Watkin Wynne

Watkin Wynne

1844-1921   |    NSW    |    Editor

Wynne headed a syndicate including three Victorian politicians that launched a second daily newspaper in Sydney in 1879. The Daily Telegraph became the main opposition to The Sydney Morning Herald, a position it held for the next century. Wynne recruited top newspapermen from other papers and pioneered several technical advances, including zinc-etching for half-tone illustrations. He imported Australia’s first linotype machines. The paper was described as modern, bright, light, sensationalist and liberal; some said it marked the beginning of an era of “new journalism”. An exclusive cable service allowed the Telegraph to scoop the world on the German annexation of New Guinea in 1884.

...Keen, tough, indomitable ... the very man for the job. He fought hard but never unfairly, and although there were pressmen who did not love him, they admired his unflagging industry and fine character.

The Bulletin


Watkin Wynne

For a newspaper struggling to find its place in a volatile market against the power of the well-established Sydney Morning Herald, it was a world scoop to die for. The Daily Telegraph, just five years old, announced in December 1884 that Germany had annexed northern New Guinea and New Britain.

The news was broken by the Telegraph’s correspondent in Cooktown using newfangled telegraph technology. It shook colonial administrators to their core. The German consulate in Sydney denied it, the Premier of Victoria cabled the Telegraph story to a surprised Colonial Office in London and it was eventually confirmed by the arrival in Port Jackson of a German warship bearing the official documents. The chagrin at the august SMH can only be imagined.

But in the office of the Telegraph’s general manager, Watkin Wynne, settling into his second year in the job, a feeling of quiet satisfaction wouldn’t have been out of place. Among his early moves to rescue the paper from its troubled infancy, he’d expanded the use of cabled news from abroad to supplement the ubiquitous Reuters service. And, with Germany’s unwitting help, he’d struck gold.

Watkin Wynne was still occupying the GM’s office at the Telegraph at the time of his death in July 1921, by then a well-respected figure in journalism and the Sydney community at large. His old rival, the SMH, acknowledged - in its report of his funeral - “the general sense of loss that is felt at his death.”

Wynne had come a long way. Born in 1844, the third child of a yeoman farmer in Essex, tragedy struck early. His father, beset by financial problems, had committed suicide. His mother bravely swept up the eight-year-old Watkin and his three siblings and took them across the world in search of a new life.

The family settled in Geelong, where Watkin attended a Presbyterian Free Church school. Printing caught his fancy and, at age 17, he was apprenticed to a newspaper in Ballarat, where mastheads had been coming and going during the heady days of the Gold Rush. Hopping from one title to another as papers folded under him, he qualified as a printer, then studied shorthand and was hired as a reporter on the Ballarat Evening Post.

Things moved quickly. In 1866, aged 22, Wynne married Eleanor Sophie Picton, daughter of a local clergyman (they subsequently produced six daughters and five sons.) In 1872 he formed a company with colleagues to take over the Post and buy out its rival. Four years later, he became a sub-editor on the fledgling Melbourne Daily Telegraph and three years after that was part of a syndicate – with three Victorian politicians and two Sydney investors – to found a second morning daily in Sydney to take on the SMH.

The first few years, with Watkin Wynne working as a sub-editor, were a struggle. Key people resigned, closure threatened. A reorganisation saw Wynne appointed general manager, a new editor (Frederick Ward) appointed, and a new course set.

The “Sydney” was dropped from the masthead, and news coverage shaken up. Wynne’s Telegraph was soon being described as “sensationalist”, “liberal” and “modern” (though, like the SMH, it was to continue carrying only advertisements on Page 1 until well into the 20th century).

The readers liked the paper. Within a few years, circulation was up by 25 per cent and shareholders were picking up handy dividends. Wynne was given credit for shrewd business sense and strict discipline, as well as for being “daring, courageous, swift to decide and to act, unshackled by a single convention”.

His early days as a printer gave Wynne a firm footing as technology advanced. As well as developing new ways of bringing the news in, he sourced and imported Australia’s first linotype machines, patented improvements in typesetting, and introduced zinc-etching to produce half-tone illustrations. By the late 1880s the Telegraph was claiming it had doubled the SMH’s circulation, and was soon referring it itself as “The Journal of the Great Middle Classes”.

At the same time, Wynne’s frequent overseas fact-finding missions introduced him to what was becoming known in London as the “New Journalism” - brighter, breezier reporting, with a new emphasis on what we’d now call human interest. The Telegraph took to it enthusiastically, and so did its readers; circulation “grew by leaps and bounds”.

But not everyone was impressed. British writer and critic Matthew Arnold said the New Journalism was guilty of “throwing out assertions at a venture because they wish them to be true, does not correct either them or itself if they prove to be false, and to get at the true state of things… seems to feel no concern whatsoever”. But the Telegraph continued to flourish, despite the rise and fall of its weekly news magazine The Tribune and News of the Week.

Wynne’s success was noticed beyond Sydney’s shores. He was called in to advise on the amalgamation of Melbourne’s evening papers in the mid-1890s and on the re-organisation of the London Daily Telegraph in 1906.

But life wasn’t all about work. Wynne had been a champion swimmer in his early days in Ballarat. He was a founder of the Port Jackson Swimming Club, the Sydney (Australian Rules) Football Club and the Waverley Bowling and Recreation Clubs. He represented his state on the bowling green and imported one of Australia’s first motor cars. He was an alderman on the Waverley Municipal Council and its Mayor in 1898-99. A longtime Freemason, he was a founder of the United Grand Lodge of New South Wales.

Watkin Wynne’s death in 1921, two years after his wife’s passing, brought a flood of tributes. His “silver tongue” was noted, as were a talent for anecdotes and a streak of whimsical generosity. The Bulletin summed him up as “keen, tough, indomitable ... the very man for the job. He fought hard but never unfairly, and although there were pressmen who did not love him, they admired his unflagging industry and fine character”.

Bob Kearsley has been in journalism for more than half a century, most of it in television. He spent 17 years with the BBC in London and Asia. Later he headed ABC TV News and Current Affairs. He retired in 2007 after several years as Executive Producer News at Channel Nine in Melbourne.


Portrait in Sydney Mail, Wednesday 13 July 1921, p10. Courtesy State Library of NSW.


Reporting about German annexation of New Guinea, Daily Telegraph, 29 December 1884. Courtesy National Library of Australia.



Further reading


'Wynne, Watkin (1844–1921)', Nicholas Brown, Australian Dictionary of Biography, ANU, Canberra, 1990.


Over 115 Years of News from the Daily Telegraph & Mirror, Christopher Wright, Adrian Savvas, 1995.