Main picture: Thadeus O'Kane, courtesy of the Charters Towers Archives Group and Charters Towers Regional Council
1820-1890 | Queensland | Editor
This Irishman was one of Australia’s most fiery, colourful and strident 19th century Australian editors. He railed against corruption and unfairness in the gold mining town of Charters Towers as it became Queensland’s second biggest population centre. His Northern Miner became the most influential Queensland paper outside Brisbane in the 1880s. O’Kane received countless writs and expulsions from local organisations as he kept “knocking against the bigots, the brainless, the swindlers and rogues”. Local miners raised money to help him fight two libel writs. O’Kane was a powerful example for independent editors at a time when many submitted to government patronage.
At Charters Towers in Far North Queensland from 1873 to 1889, Thadeus O’Kane wrote a distinguished chapter in Australian newspaper history with his forthright independence of editorial outlook and his refusal to indulge in any of the small corruptions that were part of the culture of the booming mining town.
With many sections of the press engaged in a drive for respectability, O’Kane was depicted as an editor who would upset those members of the respectable classes involved in deals and activities they might not like to be publicised. O’Kane admitted the Northern Miner had its enemies, but said that simply proved its genuineness. He had enemies who he said “left no stone unturned to turn him out”.
But the miners stood by him. O’Kane knew that he relied heavily on public support and, although he held himself aloof from all “cliques”, he boasted that, with the people at his back, he could “defy the rancour of private malice or defeated ambition”. The miners subscribed to a fighting fund that paid for his court costs during various libel cases, such as two in 1878 and another in 1879.
O’Kane, born at Dingle, County Kerry, Ireland, studied for the priesthood for seven years without taking orders. After deciding on journalism as a career, he left Ireland in 1846 for London. In the late 1850s, he returned to his native county, and started a school at Killarney for advanced pupils. On 15 March 1861 he established the Kerry Star, at Tralee. It survived only two years. O’Kane migrated to Australia in 1864.
In Melbourne, he worked briefly for a bookseller. He headed for Brisbane where he spent 13 months. He became the sub-editor on the Roman Catholic-owned North Australian for less than a year. Next stop for O’Kane was Rockhampton, where he became the sub-editor on the Northern Argus before switching to a similar position on its opposition tri-weekly, the Rockhampton Bulletin. O’Kane also ran a private school in Rockhampton. He moved to Charters Towers in 1873 and soon made his name as a forthright owner-editor of the Northern Miner, which he made a daily in 1883.
O’Kane’s independent outlook was revealed by his experiences. Charters Towers Council shut him out and later imposed an advertising boycott. The Divisional Board boycotted him, too, as did Cobb and Co. The town’s race club expelled him for exposing corruption in its ranks. The Caxton Club blackballed him, refusing to admit him to membership.
What he wrote irritated some people so much that an association was formed of people O’Kane said described themselves as “respectable men, Catholics and Protestants united”, who swore on the cross “not to enter or frequent any house in Charters Towers or elsewhere in which the Northern Miner is known to be taken”.
A Mining Warden refused to allow him to copy depositions for a news report. A stacked bench of magistrates on the Police Court gagged him for 12 months for writing articles critical of a lawyer who then dredged up a 522-year-old statute to ensnare him. The Catholic Church allegedly excommunicated him.
The lawyers and businessmen he offended sued him constantly, or had him charged with criminal libel. An auctioneer tried to whip him. He had “all sorts of missiles thrown at” him and somebody “threw a mass of filth wrapped up in a piece of calico” at the woodwork above the door of his office about midnight one Saturday.
They tried everything to silence O’Kane but he continued to “tell plain truths in a plain manner” in seriously pursuing journalistic ideals that most provincial editors did not even contemplate. O’Kane took a strong Fourth Estate view of his role, as his following statement attests: “The mission of the Press is to preach truth, above all things, however dangerous it may be... To advocate true principles and policy, to expose false measures and men, to represent the Spirit of the Age which has proclaimed everlasting war against all shams and superstitions.”
The Northern Miner was the only consistent focus of opposition in the Towers to the supremacy of the big mill and mine owners. The oligarchies that controlled the Towers had at their disposal their wealth and the local courts. Indeed, most of them were the courts, by virtue of their appointment to the bench of Magistrates. It was composed of the more powerful businessmen and mine and mill owners on the goldfield, a virtual roll-call of the complainants against O’Kane in his court actions.
They wielded ample power to break a newspaper editor. O’Kane had also fought for national education, against religious bigots, against the ‘invasion’ by the Chinese and on different sides in the debate about whether North Queensland should separate from the rest of Queensland. He advocated a school of mines; he propounded the idea of a new brick hospital; in 1879 he said the assessment papers issued by the Towers council were illegal and advised the ratepayers not to pay.
In 1878 O’Kane said the Miner had helped the cause of free, secular and compulsory education, and aided the inhabitants to establish the two state schools. But he was honest. He acknowledged that it was impossible in a small community to “advocate the right and true without standing on somebody’s corns”. He had made many mistakes, and “in the fervour of the advocate [had] been carried sometimes beyond the bounds of rose-water speech”.
Rod Kirkpatrick is a widely-published newspaper historian and a former country newspaper editor who lectured in journalism at three universities.
'Thadeus O’Kane of the Northern Miner', courtesy of the Charters Towers Archives Group and Charters Towers Regional Council
Portrait of Thadeus O'Kane, courtesy of the Charters Towers Archives Group and Charters Towers Regional Council
‘To silence a jackdaw: gagging the Northern Miner’, Journal of the Royal Historical Society of Queensland, Donald Hector Johnson, XV (6), February 1994, pp.299-312.
The Life and Times of Thadeus O’Kane, Rod Kirkpatrick, North Queensland Newspaper Co. Ltd, 2003.
O'Kane, Thadeus (1820–1890), H. J. Gibbney and June Stoodley, Australian Dictionary of Biography