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The life & death of Smith's Weekly

Robert Phiddian
The death of a newspaper plays out in a box of cartoons.

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.

The front page of a vintage newspaper with signatures by artists, journalists and production staff.
Front page of the final edition 28 October 1950, signed by artists, journalists, and production staff.

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.

Black and white portrait of a man in a hat and tie.
Drawing of Mo (Roy Rene), artist unknown

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.

/cartoon-charles-hallett-maisie-i-insist-you-take-remember-what-happened-last-time-you-went-car-ride
/cartoon-john-endean
/strip-cartoon-bruce-begg
/unfinished-strip-cartoon-joan-morrison
/cartoon-les-dixon-and-judges-have-called-photo
/cartoon-john-endean-tell-them-repeat-last-couple-words-mystifyingly-was-too-early-maralinga-nuclear
/final-published-page-smiths-cartoons-various-artists
/unpublished-cartoon-unk-white-jus-put-yerself-my-shoes-lady-yer-wont-ave-care-world
/unpublished-cartoon-unk-white-hey-who-thell-yer-shovin

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.

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