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Syme, David


Was born on 2 October 1827 at North Berwick, Scotland, the youngest of the seven children of George Syme, a parish schoolmaster, and his wife, Jean Mitchell. His father's income was small but he managed to provide for his large family and send three of his sons to universities. His son, David, he educated himself, and the boy's childhood was one of unrelieved study with little companionship with other boys of his own age. David was 16 years old when his father died and he continued his studies in Latin, Greek and Hebrew with some doubt as to what his future was to be. He had thoughts of qualifying for the ministry but revolted from the Calvinistic teaching of the day, and after attending some classes at Heidelberg he returned to Scotland and obtained a position about 1850 as a reader on a Glasgow newspaper. His pay was small and there was little prospect of advancement, so towards the end of 1851 he sailed for San Francisco by way of Cape Horn and arrived after a voyage of five months. He immediately went to the goldfields but had little success, and early in 1852 took ship for Australia in a badly found and badly provisioned vessel, and arrived at Sydney in a half-starved condition. Syme took the first steamer for Melbourne and tramped to Castlemaine. There he had small success and Bendigo, Wangaratta and other diggings were tried. Once, at Mount Egerton, he and his partner nearly obtained a fortune, but their claim, which afterwards became very valuable, was jumped by other men and they were unable to obtain redress. Towards the end of 1855 Syme returned to Melbourne and joined his brother, Ebenezer [Syme] (q.v.), who was editing the Age newspaper. The paper was then threatened with failure, and Syme who had saved some money while on the diggings joined his brother in buying it for the sum of £2000. The paper struggled on for 18 months, when finding it could not support the two proprietors David obtained other employment. He became a contractor and in spite of strong competition was successful. In March 1860 his brother Ebenezer died, and finding it was difficult to sell the Age Syme decided to abandon his contracting and carry on the paper.

The task undertaken was one of great difficulty, and only the fact that the proprietor was willing to work 15 hours a day made success possible. The original policy of the Age included manhood suffrage, the opening of the lands for selection by the people, no compensation for the squatters, and compulsory, free and secular education. When protection was added to the programme great opposition was raised. It was felt quite honestly by the conservative and moneyed classes that if these things came about the colony would be in great danger. The opposition to the Age was carried even to the extent of boycotting its advertisement columns. But great as his difficulties were Syme was undismayed. Various abortive amending land acts became law between 1860 and 1869, but in the latter year an act was passed which embodied most of the principles for which Syme had fought. It was now possible for the land to be properly cultivated and a great principle had been established. A tremendous flow of population came into Victoria between 1850 and 1860 and towards the end of the decade there was some unemployment. Syme felt that manufacturing industries should be established and that this could only be done by bringing in protection. He won over to his side able men like Sir James McCulloch (q.v.) and Sir Graham Berry (q.v.), protection became the settled policy of the colony, and many manufacturies were established. But the account in Pratt's David Syme of the state of affairs in the colony and the benefits brought in by protection need not be completely accepted. It should be remembered that the neighbouring colony of New South Wales retained a policy which was practically free trade for most of the period before federation, and appears to have been as steadily prosperous as Victoria. But whether or not the importance of protection has been over-stated, Syme undoubtedly was responsible for its introduction. It was bitterly fought and led to great constitutional difficulties with the legislative council. The struggle went on for years, but Syme's contention that the people as a whole should rule and not any section of them was finally established, and for a long period the Age became the predominant factor in Victorian politics. In its early days there was difficulty in getting competent journalists, the best of them was G. Paton Smith who was editor for some years. After he left Syme took the editorial chair until A. L. Windsor (q.v.) became editor about 1870 and held the position until 1900. Possibly his ablest assistant was Charles Henry Pearson (q.v.) who began writing leaders about the year 1875.

The first protectionist tariff had been a very moderate one and McCulloch was not willing to go further. Though Syme thought highly of McCulloch's ability he opposed him and transferred his support to Graham Berry. Parliament became tired of the turmoil and more than once ministries were formed consisting partly of freetraders and partly of protectionists. This did not satisfy Syme and in 1877 his advocacy brought in Berry with a large majority. The council, however, rejected his tariff and fresh constitutional difficulties arose. The governor, Sir George Bowen (q.v.), was placed in a difficult position, and took the unprecedented step of asking Syme's advice. His reply was that the governor should act in conformity with the opinions of the law officers of the crown. This he did but Syme thought the advice was bad and told the premier so. Berry then asked Syme for his advice and took it. It is evident that Syme at this time was virtually the ruler of the colony. Constitutional difficulties continued for some time, but at last the legislative council was reformed by largely increasing the number of eligible voters and making other changes in its constitution to bring it more in touch with the public.

Syme had supported Berry in the fight for protection and during the constitutional struggle, but was not satisfied with him as an administrator, and though opposed to James Service (q.v.) he recognized that Service had the very qualities Berry lacked. He therefore supported the coalition ministry formed in 1883 which did good work for three years. There was a feeling of general confidence, a tendency to over-borrow and to spend huge sums on railways and other public works. This led to the mining and land booms which really burst in 1889, though the full effects were not realized until the bank crisis of 1893. In 1891 the Age began a series of articles alleging bad management and incompetence on the part of the railway commissioners, which led at last to an action for libel being brought against the Age by the chief commissioner, Richard Speight. Other articles attacked the civil service generally. At the first trial of the railway libel case begun on 1 June 1893 the jury disagreed, and the second trial which began on 17 April 1894 and lasted for 105 days resulted in a verdict for the defendant on nine out of the ten counts, and on the tenth count the damages were assessed at one farthing. Speight, however, was ruined and Syme had to pay his own costs which amounted to about £50,000. As a sidelight on the power exercised by Syme at this period, it may be mentioned that the leading counsel for the plaintiff when addressing the jury stated that "no government could stand against the Age without being shaken to its centre".

Syme had early realized that agriculture would need development in Victoria and twice sent J. L. Dew to America to study irrigation and agricultural methods. He also sent Alfred Deakin (q.v.) to India to report on irrigation in that country. As a result the development of irrigation began which after some early failures was to be successfully extended in later years. He also supported the measures which brought in early closing, anti-sweating, factory legislation, and old-age pensions. When the question of federation became really important towards the end of the century it was Deakin, a protégé of Syme's, who became the leader of the movement in Victoria. At the election for the convention to frame the constitution Syme selected 10 men from the 24 candidates for his support, and they were duly elected. During the first federal parliament he fought for comparatively high protective duties, but his influence did not extend to any great extent beyond Victoria and he was for the time unsuccessful. In later years, however, considerable increases in duties were made. In the last years of his life Syme was exercised about the faults of party government. Some of these he had drawn attention to in chapter VII of his Representative Government in England. His suggested remedies have failed, however, to obtain much support. He died at Kew near Melbourne on 14 February 1908. He married in 1859 Annabella Johnson who survived him with five sons and two daughters.

During his 50 Years of ownership of the Age Syme did comparatively little writing for it himself, though he read nearly everything that appeared. His clear concise style is apparent in his Outlines of an Industrial Science, published in London in 1876. Largely written as a vindication of protection it is also a plea for the extension of the activities of the state. In 1881 appeared Representative Government in England, a thoughtful study of the history of parliament in England. His next book On the Modification of Organisms, published in 1890, is largely a criticism of Darwin's theory of natural selection. His last volume, The Soul: A Study and an Argument (1903), discusses in a spirit of inquiry the nature of life, instinct, memory, mind, and survival after death.

Syme was over six feet in height, lean, upright in carriage, stern and reserved-looking. He went little into society, he could not be persuaded to make a speech or sit on a committee. The Age was his life, its reputation was clearer to him than anything else. Though a rich man he was not prominent in connexion with charitable appeals, but he paid the expenses of a rifle team to Bisley and financed expeditions to New Guinea and Central Australia. In 1904 he gave £3000 to Melbourne university to endow the Syme prize for research in biology, chemistry, geology and natural philosophy. When the introduction of linotype machines threw many of his compositers out of work, he was thoroughly conscientious in seeing that they were provided for. The elder men were pensioned and others were set up in business or placed on the land. In congenial company Syme could talk brilliantly and without arrogance, and he could be a good friend, but his armour of reserve helped to found the legend that he was hard, dour, and arrogant. He seemed reluctant to give praise, he could be fault-finding, his temper was not always under control, but the members of his staff were loyal to him and felt a pride in their head. He has been called unscrupulous and it is true that if he were fighting any man or principle a case was built up without regard to what might be said on the other side. Neither was the other side given full opportunity to reply. If Syme thought a man was a danger to his country, the order was issued that he was to be written out of his position without compromise or consideration of mitigating circumstances. He had strong principles and would not palter with them, his power was enormous but he was never accused of using his power for his own advantage. It has been said that for 25 years no cabinet was formed in Victoria without his being consulted. That may not be literally true but he was not nicknamed "King David" for nothing. He was a great personality and had an immense influence on the development of the state of Victoria.


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