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WILLIAM H. FITCHETT, MINISTER, JOURNALIST, EDITOR & NOVELIST

The cover has considerable advertising information at top left about ‘The Review of Reviews’, Australasian Edition, the Editor being W.H. Fitchett, B.A., LL.D. The manager was T. Shaw Fitchett (his son) at Head Office, 1570 Queen St., Melbourne. London: Moffatt House, Strand, W.C. New York: 13 Astor Place. It was addressed to Philadelphia Book Co., 15 S 9th Street, Philadelphia USA via London. The green ½d bantam and the lilac ‘TWO PENCE’ stamps of Victoria were cancelled with 2 copies of the double ring MELBOURNE/ PM/ 2 15/ 17 6 03/ 19, as well as an arrival cancel of PHILADELPHIA/ JUN 10/ 3-PM/ 1903. The cover had 2 poor backstamps of London and Philadelphia and was not seen (Figure 1).

 

William Henry Fitchett, clergyman, writer and educator, was born on 9 August 1841 at Grantham, Lincolnshire, England, third son of William Fitchett and his wife Hannah. His father, a perfumer, hairdresser, clog and pattenmaker and toy-dealer, was a Wesleyan local preacher who came to the Port Phillip District with a land order for 65 acres (26 ha) under a migration scheme. He arrived at Geelong in the Larpent with his wife and five children on 20 June 1849 and died in December 1851. William's formal schooling at a Wesleyan denominational school was brief and he actually furthered his self-education by reading and by participation in mutual improvement groups. By 1863 he was 'engaged in business on his own account' at Ballarat and taught at Lydiard Street Sunday School. By January 1865 he was an accredited local preacher. The following year he entered the Wesleyan ministry and was stationed at Mortlake (1866-67), Echuca (1868-69), South Yarra (1870-72), Lonsdale Street, Melbourne (1873), Carlton (1874-75), Bendigo (1876-78), and Hawthorn (1879-81). On 24 March 1870 at Mortlake, he married Jemima (Cara). In July 1872 he matriculated at the University of Melbourne, graduating B.A. in 1875.

After his appointment to Methodist Ladies' College, Kew, as founding president in 1882 he was withdrawn from the rigours of the itinerant ministry, although, he preached frequently. He saw his journalistic and educational work as part of his ministry and subservient to it. He applied his considerable business acumen to the financial and administrative affairs of his church and was on many committees. During the boom of the late 1880s he indulged in land speculation on his own behalf. In 1886 Fitchett was elected president of the Wesleyan Methodist Conference of Victoria and Tasmania, and in 1902 first president of the United Methodist Victorian and Tasmanian Conference. In 1904, in recognition of his contribution to the reunification of Methodism's five branches, he was elected first president of the General Conference of the Methodist Church of Australasia, holding the position until 1907. He also became a popular figure in world Methodism, addressing the Methodist Conference in London in 1899 and attending various British Conference meetings in 1905.

His career as a journalist and writer began with a weekly column, 'Easy Chair Chat', in the Methodist Spectator and Wesleyan Chronicle (Melbourne). His comments were witty, outspoken and controversial. He left the Spectator board and his 'Easy Chair' on a matter of principle when it was decided, in the interests of economy, no longer to pay contributors. In 1882 Fitchett became editor of the Southern Cross, a weekly religious paper; in April 1900 his son, Thomas Shaw Fitchett, printer and publisher, became manager. In 1883, when James Balfour bought the Daily Telegraph.

 

Fitchett became consulting editor until it was sold to the Herald and Weekly Times Ltd in 1892. In July that year the Australasian edition of W. T. Stead's Review of Reviews was launched under Fitchett's editorship; a 32-page supplement of local matter was added to the English edition. Fitchett was replaced in 1903, and in 1902 his son Thomas published the New Idea, a women's magazine which, in 1911, became Everylady's Journal. Fitchett wrote occasional articles for this as well as becoming editor in 1904 of his son's companion publication, Life.

 The books which made W. H. Fitchett a household name throughout the British Empire were 'in a sense a literary accident', arising from his journalism. Fitchett was asked to write commemorative sketches on anniversaries of notable events in British history. These became an Argus Saturday feature running for sixteen months under the pen name 'Vedette'. The articles were published as Deeds that Won the Empire (1897). The book was placed by the Admiralty in all warships' libraries, adopted as a holiday-task book in some great English public schools and printed in Braille. 100,000 copies of the six-penny edition were sold.

This was followed by additional English books, as well as articles on Australian identities were collected and published in 1938 as From Convict to Bushranger. He said of his stories that 'the art which produced them was simply the barrister's art of getting up a case quickly and easily … There was no attempt at fine writing, no pretence of original research … with short words and short sentences, always seizing on the most picturesque incidents and translating the whole story, as far as possible, into personal terms'.

His novels, The Commander of the Hirondelle (1904); Ithuriel's Spear (1906); A Pawn in the Game (1907); and The Adventure of an Ensign (1917), reprinted from Blackwood's Magazine, were less successful. His religious publications include Wesley and his Century (1906); The Beliefs of Unbelief (1908) and Where the Higher Criticism Fails (1922).

In 1899 he was awarded an honorary LL.D. by Queen's University, Kingston, Canada, 'for his great literary achievement'. He was a trustee of the Public Library, Museums, and National Gallery of Victoria for thirty-five years. He listed his recreations as 'golf and hard work' and had an interest in cricket. Writing in 1904, Fitchett admitted to 'a memory, loose-fibred and inexact as to dates and details of facts and verbal forms' but 'curiously susceptible to every touch of picturesque description'. He was so much a man of his time that it is difficult to appreciate his greatness in an age when certainties are unfashionable.

He died at the Methodist Ladies College on 26 May 1928 after suffering a haemorrhage of a duodenal ulcer and was buried in Boroondara cemetery. His estate, valued for probate at £14,852, included a large library. A photo of W. H. Fitchett is seen in Figure 2.

 

This much abridged text as well  as Figure 2 was taken from the Australian Dictionary of Biography. 

 
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