Royal Reels: Gambling


The On Her Majesty’s Service postcard had a black POSTMASTER GENERAL, VICTORIA, FRANK STAMP with a superimposed MELBOURNE/ PM/ 4.30/ 6.6.00/ 20 postmark and was addressed to Messrs Wilson & MacKinnon, “Argus” Office, Melbourne (Figure 1).

As there is an enormous amount of information available on the two men I will mostly restrict my discussion to their partnership in the Argus newspaper.  Edward Wilson was born in 1813 in London, third son of John Wilson and his wife Mary.  Educated at a Hampstead school, Edward left at 16 to enter business, but decided to migrate to try sheep-farming, and sailed for Sydney in 1841.  He soon moved to Melbourne and took up a small farm on the Merri Creek.  In 1842 he leased a cattle-run, but it did not prosper and he sold out in 1846.  For the next 18 months Wilson dabbled in various activities and his letters to the Argus  attracted attention.  In 1848 he bought the Argus for £300.  Wilson had to borrow money and he and J.S. Johnston became joint-proprietors in 1849.  The issue of 15 September 1848 was Wilson’s first;  from June 1849 the paper became a daily.  Circulation declined to about 250, but by the close of 1850 it  equaled the combined circulation of rivals, and by late 1851 had risen to 1500.  Wilson successfully met the challenge of the gold rushes, and The Argus absorbed the Melbourne Daily News in 1852 and only the Herald and the Geelong Advertisersurvived as competitors for the goldfield market.  

He brought out forty compositors from England and in mid-1852 doubled the paper’s size and reduced its price from 3d. to 2d.  Circulation rose from 5000 in May 1852 to almost 20,000 late in 1853, advertisements snowballed and the number of employees grew to about 140.  But costs were outrageous and Wilson was almost ruined.  He was saved by  Lauchlan Mackinnon who in 1852 bought the partnership and took over the management, raised the price to 4d. and increased advertising rates, thus ensuring the journal’s prosperity.  Wilson and Mackinnon were regarded by their printing employees as hard but fair employers, even when in 1857 they effectively reduced wages by introducing another contingent of migrant compositors.

For over five years Wilson provided the most influential opposition to the government of  Charles La Trobe and the Colonial Office.  Wilson won strength and support from his prominence in the 1849 campaign to prevent the landing of convicts.  La Trobe was pilloried often, libeled as a tool of the squatters, and accused of nepotism and corruption.  The climax in 1853 was the standing advertisement in the paper: ‘Wanted a Governor. Apply to the People of Victoria’.  

With the influential slogan, ‘Unlock the Lands’, Wilson’s other main offensive was on the pastoralists’ ‘ruinous monopoly’.  The propagandist tone of the Argus was extreme;  yet it was not atypical of the English press of the day, even of The Times which was Wilson’s ultimate model.  Though frequently mistaken and unfair, he exposed many governmental inefficiencies and scandals.  His columns were open to any radical group or charitable movement.

Late in 1853 Wilson began to have doubts about his policy;  the Argus was toned down and veered and wavered as the democratic movement it had helped to create gathered strength. Wilson was captivated by Sir Henry Parkes and looked forward to working together, ‘hunting sycophancy, and corruption’.

In the late 1850s Wilson travelled widely among the Australasian colonies. His travel-jottings were published as Rambles at the Antipodes (Melbourne, 1859).  His sight was now beginning to fail and in 1859-60 he visited England for advice, travelled on the Continent and served on the committee of the General Association for the Australian Colonies. In 1862 he again went to England;  on the homeward voyage his sight deteriorated so badly that he returned immediately, and late in 1864 he had an operation for cataract and decided to remain in England close to the best medical aid.

The Argus continued to prosper:  all debts were cleared by the early 1860s and the annual net profits rose to about £22,000 in 1872.  Wilson and Mackinnon had taken in Allan Spowers as a junior partner in 1857.  All three proprietors remained in England and control of the Argus was given entirely to the local board except when the proprietors jointly issued instructions, which rarely occurred;  Wilson’s representative on the board was Gowan Evans whom he paid £1000 a year.  After a disturbed period of editorship, Wilson’s protege, Frederick Haddon who had been his private secretary, was appointed in 1867 after a period as editor of the Australasian.

Wilson remained interested in developments in journalism, read all the London papers every day and looked forward eagerly to the penny illustrated daily.  He held to his view that a newspaper should be as cheap as possible and that all profits should come from advertisements. He looked back with pride to the period when John Bright displayed the Argus as an example of what a newspaper could be in the absence of stamp and paper duties.

But Wilson was entirely frustrated in his plans for the Argus—’the great work of my life’—for he had lost control. Although he held a majority interest, Mackinnon and Spowers took a purely business-like view and under the terms of the partnership agreement regularly combined against him to resist any change, especially the price reduction from 3d. to 2d. for which he constantly agitated.  The circulation of a few thousand barely increased with the years, while the Age sold four or five times more;  Wilson fumed at the growing influence of his ‘arch-enemy’. His partners saw no reason to disturb such a profitable enterprise and Mackinnon, though fond of Wilson, came increasingly to refer to his timidity, morbid depression, inclination to panic and the total lack of business capacity of the ‘poor man’. Each side offered to buy the other out.

After several heart attacks, Wilson died peacefully on 10 January 1878.  His remains were taken to Melbourne and interred on 7 July 1878.  He never married and died without issue.

Wilson was an outstanding journalist who was briefly of crucial importance and commanding influence. A vivid and vigorous writer, he had the great journalist’s qualities of high moral conscience, absolute honesty, intolerance of hypocrisy and disregard of self-interest;  his emotions, however, sometimes led him into indefensible positions. Always humane, he lost much of his early shyness and awkwardness and mellowed into a convivial man of considerable charm.  Wilson’s picture is seen in Figure 2.

Lauchlan Mackinnon was born in 1817 at Kilbride, Scotland, second son of John Mackinnon, Presbyterian minister of Strath, and his wife Ann.  He was educated privately and at Broadford School, Skye, he worked with his uncle, Lauchlan Mackinnon, a writer.  He migrated to Van Diemen’s Land in 1838 and then to Sydney where he contested a Port Phillip seat in the New South Wales Legislative Council in 1848, supported by many Western District squatters. Mackinnon struggled for justice for Port Phillip against exploitation by Sydney, demanding that all moneys raised in the district be spent there.  He vacated his seat in June 1849 but won it again in July and held it until June 1850.  Mackinnon was member for Warrnambool and Belfast in the squatter-dominated Victorian Legislative Council from December 1852 till he resigned in May 1853.

In 1852 Mackinnon became a partner in the Argus with Edward Wilson and took over the business side of the paper which, despite its enormous increase in circulation and influence under Wilson’s management, was near financial collapse.  Persuading Wilson that he was charging 2d. for a paper that cost 5½d. to produce, Mackinnon insisted on doubling the price and adding 25 per cent to the charge for advertisements, thereby ensuring the journal’s prosperity. Allan Spowers joined them as junior partner in 1857.
Mackinnon retired to England in 1868 and settled at Elfordleigh, Devonshire, to enjoy the pleasures of English country life.  While expressing confidence in the local board and anxious to leave its members a free hand in managing the Argus, Mackinnon continued to follow its affairs closely and offer advice.  Unlike Wilson he refused to be alarmed when the Age outstripped the Argus in circulation.  He deplored Wilson’s ‘proneness to panic’ and with Spowers he always outvoted any move to disturb the paper’s prosperity. An extensive tour of North America in 1869 to observe the practices there left him confident of the ‘impregnable strength’ of the Argus.

By 1872 when the link with Britain was established, he had succeeded in achieving a cable partnership between the Argus, Sydney Morning Herald and South Australian Register, whose London representatives selected and cabled the news at their discretion, dispensing foreign news to associated papers outside the ‘ring’. Opposed to ‘stinting, false economies’, Mackinnon fought for ‘free expenditure’ on the special news service, despite its high cost of some £8500 a year until a special press rate was introduced in 1886.

Mackinnon did not write for the Argus but his business ability was chiefly responsible for its financial success. His letters to his representative, J.S. Johnson, reveal his assurance and liberal vision in business;   with enterprise, energy and no fear of ‘bold action’, he constantly exhorted his colleagues, impatient of the timidity and narrow vision which led to short-sighted policies. He was just but stern with employees, intolerant of incompetence and claimed that sentiment was a ‘fatal error’ in business.
He died at Malpas Lodge, Torquay, Devon, on 21 March 1888 leaving a vast estate. He was twice married:  first, to Jane Montgomery who died in Sydney on 13 June 1849; and second, at Parramatta on 9 May 1850 to Emily Bundock who died at Malpas Lodge on 17 June 1893.  He was survived by two adopted children.

I acknowledge that this paper is a markedly abbreviated rendition of 2 articles on Wilson and MacKinnon in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

Categories: Business