1799-1856 | South Australia | Publisher
Stevenson was a British journalist who edited South Australia’s first newspaper, the South Australian Gazette and Colonial Register. It was printed in London on 18 June 1836, six months before the colony of South Australia was proclaimed. Copies were sent out on the boat that brought the first settlers under John Hindmarsh. Stevenson was appointed personal secretary to Hindmarsh, providing him with great power and an enormous conflict of interest. Under a subsequent governor, Stevenson exposed corruption by the colonial secretary George Stephen. Stevenson survived a libel action and Stephen resigned.
In journalism, more than almost any profession, to be first is a critical advantage. First to break a fresh story, first on the streets with a new edition, first with an innovative promotion.
In South Australia, George Stevenson holds the distinction of being the first newspaper editor in the infant British colony centred on the emerging city of Adelaide.
It was an extraordinary and visionary appointment. Stevenson and businessman Robert Thomas met in London in the 1830s and decided, with their families, to be part of the experimental colony based on free settlement.
Stevenson was born at Berwick-on-Tweed, Northumberland, England, the son of a gentleman farmer who died when George was 12. Soon after young Stevenson went to sea in a ship owned by his uncle, returned to Britain and studied medicine and then went with a brother to Canada and worked on the land. He subsequently travelled in Central America and the West Indies.
During his travels, he began writing for newspapers and contributed to the London Globe and Examiner. He returned to Britain in 1830 and may have assisted Henry Lytton Bulwer in his writings on France, although his name does not appear in the works.
In 1835, Stevenson became joint editor and "extensive contributor" of The Globe, then owned by the Colonization Commissioner, Robert Torrens. He married the previous editor's daughter.
Thomas, meanwhile, sold law books in London's newspaper and court precinct, Fleet Street.
In 1836 Stevenson was appointed secretary to South Australia's first Governor, John Hindmarsh and clerk of the council of the new province.
Stevenson and Thomas - determined to be part of the new colony - travelled on the Buffalo to Adelaide, arriving on 28 December 1836. It was Stevenson who read the Governor's proclamation to colonists under an old gum tree, near the beach at Glenelg. The gum tree remains preserved today as a relic of that proclamation.
A preliminary edition of the South Australian Gazette and Colonial Register was published in London on 18 June 1836 under Stevenson's editorship. At the time, he announced his intention to publish its second edition "in a city in the wilderness of which the site is not yet known." True to his prediction, a year late, on 3 June 1837 the Gazette and Colonial Register was first printed in Adelaide, the colony's first newspaper.
It was edited by Stevenson in a storm of controversy. As secretary to the Governor, he was accused of bias and pro-Hindmarsh partisanship, as well as having access to privileged information.
The newspaper under Stevenson's editorship later attacked George Milner Stephen who became acting Governor in 1838, leading to an unsuccessful libel action against the paper.
Controversy followed Stevenson. In October 1838, the Gazette and Register attacked the new Governor, George Gawler and lost its lucrative Government Gazette contract. It then became known simply as The Register. Stevenson was a strong critic of the site of Adelaide chosen by planner, Colonel William Light.
In the early 1840s South Australia fell on difficult financial times and in 1842 Stevenson was forced to relinquish his interest in the Register. It survived for a further 90 years in the hands of John Stephens, Joseph Fisher, John Howard Clark and J.H. Finlayson.
Stevenson established a newer edition of the South Australian Gazette and Colonial Register in 1847 but it lasted for less than two years. Between 1848 and 1850 he set up and published the Gazette and Mining Journal, but the State economy slumped as thousands of people, including major business leaders, headed for the Victorian goldfields.
Although his publishing ventures were not always successful, Stevenson was also a pioneer in horticulture. He was known as the Father of Horticulture in SA. At his house at North Adelaide (set on four acres, 1.6 hectares) he grew a huge variety of fruit trees and vines to demonstrate that the hard Adelaide Plains soil was suitable for cultivation.
He once predicted that SA would produce "orange groves as luxuriant and productive as those of Spain or Italy." His senior gardener, George McEwin was the author of the South Australian Vigneron and Gardeners' Manual, which became a guide for the cultivation of vine and the propagation of fruit trees and vegetables.
Stevenson later set up the Glen Ewin orchards, which became famous for jam production.
Stevenson was, with John Barton Hack, one of the first two winegrowers in SA, a state that now produces 65 per cent of Australian wines.
The first grapes were planted at North Adelaide in 1837, a year after the colony was established. Stevenson and Hack had several properties in North Adelaide used for horticulture but by the early 1840s they were sold and sub-divided for housing.
Stevenson then rented land near the city, later converted to the official Adelaide Botanic Gardens, which remain today. From his home gardens Stevenson supplied most of the colony with vine cuttings and fruit trees.
In the early 1840s Stevenson was appointed the Adelaide Coroner, a post he carried out with distinction. He died in Adelaide in 1856 and was survived by a daughter and two sons. One son, George J.W. Stevenson, became a distinguished journalist and politician.
Rex Jory is a weekly columnist at the Adelaide Advertiser. He is a former deputy editor, leader writer and daily columnist for the paper. He is a former editor of the Sunday Mail and has worked for the Adelaide News and the BBC.
Early Struggles of the Australian Press, J. Bonwick, Gordon and Gotch, London, 1890.
The Press in South Australia 1836-1850, G.H. Pitt, Wakefield Press 1946.
‘Stevenson, George (1799-1856)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Australian National University.