James Aikenhead


James Aikenhead

1815-1887    |    Tasmania    |    Publisher

James Aikenhead founded Australia’s third oldest newspaper in continuous circulation, the Launceston Examiner, in 1842. With John West as a fiery editorial writer, the paper campaigned relentlessly against transportation of convicts, a campaign that helped unite Australian colonies and sowed the seeds for federation. West went to Sydney to continue his fight for federation and Press freedom; Aikenhead edited the Examiner for 27 years and fought for northern Tasmania while beating off challenges from several other papers to become the voice of the region.

...The aim of the publishers was to create a 'new moral ground upon which the substance and true relevance of the colony could be promoted'. 

Patricia Ratcliff


James Aikenhead


On 10 August 1853, Launceston celebrated news of the end of transportation to the then Van Diemen’s Land in grand style. Included in the vast public parade was a model of a printing press, symbolising public recognition of the central role played by newspapers – and in particular that of the Launceston Examiner - in a movement that brought to heel a contemptuous British government and an undemocratic governor.

The Examiner had been launched on 12 March 1842 by young Scottish colonist James Aikenhead and another colonist, J.S. Waddell, with the Rev. John West a major instigator. Following the cessation of transportation to NSW in 1840, Van Diemen’s Land had become the sole destination for all transported British felons – ranging from political martyrs to murderers.

Between 1840 and 1850, arrivals of prisoners averaged more than 4000 per year, with no hope of them being absorbed or employed. Launceston was being defined by its public gallows; public ridicule at the stocks; punishment on the treadmill; and its chain gangs. Its barracks, penitentiary, female factory, courthouse and jail blighted the town. Colonists were ready for what West described in his History of Tasmania as “the most important colonial agitation of modern times.”

A former editor of The Examiner, the late Michael Courtney, wrote in the newspaper’s 150th anniversary edition in 1992: “The fact that James Aikenhead had an unswerving commitment to publishing a newspaper in difficult and turbulent times, and the Rev. John West had an unswerving commitment to bettering the lives of the largely neglected people of Van Diemen’s Land, was fortuitous … such a momentous victory (ending transportation) gave the fledgling newspaper a special place in the hearts and minds of Tasmanians.”

While John West’s oratory, campaigning and powerful writing roused the community, it was Aikenhead and J.S. Waddell - also in West’s congregation and who later became joint proprietor - that made the newspaper happen. The future press for the newspaper was delivered in secrecy to Waddell’s premises, consigned as brewery equipment. Signalling Aikenhead’s commercial acumen, to build awareness of the new newspaper against its arrivals, the first three editions were distributed free.

John West’s biographer Patricia Ratcliff wrote that the aim of the publishers was to create a “new moral ground upon which the substance and true relevance of the colony could be promoted.”

The imprint of the first edition of The Examiner lists Aikenhead as Publisher and Printer. West is sometimes attributed editorship, but while he was the driving force of the campaign against transportation, his print role was as editorialist. On Aikenhead’s death in 1887, obituaries published in The Examiner and in other newspapers all attribute to him editorship, from the launch of the newspaper until 1869, when he transferred his interest to his son, William.

From the first edition and its first editorial, the newspaper vowed to not only record local, state, and international events, but above all to respond “with commitment and vigour” to all issues concerning its readers and its region.

The first two pages of that edition are packed with agricultural, commercial and other advertisements - including advice about ships arriving and sailing to ports near and far - vital to the remote colony. The publisher has an understanding of the commercial realities of newspapers – that as well as providing the financial underpinning of publishing, advertisements provide information vital to the successful functioning of a community. This was to provide a foundation that saw The Examiner survive all its competitors. Stories in that first issue include police reports, a report of a meeting to set up a Mechanic’s Institute, and reports on markets for wheat and other agricultural produce. There are also extensive reports of news from overseas, taken from newspapers that arrived on ships sailing in to Launceston.

The central piece of the first edition is what has become a much-quoted editorial: “We are resolved to maintain our position with spirit and resolution, to win the confidence a new undertaking can hardly be expected to command, and while looking to the public as our only patron, to recognise it as our only judge.” Also “… in this colony, the press is the shield of the people – their only shield. We regard the present crisis of our colonial history as especially momentous. The time cannot be remote when the era of irresponsible rule will terminate in the colonies of Great Britain.”

James Aikenhead was born at Montrose in Scotland, and had commercial and legal training. Not yet 20 years old, he left London on the barque Janet in July 1834, and arrived in Hobart in December, but within a month continued on to Launceston. He married the daughter of a Congregational minister in Launceston in 1840 and had 12 children, only four of whom survived him.

His obituaries in The Examiner and other newspapers say he was frequently requested to stand for parliament but declined while he was associated with the newspaper on the grounds it might injure its reputation for impartiality. In 1869, after handing over his interest to his son William, he was elected to represent Tamar in the Legislative Council.

His obituary in the rival Daily Telegraph (1883-1928) says: “As a writer, he was terse and vigorous, and always had the courage of his own convictions, but as he adopted conservative principles, his writing did not always meet with popular favour.”

His obituary in The Tasmanian (1881-1895) says of The Examiner under Aikenhead: “The proprietors never stayed their hands to consider what any course of political action might have upon their circulation, or whose favour it might gain, or whose friendship it might lose. While not indifferent to the goodwill of their fellow colonists they always felt that whatever temporary unpopularity they might suffer, the true course to secure lasting respect was one of all-round fairness. “

James Aikenhead became associated with almost every prominent movement – social, commercial and political – in Launceston. He helped found the Launceston Savings Bank and assisted in establishing the Launceston Chamber of Commerce, the Mechanics Institute and now defunct Launceston Public Library. He was an investor in several mining operations.

Following the death of J.S. Waddell late in 1857, his nephew Henry Button joined as joint proprietor and his name then appeared in the imprint as publisher/printer.

In 1887, due to ill health, William Aikenhead sold his share to the Button family, ending 43 years of Aikenhead association with the masthead.

In 1900, Launceston was officially removed from the newspaper’s masthead and it became simply The Examiner, reflecting its regional role in northern Tasmania.

Lloyd Whish-Wilson was born in Launceston and spent more than 30 years at The Examiner, in roles ranging from reporter to Chief Executive. From 2002-2011 he held senior publisher roles with Rural Press Limited and John Fairfax Limited.

(The writer acknowledges his considerable debt to Tasmanian historians Dr Dan Huon, Professor Michael Roe, Dr Alison Alexander and Patricia Ratcliff. Their articles on the press in Tasmania, and precises of their speeches, have featured in various special publications of The Examiner. The contributions of senior Examiner journalists including Julian Burgess, Martin Stevenson, Fran Voss, and Noel Shaw, have also been invaluable.)


Further reading


The History of Tasmania, John West, Henry Dowling, Launceston, 1852.


The Usefulness of John West – Dissent and Differences in the Australian Colonies, Patricia Ratcliff, Albernian Press, 2003.


Flotsam and Jetsam, Henry Button, Facsimile printed by Regal Press, Launceston, on the 150th anniversary of The Examiner, 1992.