Samuel Bennett

1858-1878    |    NSW

Bennett launched Sydney’s first evening paper, the Evening News, in 1867. He claimed to have a circulation of 40,000 – double that of his nearest rival – by 1884. The paper featured bold type, short stories and professed sympathy with workers. It was more temperate than rival papers, which thundered their views, and it quickly gained an important place in the market. Three years later he began the Australian Town and Country Journal, which included essays on literature, science and invention as well as the usual local and foreign news. Its accuracy and depth made it a reliable source for students of Australian social history.

[Bennett] was remembered in newspapers far and wide as an “old warrior” and “incorruptible champion of the people” whose death was a “national loss”.



Samuel Bennett

Samuel Bennett was one of Australia’s foremost press barons of the 1800s and a symbol of colonial success. Arriving in Australia as a bounty immigrant, contracted as a compositor, he worked his way from the print room to the publishing chair.

A journalist, historian and some-time poet, Bennett was a keen promoter of colonial literature and formed friendships with authors, poets and like-minded liberals. His publishing ventures brought great wealth and Bennett spent the last few years of his life in one of Sydney’s grandest homes, Mundarrah Towers, in the eastern Sydney suburbs.

Despite his success, he remained unaffected and, at the time of his death, was remembered in newspapers far and wide as an “old warrior” and “incorruptible champion of the people” whose death was a “national loss”.

Bennett was a self-made man. Born on 28 March 1815 in a Cornish mining town to a blacksmith and his wife, he became a prominent colonial newspaper publisher, journalist and historian. Following his premature death in 1878 he was honoured by the poet Henry Kendall in the elegy ‘By the Cliffs of the Sea, In Memory of Samuel Bennett’. Kendall’s verse captured Bennett’s contradictory personality, gruff and brusque to acquaintances yet honest and open-hearted to those who knew him well.

What a beautiful nature and true
In Bennett was hidden away.
In the folds of a shame without end, 
When the lips of the scorner were curled,
I found in this brother a friend

Bennett, with his milliner wife Eliza, arrived in Australia in January 1841, most likely in response to an appeal published by the proprietors of the Sydney Herald and reprinted in English newspapers encouraging printers to emigrate to the colony. Having started as a compositor on the Herald, Bennett was to eventually oversee the printing department, witnessing the paper’s sale to Fairfax and Kemp and the subsequent name change to the Sydney Morning Herald. In 1859 Bennett left the paper, joining former government printer William Hanson to buy the Empire, which had lain dormant since financial pressures forced its closure in late 1858.

Founded by Henry Parkes in 1850, the Empire was once the Herald’s main competitor and the rivalry resumed under Bennett, reaching its pinnacle on 1 January 1868 when Bennett, now as sole proprietor, dropped the price from threepence to one penny a copy and the Empire became the colony’s first morning penny paper. In his editorial of that day Bennett drew from liberal democratic principles for the price cut, arguing the cost of newspapers was prohibitive for many and that “it is not to the welfare of a democratic State that so large a proportion of the people should be without the means of forming an opinion on the political events of the day”.

Bennett was already experienced in penny papers, having launched the Evening News on 29 July 1867, the first penny afternoon paper in New South Wales. With success in the morning and evening markets Bennett went on in January 1870, at a cost of £10 000, to launch a national weekly, the Australian Town and Country Journal. The new publication continued the competition with Fairfax, vying with its Sydney Mail for readership. Regarded as the first Australian newspaper to publish a column for women readers, within a year Bennett was boasting the Journal had the largest circulation of any newspaper in the country and, at its peak, sold more copies than the Bulletin.

Unsated by his burgeoning newspaper business, the industrious Bennett was simultaneously writing a history of Australia. Initially printed in serial form in the Empire, the first volume was published as The History of Australian Discovery and Colonisation in 1867. The 661-page book, detailing the colony’s history to 1831, was claimed by Bennett to be a popular history aimed at instructing youth “in a branch of education which has been hitherto, almost, if not entirely, neglected”.

Whilst predominantly factual, based on historical sources and regarded for some years as a key reference work, Bennett was unable to resist adding scattered footnotes of commentary. One of these, in relation to early settler/Aboriginal interaction, reveals Bennett’s appreciation of the colony’s Indigenous people. He applauds the “untiring efforts” of the first governors in their concern for Aboriginal welfare and, in a thinly veiled criticism, contrasts their well-intentioned works to “the doings of many influential colonists of a later period”.

Bennett, preoccupied with his newspapers, never published his planned second volume and, by the 1870s, had a new distraction, having purchased the impressive Mundarrah Towers mansion at Little Coogee (later renamed Clovelly). Bennett set to making the grand property even grander.

As a younger, poorer man, living in Wolloomooloo and then Newtown, he had gazed enviously at the seaside dwelling, with its 20 acres of land sweeping the coast around Little Coogee Bay. Now, the newspaper baron could indulge his passions for fine living and the Australian landscape. One visitor recalled an afternoon spent at the property with Bennett as “his active host, who, staff in hand, bounded over the rocks and cliffs that border his beloved domain”.

Bennett’s love of his adopted country helped forge his friendship with the poet Kendall, who he complimented as an “inspired blackfellow”. Another close friend was the politician and land reformer John Robertson.

Like Robertson, Bennett was an astute observer of colonial society and shared the liberal vision of progress that prioritised hard work and opportunity over class and entitlement. His newspapers were known for their liberal views but were never politically overt, with Bennett preferring to fill columns with a variety of factual, up to date news, social and overseas snippets.

His determination to be the first with the news came at a cost and for many years Bennett fiercely battled Fairfax and the Reuters cable company over access to news wire services. His indomitable persistence eventually prevailed and, as an afternoon paper, the Evening News was often the first to publish cable news from overseas.

Whether due to wire service problems, a printers’ strike, or for other reasons, Bennett merged the Empire with the Evening News in 1875. Possibly, his frustration at being unable to continue his historical and literary writing was also a contributing factor as Bennett is said to have partly retired at about this time. Whatever plans he held for the future were unfulfilled as a minor cut to a finger while working on Mundarrah Towers led to tetanus and Bennett’s death on 2 June 1878, aged 63. His two remaining publications outlived him by many years, the Australian Town and Country Journal until 1919 and the Evening News until 1931. As trustees, Bennett’s widow and their four surviving children had run the newspapers until 1918.

It was reported that on the day of Bennett’s burial at Waverley cemetery in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, a rainbow emerged in the showery sky, arching from Mundarrah to the gravesite. If true, the report is an affirming phenomenon of Bennett’s bond to the coastal landscape. If not, it is equally affirming as a tribute to one of Australia’s lesser known but greatly influential press pioneers.

Dr Margaret Van Heekeren is a journalism historian and founding member of the Centre for Media History at Macquarie University.


Australian Town and Country JournalAustralian Town and Country Journal, 8 January 1870. Courtesy NLA.


The Evening NewsThe Evening News, 30 November 1869. Courtesy NLA.


Mundarrah TowersMundarrah Towers, from Demolished Houses of Sydney, 1999, edited by Joy Hughes, Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales.