Before Alternative Voices: The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser




colonial history, George Howe, journalism, newspapers, publishing

How to Cite

Franks, R. (2017). Before Alternative Voices: <em>The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser</em>. M/C Journal, 20(1).
Vol. 20 No. 1 (2017): alternative
Published 2017-03-15


In 1802 George Howe (1769-1821), the recently appointed Government Printer, published Australia’s first book. The following year he established Australia’s first newspaper; an enterprise that ran counter to all the environmental factors of the day, including: 1) issues of logistics and a lack of appropriate equipment and basic materials to produce a regularly issued newspaper; 2) issues resulting from the very close supervision of production and the routine censorship by the Governor; and 3) issues associated with the colony’s primary purposes as a military outpost and as a penal settlement, creating conflicts between very different readerships. 

The Sydney Gazette was, critically for Howe, the only newspaper in the infant city for over two decades. Alternative voices would not enter the field of printed media until the 1820s and 1830s. This article briefly explores the birth of an Australian industry and looks at how a very modest newspaper overcame a range of serious challenges to ignite imaginations and lay a foundation for media empires.

Government Printer 

The first book published in Australia was the New South Wales General Standing Orders and General Orders (1802), authorised by Governor Philip Gidley King for the purposes of providing a convenient, single-volume compilation of all Government Orders, issued in New South Wales, between 1791 and 1802. (As the Australian character has been described as “egalitarian, anti-authoritarian and irreverent” [D. Jones 690], it is fascinating that the nation’s first published book was a set of rules.) Prescribing law, order and regulation for the colony the index reveals the desires of those charged with the colony’s care and development, to contain various types of activities. The rules for convicts were, predictably, many. There were also multiple orders surrounding administration, animal husbandry as well as food stuffs and other stores. Some of the most striking headings in the index relate to crime. For example, in addition to headings pertaining to courts there are also headings for a broad range of offences from: “BAD Characters” to “OFFENSIVE Weapons – Again[s]t concealing” (i-xii).  

The young colony, still in its teenage years, was, for the short-term, very much working on survival and for the long-term developing ambitious plans for expansion and trade. It was clear though, through this volume, that there was no forgetting the colony of New South Wales was first, and foremost, a penal settlement which also served as a military outpost. Clear, too, was the fact that not all of those who were shipped out to the new colony were prepared to abandon their criminal careers which “did not necessarily stop with transportation” (Foyster 10). Containment and recidivism were matters of constant concern for the colony’s authorities. 

Colonial priorities could be seen in the fact that, when “Governor Arthur Phillip brought the first convicts (548 males and 188 females) to Port Jackson on 26 January 1788, he also brought a small press for printing orders, rules, and regulations” (Goff 103). The device lay dormant on arrival, a result of more immediate concerns to feed and house all those who made up the First Fleet. 

It would be several years before the press was pushed into sporadic service by the convict George Hughes for printing miscellaneous items including broadsides and playbills as well as for Government Orders (“Hughes, George” online). It was another convict (another man named George), convicted at the Warwick Assizes on March 1799 (Ferguson vi) then imprisoned and ultimately transported for shoplifting (Robb 15), who would transform the small hand press into an industry. Once under the hand of George Howe, who had served as a printer with several London newspapers including The Times (Sydney Gazette, “Never” 2) – the printing press was put to much more regular use. In these very humble circumstances, Australia’s great media tradition was born. Howe, as the Government Printer, transformed the press from a device dedicated to ephemera as well as various administrative matters into a crucial piece of equipment that produced the new colony’s first newspaper. 

Logistical Challenges 

Governor King, in the year following the appearance of the Standing Orders, authorised the publishing of Australia’s first newspaper, The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser. The publication history of The Sydney Gazette, in a reflection of some of the challenges faced by the printer, is erratic. First published on a Saturday from 5 March 1803, it quickly changed to a Sunday paper from 10 April 1803. Interestingly, Sunday “was not an approved day for the publication of newspapers, and although some English publishers had been doing so since about 1789, Sunday papers were generally frowned upon” (Robb 58). Yet, as argued by Howe a Sunday print run allowed for the inclusion of “the whole of the Ship News, and other Incidental Matter, for the preceeding week” (Sydney Gazette, “To the Public” 1).

The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser Vol. 1, No. 1, 5 March 1803 (Front Page). Call Number DL F8/50, Digital ID a345001, State Library of New South Wales

The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser Vol. 1, No. 1, 5 March 1803 (Front Page)
Call Number DL F8/50, Digital ID a345001, State Library of New South Wales

Published weekly until 1825, then bi-weekly until 1827 before coming out tri-weekly until 20 October 1842 (Holden 14) there were some notable pauses in production. These included one in 1807 (Issue 214, 19 April-Issue 215, 7 June) and one in 1808-1809 (Issue 227, 30 August-Issue 228, 15 May) due to a lack of paper, with the latter pause coinciding with the Rum Rebellion and the end of William Bligh’s term as Governor of New South Wales (see: Karskens 186-88; Mundle 323-37). There was, too, a brief attempt at publishing as a daily from 1 January 1827 which lasted only until 10 February of that year when the title began to appear tri-weekly (Kirkpatrick online; Holden 14). There would be other pauses, including one of two weeks, shortly before the final issue was produced on 20 October 1842. 

There were many problems that beset The Sydney Gazette with paper shortages being especially challenging. Howe regularly advertised for: “any quantity” of Spanish paper (e.g.: Sydney Gazette, “Wanted to Purchase” 4) and needing to be satisfied “with a variety of size and colour” (P.M. Jones 39). In addition, the procurement of ink was so difficult in the colony, that Howe often resorted to making his own out of “charcoal, gum and shark oil” (P.M. Jones 39).

The work itself was physically demanding and papers printed during this period, by hand, required a great deal of effort with approximately “250 sheets per hour … [the maximum] produced by a printer and his assistant” (Robb 8). The printing press itself was inadequate and the subject of occasional repairs (Sydney Gazette, “We Have” 2). Type was also a difficulty. As Gwenda Robb explains, traditionally six sets of an alphabet were supplied to a printer with extras for ‘a’, ‘e’, ‘r’ and ‘t’ as well as ‘s’. Without ample type Howe was required to improvise as can be seen in using a double ‘v’ to create a ‘w’ and an inverted ‘V’ to represent a capital ‘A’ (50, 106). These quirky work arounds, combined with the use of the long-form ‘s’ (‘∫’) for almost a full decade, can make The Sydney Gazette a difficult publication for modern readers to consume. 

Howe also “carried the financial burden” of the paper, dependent, as were London papers of the late eighteenth century, on advertising (Robb 68, 8). Howe also relied upon subscriptions for survival, with the collection of payments often difficult as seen in some subscribers being two years, or more, in arrears (e.g.: Sydney Gazette, “Sydney Gazette” 1; Ferguson viii; P.M. Jones 38). Governor Lachlan Macquarie granted Howe an annual salary, in 1811, of £60 (Byrnes 557-559) offering some relief, and stability, for the beleaguered printer.

Gubernatorial Supervision 

Governor King wrote to Lord Hobart (then Secretary of State for War and the Colonies), on 9 May 1803:  

it being desirable that the settlers and inhabitants at large should be benefitted by useful information being dispersed among them, I considered that a weekly publication would greatly facilitate that design, for which purpose I gave permission to an ingenious man, who manages the Government printing press, to collect materials weekly, which, being inspected by an officer, is published in the form of a weekly newspaper, copies of which, as far as they have been published, I have the honor to enclose. (85)

In the same letter, King wrote: “to the list of wants I have added a new fount of letters which may be procured for eight or ten pounds, sufficient for our purpose, if approved of” (85). King’s motivations were not purely altruistic. The population of the colony was growing in Sydney Cove and in the outlying districts, thus: “there was an increasing administrative need for information to be disseminated in a more accessible form than the printed handbills of government orders” (Robb 49). There was, however, a need for the administration to maintain control and the words “Published By Authority”, appearing on the paper’s masthead, were a constant reminder to the printer that The Sydney Gazette was “under the censorship of the Secretary to the Governor, who examined all proofs” (Ferguson viii). The high level of supervision, worked in concert with the logistical difficulties described above, ensured the newspaper was a source of great strain and stress. All for the meagre reward of “6d per copy” (Ferguson viii). This does not diminish Howe’s achievement in establishing a newspaper, an accomplishment outlined, with some pride, in an address printed on the first page of the first issue:

innumerable as the Obstacles were which threatened to oppose our Undertaking, yet we are happy to affirm that they were not insurmountable, however difficult the task before us.

The utility of a PAPER in the COLONY, as it must open a source of solid information, will, we hope, be universally felt and acknowledged. (Sydney Gazette, “Address” 1)

Howe carefully kept his word and he “wrote nothing like a signature editorial column, nor did he venture his personal opinions, conscious always of the powers of colonial officials” (Robb 72). An approach to reportage he passed to his eldest son and long-term assistant, Robert (1795-1829), who later claimed The Sydney Gazette “reconciled in one sheet the merits of the London Gazette in upholding the Government and the London Times in defending the people” (Walker 10). The censorship imposed on The Sydney Gazette, by the Governor, was lifted in 1824 (P.M. Jones 40), when the Australian was first published without permission: Governor Thomas Brisbane did not intervene in the new enterprise. The appearance of unauthorised competition allowed Robert Howe to lobby for the removal of all censorship restrictions on The Sydney Gazette, though he was careful to cite “greater dispatch and earlier publication, not greater freedom of expression, as the expected benefit” (Walker 6). The sudden freedom was celebrated, and still appreciated many years after it was given:

the Freedom of the Press has now been in existence amongst us on the verge of four years. In October 1824, we addressed a letter to the Colonial Government, fervently entreating that those shackles, under which the Press had long laboured, might be removed. Our prayer was attended to, and the Sydney Gazette, feeling itself suddenly introduced to a new state of existence, demonstrated to the Colonists the capabilities that ever must flow from the spontaneous exertions of Constitutional Liberty. (Sydney Gazette, “Freedom” 2)

Early Readerships 

From the outset, George Howe presented a professional publication. The Sydney Gazette was formatted into three columns with the front page displaying a formal masthead featuring a scene of Sydney and the motto “Thus We Hope to Prosper”. Gwenda Robb argues the woodcut, the first produced in the colony, was carved by John W. Lewin who “had plenty of engraving skills” and had “returned to Sydney [from a voyage to Tahiti] in December 1802” (51) while Roger Butler has suggested that “circumstances point to John Austin who arrived in Sydney in 1800” as being the engraver (91). The printed text was as vital as the visual supports and every effort was made to present full accounts of colonial activities. “As well as shipping and court news, there were agricultural reports, religious homilies, literary extracts and even original poetry written by Howe himself” (Blair 450). These items, of course, sitting alongside key Government communications including General Orders and Proclamations.

Howe’s language has been referred to as “florid” (Robb 52), “authoritative and yet filled with deference for all authority, pompous in a stiff, affected eighteenth century fashion” (Green 10) and so “some of Howe’s readers found the Sydney Gazette rather dull” (Blair 450). Regardless of any feelings towards authorial style, circulation – without an alternative – steadily increased with the first print run in 1802 being around 100 copies but by “the early 1820s, the newspaper’s production had grown to 300 or 400 copies” (Blair 450).

In a reflection of the increasing sophistication of the Sydney-based reader, George Howe, and Robert Howe, would also publish some significant, stand-alone, texts. These included several firsts: the first natural history book printed in the colony, Birds of New South Wales with their Natural History (1813) by John W. Lewin (praised as a text “printed with an elegant and classical simplicity which makes it the highest typographical achievement of George Howe” [Wantrup 278]); the first collection of poetry published in the colony First Fruits of Australian Poetry (1819) by Barron Field; the first collection of poetry written by a Australian-born author, Wild Notes from the Lyre of a Native Minstrel (1826) by Charles Tompson; and the first children’s book A Mother’s Offering to Her Children: By a Lady, Long Resident in New South Wales (1841) by Charlotte Barton. The small concern also published mundane items such as almanacs and receipt books for the Bank of New South Wales (Robb 63, 72). All against the backdrop of printing a newspaper.

New Voices 

The Sydney Gazette was Australia’s first newspaper and, critically for Howe, the only newspaper for over two decades. (A second paper appeared in 1810 but the Derwent Star and Van Diemen’s Land Intelligencer, which only managed twelve issues, presented no threat to The Sydney Gazette.) No genuine, local rival entered the field until 1824, when the Australian was founded by barristers William Charles Wentworth and Robert Wardell. The Monitor debuted in 1826, followed the Sydney Herald in 1831 and the Colonist in 1835 (P.M. Jones 38). 

It was the second title, the Australian, with a policy that asserted articles to be: “Independent, yet consistent – free, yet not licentious – equally unmoved by favours and by fear” (Walker 6), radically changed the newspaper landscape. The new paper made “a strong point of its independence from government control” triggering a period in which colonial newspapers “became enmeshed with local politics” (Blair 451). This new age of opinion reflected how fast the colony was evolving from an antipodean gaol into a complex society. Also, two papers, without censorship restrictions, without registration, stamp duties or advertisement duties meant, as pointed out by R.B. Walker, that “in point of law the Press in the remote gaol of exile was now freer than in the country of origin” (6). An outcome George Howe could not have predicted as he made the long journey, as a convict, to New South Wales. 

Of the early competitors, the only one that survives is the Sydney Herald (The Sydney Morning Herald from 1842), which – founded by immigrants Alfred Stephens, Frederick Stokes and William McGarvie – claims the title of Australia’s oldest continuously published newspaper (Isaacs and Kirkpatrick 4-5). That such a small population, with so many pressing issues, factions and political machinations, could support a first newspaper, then competitors, is a testament to the high regard, with which newspaper reportage was held. 

Another intruder would be The Government Gazette. Containing only orders and notices in the style of the London Gazette (McLeay 1), lacking any news items or private advertisements (Walker 19), it was first issued on 7 March 1832 (and continues, in an online format, today). Of course, Government orders and other notices had news value and newspaper proprietors could bid for exclusive rights to produce these notices until a new Government Printer was appointed in 1841 (Walker 20).


George Howe, an advocate of “reason and common sense” died in 1821 placing The Sydney Gazette in the hands of his son who “fostered religion” (Byrnes 557-559). Robert Howe, served as editor, experiencing firsthand the perils and stresses of publishing, until he drowned in a boating accident in Sydney Harbour, in 1829 leaving the paper to his widow Ann Howe (Blair 450-51). The newspaper would become increasingly political leading to controversy and financial instability; after more changes in ownership and in editorial responsibility, The Sydney Gazette, after almost four decades of delivering the news – as a sole voice and then as one of several alternative voices – ceased publication in 1842.  

During a life littered with personal tragedy, George Howe laid the foundation stone for Australia’s media empires. His efforts, in extraordinary circumstances and against all environmental indicators, serve as inspiration to newspapers editors, proprietors and readers across the country. He established the Australian press, an institution that has been described as

a profession, an art, a craft, a business, a quasi-public, privately owned institution. It is full of grandeurs and faults, sublimities and pettinesses. It is courageous and timid. It is fallible. It is indispensable to the successful on-going of a free people. (Holden 15)

George Howe also created an artefact of great beauty. The attributes of The Sydney Gazette are listed, in a perfunctory manner, in most discussions of the newspaper’s history. The size of the paper. The number of columns. The masthead. The changes seen across 4,503 issues. Yet, consistently overlooked, is how, as an object, the newspaper is an exquisite example of the printed word. There is a physicality to the paper that is in sharp contrast to contemporary examples of broadsides, tabloids and online publications. Concurrently fragile and robust: its translucent sheets and mottled print revealing, starkly, the problems with paper and ink; yet it survives, in several collections, over two centuries since the first issue was produced. The elegant layout, the glow of the paper, the subtle crackling sound as the pages are turned. The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser is an astonishing example of innovation and perseverance. It provides essential insights into Australia’s colonial era. It is a metonym for making words matter. 


The author offers her sincere thanks to Geoff Barker, Simon Dwyer and Peter Kirkpatrick for their comments on an early draft of this paper. The author is also grateful to Bridget Griffen-Foley for engaging in many conversations about Australian newspapers. 


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———. “To the Public.” 2 Apr. 1803: 1.

———. “Wanted to Purchase.” 26 June 1803: 4.

———. “We Have the Satisfaction to Inform Our Readers.” 3 Nov. 1810: 2. 

———. “Sydney Gazette.” 25 Dec. 1819: 1. 

———. “The Freedom of the Press.” 29 Feb. 1828: 2.

———. “Never Did a More Painful Task Devolve upon a Public Writer.” 3 Feb. 1829: 2. 

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Author Biography

Rachel Franks, University of Newcastle

Rachel Franks is the Coordinator, Education & Scholarship at the State Library of New South Wales, a Conjoint Fellow at the University of Newcastle and is at The University of Sydney researching true crime. Rachel holds a PhD in Australian crime fiction and her research in the fields of crime fiction, true crime, food studies, literary studies, popular culture and information science has been presented at numerous conferences. An award-winning writer, her work can be found in a wide variety of books, journals and magazines.