Rev John West

John West

1809-1873    |    NSW, TAS    |    Editor

West was the first man to carry the title of editor of the Sydney Morning Herald. In a formidable career before, during and after his editorship (1854–1873), he spearheaded the movement against the transportation of convicts, provided the intellectual framework for federation in a series of essays from 1854 and designed the first national flag. He wrote the first history of Tasmania and, in 1842, helped found the Launceston Examiner.

John West was an intellectual and moral leader whose influence in Australasian colonial society extended far beyond newspaper journalism.



John West

John West was an intellectual and moral leader whose influence in Australasian colonial society extended far beyond newspaper journalism.

Yet his appointment as editor of the Herald allowed him to draw together and enlarge upon the main endeavours of his life: his mission to promote Nonconformist ideals in public life, his commitment to the cause of colonial advancement, his polemical journalism and his work as an historian.

He was an editor of enduring significance. In some respects, his editorship set the tone of the Herald for more than a century: a mixture of moral high-mindedness and profound conservatism. Not for nothing did it come to be nicknamed “Granny”.

This culture within the paper was still evident in the latter half of the twentieth century. It found expression in many ways: a strong separation between the editorial and commercial sides of the business – what has come to be called the separation of church and state; an equally strong separation between news and opinion; a rigid adherence to propriety of content, and a commitment to strict accuracy in stories and headings.

Corseted and stifling though it became, this culture reflected the shared values of successive generations of Fairfaxes and the men they appointed to run the company, but its seeds can be detected in the editorship of John West and the proprietorship of John Fairfax, who appointed him.

In its opinions, the paper was often on the wrong side of history but in its news pages it developed a dutiful and somewhat austere striving to provide its readers with a bedrock of reliable information on which to base their choices as participants in political, economic and social life.

John Fairfax, like West, was a Congregationalist. They had known each other in Warwickshire but had come to Australia in contrasting circumstances.

Fairfax had been financially ruined by a libel action against one of his newspapers in England, and emigrated to New South Wales.

West, having been admitted to the Congregationalist ministry, had been sent by his church’s Colonial Missionary Society to Launceston.

There he spearheaded the movement against transportation of convicts and, with fellow Nonconformists, helped found the Launceston Examiner. He also wrote for the paper, his first article being about the value of a free press.

Interestingly, in the light of his subsequent editorship of the Herald, he also wrote for the Examiner an article extolling the virtues of democracy: “It is democracy that in the long run moulds and fashions every movement.” In the uncompromising prose of a Dissenting Christian, he denounced opponents of democracy as “ignorant, half-witted and beclouded bigots”.

In 1852 he published a two-volume History of Tasmania and is regarded as one of the founders of Australian historical writing.

However, it was the issue of transportation that brought him to prominence beyond Van Diemen’s Land. His Launceston Association for the Cessation of Transportation of Convicts provided him with a springboard into inter-colonial affairs. The association sought to unite colonial opposition to transportation and provided the foundations for the first Australian inter-colonial political association, the Australasian Anti-Transportation League.

He devised the League’s banner as a symbol of inter-colonial unity, and it closely resembled what ultimately became the Australian flag: the Union flag in one corner of a deep blue field bearing four stars representing the Southern Cross.

The issue of transportation re-united him with John Fairfax, also a passionate proponent of abolition, and following the 1851 conference of the League, the Herald published a generous tribute to West’s eloquence and character.

It happened that at about this time Fairfax was looking for a full-time editor. Up till then, in the company’s somewhat rudimentary executive structure, a Methodist minister, the Rev Ralph Mansfield, had evolved into de facto editor, and although he exercised great editorial influence over the paper throughout the 1840s, he never formally occupied the editorial chair.

In the early 1850s John Fairfax offered the editorship to West, and the appointment took effect in November 1854.

Although describing himself as “liberal-conservative”, West saw himself as even more conservative than Fairfax. Under his editorship, the Herald exhibited a paradoxical mix of Nonconformist progressive views on certain areas of social policy and an unyielding conservatism on matters of politics.

Consistent with Nonconformist values, the paper began to exhibit an unexpectedly enlightened view on some issues, notably on racial discrimination against the Chinese, which the paper abjured in strong terms.

On religious sectarianism, a pervasive source of division in public affairs between Catholics and Protestants, the paper advocated tolerance and generosity.

West campaigned against the establishment of any religion as the church of state, and under his editorship the Herald threw its support behind Sir Henry Parkes’ introduction of the Public Instruction Act. Its underlying principles of free, secular and compulsory school education remain the pillars of state education policy to this day.

On political questions, however, the Herald was irredeemably conservative, even reactionary. It supported a property franchise for elections in New South Wales, and abominated the idea of one vote one value.

It dismissed democracy as mobocracy, excoriating it as the triumph of an ignorant mass over a knowledgeable and cultivated elite.

In the aftermath of the Eureka rebellion, which it condemned as treason, it coined a new term of execration: digocracy.

The inconsistency between this policy and West’s earlier zeal for democracy suggests that then, as now, the proprietor’s views will prevail on questions of editorial policy, and a dissentient editor is free to exercise the privilege of resignation.

West did not resign: he died in office after 19 years of extraordinarily formative editorship. If he ever thought of his proprietor as an ignorant, half-witted and beclouded bigot, it is lost to history.

Dr Denis Muller is a political scientist and Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for Advancing Journalism at the University of Melbourne. He worked as a journalist on the Sydney Morning Hearld from 1969 to 1986 and on The Age from 1986 to 1993.

Further reading


Company of Heralds, Gavin Souter, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1981.


“The Australias Are One: John West Guiding Colonial Australia to Nationhood”, Ratcliff, P., Senate Occasional Lecture Series at Parliament House, Canberra, 23 July 2004.