Portrait of J.F. Archibald. Courtesy National Library of Australia.

Jules Archibald

1856 - 1919    |    VIC    |    Editor

Archibald was born John Feltham Archibald in regional Victoria and was to leave a national legacy in both art and letters.

At first, Archibald had a string of jobs, not many of them journalistic. But in 1880, he and John Haynes launched The Bulletin and he became part of an exciting literary experiment.

For the14 years from 1886 it was Archibald's guiding hand and sensitive sub-editing that shaped The Bulletin's irreverent, nationalistic tone and nurtured both the magazine's talented writers - such as Lawson, Furphy and Banjo Patterson - and the ethos of mateship among battlers that led to it being dubbed The Bushman's Bible.

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Jules Archibald


It was not a brilliant start. It was just eight pages. Badly printed, too. Even its co-founding editor, J.F. Archibald, would lament years later that “it was at first a poor thing indeed.”

But like most poor things that Archibald touched, a glimmer of genius and an eye for a small, telling detail still shone through the lines of smudged black ink and cheap paper that passed itself off as the first edition of The Bulletin in early 1880.

The big story of the time was the hanging of Captain Moonlite’s Wantabadgery bushrangers over the murder of a policeman. Archibald, a young man from country Victoria who had moved to Sydney to pursue his journalistic dream, was determined to give readers a full account of the execution, particularly after most newspapers had agreed to boycott the controversial event.

“God is always doing something for the daily newspapers,” Archibald would often say, a lament only editors of weekly newspapers and magazines could truly understand. So Archibald went looking for something extra to add depth to the story and found it in the backyard of a house in Paddington.

Here was Robert “Nosey Bob” Howard – “the inflictor of the law’s last indignity” – sitting quietly in his garden in a short-sleeved shirt, pipe in mouth, gently plaiting the rope that would stretch the necks of the bushrangers Andrew Scott (Captain Moonlite) and Thomas Rogan.

If Archibald was opposed to the hanging, he was a good enough journalist to prod Howard and get him to explain his art, one craftsman to another.

“It wouldn’t, for instance, do to put the knot under chin,” Archibald quoted Howard. “If you did that there’d be the chance of scratching the man’s neck and drawing blood, and if there was a single drop of blood the press’d be down on me.”

If The Bulletin’s debut was not what Archibald and his business partner John Haynes had envisaged, that telling eye for detail and a passion for strong storytelling were a sign of things to come.

The first issue of 3000 copies sold out and within a couple of years The Bulletin, its masthead emblazoned with the catch-cry “Australia for the white man”, had been elevated to the status of “The Bushman’s Bible”, an irreverent weekly publication that spanned the nation and entertained its readers with a strong anti-cleric, pro-republican bent.

Archibald, born in Geelong in 1856, became a printing apprentice at The Warrnambool Examiner at the age of 14. Four years later he moved to Melbourne as a clerk with the Victorian Education Department. A short stint in the goldfields of Cooktown was followed by a move to Sydney where he finally realised his ambition to become a reporter.

But cold biographical details do little justice to a man more three-dimensional than most. During his teenage years Archibald became obsessed with French culture, insisting on being called Jules Francois rather than his staid birth name, John Felton. But his affectations and eccentricity could not disguise the man who became quite possibly the best editor Australia has produced.

Hunched at his desk, pen in hand, he was at home transforming clunky and often near-illiterate submissions into soaring prose. “I’m a soler and heeler of paragraphs,” he used to say. But his gift extended much further than a tradesman-like makeover of poor copy. Poring through awkward sentences and meandering thoughts, Archibald could identify writing talent others had missed or simply given up on.

He worked with senior writers with proven reputations and lifted their copy to a new level. But he also had a gift for finding diamonds in the rough. A century before “user-generated content” became a byword for the modern media, Archibald was constantly exhorting his readers from across the country to send in their submissions. Out of these rhymes, verse and amateurish scribblings he unearthed a generation of Australian writers who reflected the voice of a young country still trying to find its way and place in the world.

Editing and work put Archibald at peace. A man bedevilled by bouts of hypochondria and tormented by regular descents into depression, the prospect of a looming vacation and a period away from his desk terrified him.

“He comes back looking ten years older, but completely recovers his old form after a week’s work that would blind and turn the brain of another man,” said Henry Lawson, a regular beneficiary, along with C.J.Dennis, Steele Rudd and so many others, of Archibald’s polish and shine editing.

Depression and anxiety dogged him at every turn. In 1883 he made his only journey to England. He filed dispatches as he tried to find a home for himself in Fleet Street but his strong pro-republican beliefs saw him return, joined by his future bride Rosa Frankenstein. She would become an alcoholic after the pair’s only child died and the burden of caring for her only added to Archibald’s stress.

He ultimately spent a few years in an asylum. Discharged and no longer the bon vivant commanding the editor’s chair of the nation’s most talked-about journal, he finally sold his remaining interest in The Bulletin in 1914.

In his will he bequeathed funds for an art prize that, more than a century later – The Archibald Prize – would become Australia’s most famous and enduring award for portraiture.

But as his life neared its end Archibald was drawn back to his calling. Hearing that a new publication, Smith’s Weekly, was about to launch, he wandered into its offices one day in 1919. “I want to see if the old mill can grist again,” he told its editor. So they set him up with a table and a chair and piled up the contributions around him.

He never seemed more at home, just months before his death, still reading without glasses at the age of 63. “You get what you give,” he told the staff. “Print pearls and they’ll shower you with jewels. Print tripe and you’ll get an avalanche of it.”

Garry Linnell is a Fairfax Media columnist and the co-presenter of the 2UE Breakfast Show. His previous roles include Fairfax Director of News Media, Editor in Chief of The Bulletin, Editor of The Daily Telegraph, and Director of News and Current Affairs for the Nine Television network. He started with The Age as a cadet in 1982.