A period of transition – to Managing Editor of The Age and The Leader.

When David Syme died on 18th February 1908 Geoffrey Syme still living at Conisboro, a small villa next door to Blythswood, His father’s death altered Geoffrey’s life completely and he soon escaped from Conisboro to Banool, in Studley Park Road, Kew. This was still near, but not too near, his mother, who continued to live at Blythswood.

David Syme was buried on what was presumably a hot summer's afternoon. The burial service seems to have been celebrated with some grandeur, even though it was held at Blythswood and not in a church. He must have chosen not to have the service in a church, and anyway neither Scots Church nor the Presbyterian churches in Kew or in Camberwell were big enough to hold the congregation. Hundreds of people came to Blythswood, and most of them would have had to stand on the front lawn. Although Blythswood was a big house most of its rooms were quite small, so his coffin probably lay in what was then the billiard room, in front of its ceiling-high elaborately carved wooden mantelpiece.
He would have been carried out of a side door onto the verandah, and along it to the wide circle of gravel drive in front of the house, where the hearse waited to bear him down the drive for the last time. The Reverend Patrick Murdoch from the Camberwell Presbyterian Church and the Reverend Dr. Marshall from Scots Church conducted the ceremony. Dr. Marshall preached the eulogy in which he "expressed gratitude to the Almighty for the splendid example of Mr. David Syme's life and the richly endowed talent he had spent in the service of his country."

His family were present at the service in great numbers. His wife Annabella, his five sons, his two daughters, his five daughters-in-law and one son-in-law, as well as many cousins and other relations, both Symes and Johnsons. His coffin was carried by George Schuyler (Editor of The Age), A. B. Robinson (of TheNewspaper Association), W. Flintoff (President of the Newspaper Association), M. Short  (Editor of The Leader), G. R. Breckhill (who had just become Editor of Every Saturday), J. W. Packer (printer of The Age) and F. Kruger (Head of the Machine Department). His employees were there in great numbers. Two hundred and fifty men represented The Age and The Leader, and there were those who came from his properties, Killara in the Yarra Valley, Bolobek near Macedon, Mellool near Swan Hill and on his farmlet Seaforth at Mordialloc.

To some extent his death was a public affair public affair. In the city the flag was flying at half-mast at the MelbourneTown Hall and on other public buildings. In Kew people lined High Street to see the cortege and the cabs filled with mourners as they went by on their way to the Boroondara Cemetery where, later on, his monument was to be a copy of an Egyptian tomb. 
Plan of David Syme's plot at Boroondara Cemetery
As one can see David Syme’s character was not a placid one and his achievements with The Age are not easy to follow. However, Geoffrey Syme’s transition from Editor of Every Saturday to Editor of The Age and The Leader was not really a difficult one. He had been working closely with his father during David Syme’s last illness, relieving him of as much worry as he could and discussing political and editorial matters with him. He knew a lot about his future job and the standards his father expected of him. But he also knew that the papers he would eventually run would have to be different to those that had been dominated by his father. He knew Federation had changed Australia and that Victoria would eventually become less prominent in Australian politics. What he probably did not fully understand was that his father’s Will and the Trustees (of which he was one) could be so financially limiting and that some of the other Trustees would be so quarrelsome over their own finances relating to the Estate that they could thwart him in many of his ideas for the development of the papers.
List of Trustees

David Syme’s will was a foolish one, dividing family on matters of finance and property and banking on the birth of a suitable male for the continuation of the paper into a third generation.  A great number of his grandchildren were not yet born, and in any case most of his grandchildren were girls. He was particularly foolish in dividing the Estate per stirpes and not per capita, for in 1908 he could not guess the number or intellectual quality of his descendents, or see how this could affect family voting power in the – to him unthinkable - event of The Age becoming a public company.

The question of Geoffrey Syme’s seniority in the paper was also hurtful to his much older brother John Herbert Syme. It was a question that had to be decided by law. In this case by the legal opinion of Sir Samuel Gillott, David Syme’s solicitor and the solicitor for his Estate. On 11th September, l908, nearly six months after his father had died, Geoffrey Syme records “At a meeting of the trustees at the Age office Herbert read an opinion obtained from Gillott with respect to our positions in the office. This he had sought in response to a request of mine in May or June that our respective positions should be defined, but had withheld it until today as it caused him so much concern. He spoke so feelingly and without casting any aspersions on my abilities at all. That he had always held the senior position which by this decision was given to me. The Trustees should therefore have to look to me to in anything connected with the policy of the paper, as he would have nothing to do with it. That was my duty and we should not interfere with each other’s work. General discussion followed in which the idea of his being in a subordinate position was discounted and every veiw was generally execepted that where as there must be individual responsibilty in general. Mutual working would continue as in the past ”and the view was generally accepted that whereas there would be individual responsibility in general, mutual working would continue as in the past.”


One of the difficulties for Herbert was the difference in age between him and Geoffrey. Herbert was born in September 1859 and Geoffrey was born in March 1873. He was only an unimportant little boy when Herbert left school. However, in practice the division of labour usually worked well. Herbert retained his job as the business manager; responsible for management, accounting, jobs like paying the staff, the buying of ink and paper, buying machinery and keeping the presses in working order, while Geoffrey was responsible for what actually went into the three papers (The Age, The Leader and, until 1911, Every Saturday).

An interesting comment was made in The Bulletin in March 1908. “There is an impression that The Age will be sold. Five in the family with collateral interests. Who can run on the show on the old lines with all these influences? I suppose the paper is worth half a million. What is the calibre of these sons Herbert and Geoffrey?”… It is always another Age that the David Symes of this world leave behind them the old Age and the old man die together. A S. M. Herald goes on forever, for anyone can run it without making it very different, but with a paper like the Age, it is as it was when Tennyson died and left the goodwill, fixtures, fittings and poetry-building utensils to his son."


This comment is unfair and to a large extent untrue. Whoever wrote it forgot the long training both Herbert and Geoffrey had been given by their father. Their calibre was not unknown. They were not new to the world of newspapers and they, particularly Geoffrey, were prepared for changes. Moreover, they had problems that their father never had to face. In particular the Great Depression and the two World Wars. The writer is correct in his reference to the difficulty David Syme’s constricting Will would hold for them. Nor did David Syme leave these two sons the responsibility of a newspaper business that was lacking in problems.

These verses by O. C. Cabot certainly hint at industrial problems at the Age at the time of David Syme’s death.  They were published in The Bulletin in February 1908, only a few days after Syme died, so one cannot blame Geoffrey Syme for these sorts of problems or think that he took on a trouble free paper. The old wage books are gone, thrown away in the 1960’s, so no one can guess who these ‘capable men’ were and whether they really were a loss to the paper.  Perhaps Geoffrey was glad to be rid of them. He loved and admired his father, but had no desire to be his follower, nor would he want to keep discontented members of staff, even those he had already worked with for many years.

A great difference between Geoffrey and his father was Geoffrey’s attitude of not putting himself forward.  Nor, unlike his father, was he a man who would have enjoyed destroying an enemy. He did not regard himself as important; it was The Age that mattered. Even though the editorials usually expressed his own ideas he did not make this obvious to the average reader. An article in TheBulletin dated 27th February 1908 comments “The most striking proof of the dominating personality of David Syme was that his name actually overshadowed that of his paper. The man in the street seldom knows anything about the proprietors or managing directors of other papers but The Age and David Syme were inseparably linked together. Men in trams and trains frequently talked about Syme’s policy - not The Age’s. ”I see Syme has an article on so-and-so this morning.” “Yes he is giving it to him pretty strong too” etc etc. Quite a number of ignorant people were under the impression that he wrote the greater part of the paper himself, and individuals of this class with an imaginary grievance to ventilate would go to The Age office and demand to see David Syme. Of course they didn’t see him, but they would generally order the reporter who interviewed them to “tell David Syme to put that in the paper” and depart with their delusion unimpaired.”

Geoffrey Syme was deliberately self-effacing. This was a serious mistake on his part. He has made it much harder for historians to write about his work and position in The Age’s history. Even a glance at his notebook and diary for his first months in charge of the paper shows the sort of people who came to see him as well as his comments on them. He was far from a nonentity, and he was tough and determined. No editor dominated him; nor did his brother.

In his diary he records the affidavit establishing the proprietorship of The Age, The Leader and Every Saturday and the appointment of J. W. Packer as publisher. (21st February 1908).

Geoffrey and Herbert were friendly, at least until the last year or so of Herbert’s life. Whatever arguments the brothers may have had at the office, the relationship between Herbert’s and Geoffrey’s families was always good. Geoffrey’s great blunder was in the autumn of 1938, when he and the other Trustees agreed that Herbert should retire from his job at The Age. Geoffrey seems to have been less than tactful in his approach to his elder brother, who, by that time, was seriously unwell. The letter to Herbert Syme was not written by Geoffrey, but Arthur Syme, David Syme’s third son, at that time the senior trustee of the David Syme Estate. Geoffrey, however, was amongst those who agreed the offending letter.


Part of Herbert's response to the Trustees' letter.
Herbert Syme
Geoffrey had moved into Blythswood in 1916, the year after their mother, Annabella, died. The two brothers lived peacefully side-by-side until the last year or two of Herbert’s life. Herbert does not seem to have wanted to move from Rockingham into Blythswood or have resented his brother living in their father’s house. Apparently he was happy where he was, and Blythswood needed a lot of expensive work doing on it before Geoffrey and his family could move into the house. When Annabella died it was dark and gloomy, and even after the painting and alterations Geoffrey’s wife went there most unwillingly. She much preferred Banool.
The two wives, Ethel and Violet, always got on well together.  They liked each other; probably because they were so different in character. Ethel was older, kind, good, practical as regard to housekeeping and devoted to committee work. Violet was more intellectual; a reader, studious, more exotic in her clothing, and certainly less practical and more temperamental than Ethel. The households were not competitive. Just different. Competition, if there was any, was between the two housekeepers. Miss Craigan of Rockingham and Miss Waldie of Blythswood. They disliked each other intensely.
Ethel Syme
Violet Syme

The Rockingham and Blythswood children grew up beside each other, doing things together, playing tennis, skiing, sailing, going to the same parties. They were fairly close in age, and always got on well.  Herbert had six children and Geoffrey had five. Herbert’s were Annabel (b. 1899), Brenda (b. 1900), Hugh (b. 1902), Maisie (b. 1904), David (b.1905) and Barbara (b.1913), and Geoffrey’s were Mardie (b. 1902), Hilaire (b. 1904), Joan (b. 1910), Felicity (b.1914) and Veronica (b.1928).  But it was Herbert who had boys, who were so longed for by Geoffrey. The later history of The Age would probably have been different, if  Geoffrey had had a son to train to replace himself.     


Barbara, a Rockingham Syme, and Felicity, a Blythswood Syme, were particularly fond of each other; everyone loved Annabel, and the friendships continued down to later generations. For example, Geoffrey’s eldest grandaughter, Jacqueline Haggard, was a particular friend of Annabel’s daughter Patsy Gutteridge, and his youngest daughter Veronica was also a particular friend of Annabel’s younger daughter Elisabeth.

By the mid 1930’s most of the Rockingham and Blythswood children were married and had moved away from Kew. So, though these friendships remained, geography altered things and this two lots of cousins did not see each other so constantly. In fact most of David Syme’s grandchildren knew each other quite well, though not all were compatible, or shared interests. Nor were they all close to each other in age. In some cases their ages were several decades apart.

Nancy and Mildred Syme
Margaret Syme & Barbara Syme
Rupert Macalister
Cover of the Centenary Ball program
Miss Barbara Syme in her exquisite Pioneer Ball dress. The frocks in this group are carried out in deep cream with either rose red or rose pink accessories.
Mrs Hugh Syme in a delightful, crinoline dress, which like all women’s frocks in the Syme group, is a perfect reproduction of the style of 1853.
Miss Veronica Syme, youngest daughter of Mr and Mrs Geoffrey Syme, will be a quaint maiden of the 1850’s
Miss Winifred Calder, granddaughter of Mr Francis Syme, of Healesville, will wear this crinoline, edged with ribbon-trimmed flounces, at the Pioneer Ball.
Copyright © 2012 Dr Veronica Condon. All rights reserved.