Syme, David (DNB12)

SYME, DAVID (1827–1908), Australian newspaper proprietor and economist, born on 2 Oct. 1827 at North Berwick, Haddingtonshire, Scotland, was youngest of five sons and two daughters of George Syme, parish schoolmaster of North Berwick, by his wife Jean Mitchell of Forfarshire. Of his brothers two died in early manhood and two, Greorge and Ebenezer, reached middle age. The elder of these, George (M.A., Aberdeen), was successively a free-church minister in Dumfriesshire and a baptist pastor in Nottingham, while the younger, Ebenezer, who was educated at St. Andrews, also joined the baptist ministry, which he abandoned in 1850 to become sub-editor of the ’Westminster Review.' Both the brothers, George and Ebenezer, joined David in Melbourne, and died within a few years of their settlement there.

After education by his father, who died when David was sixteen, he visited his eldest brother, James, who was practising as a surgeon at Bathgate, Linlithgowshire. Accepting the doctrine of universal salvation promulgated by James Morison [q. v.] of Kilmarnock, he next studied theology with him, but in 1849 he went to Germany and to Vienna, and a year's study of philosophy in Heidelberg destroyed his faith in Christianity. On his return to Scotland he procured a situation as reader on a Glasgow newspaper, but hopeless of advancement he sailed at the end of 1851 for San Francisco, and went from Sacramento to the goldfields, where he had no luck and disliked his companions. The report of the discovery of gold in Australia brought him to Melbourne in 1852, after a perilous voyage in an unseaworthy ship. In the Australian goldfields he was no more prosperous than in California, although on one occasion his claim included what was afterwards the famous Mt. Egerton mine, but it was jumped, and Syme could obtain no redress from the government. Meanwhile David's brother Ebenezer, whose literary abilities were high, followed in his footsteps and settled in Melbourne. On 17 Oct. 1854 a newspaper, 'The Age,' was founded there by two local merchants, John and Henry Cooke, and Ebenezer was appointed one of the editors. The editors supported the cause of the miners at the time of the Ballarat riots, to the disgust of the proprietors, who gave the paper up; the editors thereupon ran it for themselves, and in eighteen months the concern was nearly bankrupt. In 1856, on his brother's advice, David bought 'The Age' for 2000l., which he had earned on the goldfields. In 1857, after eighteen months' trial, the paper proved unable to support both brothers, and David left it to Ebenezer's sole care, and turned with some success to road- contracting. Ebenezer, who was elected member for Mandurang in the first legislative assembly of the colony, but retired at the end of his term owing to inability to reconcile journalistic independence with party obligation, died of consumption in March 1860. David then took control of 'The Age,' mainly in the interest of his brother's wife and family, and for ten years worked it single-handed on independent lines which championed protection in the working-class interests, and vigorously challenged capitalist predominance. He attacked the distribution of 60,000,000 acres of land in Victoria among a thousand squatters, who paid a rent of 201. apiece, and he denounced the monopoly of the importers, which made local industries impossible and denied work to skilled artisan immigrants. The diminution in the output of gold threatened in these circumstances to drive from the colony the poorer population. Syme in his paper boldly urged a programme which included the opening of the land to small farmers and a system of protective duties on imports, a policy which none in Australia suggested before him. Syme, through 'The Age,' soon became the admitted leader of the liberal party, but it was necessary to secure manhood suffrage and a diminution of the powers of the upper house before legal effect could be given to his proposals. A land act embodying Syme's policy was passed in 1869, and until his death he never ceased to urge drastic measures for the prevention of large estates. At the same time 'The Age' also demanded, and finally obtained, in addition to land and protective legislation, disestablishment, payment of members, and free compulsory secular education. Syme's enemies, the landowners and importers, ceased to advertise in 'The Age,' and in 1862 they persuaded the premier, (Sir) John O'Shanassy [q. v.], to withdraw the advertisements of the government. The price of the paper had been reduced in 1861 from 6d. to 3d. Now in 1862 Syme reduced it further to 2d., and his attacks on the government redoubled. Meanwhile the circulation increased. Popular anger prevented the premier, O'Shanassy, from carrying a libel bill designed in April 1863 to gag Syme, and in August 1864 a protectionist house was returned, with the result that a first tariff bill was passed in March 1866 by the ministry of (Sir) James M'Culloch. In 1868 the importers, despite Syme's resolute adherence to his policy, renewed their advertisements in 'The Age'; he thereupon brought out the paper at 1d., and its circulation more than doubled in a week. In 1869 Syme went to England on his only holiday since 1860, and a fresh endeavour by the importers to boycott his paper in his absence failed.

Syme subsequently continued his campaign both on land and tariff questions with unabated vigour. His insistence on still higher duties led to a long conflict between the two houses in which supply was more than once refused. In critical situations Syme's advice was solicited and adopted by the governor and premier, and after 1881, when Syme forced (Sir) Graham Berry [q. v. Suppl. II], the premier, to withdraw the tariff measure which he had announced to the house the day before, but of which Syme disapproved, Syme claimed with justice to exercise until his death the deciding voice in the appointment of every Victorian premier and cabinet minister. In 1887, during a period of great prosperity, parliament, mainly yielding to the appeals of landjobbers and speculators, accepted a scheme for covering the whole colony with a network of non-paying railways under the direction of official railway commissioners. Syme attacked the movement in a series of articles which ultimately in 1892 forced the government to abandon its railway scheme and dismiss the commissioners. The chief commissioner, Mr. Richard Speight, claimed 25.000l. damages from Syme for libel. The litigation lasted from March 1890 to September 1894, and although Syme won, Speight's bankruptcy made him liable for his own costs, which amounted to 50,000l. The paper's prosperity was confirmed, and it became the fountain-head of all progressive legislation. To its suggestion the colony owed anti-sweating and factory acts, and it initiated the movement which issued in the levy of an income-tax. Syme sent Mr. J. L. Dow to America and Mr. Alfred Deakiu to India at his own cost in order to study systems of irrigation. He supported Australian federation and first adopted the policy of conscription and the formation of an Australian navy. Towards the end of his life he realised that protection, while it had destroyed the monopoly of the importers, was enriching the manufacturers at the expense of the workers. He thereupon advocated a 'new protection' system and persuaded parliament to pass measures to protect industry against rings and trusts. Syme, who declined the offer of a knighthood, died of heart disease at Blythewoode, Kew, near Melbourne, on 14 Feb. 1908, and was buried at Melbourne. On his deathbed he dictated an account of his career which was edited by Mr. Ambrose Pratt and published in 1908. By his will he left the sum of 50,000Z. to various Victorian charities. In 1904 he had endowed an annual prize of 100l for original Australian research in biology at Melbourne University.

On 17 August 1858 he married Annabella, daughter of John William Johnson of Yorkshire and Melbourne. He left five sons and two daughters.

Syme prepared interesting expositions of his economic, political, and philosophical principles. In 1877 he published 'Outlines of an Industrial Science,' an exposition of protection which has since become a text-book, and in 1882 ’Representative Government in England,' a discussion of cabinet government and the party system, in which he advocates elective ministries and a system under which constituents should be able to dismiss their members without waiting for an election. At the end of his life he published two books on philosophy. The first, 'On the Modification of Organisms' (1890; 2nd edit. 1892), was an attack on Darwin's theory of natural selection. The second, 'The Soul: a Study and an Argument' (1903), continuing the earlier theme, attacked both materialism and the current argument for design, and described Syme's own belief as a kind of pantheistic teleology. Syme was also a contributor to the 'Westminster,' the 'Edinburgh,' and the 'Fortnightly' Reviews.

[Meynell's Dict. of Australas. Biog.; David Syme, by Ambrose Pratt (with several photographic reproductions; West Australian, Argus, Age, Herald, Adelaide Advertiser, and Adelaide Register, 15 Feb. 1908.]

A. B. W.