14th February 2008 commemorates two anniversaries connected with the history of The Age newspaper. The date commemorates the centenary of the death of David Syme and the centenary of the beginning of his son Geoffrey’s career as Managing Editor of The Age and The Leader.
David Syme 1827 - 1908
Geoffrey Syme 1873 - 1942
Geoffrey was the third and last Syme to be responsible for the editorial content of the papers. The first of these three Symes was Geoffrey’s uncle, Ebenezer, who had bought The Age in 1856 but died only four years later, in 1860. The next was Ebenezer’s youngest and more famous brother David. Though David was in charge of the paper, he did not become sole proprietor of the business until 1891 when the partnership – which originally had been between him and Ebenezer’s wife and sons – finally ended.

Ebenezer Syme 's two eldest sons William and George

Ebenezer's wife Jane Hilton Rowan

George Alexander Syme, another of David’s older brothers, had joined the staff of The Age in 1862 and was editor of The Leader until 1885.
On David’s death Geoffrey, his fourth son, took his place as Managing Editor, and remained in that position until he died on 30th July, 1942. On that date editorial responsibility slipped easily into the hands of the then editor, H.A.M. Campbell. It went from a Syme to an employee.
In 1908 responsibility for these papers, The Age and The Leader, passed from a powerful, extremely rich, eighty-one-year-old man to his much younger son, who was not quite thirty-five years old. It was a change from the old generation to the new, and their two careers were covered by quite different periods in the history of Australia.
The last part of the 19th century was comparatively peaceful for Victoria. It was still a period of formation for the State, a time of its political and economic development. Wars, even the Boer War, were far away, and for almost half a century David Syme, though always interested in foreign affairs, was able to concentrate his energies on the problems of Victoria and its often unsatisfactory politicians.  At the time of his death the results of Federation were still comparatively new to him, and, according to some of his unpublished autobiographical notes, they did not always please him. Federation, only seven years old, had diminished his personal power. For example, he would have had comparatively little impact on politicians from other states.
During the early years of his editorial career Federal Parliament still met in Melbourne, so Geoffrey had to deal with a much wider set of problems and politicians than his father.  He could not expect to have the same degree of personal friendship (or enmity), knowledge or influence over mature Victorian politicians, nor did he seem to have any especially close relationship with those who came from distant states such as Queensland and West Australia.  All the same, his political interests were closely bound to the development of the Federal system.
 The historical background was also much more difficult for him. His period of responsibility covered the First World War, the rise of Communism and Facism, the Depression and the beginning of the Second World War. War caused considerable problems for The Age, not just financial ones; practical ones such as the lack of newsprint and subsequent lack of space for the advertising that brought in its income, but also the fact that many of his younger, key staff had enlisted in the Services. The Depression and its aftermath caused sadness and difficulties because the number of employees was still comparatively small, the long-serving staff was to some extent regarded as part of a family, and redundant people would not be dismissed in a time of great financial suffering.
Geoffrey of course had the advantage of greatly improved communications with which to form the newspaper. David had had the benefits of the cable service since 1872, but constant use of the cable and telephone was normal in Geoffrey’s era and he was interested in the development of a photographic department. The paper was no longer illustrated by the careful engravings on rectangular blocks of wood that had to be added to the presses.

Why did David Syme choose Geoffrey to be his successor in the editorial department of The Age? After all Geoffrey was only his fourth son, and there was a gap of about fourteen years between him and his eldest brother John Herbert Syme. The answer probably lay in his suitability and interest in the job. In 1908 David’s second son, George Francis, was a farmer near Healesville; the next, Arthur Edward, was a doctor in Lilydale and Oswald Julian, who was about four years younger than Geoffrey, was a farmer on his father’s property near Macedon.
John Herbert Syme b. 1859
1891 was a time for the re-organization and planning for the future management of the paper, for this was the time when David Syme had at last been able to break the partnership with his brother’s family and to buy out his nephew, Ebenezer’s third son Joseph Cowen Syme. Herbert was made the Business Manager of the company, in charge of the presses and machinery and the general business of the paper.
Joseph Cowen Syme b. 1852
In 1891 Geoffrey was a university student. He had been educated at Kew High School. In 1888, when he was in Fifth Form, he,together with six others, passed the matriculation examination set by the University of Melbourne. He stayed at school for two more years, Sixth Form and Sixth Form Honours, and became Sports Captain. Unlike his three elder brothers, he had not been sent to a public school. He was mad on football. He entered the University of Melbourne in February 1891 and was finishing his second year when his father recalled him to work on The Age. He had been an adequate rather than a diligent student, and had had to repeat first year Latin and English, which was hardly a good recommendation for a uture journalist. However, his father needed him.
Geoffrey as a schoolboy

He probably hated his early training as a journalist: He was shy, would not have been good at interviewing people, and the style of his English prose, though clear and brief, was neither elegant nor florid. He started at the bottom, supervised, one hopes at a kindly distance, by Jackie Smith, by G. F. H. Schuler, who was editor when David Syme died, and perhaps by an even earlier editor, A. L. Windsor, who had retired in 1900.
Luckily Geoffrey got on easily with his father, and later on they came to work well together. In 1901 he and his brother Oswald were sent to England. Geoffrey had been given a daunting program of work to do for his father. This was to give him further experience, notably to meet people in the newspaper business and in connected industries, and to learn about the way other newspapers worked. He does not seem to have been employed on an English newspaper, though he spent a lot of time at the London Daily Chronicle, often meeting its editor, Fisher, and spending many days with the chief-of-staff and heads of department. He could have joined its staff, but his father needed him back in Melbourne. Certainly Geoffrey would have had contact with the Manchester Guardian. Geoffrey’s maternal great-grandmother, Martha Johnson, was a sister of the long-dead Jeremiah Garnett, the first printer, an editor and, for a time, part-proprietor of the Manchester Guardian. In the summer of 1901 Geoffrey fell in love with and became engaged to an eighteen-year-old English Garnett.

Violet was a distant cousin, whose maternal and paternal great-grandfathers Peter and Thomas were brothers of the same Jeremiah Garnett of Manchester. One has to be very careful with the use of the name Jeremiah Garnett.  There were many Jeremiahs in the Garnett family. The time in England was intended to prepare Geoffrey for his future job in Australia. Until September 1901Geoffrey still believed that he was to return to The Age as the new Chief of Staff, but his father had changed his mind. About this time he decided that Geoffrey was to be the first editor of his new weekly paper “Every Saturday” which was to begin publication in June 1902. It was not concerned with politics but was intended ”to interest and amuse.” This work was intended to prepare Geoffrey for a more serious editorial role, his future role as Managing Editor of The Age. He began this, his life’s work, on 14th February 1908.
Violet Garnett
First advertisment to appear in Every Saturday
David and Geoffrey Syme had worked closely together during the last years of David’s life, but Geoffrey was not a pale replica of his father. How could he be? He had had solid training for his new position, but Australia had changed and Geoffrey knew this and that he had to change with it. He also had to suffer from a dead weight that his father had imposed on him. Namely, the fact that where serious capital sums of money were needed for the expansion of the paper he had to consult the Trustees of his father’s Estate. In 1908 the senior Trustee, by no means a nonentity, was his mother Annabella Syme. Within the structure of the Trust, and just beneath her in seniority, was his much older brother John Herbert. Herbert had been deeply hurt by Samuel Gillott’s legal opinion that Geoffrey’s position as Managing Editor was in fact senior to his own position as Business Manager of The Age and The Leader. Fortunately, at least for most of the time, the two brothers managed to work more or less in harmony, probably because their responsibilities connected with the paper were quite separate.
Annabella Syme
It is interesting to read David Syme’s opinion of what a newspaper should be. He has left behind him numerous notepads and notebooks and loose, un-numbered pages, some of which were intended for his biographer Ambrose Pratt. He had left it too late to write his own autobiography, at least one of the standard he would have expected of himself. One notebook has a cover embossed with a diamond pattern and bands of flowers. It is mainly concerned with his thoughts on the psychical basis of life, the ego, instinct, memory and reason. His ideas about a newspaper come in a small notepad bound in faded mauve silk. The text is not continuous and there are many corrections, repetitions and blanks in its 139 pages. It is very hard to edit and its probable date is 1905, at least long enough after 1901 for him to have sampled Federation.
Note book

He comments on the press; “The modern press now not a mere newspaper. It collects news, which it presents to its readers in a form which they can understand, but it is not a mere recorder of events. It also helps to form a guide to public opinion. But it is not a mere organ. It also helps to form or guide public opinion” David wrote and re-wrote his comments, so there is a lot of repetition. “Every great newspaper employs a staff of writers, often experts of their own department, whose special function is to interpret events, social, scientific or political …... ready to explain, nothing comes amiss to their hands……….but most especially concern themselves with public affairs.”
He is very critical of parliament, both State and Federal. “The press will not begrudge Parliament the honour and glory of any beneficent legislation it has carried out, but we do begrudge the time and energy wasted in party warfare to the neglect of urgent public business, So long Parliament attends to its proper work, who cares what party is in office? Look at the manner in which the matter of the Commonwealth has been conducted by the Federal Parliament…………… It is not that members of Parliament are ignorant of or shut their eyes to what is going wrong or does not know what is wanted at their hands. They know well enough, but their time is so fully occupied by party strife, the struggle to get or to hold on to office that they have neither time nor inclination to attend to the real business of the country. ……. To hold office, the Ministry must hold its majority at all hazards. Hence plenty of doubtful friends. (Unfortunately the next 3 pages of text have been cut out. He probably named the doubtful friends). He has scribbled in the margin of page 7 “Hence that in every ministry that has held in office in this State 2/5 - 2/3 of its members are incapable men, from my point of view unfit for office.” 
“I wish to say a few words about the relationship of the press to Parliament. The part the press played in this State is not understood……. The press is more than a newspaper, as it originally was, no doubt; it is also a public organ absolutely indispensable to the community at large, but not altogether in the sense of being a mere vehicle of an opinion, for the journalist does not want to hear what the man in the street has to say on any event, for he has to state his views promptly.” 
Towards the end of his note-book he says  “I hope to live to see the day when Party government will be as the memory of a bad dream.” But he offers no alternative. In the notebook he sometimes contradicts himself or perhaps just changes his mind.
This then was the sort of journalist Geoffrey Syme was trained to follow. But he was was much less egotistical and more pragmatic than his father. By ‘press’ David Syme would not have meant every newspaper journalist. He really only meant his own members of staff.

What did David Syme believe about an after life?

As we have seen earlier, his tomb in the Kew Cemetery certainly gives some clues that he hoped for immortality. At best, he intended to be remembered in Melbourne.

His tomb still stands; a small copy of an Egyptian temple, conspicuous amongst the plainer head stones in the Presbyterian section of the cemetery.

It is certain that he had given precise instructions about it, for its plan was presented to his trustees only a few days after his death. It is also certain that he hadn’t bothered to discuss its symbolism with his wife, because, months later, she had to write to Butler, the architect responsible for it, and ask him to explain its meaning.

Syme had chosen a monument based on the temple of Osiris, at Philae. Mr Butler told Annabella Syme that ”in so much as Osiris is the God of the dead, so dead people were called Osiririans…  it seems possible that Mr Syme had in mind the Egyptian tradition of the soul inseparably connected with this building on the island of Philae.” He also told her that the Uraeus or hooded pythons were the symbol of leadership, and that the python was the symbol of resurrection. Syme probably took his inspiration from reading the Book of the Dead, one of the oldest and most complete accounts of primitive belief, which expresses very clearly the hopes and fears of what lay beyond the grave. The Book says of the snake “I am the snake, the son of earth, multiplying the years I lay myself down and am brought forth every day. I lay myself down and am brought forth renewed, grown young again every day.” One hundred and thirty six small erect pythons surmounted by orbs decorate the inner and outer sides of the cornices. They too have a precise meaning: ”Horus had commanded Thoth, the God of the Underworld, that they should be brought into every entrance of the gate and there is no opening of the gate into the land of the living unless one does it oneself.”
There is a winged orb above his (and his wife’s) names on the lid of his coffin, symbolic of a purified intelligence which lives on after this life.

Also symbolic are the acanthus leaves that were used for the capitals of the granite columns around the building. Acanthus leaves were supposed to have decorated the thrones of the sons of Horus during the Judgement of the Dead. Sixteen scarabs are used in the tiling of the floor, and the railings outside the tomb have still more ornamentation of scarabs and dozens of scarabs’ eggs.  These eggs, warmed and brought to life by the heat of the sun were also symbolic of resurrection, for the scarab in its journey though life was believed to plead that its will might be given back to it, that its mouth might be opened and that there will be no silence of death. David Syme certainly did not train Geoffrey to let The Age to become silent after his death.

Copies of an Egyptian temple would not have been common in Australian cemeteries in 1908. (David’s son Herbert, who died in 1939, has a much smaller partial-copy in the Box Hill Cemetery). Though David Syme’s tomb has many symbols connected with Freemasonry one cannot deduct that this meant he was a member of the Craft. He was sympathetic to it, at least in comparison with his attitude to Roman Catholicism, but there is no record of him having been a member of a lodge, at any rate in Australia.
It is much more likely that the symbolism of his tomb expressed his own belief and his hope for immortality. He had only set aside £700 to pay for his tomb, so, later on, his sons had to find extra money to pay for the gates and paths and garden. They, not their father, paid for the erect pythons of the gates and the tiny scarabs on the railings. One can’t help thinking that the tomb was also a very expensive way of expressing his desire, indeed expectation, to be one of the Elect; in short, to go back to the hope presented in the religion of his childhood.
Geoffrey Syme was not given to thinking about the problems of his after-life. He was not introspective. He was a Anglican, a parishioner of Holy Trinity, Kew, whose attendance at church was usually at christenings, weddings and funerals. Though there was provision for him to be buried in the Egyptian tomb with his parents, he chose to be buried in a simple grave, further down the hill, in the Anglican section of the cemetery. His grave has a granite slab with a cross above the words chosen by his wife, “Blessed are they that rest from their labours, for their works do follow them.”
Copyright © 2012 Dr Veronica Condon. All rights reserved.