Ebenezer Syme (1825–60) and his brothers, David (1827–1908) and George (1821–94), immigrant sons of Scottish schoolmaster George Sime—later spelled Syme (1791–1845)—and many descendants (chiefly of David) to the fourth generation, were associated from the mid-19th to the late 20th century with the business that published the Melbourne Age and several other newspapers. In David’s time, these were the Weekly Age, the Leader, the Farmers’ Journal, the Illustrated Australian News, the Herald (briefly) and Every Saturday. An unincorporated family firm for 92 years, from 1878 designated David Syme & Co., gave place in 1948 to a public company.
Former clergyman Ebenezer Syme joined the staff of the three-month-old Age early in 1855, and was soon co-editor. In June 1856, he bought the business at auction for £2000. In September, he took his brother David, who had been prospecting on the Victorian goldfields, into partnership. Following Ebenezer’s death in 1860, David took over the newspaper business.
Continuing the E. & D. Syme imprint, David ran the business in partnership with Ebenezer’s widow, Jane (1827–1912), bringing about stability for the enterprise and a growing circulation for the Age. Jane returned to England in 1862, but David kept her informed. In 1868, he employed her son, Joseph Cowen Syme (1852–1916), in the Counting House (finance section). Other members of the Syme family also worked in the firm. Brother George, another one-time clergyman, joined the staff in the early 1860s and became editor of the Leader, retiring in 1884. From the late 1850s, brother-in-law John Gourlay was employed, becoming paymaster and retiring in 1894. Second-generation involvement began when David’s eldest son (John) Herbert (1859–1939) entered the business in 1883.
In 1878, David bought half of Jane and her children’s share. His nephew, Joseph, bought the other half, becoming a junior partner in what would be known as David Syme & Co. Joseph managed the business and technical side, David the editorial and literary aspects, with the right of overall control.
By the later 1880s, relations between the partners had soured and, after 1891, David became sole proprietor; henceforth the ‘Syme family’ means David and his descendants and their spouses. Looking to succession, he appointed Herbert to Joseph’s vacated position and employed his two youngest sons, Geoffrey (1873–1942) in 1893 as a reporter, and Oswald (1878–1967) in 1896 in the Counting House. He sent both to London in 1901 for wider experience. Returning in 1902, Geoffrey took responsibility for launching and editing Every Saturday. In April 1905, he became secretary to his father. Oswald soon abandoned newspaper work for farming. David died on 14 February 1908. Praised then and later as a ‘maker’ of Victoria and his Age as a power in the land, he left a newspaper business worth some £403,000 of an estate valued at £979,480.
David Syme’s will provided for the establishment of the David Syme Trust, comprising his widow Annabella and five sons to administer his estate, including the newspaper business. This was to remain in the possession of his sons until the death of all five, with the imprint on the Age and Leader remaining unchanged. Herbert and Geoffrey were to assume managerial positions, their ‘capacities’ and salaries to be decided by the trustees. Accordingly, Herbert managed the business and technical side, and Geoffrey the editorial, steering the business through World War I, competition with the Herald and Weekly Times and the Great Depression. In 1941, Geoffrey was knighted for his services to journalism. From the 1920s, some third-generation Symes were employed, most notably Kathleen Syme (1896–1977), daughter of David’s third son, Arthur, and Hugh Randall Syme (1903–65), the son of Herbert.
With the onset of World War II came further generational change. The death of second son Francis in 1931, Herbert in 1939, Geoffrey in 1942 and Arthur in 1943 left Oswald the sole original trustee. Kathleen and Hugh filled vacancies on the trust, and Oswald returned to the firm to manage the business. At his instigation, a Supreme Court action allowed the restrictive provisions of the will to be varied, and in 1948 David Syme & Co. Ltd was floated on the Melbourne Stock Exchange, with a much-needed £400,000 raised through the sale of non-voting preference shares, with Syme family members holding 600,000 ordinary £1 shares. Oswald was chairman of the six-person board of directors, and Hugh and Kathleen members, with little change until Oswald’s retirement in 1964, when his son-in-law, Lieutenant Colonel E.H.B. Neill, became chairman.
During the next two decades, several more third- and fourth-generation Symes served successively on the board, most remarkably (Chesborough) Ranald Macdonald (1938– ), a grandson of Oswald and stepson of Neill. Macdonald was appointed managing director in 1964. With Graham Perkin, editor from 1966 until his death in 1975, he embarked on a modernisation program, extending and diversifying into subsidiary newspaper, magazine and multimedia operations.
In 1966, the Syme company entered into a partnership with John Fairfax & Sons Ltd that would last 17 years. Much-needed capital was raised though the issue of a million ordinary shares to Fairfax, which became the ultimate holding company, while Macdonald negotiated a deed of agreement to ensure the independence of the Syme company and the Age, unless the Syme shareholding fell below 10 per cent of the issued capital. By 1980 it had fallen to 43 per cent; in 1982, 55 Syme family members had only a 21.5 per cent interest. At the annual general meeting in September 1983, Macdonald announced that Fairfax would purchase the remaining Syme shares and move to full ownership; he also resigned. The partnership was formally terminated in 1984, and in March 1985 Fairfax served a takeover offer, seeking to acquire all outstanding Syme shares. The Syme family era was effectively at an end, although a fourth-generation Syme in-law, Commodore Dacre Smyth, remained on the board of David Syme & Co. Ltd until 1994. In 2000, the company’s name was changed to The Age Co. Ltd.
REFs: E. Morrison, David Syme (2014); Syme Family Papers (SLV); J. Tidey, The Last Syme (1998).