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Michael Montague Cannon (1929–2022)

Michael Montague Cannon. August 17, 1929–February 24, 2022.

Asked about the unusual badge in his lapel, Michael Cannon used to joke that it was presented to him by the Australia Council as an emeritus award for wasting his life writing and publishing more than 30 historical books, instead of doing something useful.

Cannon, who died in late February aged 92, was only half-joking. All his life he was conscious of uncommon good fortune in being able to devote his best years to the writing of popular history.

With little formal education and no academic qualifications, Cannon said he felt that history “should be mostly about people — not politics or sociology”.

Born in Brisbane in 1929 and raised in a Victorian country newspaper office, he managed to impress historians of all persuasions with the depth and breadth of his research into Australian history. In 1966, his first bestseller The Land Boomers exposed well-known individuals and families who led the speculative boom of the 1880s. Some even profited from the savage depression that followed.

His 1995 book Perilous Voyages to the New Land dealt not only with immigration theory but with the extraordinary experiences of individuals who dared to leave their homelands in search of better lives in Australia.

Michael Montague Cannon came from a prominent newspaper family. His great-grandmother, Jessie Grover, was one of Australia’s first women journalists during the 1880s. His grandfather Montague “Monty” Grover introduced modern pictorial techniques as editor of successful Sun newspapers in Melbourne and Sydney. His mother, Dorothy “Dolly” Cannon, remained a working journalist from the 1920s to the 1990s.

Cannon was educated at Cobden High School, Camperdown High and Geelong College. At the end of World War II, he began working as a copyboy on the Melbourne Argus, then as a cadet journalist on The Herald.

In 1948, he sailed to England to work on the London staff of The Sydney Morning Herald. After studying the operations of the fledgling BBC television service, he wrote a book-length series for the Radio Times on the glowing future of television.

After his return to Melbourne, Cannon worked as a senior reporter on The Age. In later decades, he wrote many articles and book reviews for the paper.

Cannon turned to the publication of monthly magazines, and in 1955 became founding editor of the Australian edition of Family Circle, based on the popular American original.

Early in 1959, he sold his magazine interests and spent the proceeds on a news magazine called Newsday (not to be confused with The Age’s later evening newspaper). His first wife, Susan, tragically died towards the end of that year, and Newsday ceased publication.

In 1960, Cannon was appointed associate editor of the Sydney Sunday Mirror, assisting his close friend Cyril Pearl in an attempt to change the brash tabloid into a “quality newspaper”. The result was severe loss of circulation, and after a dispute with its proprietor Rupert Murdoch, Cannon returned to Melbourne.

During the 1960s, he began a new career, researching his first book as well as working as a bookshop manager and associate director of Melbourne University Press under Peter Ryan. One of several people writing as “The Melbourne Spy”, he contributed frequently to the Sydney journal Nation.

In 1969, the Sydney political activist Gordon Barton attempted to break into the media world by backing Melbourne’s first professional Sunday newspaper the Sunday Observer. Cannon was appointed founding editor, and also founded the Sunday Review, precursor of Nation Review.

Both papers lasted for some years, but when the radical push of the anti-Vietnam crusades died away, and Barton’s funds were exhausted, each paper changed ownership or ceased publication.

Cannon had previously returned to historical writing, producing a flood of popular original works and facsimile books. All told, he wrote 20 books under his own name and edited another 15.

His most successful book in terms of sales was The Exploration of Australia (1987; 70,000 copies in three hardback editions). The Land Boomers has sold more than 40,000 copies in various editions and is still in print. A bicentennial work, Australia, Spirit of a Nation, went through three hardback editions totalling more than 30,000 copies.

Professor Manning Clark wrote that this massive work consolidated Cannon’s reputation “as one of the liveliest and most illuminating writers of history in Australia”. The volumes won the first Barbara Ramsden Award for writing, and for the editing by Sue Ebury.

In 1978, he was commissioned by the Public Record Office of Victoria to begin research into Victoria’s early years of European settlement. This culminated in the publication of the unique nine-volume Historical Records of Victoria between 1981 and 2002.

In recognition of his years of writing and publishing, Cannon was presented with the Australia Council’s emeritus award by Prime Minister Paul Keating in 1996.

Two years later, Cannon completed his last major work, the “inside story” of law firm Slater + Gordon. He then bought a farm near Foster in South Gippsland (off Amey’s Track), where he spent 10 years planting thousands of native trees and restoring the environment to its original bushland, before retiring to Inverloch at age 80.

Cannon’s personal papers are held in the National Library, Canberra, and his research papers at the Royal Historical Association of Victoria.

He is survived by four children, Paul, Sarah, James and Patrick, numerous grandchildren and his sister, Dina Monks, who was editor of the Frankston Standard and now lives in Gippsland. His brother-in-law, John Monks, also a noted journalist, died in 2014.

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'Cannon, Michael Montague (1929–2022)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 26 May 2024.

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