1843-1896 | VIC | Investigative journalist
James, aka Julian Thomas - but famous for his 'The Vagabond' byline - practised immersion journalism more than a century before the term was coined. His fly-on-the-wall pieces inside Melbourne institutions such as lunatic asylums and hospitals were the talk of Melbourne for their detailed descriptions, revelations and anonymity. He began one piece on the Kew asylum: "The Angel of Death hovers continually over Kew, but he brings no terror with him. Death is relief to many of these poor lunatics".
John Stanley James once declared that a man should be judged not by his name but by what he did.
The reason he did so was probably because he lived under an alias (Julian Thomas) and wrote under a pen-name (The Vagabond). His personal story has to be read with caution since he was its primary source and various parts of it – e.g. that he was an American by birth who had fought for the Confederacy during the American civil – have been proven untrue. Indeed, one of his critics likened him to Baron Munchhausen and said that, like the baron, he was not only capable of creating fictions but also believing them to be true.
It seems that he was born in Wolverhampton in 1843. Described as a volatile, emotional individual, he had a cold disapproving father. Sent to boarding school, he claimed to have run away at the age of 12 and lived in the lodging houses frequented by beggars and tramps. Echoes of this experience would feature in his journalism. His father was a lawyer and James tried his hand at that before another blow-up between the pair saw James edge towards freelance journalism. One of his early successes was a series of articles on the plight of rural labourers, denouncing the squalid conditions they lived in.
At 30, after another blow-up with his father, he sailed for the United States. He settled in Farmville, Virginia, purchased property, built a grand mansion in the Italian Gothic manner, served on the board of a bank and established a boys’ school. According to local historian Bob Flippen: “He disappeared under mysterious circumstances in the fall of 1875 bound for Australia and assuming the alias of Julian Thomas.” He reached Melbourne in April 1876. At a late night meeting with Hugh George, the general manager of The Argus, James exuberantly sold himself, in George’s words, as “the best (rather unquotable) journalist in this city”.
His professional success over the next eight months, writing under the pen-name of The Vagabond, was phenomenal. Doing something which no Melbourne journalist had apparently done before him, Stanley went undercover and lived for several days in an asylum, spent a month in Pentridge prison, dined in a sixpenny restaurant, attended events like illegal bare-knuckle fist fights, and then frankly reported what he had seen and heard.
The Vagabond’s articles became the talk of Melbourne with much speculation as to the author’s identity, one popular theory being that it was an official from Government House nobly motivated by a concern for society’s less privileged. In the end, beguiled by the excitement, Stanley gave the game away by revealing himself as the author and, in so doing, punctured the mystique of the Vagabond persona. Interestingly, when he tried the same ploy the following year for the Sydney Morning Herald, it didn’t work. Whereas the Melbourne middle class had been scandalised to learn what was going on in their slums of their city, the Sydney middle class seem to have regarded it as hardly being news.
Like so many prominent journalists of his day, James had his share of adventures overseas. His attitudes on issues of race reflected the attitudes of his day, but he was capable of making an independent stand. In 1887, after he visited the New Hebrides, he charged the New Hebrides Company with “slavery pure and simple”, saying irons and the lash were used on both men and women to make them work.
In 1969, Melbourne University Press re-published a collection of The Vagabond’s articles together with an introduction by historian Michael Cannon (from which the information for this article was taken). Cannon wrote of The Vagabond: “His style of writing was quite the reverse of sensational ... his normal method was the straightforward, sympathetic, never sentimentalised descriptions of his observations and experiences.”
It is for this reason that students of the history of Australian football are grateful to The Vagabond for his description of an early Australian football match (between Carlton and Melbourne). Although never slow to pull the trigger when a moral judgement was to be made – he called the game “a disgrace to our civilisation” – The Vagabond provides us with the most vivid picture we possess of the atmosphere of an early football match and the egalitarian composition of its crowd:
“The six or seven thousand spectators comprised representatives of nearly all classes. It was a truly democratic crowd. Ex-Cabinet Ministers and their families, members of Parliament, professional and radesmen, free selectors and squatters, clerks, shopmen, bagmen, mechanics, larrikins, betting men, publicans. Barmaids (very strongly represented), working girls and the half world, all were there. From the want of reserved seats, or any special arrangement for the ladies, the mixture all around the ground was as heterogeneous as might be.”
In his 40s, James lost the vigour and enterprise that had distinguished his early journalistic adventures. He died, in Fitzroy, a pauper and alone at the age of 53. Although he was forgotten, his writings were not, thousands joining his funeral procession.
Martin Flanagan wrote for The Age for more than 30 years and has written 13 books and a play.
(John Stanley James, alias) Julian Thomas (pen name ‘The Vagabond’), Stewart & Co, 1876. Courtesy of State Library of Victoria
Kew asylum, later known as Willsmere, Charles Nettleton, c 1885-1887. Courtesy State Library Victoria.
Vagabond article from The Argus
‘James, John Stanley (1843–1896)’, John Barnes, Australian Dictionary of Biography, ANU, 1972.
The Vagabond Papers, John Stanley James, Melbourne University Press, 1969.