at such a young age, “was conceived for the future benefit of the community (and) a circumstance, perhaps, unprecedented in the annuals of typography.” His father’s memory, he continues, “will long be fondly cherished (and) his public usefulness long remembered, by the inhabitants of New South Wales.” About his father and the Sydney Gazette, he writes: “(It) was founded amid difficulties and obstacles … (he was) never discouraged with encountering terrific mountains, which seemed an insuperable barrier to the accomplishment of his vast design as laying the chief corner-stone of a newspaper in a colony so infantine as this then was…”

Howe has been variously called “the father of the Australian press,” “Australia’s Caxton,” and, because he is recognised as the creator of the first Australian fables, “an Australian Aesop;” all of which are apt, of course. But unlike Caxton, Australians are still pitifully devoid of interest and knowledge about George Howe (see Footnote) who, like Caxton, laid the foundation two hundred years ago for the development of the book in Australia.

  • Also: Australian Book Collector, September 1998, No 109

FOOTNOTE: The crop of books released over the last few years purporting to be a “history” or “biography” of Sydney either overlook or, at best, only give a cursory reference to George Howe. Let’s hope that will change. The Centenary of Federation celebrations, which took place in almost every nook and cranny of the nation last year, have obviously had some impact in this direction. According to a recent survey 74 per cent of Australians said they felt the celebrations “had contributed to a greater understanding of our history.” Five years ago, only about 27 per cent of Australians knew what federation meant. By August, 2001, the survey showed that 84 per cent of Australians “knew that federation was the joining together of six separate colonies to form the Commonwealth of Australia.” It gets better. The survey also revealed that for 86 per cent of Australians “learning more about our history” was at the top of their list.

(Frank Morris is a Sydney writer who specialises print-media history. This article first appeared in The Australian Book Collector, January 2002)