1844-1915 | VIC | Journalist & editor
Christopher Crisp typifies the contribution that regional newspaper journalists made to the development of Victoria in the 19th Century. An assisted migrant from London, Crisp worked first for the Melbourne Herald before moving to Bacchus Marsh to work as a compositor in 1866. Soon, he was editor of the Bacchus Marsh Express. The Werribee Express and The Melton Express expanded his reach. He campaigned for local reservoirs, a new railway, the forming of agricultural societies and the creation of the Commonwealth of Australia. The words of this small-town editor were read by some of Australia's most influential politicians and judges.
Christopher Crisp, a 22 year old Londoner, landed in gold-rush Melbourne in 1857. His ship was appropriated named The Herald of the Morning, for it was on the Melbourne Herald that two years later he began his career with ink and newsprint. Apprenticed as a compositor, his task was to select the metallic letters of the alphabet and set up in rows of type – ready for the printing press – the articles hand-written by local journalists.
A keen reader of serious topics, Crisp studied in his spare time at the Mechanics Institute’s library in North Melbourne. He wanted to write vigorously as well as read.
Moving west to the small valley town of Bacchus Marsh he was briefly the compositor for The Express newspaper founded in July 1866 by a printer, George Lane. Quickly, Crisp became the editor and part-owner of the weekly, as well as serving often as the compositor. As his new home town then held barely 500 people, most newspapers had to be sold in the small adjacent townships spreading from Melton in the east to Ballan and Gordon in the west. The new goldfields of Blackwood and Barry’s Reef up in the mountains nearby also became a vital source of sales and advertisements.
The early copies – sold each Saturday for the large sum of sixpence – were so packed with news and useful information that a slow reader might spend up to 6 hours in absorbing the half dozen pages. The Express even printed a summary of the European news which had arrived at Port Phillip Bay on the latest British mail-steamer. Eventually poems and a serialised novel filled the columns not devoted to news and arguments.
He was an exemplar of the several hundred of country editors whose combined influence in Victorian politics was powerful. And yet his town was familiar to few Victorians before 1889 when the existing Melbourne railway was extended from Bacchus Marsh to Ballarat. Hitherto the main Adelaide railway passed through Werribee and Geelong before heading inland to Ballarat and beyond. The belated completion of Crisp’s shorter and steeper line – direct to Ballarat – was a tribute to his constant editorials. He celebrated his victory by publishing a 64-page booklet setting out the timetable for the new railway as well as the virtues of the district towns in which his Express circulated. It was he who campaigned for the gorge near his town to be proclaimed as one of the few tourist and nature “reserves” in Victoria; and on Saturdays many Melbourne sportsmen and hikers arrived by train to visit it.
Crisp could write clearly on almost any topic but he was known for his persistent campaigns. When Bacchus Marsh became more than a producer of milk and vegetables, a sure supply of water was vital. Who led the campaign for more reservoirs? It was Crisp of course.
When in the 1890s the six Australian colonies began to move towards a federation, which rural newspaper insisted on debating the question – to be crucial during the crisis of 1975 – how to solve a deadlock? The Express, of course.
Crisp was independent and forthright. Some local readers were offended and ceased to buy his newspaper. Their vacant places as readers were often taken by leading “liberal” politicians. Alfred Deakin, before and after his terms as prime minister, corresponded with Crisp, as did a trio of celebrated chief judges – Samuel Griffith of the High Court, HB Higgins of the Arbitration Court and George Higinbotham of Victoria’s Supreme Court. To that court the weekly Express, paid for by the judge, was delivered by post.
Crisp’s head was very round, his face clean shaven, with his nose and mouth giving just a hint of a bird of prey; but his facial expression was not unkind. He was in his fiftieth year as editor when he became seriously ill. He died on Christmas afternoon, 1915. At the graveside, at his wish, nothing was said in praise of him, not even the verbal talents he had devoted to his district, nor his burning sense of duty.
Geoffrey Blainey is a historian who has written histories of Victoria, Australia, and the world. His first book was published in 1954.
Portrait in Christopher Cris obituary, Bacchus Marsh Express, 8 January 1916, p12. Courtesy of State Library Victoria Newspapers Collection.
Crisp & Sons Printers, Lerderderg St. Bacchus Marsh. J.T. Collins Collection, La Trobe Picture Collection. Courtesy of State Library Victoria.
‘Crisp, Christopher (1844-1915)’, J.H. Rundle, Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 3, Melbourne University Press, 1969.