Thomas Mitchell Shakespeare

1873-1938    |    Canberra    |    Newspaper proprietor

Shakespeare, founder of the Canberra Times, was an apprentice printer at age 14 and a country paper proprietor at 21. He ran rural papers in NSW for a decade, backing country interests and liberal causes. As a New South Wales MP he campaigned for the establishment of Canberra and then for self-government. In 1925, Shakespeare formed the Federal Capital Press of Australia and began publishing the Canberra Times in September 1926, helped by his four sons and a cousin.




Thomas Mitchell Shakespeare


In the newly-defined Federal Capital Territory of Australia, on 12 March 1913, Thomas Mitchell Shakespeare attended the ceremony for the official naming of Canberra. On his return to Sydney he gathered together his four sons and two daughters, none of them yet out of school, and told them of his plans: they would “establish a national newspaper in the National Capital, to serve it and the Nation.”

Shakespeare, a newspaperman since becoming an apprentice compositor on the Forbes and Parkes Gazette, New South Wales, in 1887 at the age of 14, had been the manager of the Country Press Co-operative Company Ltd and secretary of the New South Wales Country Press Association (NSWCPA) since 1904.

Previously he had launched one newspaper and owned another. At Condobolin in 1895, Shakespeare established the Lachlander on 26 July. He married Ann Forster, of Forbes, a year later. In 1897, despite Ann’s pregnancy, they sold their home so they could pay the cost of fighting a libel action. They lived in three rooms partitioned off from the newspaper offices, and their first son, Arthur Thomas, was born there on 27 September 1897. Shakespeare won the libel action, the Lachlander prospered in the face of strong opposition and they built a new home.

Shakespeare earned a reputation as an energetic, intelligent and honest journalist who backed rural interests and liberal causes, including the infant Labor Party. He sold the Lachlander in 1902 and bought the Grafton Argus, which he sold in November 1904 to move to Sydney to become the second secretary of the NSWCPA. He was paid £20 a year, a paltry sum for a man who had had to sell his newspaper business in the country to accept the position.

He was also appointed manager of the newly formed business arm. Acting on NSWCPA conference resolutions, he completed registration of the cooperative company on 29 October 1904 and of the NSWCPA as an industrial union of employers on 8 December. In the longer term, Shakespeare faced the formidable task of establishing both the association and its business arm on a firm footing.

One writer said in 1907 that Shakespeare had faced “a hard road, with bafflement and embarrassment ever pressing about him”. He lifted the NSWCPA out of the rut into which it had settled and “made the company the splendid commercial triumph it is today”. He doubled the association’s advertising business in 1905, and trebled it in 1906, and so the multiplication continued. In 1906 the balance sheet was in the black for the first time. President Temperley regarded Shakespeare as “the life and soul of the Association” who had fought off some interests “which would have pressed with great weight” on the provincial press.

Shakespeare became well known in political circles and in August 1923 was appointed to the Legislative Council. A foundation member (1919) of the Federal Capital Territory Representation League, he attended the first sale of Canberra leases in December 1924 and bought land at Braddon. He was acting on his 1913 vision of a newspaper for the emerging national capital. The Shakespeares and R.J.S. Fallick, of the Queanbeyan Age, decided on 10 January 1925 to form a limited liability company, The Federal Capital Press of Australia Ltd, with a capital of £25,000 ($50,000).

In 1926, the year before Parliament began sitting in Canberra, the four Shakespeare sons were ready to realise the promise T.M. Shakespeare had made to his family. Arthur Thomas Shakespeare, his son, had already gained 10 years’ journalistic experience with the Sydney Morning Herald; James William (Bill) and Christopher John (Jack) had become the proprietors of the Hawkesbury Herald at Richmond and had learned much about printing, advertising and newspaper management; and Clarence Eugene (Clarrie) had trained on a newspaper at Katoomba before joining Bill and Jack on their Richmond paper.

Bill and Jack sold the Hawkesbury Herald in May 1926, and Jack went to Canberra to install the machinery for the new paper. A.T. resigned from the Sydney Morning Herald ready to become managing editor of the new paper. Clarrie joined the reporting staff in 1926 (only to die in August 1927, aged twenty-three) and Bill joined as secretary/accountant in October 1927. A.E. (Alf) Shakespeare, a cousin of T.M.’s, also joined the reporting staff.

The first edition of the Canberra Times appeared on 3 September 1926 and it became a daily on 20 February 1928, introducing a line beneath its masthead, “To serve the National City and through it the Nation”. T.M. Shakespeare resigned in February 1929 from the positions he had held for 25 years with the NSWCPA and Country Press Co-op Co and moved to Canberra to assume control as managing director of the Federal Capital Press of Australia Ltd.

Canberra’s population was 6600 and awaited the shifting of government departments from Melbourne to the capital. But government spending was cut, the Depression arrived, and the newspaper struggled grimly for survival for more than a decade; it balanced revenue and expenditure in 1936 for the first time. Shakespeare died on 16 September 1938, aged 65, and with his passing the motto that had appeared in his first newspaper, the Lachlander, and which had governed all his newspaper activities, was placed above the leader column:

For the cause that lacks assistance,
’Gainst the wrongs that need resistance,
For the future in the distance
And the good that we can do.

This motto remained until 1964 when the newspaper passed out of the hands of the Shakespeare family into the John Fairfax group.

Rod Kirkpatrick has written seven books on Australian newspaper history and lectured in journalism at three Australian universities over 25 years. He is a former editor of the Central Western Daily, Orange, NSW (1982-87), and the Manning River Times, Taree, NSW (1971-72).

Further reading


Country Conscience: A History of the New South Wales Provincial Press, 1841-1995, Rod Kirkpatrick, Infinite Harvest, Canberra, 2000, Chapters 16 and 21.


'Shakespeare, Thomas Mitchell (1873–1938)', H. J. GibbneyAustralian Dictionary of Biography


‘Half a century of struggles and triumphs: a family’s fight to fulfil a dream’, Heather Shakespeare, Canberra Times, 50th Anniversary Souvenir Issue, 3 September 1976, p1.