1859-1932 | VIC | War correspondent, sports writer, nature writer
Macdonald excelled in three arms of journalism: as a war correspondent, as a sportswriter and as a commentator on natural history. His obituary in The Argus said he was probably the most widely known journalist in Australia. As 'Observer', he wrote knowledgably about cricket and football for The Argus, and for 40 years travelled overseas with every Australian cricket team. The Argus said it was “not too much to say that he revolutionised cricket writing” with his vivid descriptions and colourful commentary. Separately, his gentle reflections on nature were said to have influenced a generation. He was the first Australian correspondent at the Boer War.
Donald Macdonald was a veritable newspaper in his own right: a reporter responsible for a best-selling account of the Boer War, and an accomplished leader and feature writer whose prolific sports, nature and children’s writings inspired great followings.
Macdonald was the son of a farmer with an allotment at Keilor. After a brief spell as a schoolteacher, he gravitated to the Corowa Free Press. His career of more than half a century with The Argus began in October 1881; he filed his last column just days before his death in 23 November 1932.
Among Macdonald’s first assignments was reporting the intercolonial cricket match between Victoria and New South Wales at the MCG, where his expansive, vivid prose made a refreshing contrast with more staid and formal style that predominated at the time. He settled into a role writing about cricket and Australian rules football as 'Observer', with reports both authoritative and evocative. He was responsible, for example, for the classic description of the Australian champion Victor Trumper: “Trumper was the only batsman I ever knew who, getting three balls in an over exactly identical, would hit each one to a different part of the field for four”. Of England’s princely Indian batsman K. S. Ranjitsinhjhi, he once wrote: “The singer of empire, Rudyard Kipling will need to recast one of his latest poems. If Australian bowlers be consulted, they will without doubt declare that in cricket ‘the white man’s burden’ is to get Ranjitsinhji out”.
It was for The Argus’s weekly cousin The Australasian that Macdonald also began writing editorials, features and eventually some country sketches, based on a deep love of the countryside and wildlife. These led to a Friday column in The Argus, 'Woomera', which he wrote as 'Gnuyang' (gossip), and which he dedicated to “moments of respite from the duties of daily journalism”, Often with an outdoor theme. The voluminous correspondence it occasioned soon justified a first collection, Gum Boughs and Wattle Bloom (1887).
In the 1890s, Macdonald began writing knowledgeably about Victoria’s multiplying militias and volunteer units, becoming a proto defence correspondent. That made him a natural choice to be despatched to South Africa when the Boer War began.
Macdonald arrived on 21 October 1899, the day of the battle of Elandslaagte, a victory for the British who promptly frittered the advantage away by withdrawing to Ladysmith. Heading there himself, Macdonald was caught up in the 118-day Boer siege and very nearly succumbed to dysentery. Though he was invalided home, a collection of his reports, How We Kept the Flag Flying (1900), became another great popular success, which he furthered with a public lecture tour. He burnished his fame by publishing a successful novel of frontier derring-do, The Warrigals’ Well (1901), and a guidebook, Tourists’ Handbook of Australia (1905).
On returning to The Argus, Macdonald commenced a new column, 'Nature Notes and queries', in which he discussed Australian flora, fauna and habitats. Much of it was in response to readers’ questions: his mail was said to rival the Prime Minister’s. Where he could not answer an inquiry himself, he would rely on the knowledge of other readers as experts, many of whom became regular contributors – social media avant le lettre.
In February 1909, Macdonald started writing an extra column for juveniles, 'Notes for Boys', which hymned the outdoor life through instruction in bushcraft and rural folklore. For the same audience he published The Bush Boy’s Book (1911) which went through multiple editions in the next two decades. Funds raised from the publication of children’s book At The End of the Moonpath (1922), also provided a tidy income for the Royal Children’s Hospital.
By all accounts, Macdonald spoke as he wrote: mellifluously, anecdotally, humorously. “No-one who, knowing his name well and admiring his work, met him for the first time was surprised by anything he found,” wrote one colleague of his. “His work, his method of expression were so much a part of the man that he was a real stranger to few in his own country”. Wrote another: “Macdonald was manly. He scorned meanness”.
A collection of his nature writings, The Brooks of Morning (1933), was compiled and published posthumously by his daughter, although his more lasting monument is Macdonald Park in Beaumaris, where he is honoured by a memorial fountain designed by Stanley Hammond.
Gideon Haigh has been a journalist for mor than three decades. He is the author of 26 books on sport, business and other subjects.
Donald Macdonald on batsman Victor Trumper: "the only batsman I ever knew who, getting three balls in an over exactly identical, would hit each one to a different part of the field for four”.
Cover of How We Kept The Flag Flying, published in 1900
Cover of The Tourist Handbook, published in 1905.
Donald Macdonald portrait, circa 1920s. Courtesy State Library of Victoria.
'Macdonald, Donald Alaster (1859–1932)', Hugh Anderson, Australian Dictionary of Biography, MUP, 1986.
How We Kept the Flag Flying, Donald Macdonald, Ward, Lock & Co, 1900.
'The death of Observor (Donald Macdonald)', Argus writer, The Argus, Thursday November 24, 1932.