1859 - 1957 | VIC | Reporter and editor
Cunningham began his career as an office-boy on a country newspaper and ended it as a distinguished editor of The Argus, rewarded with a knighthood. Along the way he worked as a proofreader, political journalist, court reporter and police roundsman. He gained a reputation for securing exclusives by outwitting his rivals in the race to get fresh news from ships as they entered Port Phillip Bay. He showed characteristic initiative in scooping every other reporter in the colonies following the wounding and capture of Australia's most famous bushranger. His reports of the ensuing trial made his name at the beginning of what would become an astonishingly long and distinguished life in newspapers.
Three weeks before his 21st birthday in 1880, soon after he started with The Age, Edward Cunningham was sent to cover the arrival of the wounded Ned Kelly on a train from Benalla. Every other reporter went to Spencer Street station but young Cunningham took a gamble the police would unload the outlaw at North Melbourne to avoid the waiting crowds. He was right, and scooped everyone with a story about Kelly’s trip to Melbourne Gaol.
The Age had hired Cunningham from Tasmania to cover State Parliament but when the Kelly trial began, the paper sent him to cover it. If not the beginning of a remarkable career, it was a milestone, one that stands out all the more after the flowering of the Kelly myth in the 20th century. One contemporary judged Cunningham’s reports as “masterpieces of meticulous, yet dramatic journalism”. The Melbourne Punch described their author as “a tall youth, with an air of almost stolid solidity … a good reporter, accurate, careful … the sedate, earnest young man, with more liking for work than for play”.
Cunningham might not have subscribed to the Kelly romance as much as those who weren’t there. He showed no sign of trading on it later. In 1936, the year he was knighted at age 77, he was asked to give the inaugural A.N. Smith memorial lecture. This ran to thousands of words that, read a lifetime later, seem remarkably crisp for someone who learned his craft in Queen Victoria’s reign. He surveyed Australian journalism from the crude, handwritten sheets of John Pascoe Fawkner in the 1830s to the intemperate Gold Rush newspapers to the rise of the broadsheets for which he worked nearly all his adult life – first The Age but mostly The Argus. He made some pungent comments, reported next day, about politicians conniving to control the Press, and made a case for Press freedom that could be used word for word in the 21st century. But he did not mention what would now appear to be a stand-out episode in a long and varied career – his first-hand view of Ned Kelly’s trial, though not the execution.
Cunningham was born at Battery Point in Hobart on 21 July, 1859. He was the son of Benjamin Marriott Cunningham, a shipping manager, and Jane Eccles Neilson, both Scottish-born. The Australian Dictionary of Biography says he was educated at various private schools, started work at 15 as an office boy with the Bendigo Advertiser, and owed much of his education to his “talented and cultivated mother”. He returned to Hobart as a proof reader on The Mercury, and learned shorthand in his own time. At a time when all but a few journalists in the colony were British-born he would be one of the first “natives” to make his mark in newspapers.
Cunningham’s long life spanned Australian history from the gold era to the dawn of the space age. He saw Australian troops go to every war from the Sudan in 1885 to Korea in 1950. As a young man he met old ones who’d been settlers in the pastoral age of the 1840s, before gold changed everything. He talked to Peter Lalor about leading the rebels at Eureka Stockade. After moving to The Argus in 1881 he went to California with Alfred Deakin in 1885 to see the Chaffey brothers’ irrigation projects; his despatches encouraged the Chaffeys to move to Mildura to pioneer irrigation farming in Australia. In 1897 he covered Queen Victoria’s Jubilee celebrations. In 1909, he was one of six delegates at the first Imperial Press Conference in London given an honorary Law doctorate from Glasgow University.
When Andrew Fisher pledged Australia’s last shilling and last man to the Imperial war effort in 1914, Cunningham had been editor of The Argus for eight years, a job he would hold until 1928, when he was almost 70. He chaired The Argus group’s board of management until 1938, and wrote a history of the Royal Women’s Hospital in his 80s. In all, he spent 64 years working in newspapers, 57 of them with The Argus. He had married Maud Mary Jackson in 1886, and would outlive her by 26 years. They had no children. He died in 1957 at 97 at his house in South Yarra, where he grew camellias. People who met that remarkable old man in the 1950s can marvel in the 21st century that they knew someone who met Ned Kelly in 1880.
Andrew Rule is an associate editor of the Herald Sun and twice winner of the Graham Perkin Australian Journalist of the Year award.
Sir Edward Cunningham.
Cover of Australasian Sketcher, Saturday November 6, 1880.
The Argus building in Melbourne.
'Cunningham, Sir Edward Sheldon (1859–1957)', John Salmond, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Australian National University, 1981.
'The Victorian Press: A Survey', Sir Edward Cunningham, A.N. Smith Memorial Lecture in Journalism, 1936.