One cannot but question the motive why a life that is very well documented has been eliminated from the history of The Age newspaper.

Sir Geoffrey Syme at "The Age" office a few days before his death.

"In September 2005 The Age web site describes Geoffrey Syme as an 'editorial manager.' Why not be precise and say Managing Editor? That is what he was, a journalist who became Managing Editor of The Age and The Leader. He, not his editors, Schuyler, Biggs and Campbell, had the power to direct the policy of The Age, and he was knighted for his services to journalism in Australia. The words 'editorial manager' are misleading with regard to Geoffrey Syme's career, and they indicate lack of research on the part of whoever wrote them."

© The removal of Geoffrey Syme ‘s career from the history of The Age newspaper.

An indication of the decision to forget about Geoffrey Syme came quite soon after his death in July 1942. His widow, Violet Syme, asked her brother-in-law Oswald Syme if one of the senior or retired members of the editorial staff could write a short memoir about him. She intended to pay the writer and all the expenses of publication. Oswald Syme refused her request, though he could easily have found someone. It was unkind of him, especially as he was one of the three trustees of his brother’s Estate as well as a trustee of the Estate of the late David Syme. Violet Syme was too upset to take the matter further, though she ought to have done so, and the other two trustees, Marjorie Haggard and Joan Hayne, either thought the matter unimportant or else were too in awe of their uncle to go against his wishes.

noticeThe Age’s notice of the death of Violet Syme is further evidence of the desire to remove Geoffrey Syme’s name from the history of the paper. She died on 30th July 1952, exactly ten years after her husband. Oswald Syme was alive, as was her husband’s niece Kathleen Syme, and H. A. M. Campbell may still have been the Editor of The Age. In 1952 many of the senior journalists would still remember Geoffrey Syme and be aware of his position as Managing Editor of both The Age and The Leader. The brief obituary notice is about his widow, so there was no need to detail Geoffrey Syme’s career, but he was not just one of the Trustees of the David Syme Estate. There is no excuse for failing to state his position correctly or to mention his lifelong work as an Age journalist. One sentence would have been enough.

So who is to blame for printing inadequate, misleading information about him? The text of this short notice might have been the work of an inexperienced young journalist who had never heard of Sir Geoffrey Syme. But his copy had to go further, to others in the Editorial department, to a sub-editor and perhaps even have been read by the editor. Campbell, or his successor, would certainly have known the description was at best inadequate. Campbell owed his position to Geoffrey Syme. He could not possibly have forgotten him.

Even a new young journalist would not have had to look far to find sources of information about Geoffrey Syme’s career. He could have looked at an old copy of Who’s Who. Or he could have looked up Geoffrey Syme’s death notices and the accounts of his funeral. His life is well documented, as is that of his wife. It would have been quite easy for that journalist to have gone to a senior member of the editorial department and asked for help from someone who had worked for Geoffrey Syme. He could have found someone who had known him, probably one of the journalists who went to Syme’s annual dinners for his Editorial Staff.

Geoffrey Syme’s career has been so carefully removed from the history of The Age that it suggests that it was not an inexperienced journalist who had written Violet Syme’s obituary. It seems more the work of a senior journalist, someone who knew quite well that Geoffrey Syme had worked as an Age journalist for almost fifty years and that he had succeeded his father as Managing Editor in 1908. More importantly, that he had had complete control of the editorial policy of the paper. In 1952 management control versus editorial control of policy was still a controversial subject, though by then the editor had more or less won the battle. There was no longer anyone who had the same undisputed editorial power as Geoffrey Syme. It was convenient to forget that such a power had existed.

Consider who would have wanted to forget about Geoffrey Syme. It is obvious that two or three groups of people, each with different motives, some of which interweave, did not want him to be remembered.

One group had political and/or ideological motives. This group includes those who wanted to pretend that The Age was originally a Labour rather than a Liberal paper.  They wanted it to become a Labour paper and they wanted to re-create the long-dead David Syme into something he had never been. They also wanted personal power. At the time of Geoffrey Syme’s death, and for several decades before, it had been fashionable, at least for some, to be idealistic about Communism or at least lean toward left-wing Labour. Syme died when much of France was occupied by the Germans, war was raging on the Russian front and when the Japanese troops seemed on the point of invading Australia. It was also the period of spies; of people like Philby, Burgess and MacLean.

Geoffrey Syme was most unlikely to be re-created as a Labour hero. He was politically too middle-of-the-road, as well as being a friend of R. G. Menzies, and he usually tended to look at things from several angles rather than follow a party line. In the Dictionary of National Biography Geoffrey Serle criticized Syme’s editorial policy as being like that of a yacht, twisting and turning. But what experienced yachtsman doesn’t have to think again and change course if he sees that there are shoals, or reefs or cliffs ahead? A member of his family spoke to Serle about these comments, to be told that he, Serle, was not very interested in Syme. To which the questioner replied, “Why, then, if you were not interested in the subject, did you take on the task and get paid for it?”

People in another group were interested in their own personal power. With the death of Geoffrey Syme came the opportunity to alter editorial policy, slowly perhaps, and to ease power away from management. Campbell’s attitude towards Geoffrey Syme had always been sycophantic. He was a bit like Uriah Heep. Editorial power, never given to him during Geoffrey Syme’s lifetime, now belonged to him. His job was safe and in 1942 his expertise was needed to keep the paper going. There were plenty of local problems, notably the lack of newsprint and the need to replace and modernize the presses.

Campbell was born in Ballarat in 1892, but apparently had begun his journalistic career in Perth. He worked on The Herald about 1920, later moving to The Age and becoming a leader writer about 1928. Thus he had worked under Syme and the then Editor L. V. Biggs for about eleven years before Geoffrey Syme, rather surprisingly, appointed him editor over the head of a more senior leader writer, Matthew Macfarlane.

Campbell’s forgetfulness concerning Geoffrey Syme is a good indication of his character. He was one of the six signatories to a letter written to Syme on 2nd March 1933. It said “We who meet you daily in the work of The Age in some responsible capacity desire to extend felicitations and warm good wishes in connection with your 60th birthday. We trust you will be spared many long and happy years of labour with us in the publication of the paper, to give leadership and guidance to all who share with us big responsibilities. The spirit of mutual helpfulness and co-operation which you have always inculcated has a lasting influence on us all.” Campbell made one of the principal congratulatory speeches at the dinner for the Editorial Staff, which was given to celebrate Geoffrey Syme’s knighthood. He was also a pallbearer at Geoffrey Syme’s funeral. But he was quick to forget him.

In 1942 there was no one to replace Geoffrey Syme.  He had no sons. His grandsons were young. Probably the most suitable person to follow him was David Farnell Syme, the second son of Herbert Syme, though he was not a journalist and was by then involved with his own Victorian broadcasting network. Oswald Syme, the last surviving son of David Syme, was a farmer, a trustee of the David Syme Estate, and had no personal experience of the running of the paper. However Oswald was now in a particularly strong position since David Syme’s Will had, rather strangely, allotted the final division of his Estate per stirpes instead of per capita, and, with the death of his daughter Margaret in 1948, his only surviving child, Nancy, eventually became the richest of David Syme’s grandchildren.

Yet another group of people who disliked Geoffrey Syme consisted of a few members of the Syme family. For example, Kathleen Syme, the unmarried daughter of another of Geoffrey’s older brothers, Dr. Arthur Syme, had been an Age journalist. On Geoffrey Syme’s death she returned to the paper in an executive position. She was not young. She had once been sacked by her uncle and probably never forgave him. Her new power went to her head, in much the same way as it had affected Oswald Syme. She became very grand, and was also very vindictive. She, together with Oswald Syme and C. E. Sayers, were the three people who sorted out the papers that were sent in for the book that Sayers was to write about David Syme, documents that eventually formed the basis of the Syme Papers given to the State Library of Victoria. Their deliberate omission of references to Geoffrey Syme is one of the main causes of his disappearance from the paper’s history. Poor historians go to the Syme Papers, find nothing about his career, and fail to investigate further.

The Age had become a public company in 1948 and the book was one of the first steps in preparation for the eventual formation of Syme Partners. David Syme’s grandchildren and other members of the family had been asked to send in their papers and documents relating to the family. Not everyone did so; if they had, many primary sources would have disappeared, especially if they had provided unwelcome information. It is true that a great amount of material was burnt, probably by Kathleen Syme. Several people never got back the papers they had lent. Luckily C. E. Sayer’s brusque and demanding manner of requesting them saved some of the collections of papers from being give to him. The destruction of staff records took place about 1964, before the move from Collins Street to the Spencer Street building. It is odd that there was no one who wanted to keep things like the Honour Boards that had lined the narrow passage on the left of the old building. They had recorded in letters of gold the names of those who had died or had fought for Australia in the Boer War and the First World War. Things like the records of The Age and The Leader golf competitions and, more importantly, the records of the staff and the wages books, also disappeared. The names of so many people were wiped away at this time. It was as if whoever was in charge wanted a completely new beginning and to forget everyone except David Syme and Oswald Syme. It was necessary to keep David Syme as a figurehead, especially when there was the difficult problem of trying to form Syme Partners. In the 1960’s no one really knew or cared very much about him, so he could be re-created into a suitable figurehead, acceptable to every Syme relation, however distant that relationship might be. Some members of the family still think that Kathleen Syme was the person responsible for this, and that Oswald Syme was “a nice old boy” who might not have noticed what was going on. That is most unlikely, though neither of them were clever enough to have planned such a thorough removal of records.

Geoffrey Hutton can hardly have had a lapse of memory about Geoffrey Syme’s position at The Age. He had been a senior member of Geoffrey Syme’s editorial staff. He had worked for him. So why did he leave him out of 125 years of Age? He and Les Tanner had collaborated in writing this book, which was published in 1979. Was he instructed to forget about him, or were his own political beliefs so at variance with those of his ex-boss that it pleased him not to include him?

In 1979 Ranald Macdonald, Geoffrey Syme’s great-nephew and the eldest grandson of Oswald Syme, was Managing Director of David Syme and Co. Did he have a lapse of memory, or just have poor knowledge of the history of the paper when he wrote the Foreword to 125 Years of Age? He refers to celebration of this anniversary with the comment “The main credit lies with a succession of dedicated editors. They were men of varying temperaments and talents who shared one common characteristic: the skill to make The Age relevant. These men sought to challenge and to comfort their readers. They sought to build a newspaper which annoyed, satisfied, amused, surprised and educated.” He doesn’t mention the names of these editors, nor does he mention that Geoffrey Syme had been the Managing Editor, the senior member of the Editorial Department of the paper for 34 years. He probably intended to ignore the long career of his grandfather’s elder brother, although it would have been easy for him to discuss his great-uncle’s job and the editorial power that went with it with his grandfather, Oswald Syme. Oswald still alive when this book was written, and jealousy was probably amongst the reasons for his failure to ensure that his older brother’s career was recorded. He had long been a farmer and was of some importance as trustee of the David Syme Estate, but he lacked the editorial power that had belonged to Geoffrey Syme. The key to the elimination of Geoffrey Syme’s name lies in the struggle for power between editor and management; this problem only surfaced when Geoffrey Syme died.

Geoffrey Blainey’s Introduction to 125 years of Age also omits Geoffrey Syme. Presumably he went along with the idea that the paper was run by editors and he was probably uninterested in its management.  He said David Syme “sat in the editor’s chair,” but he did not say that Geoffrey Syme sat in that chair too. He didn’t bother to find that out. His remarks about the paper’s contents during the years of the Depression and the two World Wars are mostly concerned with trivia.

Steve Foley’s book Reflections. The Age, 150 years of history was published in 2004. On page viii there is a long list of the people and the organizations that had helped him in the preparation of the book. He is especially grateful to “the staff of The Age Research Library for their dedication and patience and to Michelle Stillman in particular”. It is rather funny that such an impressive number of people, plus the dozen journalists who had contributed to the book, failed to come up with the name of Geoffrey Syme. Poor John Herbert Syme, David Syme’s eldest son, does get mentioned, although only on page 24, where he is described as a companion to Alfred Deakin on an inspection of irrigation canals in India. Herbert, the Business Manager of David Syme and Company, was fourteen years older than Geoffrey. Both men were important figures in the history of the paper.

If one looks at the average age of the twelve journalists who have contributed to the book one might forgive them for not knowing much about the earlier history of the paper. Gawenda, Foley, Gordon, Ellingsen, Button, Rule, Sullivan, Burns, Carney, Tippet, Shmith and Baum deal with their own particular interests. The first part of the 20th century isn’t their subject. Middle-aged mostly, they either lack enquiring minds or are too well set in their political ideas and their own careers to care about the history of the editorial department and the people who had worked there. The events of the past twenty or so years were better known to them. Steve Foley says he is sorry about the omissions. At least one can pretend Geoffrey Syme is included on page viii, amongst the past journalists, editors, artists and photographers to whom the book is dedicated.

Is it really strange that Geoffrey Blainey should be forgetful?  Actually, forgetful is the wrong word, because one can’t forget something one hasn’t bothered to learn. He had not mentioned Geoffrey Syme in his foreword to the earlier book, 125 Years of Age, so why would one expect to find his name in an article entitled “The cabbage patch that grew.”

It is difficult to judge Blainey’s precise area of historical expertise. It seems to be quite wide, since he has written 32 books, including “A short history of the World”. His article in Reflections is entitled “The cabbage patch that grew. 1854-2004. A history by Geoffrey Blainey”. It is 46 pages long, but the cabbage patch is Melbourne, so perhaps it is not surprising that he has not yet discovered the names of key figures in the earlier history of The Age. He makes a careless mistake on page 21 when he says that the Speight case was the first libel case against The Age. It would have been quite easy for him to send one of his researchers to check earlier volumes in the Victorian Law Reports in the State Library of Victoria.

He chooses a few examples of events and people from the period when Geoffrey Syme was Managing Editor. They seem rather a random selection from different issues of The Age.  He mentions the First World War, There is a photograph of a page from The Age with a list of the casualties at the Dardanelles, and he singles out individuals such as a Mrs Hastie and two Privates, William Poynton and John Martin. He talks about “Viola” who edited the women’s’ page, the “Spare Corner”, in The Leader. But he fails to explain that The Leader was actually a rather serious paper, intended for the rural community of Victoria, which gave a great deal of useful information about sales and crops and husbandry and agricultural shows. No one would guess this from his comments on Viola. He does mention the Depression and the beginning of the Second World War, though we learn little about The Age and nothing about the appalling difficulties of running a paper when many of the younger staff had left to join the forces, when newsprint was rationed, and the paper itself was so limited in size that it could not print all the advertisements that provided its income. It is regrettable that these books, 125 years of Age, and the second book, Reflections, which commemorates 150 years of The Age’s history, will probably end up being regarded as reliable sources for that history. An unquestioning reader sometimes believes that if something has been printed it must be correct. Less trusting readers know that omissions can lead to mistakes or misunderstandings, and in these two books the omissions seem to have been deliberate.  One does not expect to find deliberate distortion of facts - mistakes that are repeated and perpetuated - in books that are supposed to be reasonably well researched. So does one blame the researchers, the writers or the publisher of these books? Or does one blame historians who fail to look for primary sources for their subject?

© Veronica Condon 2005


Comments Regarding “Breaking News. The golden age of Graham Perkin.”
by Ben Hills
published by Scribe. 2010.

I could not resist the temptation to comment on this book.  I expect Hills’ book will end up as a paperback, a prescribed text for a great number of people who enrol in their first year of the many courses that are available for prospective journalists. Its detailed life of Graham Perkin might help them learn how to be an editor. And Graham Perkin was a good editor, though he came to be an editor through an unusual, in some ways perhaps unfortunate, set of circumstances. Hills gives an interesting portrait of Perkin, and he succeeds in making him live. He also gives a sometimes flattering, sometimes critical portrait of Ranald Macdonald and extremely critical portraits of Ted Neill and Kathleen Syme and of many others, including less accurate descriptions of that nebulous creation ‘the Syme family’, which is often composed of people he does not name and who change in number and relationships over the decades. It is odd that Geoffrey Syme, the Managing Editor of The Age from 1908-1942 is only named 5 times in his index, yet is criticized so freely.
There are dozens of small, in some cases relatively unimportant, mistakes in Hills’ text. However he is particularly inaccurate about the years 1908-1942, which are, after all, too early for his story of Perkin’s life.  He needs to look more thoroughly into his earlier sources and name them rather than invent or try to argue from a premise that is wrong or flawed, or from a set of circumstances he does not understand.
Hills gives a genealogical table of the David Syme’s family, using many strokes instead of the names and dates which would have been helpful for his comments on Syme Partners, and he forgets to name David Syme’s second son Francis (page 504) or note his family of nine children, the first, Elsie, born in 1884. No one would have dared to address the distinguished and extremely formal Editor L.V. Bigges as Len, nor think his name was Briggs (page 108 and 109).  A careless comment occurs on page 109, ”Geoffrey Syme called himself the paper’s Managing Editor”. He was the Managing Editor.  (Didn’t Hills bother to look at Geoffrey Syme’s obituaries?) And further down on the same page he goes on to say “The editor of the day used to write the leader, then submit it to whichever was in charge for approval” Although this may have been the case after Geoffrey Syme’s death, (and Hills sometimes muddled him with Oswald) this was not true of Geoffrey Syme.  He was a hands-on Managing Editor, who had been an Age journalist since the early 1890’s. He was present at the late-morning editorial meetings, allotted the 2 leading articles and took the long strips of proofs home with him late in the afternoon. He then went to his library, sat down and corrected the proofs before dinner, going to telephone the editor to discuss any mistakes or things that he wished to be altered. His youngest daughter Veronica was often with him. She has described the scene, going back to the time when she was very young and sat on his knee as he read them, and how, if she wriggled, the buttons on his waistcoat were very uncomfortable and dug into her back.
Geoffrey Syme’s control of the Editorial Department continued till his death, though there were occasional weeks in the last year or so of his life when he was in the Mercy Hospital and unable to work. He rarely took holidays. Occasionally he went to England, but in Australia he was always available since his beach house was at Mordialloc, a short train journey from The Age office, and his farm at Woori Yallock was only about 36 miles from Melbourne. Aged 69, he died of a form of Bright’s’ Disease. Campbell, his last editor, was subservient, even grovelling; Bigges, less so; for they were friends and colleagues. Incidentally, Geoffrey Syme never had silver hair; (page 68). It was grizzled, a light greyish brown. Nor could one describe him as “a distinguished figure.”(also page 68)  Even though his suits were well cut he was always slightly untidy, casual in his approach to clothes; someone who looked unhappy in white tie and tails.
Hills probably did not realize that Roman Catholics were not actually discouraged from employment at The Age (page 62). Amongst these Roman Catholics was a long-serving senior journalist, Frank Fitzgerald, the father of the artist Paul Fitzgerald, also the solicitor for the paper, C.J. Ahern, the senior partner of Gillott, Moir and Ahern. Hills fails to note the strongly Masonic influence evident in some of the staff, most notably those on the clerical/business side. (Herbert Syme was a Mason, Geoffrey Syme was not.) In the 1920’s and later, in the 1930’s and 1940’s, women abounded amongst the editorial staff, including Caroline Isaacson and the formidable Mrs Waters who wrote up the dog shows for The Leader.
Hills met Veronica Condon briefly on 30th September 2008. He took no notes and he must have found her answers to his few questions boring, since he was clasping a plastic bag that probably contained his tape-recorder and he never opened it. She was disappointed that she had to take him out for coffee in a rather dull place in the city, whereas she had hoped that he might have offered coffee to her. No question of lunch. It was mid-morning.
In his book he describes Veronica as a family historian (page 70). She isn’t. She is an art historian, a graduate of the University of Melbourne. Her chosen subject relates to the illustration of a group of 14th century French liturgical manuscripts, a far cry from Australian journalism. Her interest in Syme history is principally concerned with the lives of her own parents and grandparents.
Hills says Veronica Condon has written a description of her father’s office, (again page 70) but he does not say where he read it. (Perhaps investigative journalists don’t have to give their sources). She certainly has written descriptions of his work and of his office, but not as if the room was “a mausoleum dedicated to the Great Man,” her grandfather, David Syme. It was a cheerful sunny room with long windows facing north and opening onto a balcony. It was simply her father’s office. She rarely went there, but, when she did, she would sit, usually on the big Persian rug, reading Punch or The Leader until he finished his work and was ready to go home. As a child she knew practically nothing about her Scottish grandfather. Her father never talked about him and there was no portrait of him at Blythswood, just a small silver-framed photograph of him on her father’s desk in his little office off the hall. Blythswood’s hall was dominated by two huge portraits of her English great-grandparents, not by one of her Scottish grandfather. Geoffrey Syme was never dominated by the memories of his father. Certainly he had trained him, but he lived in a different era, his business and political problems were different to those of his father.
Why did Hills seem to think it odd that Geoffrey had retained the furniture that had been in his father’s office? “as his children and then his grandchildren occupied the office, they would allow nothing to be changed” (page 70).  The desk, chairs, two small tables and a coal fire were all useful, indeed necessary, for Geoffrey, as was the big table and the set of chairs in the room next door, which was the place for the monthly meetings of the Trustees of the David Syme Estate.  These meetings were at first presided over by David’s wife Annabella, and then, after her death in 1915, by Herbert Syme, the Business Manager of The Age, who was fourteen years older than Geoffrey. Annabella or Herbert, rather than the much younger Geoffrey, were the ones most likely to oppose expenditure on things they probably considered unnecessary. And surely a map of the electoral boundaries of Victoria was useful for reference, even if these got a bit out of date later on.
 From a student’s point of view Hills is particularly weak when he uses the words, “Syme family”. He scatters it about a bit too much.  For example (page 95) “One typical year the Symes hired Fitzroy Gardens for the staff and their children”. (Does Hills mean only those who were on the Board of David Syme and Co?) And that Keith Sinclair “had for more than a decade been regarded by the Syme family as the paper’s editor-in-waiting” (page 175). Often one longs to know which person - or persons -he is writing about, which period he refers to and just who was particularly incompetent. His habit is especially muddling when he ventures into the realms of David Syme and Co. (formed in 1948) and Syme Partners. A list of the directors of David Syme and Co would have been very helpful, especially when he comments that The Age was owned by a “mongrel corporation/family firm.“ (page 205). Greg Taylor is quoted as saying “None of them (the Syme management) had any business sense at all” (page 89).  But when and where did Taylor say this?  A date would have helped, but Taylor belongs to a period long after the era of Geoffrey Syme and this particular comment cannot refer to him.
Who was “David Syme Jnr” to whom he refers on page 223? Was he Hugh’s younger brother, David, not a cousin? A grandchild of Francis Syme?  Or someone else? Did Hills count Dyson Hore-Lacy as a Syme, simply because he was married to Geoffrey’s eldest daughter Marjorie? And was Neil Walford a Syme because he was married to Herbert Syme’s great-grand-daughter Patricia Gutteridge? Did John Moir count as a Syme simply because he had followed Ahern as the paper’s solicitor? Colin York Syme (who was involved in the planning of Syme Partners) was not related to David Syme. The York Symes are a different family altogether. Involved in shipping, not newspapers. Perhaps he was consulted because his surname was comforting, even recognisable,  to some of those Symes and semi-Symes who were being herded into Syme Partners.
Despite all this criticism, (and there is more of that to come when one turns to the part of the book that deals with the story of Syme Partners), Ben Hills’ book is interesting in that itintroduces the reader to a number of people. He is particularly interesting when he is describing the background to Perkin’s life, and people that he actually knew, notably the Perkin family and Graham Perkin’s in-laws, and his own contemporaries on the staff of the paper. He is much weaker in his description and understanding of Harold Campbell - to him a distant figure - and fails to note that Campbell, that is to say the Editor, did not become powerful until after Geoffrey Syme died in July 1942 and Campbell had to take over the role of senior figure in the editorial department: There was no male Syme trained as a journalist, and this is probably Geoffrey Syme’s fault. He had realized the problem as early as the 1920’s.  One problem was that he then had four daughters and had not a produced a boy. His fifth child was also a daughter. Another problem was that amongst his relations there seemed to be a lack of interest in journalism as a career. The eldest of his five grandsons, Geoffrey Haggard, was not born until 1926 and of the others only David Hayne and Timothy Clemons were born before he died. (David in 1938 and Timothy in  1941).  In the 1920’s and 1930’s he could not force any of his nephews into a journalistic career. Nor train anyone that was unsuitable.
A few Symes had been employed on the paper. Kathleen Syme, Arthur Edward Syme’s eldest daughter, had a degree in law and arts and although she worked on the paper for a couple of short periods and appears in the Staff Wages book (David Syme and Co. 1886-1937) there is the legend, probably true, that Geoffrey had sacked her. Arthur and Geoffrey Syme and their families were not particularly friendly. After all Arthur was 8 years older than Geoffrey. They had little in common and, unlike Herbert and Geoffrey, they lived far apart. Arthur was a doctor, keen on hunting and racing, had developed and owned racing stables in Moorabbin (Braeside Park), lived in the main street of Lilydale and his unmarried daughter Kathleen was more than forty years older than Geoffrey’s youngest daughter.  It was in wartime, in 1943, that Kathleen, (who, after all, had worked as a journalist), took her father’s place after his death and became a Trustee of the David Syme Estate. She enjoyed the power. Another who had worked on the paper, Geoffrey Macalister, the second son of Lucie Syme, also appears in the Wages Book in the 1920’s.  His job was related to the formation of the photographic department of The Age, and when he was about 25 Geoffrey Syme sent him to the United States to study methods of photography in American newspapers.
David Syme’s second son George Francis Syme (forgotten in Hills’ genealogical table) had 9 children including 5 sons; the eldest of these sons was Vere, born in 1887, then came Norman, Noel, Alan, and Cecil. Alan became a doctor, but it has been hard to trace the careers of the others. Possibly it was Vere who had worked on the paper. The storage (therefore inaccessibility) of the Honour Boards that used to hang in the ground floor passage near the stairs has made it difficult to identify how many of the older generation of David Syme’s few grandsons were employed by the paper and had also fought in the 1st World War.
It is unfortunate that Hills does not always set the story of The Age in its historical context. The specific financial problems created by the 1st World War, the Great Depression of 1929 and the beginning of the 2nd World War were not suffered by David Syme, though Geoffrey had to deal with them.  The removal of Parliament to Canberra in 1927 and the subsequent lack of easy contact with individual politicians was another, though later, problem for Geoffrey. But it is sad that it was David Syme’s Will that was the principal cause of the eventual loss of control of the paper. He chose to leave his money according to the number of his children’s’ children. Per stirpes and not per capita.  Thus Herbert’s family of 6 children received slightly less than Geoffrey’s 5 children. Both had less than Oswald, who had only one surviving child.  Also, in the division of the rest of his property, David Syme made no provision for capital expenditure of possible expansion of the paper. When needed David could always dip into his other resources - his vast personal property, much of it in land, which was distinct from the assets of the paper; whereas, if large sums were needed for any developments for the paper, Geoffrey was subject to the whims of his brothers, his fellow Trustees of his father’s Estate. And this meant that the paper was always financially constrained. Geoffrey lacked the freedom with money that his father had enjoyed in his latter years. Typical of this restraint was his failure to convince them to invest in the formation of Australian Paper Mills, though he did manage to convince them of the importance of investing in broadcasting and he became a director of 3AW.
Nor has Hills explained Harold Campbell’s role in strengthening the power of the Editor after Geoffrey Syme’s death. Geoffrey gave Campbell additional power in making him a Trustee of the David Syme Estate, and in appointing him over the man who was expected to follow Bigges as Editor, Matthew Macfarlane. But these decisions were made in wartime, when there were few to choose from. And after Geoffrey died there was no Syme journalist except Kathleen. Geoffrey would never have given her a senior position. She only became a Trustee when her father died, not very long after Geoffrey’s death,

Apparently Geoffrey chose Campbell because he was younger than Macfarlane and thought he could cope better with the frightening wartime situation. It was not a popular decision; especially as it was noticeable that Geoffrey was exceptionally kind to Campbell quite early in his career, often going out to have tea with him and his wife Queenie at their cherry farm beyond Box Hill. (Later they moved into Cliveden Mansions near the Fitzroy Gardens and the boys, Vivian and Bruce, left their Box Hill schoolfor Geelong Grammar School, Corio. Their elder sister Petera, educated at Methodist Ladies’ College, Kew, joined the staff of The Age). Geoffrey’s wife Violet did not go on these expeditions; she and Queenie would have had little in common. Queenie might have found Violet a bit too formal, perhaps slightly, though unintentionally, intimidating. Campbell got his job because he knew how to handle Geoffrey and, during the almost constant illness of his last year, Campbell did at least try to take some of the enormous wartime pressures from him. But the problem of the succession of editorial power had long been a foreseeable problem, and Campbell certainly understood the situation and was in a position to make use of his knowledge. Probably Geoffrey Syme can be blamed for not training his successor. Perhaps he had trained Macfarlane but, given the wartime situation, had changed his mind. However, even if Geoffrey had had a son, one that was clever, qualified and astute, and of the right age to follow him, that son would have had great difficulty in dealing with the restrictions of David Syme’s Will, the personalities of the Trustees of the David Syme Estate, and the enormous financial difficulties and lack of young staff, problems that were so evident at The Age in mid 1942, when the Japanese seemed about to invade Australia and the Axis powers seemed to be winning the war.


Copyright © 2012 Dr Veronica Condon. All rights reserved.