When George Howe (1769–1821) published the first edition of the Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser in 1803, he began a newspaper publishing and printing business that spanned 40 years and three generations of his family.
George Howe’s father and older brother were government printers at St Kitts in the British West Indies, and the official gazette they produced provided the blueprint for the early Sydney Gazette. After serving his apprenticeship, Howe went to England, where he worked on the Times and other London papers. After being convicted for shoplifting, he was transported to Sydney in 1800. Almost immediately, he became government printer, and from 1803 until his death he published Australia’s first newspaper.
Howe produced a variety of material for the Sydney Gazette, some of it drawn from his personal reference library. He also printed the first Australian books, from school primers to poetry and natural history.
When George Howe died in 1821, his son Robert (1795–1829), having worked as his father’s apprentice, took over the family printing and publishing business. Following a dissolute youth, Robert was now a devout Methodist, and during the 1820s the Sydney Gazette often reflected his evangelical outlook. At the end of 1821, he had married Ann Bird (c. 1802–42), who agreed to raise his child, Robert Charles (1820–75), born to the convict Elizabeth Lees. The Sydney Gazette retained its primacy during the 1820s, and convict architect Francis Greenway designed a purpose-built printing office and elegant residence for the family.
After Robert Howe’s death by drowning in Sydney Harbour in 1829, Ann took over the running of the Sydney Gazette. She aligned her newspaper with the reformist policies of newly arrived Governor (Sir) Richard Bourke, who oversaw the colony’s successful transition from penal colony to free settlement. Ann immediately appointed as her editor a ticket-of-leave convict, William Angus Watt, whom she later married in 1836. Jones used his power as executor and guarantor of outstanding loans to trigger a foreclosure, resulting in the transfer of ownership of the newspaper from Ann to Robert Charles, who aligned himself with Jones’ more conservative politics. However, Robert Charles steered the family business to failure and bankruptcy during the colony’s first depression in the early 1840s, and Australia’s first newspaper ceased publication in 1842.
Assessments of the Howe family’s role and influence on early colonial culture and the emerging print media have differed over the years. Some compare George Howe to English printer William Caxton. Indeed, George Howe is commemorated alongside Caxton in the State Library of New South Wales, where a stained glass window depicts the publisher presenting to Governor Philip Gidley King the first edition of the Sydney Gazette. Historians of the battle for the free press that occurred under Governor (Sir) Ralph Darling have labelled Howe as merely a subservient convict printer, and the early Sydney Gazette as an uninfluential government production. What is remarkable about the Howe family enterprise over three generations is that it was such a prolific printing and publishing business at a formative time in development of the New South Wales.
REFs: S. Blair, ‘George Howe and Early Printing in New South Wales’, Wayzgoose, The Australian Jnl of Book Arts, 1 (1985); R.B. Walker, The Newspaper Press in New South Wales 1803–1920 (1976).