Another look at David Syme of "The Age"

Sources for Ambrose Pratt's Biography of Syme, written in 1908.

David Syme's character is generally described in much the same sort of words; he is reserved, stern, dour, even harsh. The repetition of words like these makes one wonder if writers depend too much on a small number of sources for Syme. Whether, in fact, more research and different sources might reveal a different side to him. Of course, from a writer's point of view, it is much easier to deal with a man whose character has been given such clear outlines; such a man does not upset a theory or an argument, unlike someone who might have awkward ideas or be less predictable in his attitudes.

An important secondary source for any study of Syme is Ambrose Pratt's biography, David Syme. The Father of Protection in Australia, which was published in 1908, much too soon after Syme's death in February of that year. The aim of this article is to examine two primary sources which Pratt used when he was writing that book, namely two of the manuscript books which contain Syme's biographical notes, and also to look briefly at the way in which Pratt handled this particular material which was given to him by Geoffrey Syme, who succeeded his father as Managing Editor of the Age  and who,

David Syme
for the last few months of David Syme's life, had been acting as his father's personal
assistant. David Syme had begun to write his own life story, but he died before the work was finished. In fact, though Syme had scarcely begun, Pratt's task was not to write a new book but to re-write, edit and add to the mass of material that had been given to him. Perhaps Pratt should have begun the book with David Syme's own words "I was born at North Berwick on the 3rd of March, 1827, the youngest of seven children. It was a long time after I reached manhood before I really knew the date of my birth, as no record was kept which was accessible to me. Our family was never given to commemorating birthdays, indeed the return of our birthdays was never considered a matter for congratulations but rather to the contrary." In the margin beside this he has written "One reads of a Thracian tribe who believed life brings more sorrow than joy and they mourned with each other as others do at death."

One may argue that Syme's account of his life should have been edited more carefully and published as his autobiography; instead it formed the basis of someone else's book.

Book I of the autobiographical notes is a smallish exercise book, bound in limp black leather, which measures 170 x 200 mm. and has 148 pages, though the text ends on page 75. He has written the text on the recto pages, leaving the verso pages for correction.  Book II is somewhat smaller, with a cardboard back; it measures 160 x 100 mm. and has 85 pages, of which only about half contain the text. This second book has practically no corrections or additions and it was probably dictated to his son Geoffrey, whose writing, at least at times, was very like his father's. The provenance and authenticity of these manuscripts is certain, since they belong in the collection of one of David Syme's grandchildren.

These two books date from the last month of Syme's life. The first was written in 1907, probably at his home, Blythswood, in Kew, which faced westwards, looking straight along the Yarra towards the city of Melbourne, just at the point where the river turns southwards and flows under the Victoria Bridge. He may have begun the writing at Shepparton, where he had gone towards the end of 1907 to attend a doctor whom he hoped might have a cure for the cancer that was so soon to kill him. Book II was written at Blythswood, in January, 1908, the month before his death.

These two manuscripts are important for anyone who has a serious interest in David Syme. Certainly the way he writes shows something of his sensitivity and anxiety as well as the passion of his feelings. In the beginning Syme is very concerned with his literary style; he writes and re-writes the account of his childhood, the education he received from his father and his religious development and beliefs. In this part Pratt has altered the text quite considerably and a great deal of the original has been deleted, though sometimes of necessity, when there is repetition. Pratt tends to follow Syme more closely when the writing is narrative, not comment. For example he tells of his life in Germany, the journey round Cape Horn, the adventures on the Californian goldfields and his voyage across the Pacific to Australia. Syme gives accounts of his first job on The Age newspaper, working for his journalist brother Ebenezer, then, when this job was no longer available to him, how he worked as a contractor, dealing with the road-gangs making the first series of roads across the Western District of Victoria, and how he then returned to The Age. to rejoin his brother. Much of this material was used by Pratt in the form of a "letter to his biographer", though, in fact, it derived from Notebook I . The device of a letter enabled Pratt to be selective. Only rarely does Syme describe people and even then he is usually content to sum them up in a few critical words. He leaves no physical description of his father and mother or the rest of his family, nor does he bother to describe the places where he lived in his childhood or his youth, Most of his writing is either narrative or opinion, yet in the rare passages of description, for example the rounding of Cape Horn, one realises that he is perfectly capable of vivid description.

He is critical of his father and scarcely mentions his mother, although he loved her and knew that she would have missed him had he done what he wanted and run away to sea. His father refused to let him go to sea and he says "I would have run away, notwithstanding my father, but for the thought of the grief it would be for my mother." Resentment of his father's harshness and lack of affection and criticism of Calvinism - and therefore of his father's beliefs - are the dominant themes of the first part of Book I.

Book II is quite different. It was begun on the 18th of January, 1908, less than a month before David Syme's death. Syme is no longer preoccupied with his literary style and the re-phrasing of ideas; he is continuing to describe episodes in his life, but as information, additional material for a book he knows he will never write himself. In a way the second book is more interesting than the first, partly because more is new,  since less of it appears in the biography. Again with Book II Pratt does not acknowledge his sources correctly. He says "The following little sketches of the boycotts to which the Age was subjected, of Mr Syme's earlier editors and colleagues and of his political principles are from his own pen. They had been extracted from private notes and letters to personal friends and have been transcribed verbatim."  In fact a considerable amount is not verbatim, and often the pen was actually held by Geoffrey Syme and not by his desperately ill father.

Frequently Pratt's text differs considerably from the original and it is this book, rather than Book I, which shows his method of handling the manuscripts left to him. Such a lot has been cut out or changed in order to make Syme a more acceptable historical figure. But it is pity that Pratt did not let Syme speak for himself, since even up to the last few days before he died Syme's writing was so much better and more vivid than Pratt's.

Why then did Pratt play around with Syme's text as much as he did? Obviously the Executors of the David Syme Estate were extremely sensitive to the laws of libel, especially since the Speight Case was fairly recent and Syme had commented on it quite freely in Book II. Also, the biography was to tell of Syme's life, to praise him rather than to judge him impartially. Perhaps even more important was the unfinished state of both books. Syme's own very solid published works were written with great care. "No man was more fastidious in style or a severer critic of his own writing, though he eschewed ornamentation and aimed solely at lucidity," and "He was an anxious writer, he hung jealously over his sentences, erasing the superfluous or inserting the accurate word." Syme would not have wanted his manuscripts to have been published with all their imperfections.

In the beginning of Book II, when he knew he could not finish the work alone he gave clear instructions to his son Geoffrey "I will not hand over to you the notes on my life, which you would be ready to supply, until you are satisfied that the part he (Pratt) had written was up to standard.  As soon as he has written that to your satisfaction, then I should hand over the lot." Even when one looks at Pratt's book in the context of contemporary biographies, one cannot but wonder at the way he used his primary sources. Book I could well have been edited and published as Syme's unfinished autobiography, while the pages of Book II could have been amended or amplified, put into context, and, just perhaps, the more libellous but interesting comments removed.

Syme was not a man to let another speak for him and alter his stated opinions, yet this is precisely what has happened in many of the quotations from Syme in Pratt's book. Take, for example, Chapter XVI, which Pratt has entitled Correspondence. In this chapter Pratt has used fictitious letters to insert some of the text David Syme and sometimes his secretary, Geoffrey Syme, had written in Book II. Letters I, II, II, IV and V are all re-written pages from these manuscripts.  

The original idea of fictitious letters probably came from Syme himself, but he seems to have instructed it to be limited to one subject only. In Book II, under the heading Theosophy, he says "I want to bring in the circumstances connected with this man Foster. I think it best brought in by a letter from somebody noting my opinions on Spiritualism." Here, in this supposed letter, Pratt made additions and changes which alter the sense of the original text. "My dear - Perhaps I can best answer your question, what is my opinion of Spiritualism? by relating some personal experiences,"  he then makes a few minor changes to the story and ends "I have attended many other seances at different times, and I have read almost every book of note written about spiritualism including Mr. Myer's two large volumes; but I have never read or encountered anything that distinctly proves there is a connection between the spirit world (if there be such a world) and the world we live in. My attitude towards this question therefore is I do not know."   Syme's original version finishes in a different way, "I have attended a good many seances and I have read almost every book of note, including Mr Myer's two large volumes, but I have never met anything absolutely proving beyond a shadow of doubt that there was any connection between the spirit world and the present." Pratt makes Syme a little less credulous about the existence of a spirit world.

The introductory passages of all the 'letters' have been added by Pratt and he has deleted and altered texts as it suited him. The original text for Letter II has been abridged, quite rightly, since it is rather dull and Syme's comments on R. L. Stevenson are hardly flattering. He says " I think and I have always thought that he was an altogether over-rated man. He wrote almost all his works over here and of one kind. One of these he touched up eleven times and they were all about stories with a Scotch character of by-gone date." Letter I, which is about marriage with a deceased wife's sister was  a subject of personal interest to Syme because there were cases of it within his wife, Annabella Syme's, family. In one of these cases her great-uncle, Jeremiah Garnett, first printer and then part-owner of the Manchester Guardian, had married Mary Anne Taylor, and at her death he married her sister Isabella. The Garnett and Syme connection was a strong one since David Syme was a friend of Richard Garnett, Keeper of the Printed Books of the British Museum, and knew James Garnett and Tom Garnett of Waddow Hall, near Clitheroe, on the then Yorkshire and Lancashire border. His son Geoffrey Syme married Violet Garnett, the daughter of Tom Garnett. One cannot understand David Syme without bearing in mind his close personal interest in political, industrial and literary life in England as well as in Australia.

"The member for Beechworth, G. P. Smith, brought in a bill into the house legalising the marriages." (to a deceased wife's sister). All of Syme's remarks about Smith could hardly have been included by Pratt. On 18th January, 1908, he wrote of Smith "It was because of his position on the Age that he was returned to Parliament and it was because of his position on the Age that he was taken into Cabinet. All the same he was a capable man, but he was a treacherous dog to the end, He gave me no chance of employing him in the court case and he looked at me with the most diabolical eyes all the time I was in the court. I have no occasion to say anything good of him".

Pages 9-21 of Book II are devoted to the Speight case. These are obviously amendments and additions to his earlier writing on the subject. Briefly, under David Syme's direction, his Editor, G. H. Schuyler, had written a series of articles for the Age which criticised government spending. Speight had been singled out for criticism. He was the Chief Railway Commissioner and when the government fell Speight lost his job and sued Syme for libel. The writ was issued in June, 1882, the first trial began in June, 1883, and the second trial ended in September, 1884. Syme had left instructions about the additional information on the case to be used in his biography but very little of it was used by Pratt. Syme had written "The evidence of that second trial ought to be looked through carefully and Mr Schuyler ought to give plenty of information because he wrote every article, As regards Speight himself, I want to take particular note of the curious selection of Speight by Murray-Smith, the Agent-General in London. Murray Smith got orders from the then Premier to advertise and select a Chairman of Commissioners at a certain salary in London within a certain time. For some reason or other very few applications were sent in, and, out of the two men selected, one was a man who had the management of a series of railways in India, and the other was Speight, who was, however, not known and had not been seen, Murray-Smith called in Simon Fraser to advise him, Unfortunately this (first) man when he saw Fraser wore a velvet coat which was most obnoxious to Fraser, who told Murray-Smith that a man who wore that could do anything. When I was in London and there was word of an action from Speight, Gillott (Syme's solicitor) and I went to the Agent-General (Munro) to see how Speight got his appointment, Here we discovered the curious fact of the whole affair, We found that Speight had never sent in an application at all but an application had been put in by a Director of the Midland Railway. Of course Fraser, knowing that everyone believed that the Midland Railway was a great railway, took him on the strength of that. There was an extraordinary application by one of the directors in which it was stated that he was a good man for this position in Victoria. On seeing this Murray-Smith applied to the Director to know who he was (there was a limit of time for these applications to be sent in) and after a good deal of delay an answer came in which the qualifications of the man Speight were dilated upon -the time he had been in the Railway, high recommendations and so on -because they wanted to get rid of him! Still his name was not mentioned, Then Murray-Smith wrote again insisting on the name being given and at last, at the eleventh hour, the name was disclosed and he was selected forthwith, Of course anyone with any nous could see that this was a trap to get rid of Speight. I told all this to Purves, believing it to be the most important information in connection with the case but he declined to use it. He was terribly afraid of Speight..... there is another thing to be mentioned. When the government dismissed Speight it gave him compensation to the extent, I think, of £8,000, which I presume he considered ample, In that government Berry was, I think, Treasurer, At any rate he held office, and it was suggested to me by several of my friends that Berry should refuse to pay over the £8,000 until he withdrew his action against the Age, Speight actually claimed more than three times that amount against me than he did from the government. I would not condescend to ask that this should be done and Berry, for whom the Age had done so much, in fact was the making of the man, allowed me to run all this risk and all this loss and never lifted a finger to help me. If £8,000 was sufficient, the £25,000 (his claim against me) was outrageous. The Government should have made it mandatory for him to give up his action.... I forget the time and circumstances and do not recollect whether it was after the first trial or after the second, At any rate J. B. Patterson was Premier. Patterson came to me one day in the Office and said "Have you any particular grudge against Speight?" and I said "No, no personal grudge at all.  "Well," he said, "Would you agree that Speight be brought back into the Railway?" And I said that it would have to be a very subordinate position indeed that he would be fit for and I would rather not have anything at all to do with it. He asked me if I would see him. Then he took me to see Speight (then a broken-down man) who was waiting for me at the Athenaeum Club. Patterson took me to the room where he was, Two minutes conversation with Speight convinced me that he was not in the least subdued and nothing short of his old position under a new name as general manager would suit him. I came away and told Patterson that I did not think he was fit for any position whatsoever, There was a very heavy liability on my shoulders at the time so I cannot say exactly what occurred. That would have to be looked up." Further down the same page, page 21, is Syme's final comment on the Speight case; "When the man was dead broke and had failed to get anything out of me, then his friends, mostly people whom he had befriended, got up a subscription to send him off, I sent a subscription and that subscription headed the list, being higher than any else's." Pratt's description of the ending of the Speight affair makes Syme seem more kindly and much less vindictive.

Syme's comments on people are at least for the most part, probably apt but rarely kind. He seems to remember those who hurt and angered him rather than his friends, Sometimes he mentions people he encountered on his travels in America and during his voyage to Australia, but he looks at them critically, For example he recalls the owner of the Europa, who provisioned the ship so badly on the voyage which first brought Syme to Australia.

Of more importance are his observations on his political friends and enemies in Victoria, Most of these are passing comments which were either too provocative or too short for Pratt to fit easily into his own narrative. He does not treat Graham Berry too kindly, saying "We lifted him onto his pedestal" and tells of G. P. Smith's dismissal from the Argus as well his employment on the Age, Bryan O'Loghlen, John O'Shanassy, James McCulloch, John Madden, Charles Gavan Duffy, G. H. Reid, James Wheeler and many others appear in these two manuscripts.

Syme refers to the quarrel between Gavan Duffy and O'Shanassy "They had been in office for about a year, I do not know what it was about but the quarrel was well-known and evident by the conduct of the two men in public." Syme also describes  Gavan Duffy's and  O'Shanassy's "Irish conquest of Victoria, Every Irishman who came out with a testimonial from their parish priest was given a billet (a civil service billet, if not that, taken into the police force) and, not satisfied with that, they actually divided the conquered Colony into different divisions and gave Irish names to them all. There was Billy Duffy and Billy O'Shanassy and Billy this and Billy that and the original names taken away". Although the two books are full of incidents from Syme's life and he has bothered to describe his daily routine in some detail, his family seems irrelevant to his story. In fact there is no mention of his children and only one reference to his wife, and this is just a marginal note which Pratt has neatly inserted into his text as yet another "note to an intimate friend." Syme had written "The year before I took over the Age  I married Annabella Johnson, the eldest and only daughter of Mr. W. J. Johnson of Melbourne, formerly of Yorkshire, where my wife was born. I never cease to bless the day I married her."  That was all, but Syme's married life was indeed a happy one  and his letters to his wife, terse as they often are, do show that love and his reliance on her. She was in fact an efficient and bossy woman, well capable of taking care of his household and organising the lives of their children. Their daughter-in law, Violet, the very young English wife of their fourth son Geoffrey, found David Syme a pleasant, rather lonely man who was always happy to talk to her and she thought that Annabella Syme was much more terrifying and interfering than her father-in-law. David Syme also forgot to pay tribute to his own well-to-do merchant father-in-law, who had  lived in Studley Park, always very close to Blythswood, and at latterly in an adjoining property, first Conisborough, then Swinton. Johnson often was of financial help to him. Annabella was not a penniless bride.

It is in the first of these manuscript books, when he was still able to write for himself, Syme reveals himself most clearly. Religion and the thought of an after-life, was something that had always fascinated him. " My father was, as I have said, a strict Calvinist, This may explain his attitude to his children, His religion hung like a funeral pall over him and all his family, To enjoy life was wrong. To laugh was sinful, But in this he was strictly logical, Was not our very existence an anomaly? A defiance of the Almighty? Were we not, even the youngest of us, rebels against God, born in sin and cradled in iniquity? And, if we had our deserts, did we not merit everlasting damnation?..... and if we found grace and became one of the Elect, what about the future of those who had not been so fortunate? What was to become of those who were probably neither better nor worse than the Elect?" This was no longer an abstract question for him; he knew he was dying. "Raised as I had been in the creed of Calvinism, the question of how to be saved from the wrath to come presented itself to me, I found no guide... Salvation is only by the grace of God, I could find no universal panacea, no panacea, for nothing is certain... believe what? This among other things but especially that Christ died, not just for an elect few, but for all men,...that Christ died and all would be well. Faith was not a gift, but an act, you were saved by that act of faith," Beside this comment, in a marginal note, Syme has repeated. "Make no mistake, you are saved by your own act of Faith."

The problem with editing these nineteen pages dealing with his religious beliefs is that Syme has written and re-written them, not only describing the Calvinism of his youth but the development of his belief under the influence of a Dr. James Morrison, and later, as a theological student destined for the Baptist church, probably in Birmingham. Here too are the beliefs of his old age. Syme was always questioning  and it is odd, perhaps, that he never seems to have examined  or criticised the doctrines of either the Church of England or the Roman Catholic Church. Probably he thought of Anglicans and Roman Catholics from the political rather than from a doctrinal point of view, Thracian tribes, Egyptian gods and Indian spirits were so unrelated to his life in Melbourne that he could read about them with dispassionate interest.

A key to understanding David Syme is to remember his interest in religion and the fact that he could never be an unquestioning member of any sect, After all, only a few years before his death he had written in the introduction to his book, The Soul: A study and an Argument "Is there a soul? Is there any purpose or design in nature? Is there an afterlife? Many of us at times feel an interest as to the warrant we have for believing as we are taught or as to the reasons others have for their opinions on these subjects."

There are arguments for and against the publication of these two manuscripts of David Syme's. Are they - and Syme himself - sufficiently interesting or important? What Pratt has written is to some extent a summary of the manuscripts and there would still have to be some editing, at least in the removal of repetitions and the insertion of marginal comments into the text, It is a large mass of material, begun with much care, though, even at the start, the thread of the story gets lost as Syme stops to elaborate on an idea, for example his views on Calvinism, At the end, in much of Book II, there is little continuous narrative, just a series of notes on different subjects,

One can also argue that they ought to be published, Pratt's changes, comparatively minor as they are, make some of the printed quotations a defective primary source. Even so close to death Syme's mind was still clear and he is definite in what he says. Amongst a collection of newspaper cuttings which belong to the time of his death there is one, unidentified as to its source, which says "Vale! Spirit of the Age. David Syme's death brings to an end many enmities and some superbly strong friendships. The dour grey man with his mighty power, his sagging sac coat, his sour hard stare and his unexpected revelations of kindness is an unforgettable figure, His eyes were black, and deeply set behind rugged grey brows, They were sometimes meditative, but often keen, It was the look that gave the keenest sense of the direction of the man, David Syme never wasted words, They were of value and to the point, his words." Why, then, should we have so many of Pratt's words instead of Syme's? At least his own words would help in assessing him as an historical figure, Although the manuscripts are so uneven in content and style Syme comes alive in them far more than he does in Pratt's careful re-writing. Nothing in them really changes the image of a stern, dour man, yet, as so much is his spontaneous thought, one also sees something of his feeling, anger, sincerity and his questing spirit. They have to be read with compassion, as the work of a dying, suffering man who is concerned with his own prospects of eternal life.

Oddly enough, just above his simple funeral notice in the Age in February, 1908, are the words "There is no death. " They may belong to the death notice immediately above his, that of John Sweet of Carlton, but they could equally well belong to Syme.

Copyright © 2012 Dr. Veronica Condon. All rights reserved.