John Bonython

1848-1939    |    South Australia    |    Publisher & Editor

Bonython was editor of the Adelaide Advertiser for 45 years from 1879, when he was appointed at the age of 36. He became sole proprietor in 1893. Bonython built the paper into one of Australia’s most prominent dailies, advocating state development and support for the middle class while shifting away from the establishment conservative pastoral interests. The paper made him one of Australia’s biggest personal fortunes and he became a generous philanthropist. Bonython backed federation while pushing for fair treatment of the smaller states. He was elected to Australia’s first federal Parliament, where he supported protection and a White Australia.

Two names dominate the media landscape in South Australia - Murdoch and Bonython."

 
 
 

Biography

Sir John Langdon Bonython

By REX JORY

Two names dominate the media landscape in South Australia - Murdoch and Bonython.

Rupert Murdoch's rise from proprietor of the tiny News in Adelaide, which he inherited, to head of an international media empire is well documented.

But Bonython is a name little known outside South Australia. It is no more illuminating to say John Langdon Bonython was editor of The Adelaide Advertiser for 45 years than to review a symphony concert by counting the notes played.

Bonython was a colossus of the media, and the community, in SA from the early 1870s to the late 1920s. His record of community and media service has few parallels.

Bonython, a short, squat man with a fixation for personal hygiene, was the son of a Cornish carpenter who migrated to Adelaide in 1854. The family had little money and at the age of 16 John Bonython joined The Adelaide Advertiser as a junior reporter. He quickly commanded the attention of editor J.H. Barrow, who put him in charge of the literary staff.

In 1879, as a result of canny mining share investments, Bonython was able to buy a junior partnership in the newspaper. In 1884, at the age of 36, he achieved joint ownership with F.B. Burden and became editor, a post he held until 1929.

By 1893 Bonython was sole proprietor of the Advertiser. Under his leadership the weekly Chronicle, a rural newspaper, and the Evening Express were added to The Advertiser stable. The paper pursued liberal progressive policies and was a fierce advocate of Federation. It prospered financially through advertising revenue largely invested by small business.

The paper joined the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age is one of the most prominent and authoritative broadsheets in the nation.

Bonython insisted the strength of The Advertiser was based on its full and complete news coverage. Although a dedicated newspaper proprietor and editor, Bonython was in constant disagreement with the Australian Journalists' Association.

He was an influential figure in the Adelaide community but had a firm policy of never visiting the office of a politician. They came to him. He did not join the powerful Adelaide Club, where Adelaide’s wealthy and influential often closed business arrangements, until he retired at the age of 81.

He used his power to assist SA Chief Justice Sir Samuel Way obtain a seat on the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London. He pressed the SA Premier, Charles Kingston, to back Way and then convinced David Syme of The Age to seek the support of Victorian Premier Sir George Turner.

In 1898 Bonython, together with J.R. Fairfax of the Sydney Morning Herald, became the first Australian newspaper proprietor to be knighted.

Bonython used The Advertiser to advocate the Federation of States but also demanded that the rights of the smaller states be safeguarded in any Federation arrangements. Because of his personal advocacy of Federation, together with his local influence, in 1901 Bonython was elected to the first Commonwealth Parliament, second behind Kingston in a state-wide poll. He served for six years, being re-elected in the seat of Barker in 1903. He did not seek re-election in 1906.

He favoured trade protection, the White Australia policy and development of SA industry. He urged the Commonwealth to take control of the Northern Territory, which was until then part of SA.         

The Advertiser remained under his direct control and he maintained the role of editor until 1929 when it was sold to a group of Melbourne financiers and became a public company.

Bonython maintained a lifetime interest in education and used The Advertiser to influence the content of the Education Act in 1875. He pressed for the growth of technical education, helped establish the School of Mines, was chairman of the Roseworthy Agricultural College and a member of the Council of Adelaide University from 1916 to 1939.

He was a member of the federal Royal Commission into old-age pensions and helped establish the Commonwealth Literary Fund. Bonython had an astonishing record as a philanthropist. He financed the establishment of a chair of law at Adelaide University and built the Bonython Hall, the central hall of the university.

In 1934, when SA was in severe financial difficulties, Bonython gave 100,000 pounds towards the cost of completing the State Parliament House. He also helped the Government pay the salaries of public servants during the Depression. He distributed meal tickets to the needy and gave to the Salvation Army and church charities.

He died in October 1939 at the age of 91. His son, Sir John Lavington Bonython, was associated with The Advertiser stable of papers until his death in 1960.


Rex Jory is a weekly columnist with The Adelaide Advertiser as well as a former deputy editor, political editorial, daily columnist and leader writer for the paper. He also edited The Sunday Mail and has worked for the BBC and The News in Adelaide.

Further reading

 

History of the Families Bonython, E.G. Bonython, Griffin Press, Adelaide, 1966

 

'Bonython, Sir John Langdon (1848–1939)', W. B. Pitcher, Australian Dictionary of Biography