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You don’t often stumble on a death in a library, but that is exactly what happened to me in the Mitchell Reading Room while studying Smith’s Weekly when I innocently called up a box of pictures, PXD 840.

Smith’s was a weekly newspaper produced in Sydney and distributed nationally. It started as a broadsheet on 1 March 1919 and thrived and survived through three very different decades: the Roaring 1920s, the Depression of the 1930s, and the 1940s, dominated by war.

Front page of the final edition 28 October 1950, signed by artists, journalists, and production staff.
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The newspaper’s obvious competitor, The Bulletin, was slipping into its mid-century dotage, attached to the bush myth it created in the lead-up to Federation. By contrast, Smith’s saw that Australia was more urban than rural and, in particular, became the Digger’s champion after World War I. It fitted into the journalistic firmament at the populist end of the market, more respectable than Ezra Norton’s scurrilous Truth, but closer to it than to the stuffily conservative Sydney Morning Herald.

Smith’s was famed for its larrikin humour, which emanated particularly from its highly paid stable of cartoonists, of whom there were sometimes as many as a dozen on staff. It regularly published more than 80 cartoons in its 24 pages, and most cartoonists of the era — Cecil Hartt, Virgil Reilly, George Finey and, most notably, Stan Cross — contributed. It also attracted major writers, including the poet Kenneth Slessor, a long-time journalist and, briefly, the newspaper’s editor. Smith’s Weekly sat at the centre of blokey, beer-soaked, journalistic bohemia in mid-century Sydney.

Drawing of Mo (Roy Rene), artist unknown, c 1930-1950
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Reduced to tabloid format by newsprint restrictions during World War II, it limped through the post-war reconstruction years until 1950, never fully regaining its vigour. Box PXD 840 was clearly from this later era of the newspaper. It was full of cartoon originals, in both black and white and full colour, but I couldn’t work out publication dates, though these images were clearly marked up for the press.

If you have a printed — rather than hand-written — caption, an online search in Trove Newspapers nearly always comes up with a publication date and context for a cartoon. This time, however, pictures by Jean Cullen and Unk White failed to provide a match. Then two cartoons by Norm Rice, while not the best of the batch, appeared in the 28 October, 1950 edition. Trove reminded me that this was the very last edition of the paper.

Because I had worked systematically through the items in the box, it was not until I got to the bottom that I realised what I was a witness to. There were two copies of the front page for 28 October, covered in signatures. This box held the last remains of the paper. The 22 left-over cartoons — ghosts of cartoons, really, because they remain unpublished — had no subsequent editions in which they might appear.

One of the signatories was George Blaikie, long-time Smith’s journalist and a chronicler of the paper. He writes of an attempt at last-minute salvation by the all-powerful Sir Keith Murdoch who it was hoped might take over the paper for his stable. But the main shareholders sold to a new owner who, as media historian Sally Young puts it, was ‘more interested in the real estate owned by the business than the journalism’.

The death of this newspaper was a very Sydney cold case.

Woman in a dress standing in a garden at night. Another woman tries to hand her a can that says 'Super Petrol 4 Gals'. In a car outside the garden gate sits a car with a man waiting inside.
Cartoon by Charles Hallett, ‘Maisie, I insist you take this! Remember what happened last time you went for a car ride!’
c 1930-1950
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Three panel cartoon. First panel shows a car turning a corner. Sign says 'Caution curve'. Second panel the car is driving through the road barrier, heading off a cliff. Last panel, car is crashed into a sign at the bottom that says 'Told you so'.
Cartoon by John Endean
c 1930-1950
Digital ID: 
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Strip cartoon with four panels. The first shows a boy in a bath with a toy ship. Next him as a teen making a model ship. The third him as a man, entering a building which says 'Join the navy.' The last panel he's in a navy uniform on a ship being sick.
Strip cartoon by Bruce Begg
c 1940
Digital ID: 
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Four panel cartoon with two women talking while shopping.
Unfinished strip cartoon by Joan Morrison
c 1930-1950
Digital ID: 
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Three male judges sit in chairs around a radio. The door to the room reads 'Judges' Room'.
Cartoon by Les Dixon, ‘And the judges have called for a photo’
c 1930-1950
Digital ID: 
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A cartoon depicting two people, one standing and one crouching, looking at a mushroom cloud in the distance.
Cartoon by John Endean, ‘Tell them to repeat the last couple of words'. (Mystifyingly, this was too early for the Maralinga nuclear tests, which started in 1952.)
c 1930-1950
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Vintage newspaper page with a series of cartoons.
Final published page of Smith’s, with cartoons by various artists
c 1930-1950
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Cartoon illustration of a man and woman walking down a road.
Unpublished cartoon by Unk White, ‘Jus’ put yerself in my shoes, lady, an’ yer won’t ‘ave a care in the world’
c 1930-1950
Digital ID: 
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Tall man leaning against a 'shack' building. Man inside building leans out the window with a shaving razor in his hand, looking cross towards him.
Unpublished cartoon by Unk White, ‘Hey! who th’ell yer shovin’
c 1930-1950
Digital ID: 
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Robert Phiddian is professor of English at Flinders University, where he specialises in parody, satire and political humour. He was the Library’s Ross Steele Fellow in 1921.

This story appears in Openbook winter 2022.