1800–1846 | Western Australia | Publisher
West Australian settler Charles Macfaull in 1833 founded the colony’s first successful newspaper, the Perth Gazette and Western Australian Times, which later became The West Australian. Macfaull used a Stanhope press leased from the Governor who insisted the paper published all government notices. With the paper dependent on the Government for the means of production, a rival paper described the Macfaull as “the Governor’s scribe” and his paper as the “Government mouthpiece”. Macfaull planted the colony’s first vineyard and was for a time the postmaster.
Charles Macfaull was the father of journalism in Western Australia. And despite a difficult birth, many life-threatening episodes and several name changes, the paper he founded is now headed for its bicentenary and is Perth’s only metropolitan daily, The West Australian.
Though he had no formal training in journalism or printing, Macfaull brought with him from England clear notions of what a newspaper should be and a firm belief in freedom of speech and a free press.
He proved to be a fearless and feisty editor and an ardent defender of press freedom, open justice and the interests of his community.
Charles Macfaull, then aged 30, and his wife, Elizabeth, arrived in Western Australia aboard the Edward Lombe, a 347-ton wooden ship, from London on 24 August 1830.
On the way, he picked up some vines in Cape Town, intending to start a vineyard. In October that year he was granted 50 hectares of land at Cockburn Sound, near Fremantle.
His success as a vigneron is not known, but in February 1831, in partnership with William Kernot Shenton, he produced the Western Australian Chronicle and Perth Gazette, a manuscript newspaper written in ink in a clear, bold hand in two columns on both sides of two sheets of foolscap paper.
It was published weekly on Saturdays and carried official notices as well as news and advertisements. It thus also served as the Government Gazette.
Macfaull’s editorial principles were clearly enunciated in the paper’s first editorial: “It will be our endeavour to conduct it on liberal principles – avoiding personality and rendering it (as conducive to the interests of the colony) deserving of patronage. We are of no party – nor will we recognise any – the interest and welfare of the colony is our object. This test we shall apply to all communications.”
Macfaull invited farmers to send the paper information about their successful crops and farming methods so that they could be shared with other readers.
Two months later, on 16 April, the paper announced that a printing press had arrived in the schooner Eagle. The Ruthven press had been brought to Western Australia from Hobart by a businessman, John Weavell, who leased it to Macfaull for two pounds a week.
The press was set up in a shed in Fremantle and, on February 25, the first printed edition, under the masthead Fremantle Observer, Perth Gazette and Western Australian Journal, appeared with a cover price of one shilling and sixpence. It offered advertisements for three shillings and sixpence up to six lines and then threepence a line.
In June, Shenton notified the Colonial Secretary, Peter Brown, that he had transferred the entire editorship and management of the paper to Macfaull.
But times were tough: with a population of about 1800 in the colony, selling subscriptions was hard and getting subscribers to actually pay up was even harder.
Macfaull moved the press from Fremantle to a tent near his home in Hamilton Hill, about three miles away, and also opened an office in Perth.
But by August the paper was in such financial trouble he had to cancel his lease on the press and revert to the handwritten version.
After the Governor, Sir James Stirling, petitioned the British Government to send a press to the colony to facilitate better distribution of government notices, a press finally arrived in November 1832.
The Executive Council in WA then accepted a proposal from Macfaull that he be given custody of the press and a contract worth 75 pounds a year to print all government notices and forms.
The deal gave Macfaull the lifeline he needed and the printed version of his paper reappeared in January 1833 under the shortened masthead Perth Gazette and Western Australian Journal.
Before the end of that year, Macfaull found himself in court, defending the colony’s first defamation action. The plaintiff, John Butler, a respected settler, apparently laced his address to the court with some lurid references to Macfaull. But when asked for testimony as to the falsity of the newspaper’s report, Butler lamely advised that all his witnesses had returned to Fremantle and the case was dismissed.
Macfaull’s fighting spirit was on show in his editorial the next day: “We pass over Mr Butler’s vituperations in the court with the contempt they merit. He has neither proved us false nor attached to us any other than his base assertion of cowardice. We therefore leave him to the consolatory reflection of having attempted an injury which neither scurrility nor vulgar abuse could assist him in effecting.”
Macfaull successfully defended two other defamation actions in the next two years, but in 1835, he came unstuck when the paper was sued by a ship’s captain it had accused of incompetence.
Macfaull’s defence further evidenced his belief in the community benefits of a free press. He told the jurors: “I conjure you to reflect, before you deliver your verdict, that it will decide whether the public press is to be fettered and restrained from the exercise of its just privileges – the exposure of abuses of a public nature – when the facts can be proved to be true. This is the position in which the public Press of the colony is now placed before you – it is in your power either to liberate it or crush it.”
The jury found for the captain, who was awarded 21 pounds damages, but it later emerged that the captain’s lawyer, William Nairne Clark, had told the jury foreman the captain would put on “a spree” if he got the verdict and the jurors were duly treated to a sumptuous dinner at a local hotel.
Clark had earlier killed a man in a duel, but had been acquitted of murder.
Clark later brought out his own newspaper, the Swan River Guardian, in which he viciously attacked Macfaull, but Macfaull had the last word when the Guardian folded in 1838 because it could not find financial backers.
In his March 3 edition, Macfaull wrote: “The Guardian newspaper, brought out by Mr W. N. Clark, came to a natural end on Thursday. As Mr Clark, it would appear, is not able to find two sufficient men throughout the colony who will hold themselves responsible for his editorial prudence, we may reasonably assume he had fallen into bad odour, even with his friends and supporters.”
Macfaull’s position was always somewhat precarious because the government owned his printing press, but it did not deter him from tackling issues such as the need to spend more on roads, the need for a discount bank to help trade, the exorbitant price of flour and other matters of public interest.
Despite further challenges, the paper was well established by the time Macfaull died in 1846 at the age of 46. His death was attributed to “debility induced by drinking.”
But he should be remembered as a fearless and feisty editor who stuck to his guns.
Bob Cronin is a former editor of The West Australian and group editor in chief of West Australian Newspapers.
Saturday 24 August 1839 edition of the Perth Gazette and Western Australian Journal
Click on the image to read 'A Report of The Late Trial For Libel!!! Clarke versus Macfaul, September 4th 1835, Compiled by W. N. Clark Solicitor'.
A Report of the Late Trial for Libel! Clarke versus Macfaul, William Nairn Clarke, Battye Library, State Library of WA, 1835
'Obituary: Charles Macfaull, Editor of Perth Gazette (1846)', The Perth Gazette and Western Australian Journal, volume 14, on Wikisource