1819 - 1898 | Victoria | journalist
The Argus said in 1944 that more details are known about the beginnings of Melbourne than most large cities, ancient or modern, because of one man: Edmund Finn.
Pen-named Garryowen, the Irishman arrived in Melbourne six years after the settlement of Port Phillip and recorded its people and events in a 13-year career with the Port Phillip Herald and later in his 1880 book The Chronicles of Early Melbourne.
In the preface, Finn says he was "a spectator of almost everything that went on, whether the burning of a house ... a Mayor-making or a prize fight ... or an execution ... or a corroboree".
Edmund Finn, commonly referred to in his lifetime as “the pioneering Irish journalist”, was born in Tipperary. He was initially destined for the priesthood but, having somehow escaped that role, he arrived in Melbourne on 19 July 1841.
Initially, he worked as a tutor of the classics but, in 1845, he was employed by The Port Phillip Herald where he remained for 13 years. A small, plain-looking man, he seems to have been temperamentally suited to the role of reporter, later claiming he was “a spectator of almost everything that went on, whether the burning of a house or the founding of a Church, a Mayor-making or a prize-fight, a charity sermon or an execution, a public dinner or a corroboree”. He kept voluminous notes of all that he observed.
In 1858, he took a clerical position with the Legislative Council but he must have been a raconteur of note since another prominent Irishman in the colony, Sir Charles Gavan Duffy, persuaded him to put his many stories into book form as “an anecdotal history” of Melbourne. Thus was born The Chronicles of Early Melbourne 1835 to 1852 by “Garryowen” (Finn’s pen-name), which was published in 1888. Thus, although included in lists of the colony’s early journalists, the work for which Finn is remembered is basically a memoir; although he relied on reportage in arriving at his description of the first six years of the colony’s life which preceded his arrival.
An article about Finn in The Argus newspaper of December 1944, described him as “the Walter Winchell of his time; a merry debunker and candid cameraman”. There is about Finn an undeniable Irishness, both in many of the subjects he described – Melbourne’s first two hurling matches, its Saint Patrick’s day celebrations, its response to the Irish famine of 1846 – but also in the wit and zest of his writing. Parts of what he wrote – eg a mayoral procession where a bull being led to slaughter got away from its owner and charged the mayor – remain funny to this day.
Of the perennial dispute over who founded Melbourne, John Batman or John Pascoe Fawkner, Finn wrote: “It was not Fawkner, but Fawkner’s party of five men and a woman, and the woman’s cat, were the bona-fide founders of Melbourne.” Finn claimed to have known Fawkner well and wrote as if this were the case. Fawkner was only 157 cms in height. As a young man growing up in Van Diemen’s Land, Fawkner had received 500 lashes for helping a group of convicts build a boat and attempt to escape the island. The result was a small, erratic, voluble character well brought to life on the page by Finn in passages such as the following:
“Fawkner was sort of a spoiled child with the old colonists, and even those who thoroughly disliked him, and often repelled his ill-bred arrogance, were ever-ready to concede a large latitude to the man who, by common repute, shared with Batman the honours surrounding the foundation of ‘the settlement’. Batman was dead, and ‘Johnny’ was not only alive but poking his nose into every public movement, from anti-transportation to separation. The prestige that would have to be divided between him and Batman, had he lived, was not unnaturally claimed by Fawkner, and as he had a finger in every pie, and was jumping about like a squirrel wherever there was anything astir, either at a fire or a public meeting, an election or a street row, a public dinner or a charity sermon, he was accorded a certain toleration which clothed him in a privilege that fell to the lot of no other man.” Elsewhere, he provides us with the compelling image of Fawkner, surrounded by “hooligans” angry at one of his legislative initiatives, “grinning like a wild cat”.
Two compliments are due to Edmund Finn. The first is that since he wrote The Chronicles of Early Melbourne a string of people have used it to acquire an impression of early Melbourne. The second is that his prose still has a freshness after more than a century. How many of today’s journalists will have that said of them in 100 years?
'The Chronicles of Early Melbourne, 1835-1851', by Garryowen.
'Finn, Edmund (1819-1898)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, MUP, 1966.
Garryowen’s Melbourne: A Selection from the Chronicles of Early Melbourne, Edmund Finn, Nelson, Melbourne, 1967.
The Chronicles of Early Melbourne 1835 to 1852, Historical, Anecdotal and Personal, Edmund Finn, 1888.