John Norton

1858 - 1916    |    NSW    |    Publisher

Norton acquired the title Truth in 1896 and built it into a hugely successful national sport, crime and muckraking newspaper with editions in each mainland capital and New Zealand. A rambunctious man with a flair for the sensational and a weakness for drink, he used his pages to lambast his enemies while serving up scandal and gossip to titillate working class readers, who admired his passionate campaigns against exploitation and social evils. His used his many libel cases and his salacious divorce as fodder for his news columns but his demagoguery and alcoholic excesses denied him any substantial political achievement.

He created Australia’s first national newspaper with state editions and became a highly successful publisher but his personal excesses limited his political impact on a young nation.

Mark Day, journalist at The Australian


John Norton


John Norton was a passionate drunkard whose megalomania led him to seek power through politics and the press. He created Australia’s first national newspaper with state editions and became a highly successful publisher but his personal excesses limited his political impact on a young nation.

Norton was born in 1858 in Brighton, England. He claimed to be illegitimate, perhaps because his father, a stonemason, died before his birth. His mother remarried and Norton claimed to have been brutally treated by his stepfather. After a lonely boarding school education he went on a “walking tour” of Europe and trained as a journalist on the Levant Herald, Constantinople.

Norton migrated to Australia in 1884 and was soon making a name for himself as a reporter on the Evening News while at the same time proselytising about the emerging labour movement. His passionate propaganda for workers’ rights earned him a place as an official New South Wales delegate to trades union congresses in London and Paris in 1886, and in 1888 he co-wrote and published a book, The History of Capital and Labour in all Lands and Ages.

In 1889 he was appointed editor of the Newcastle Morning Herald but, after being observed rolling about on the floor of his office singing hymns, was soon dismissed for repeated episodes of drunkenness.

He joined the new weekly publication Truth, established by two radical politicians in NSW – William Willis and William (Paddy) Crick. It served up a racy mix of sport, crime and scandal from the divorce courts and Norton quickly took over as editor.

Repeated drunkenness again cost him his position but when Willis was sued for publishing an allegedly treasonable letter he denied responsibility and nominated Norton as a part owner. Ownership of Truth remained obscure until 1896 when, after several bouts of litigation, Norton emerged with full ownership, probably as a result of blackmail.

Having acquired Truth by fair means or foul, Norton turbo-charged its already racy formula by making its crime and divorce court reporting even more sensational and using it as his own pulpit, skewering opponents, highlighting inequity and injustice among the working class and promoting his political ambitions.

In 1898 he was elected to the Sydney Municipal Council and the NSW Legislative Assembly where he was an almost constant presence until 1910, although frequently drunk. He twice stood for the Australian Senate, but failed to be elected. Norton’s political aspirations meshed well with his publishing and often led to a virtuous circle where his misadventures provided gripping copy for his news columns.

When Sydney politician and solicitor Dick Meagher took umbrage at a published insult – Norton labelled him “premier perjurer of our public life and the champion criminal of the continent” – Meagher accosted Norton in Pitt Street and attacked him with a horsewhip. Norton pulled a revolver and fired three shots, but missed.

The resulting court case was reported in explicit detail: Meagher was fined five pounds and Norton was acquitted. Norton also defended many of his own defamations and filled his columns with his long and loquacious addresses to the court, often embellishing the original libel. When he lost one case he sued his lawyer, alleging negligence.

The early success of Truth in Sydney emboldened Norton to expand. He launched editions in Queensland in 1900, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania in 1902 and Western Australia in 1903. Truth became immensely popular among the working class, attracting a huge following of readers drawn to Norton’s larrikin and alliterative style and abuse of those in authority.

He described Queen Victoria as “flabby, fat and flatulent” and accused Governor-General Lord Dudley of “libidinous lecheries and lascivious lapses,” but he also campaigned for much-needed social reforms, including demanding more hygienic handling of the nation’s milk supplies.

Norton’s personal life was as tempestuous and scandal-ridden as his publishing and political pursuits. He married Ava McGrath, the daughter of an Irish farmer, three weeks before their son, Ezra, was born in 1897 and maintained a stormy relationship with her until 1912 when he returned from England with his unmarried niece, Eva Pannett. She had nursed him through bouts of alcoholism and bronchial ailments and remained his carer.

Ada accused Norton of drunken assaults on her and he claimed she had assaulted him in return. He tried to abduct their daughter, Joan, born in 1907 and the court case leading to their judicial separation in 1915, on the grounds of Norton’s habitual drunkenness, cruelty and adultery became a national cause celebre, with every word reported in Truth.

In his latter years Norton wrote copious “open letters” in Truth, often running to 7000 words, expounding his theories on religion, social development, capitalism and trade protectionism. They were a far cry from his early rampaging, rambunctious tirades but still attracted a wide readership. He died of kidney failure in Melbourne in 1916 and was buried in the South Head cemetery, Sydney.

Norton’s life is summed up by his biographer, Michael Cannon: “As proprietor of the only national newspaper with separate State editors and a huge circulation, Norton had an influence on popular attitudes of his time which was more far reaching than has been generally recognised. His attacks on royalty and British governors emphasised Australian nationalistic feeling; his exposés of capitalist abuses hastened social reforms; his xenophobia strengthened the White Australia policy; his own sincerely held religious beliefs impelled exposure of spiritualist and other charlatanry; and his articles on prostitution, slums and disease alerted people to significant social evils. At the same time he suffered from the frequent sin of muckraking journalists: of alleging evils where none existed and sometimes printing unfair attacks on innocent people. His frequent alcoholic excesses crippled a mind of undoubted brilliance, prevented him from attaining any substantial political achievement, caused great suffering to his family, and finally killed him at the peak of fame and fortune.”

Mark Day is a veteran journalist, author and commentator who has worked in print, radio and television and writes on media for The Australian. 


Portrait by Lala Fisher. Courtesy of State Library of NSW.


Photo portrait by Eden Photo Studios, 1898. Courtesy State Library of NSW. Inscription reads: "A mon ami Goodman, John Norton, 11/4/98". The photo was sent with an accompanying letter on Truth letterhead signed by Norton and dated 20 October 1914 or 1904, which read: "Having had to be photographed for purposes of identification in conection with pending legal proceedings, I'm sending you a copy knowing you to be a diligent collector of criminal celebrities and thinking that perhaps you'd like to add it to yr Rogues Gallery."





Further reading


‘Norton, John (1858–1916)’, Michael Cannon, Australian Dictionary of Biography, MUP, 1988.


That Damned Democrat, Michael Cannon, MUP, 1981.


Tabloid Man: The Life and Times of Ezra Norton, Sandra Hall, Fourth Estate, 2008.


Wild Men of Sydney, Cyril Pearl, W H Allen, 1958.