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David Syme (1827–1908)

A noted Australian journalist has passed away in the person of Mr. David Syme, proprietor of the Age, and by his death Victoria loses a man of striking individuality. Born in 1827, he had entered on his 81st year. Never physically strong, he suffered periodically from ill health, and had to take moderate spells of rest or seek change of scene by travelling, making the voyage to and from Europe by the "quiet" routes. Two or three years ago he completed arrangements to visit Europe via Canada but under medical advice he abandoned the trip at the last moment, his heart showing symptoms of weakness. Yet even after what appeared to be bad attacks he showed extraordinary powers of recovery. Until quite lately, thanks to a tough constitution, Mr. Syme’s mental vigour remained as great as ever. It was known, however, to his relatives and intimate friends that, when the final illness set in, recovery was hopeless. Death was due to heart failure and disordered digestion. It took place at half-past 7 o'clock yesterday morning, at Blythswood, Kew, Mr. Syme’s place of residence for many years. Mr. Syme’s principal medical advisers were Dr. Grant, Dr. G. A. Syme, and Dr. Cowan, of Kew, who was in constant attendance.

Mr. Syme was the third son of Mr. George Alexander Svme, schoolmaster, of North Berwick, Scotland. Like his brothers, George (born 1821) and Ebenezer (born 1826), he was educated for the Presbyterian ministry. Each of the three in turn found it impossible to accept the dogmatic theology which was then recognised as the standard of faith. George, after a short experience as a preacher in Scotland, moved to Nottingham, England, and became pastor of a Baptist congregation. While there he was brought into close touch with leading men in the Chartist movement, which came to a head in 1848. Ebenezer never entered on any settled ministerial duty, but alternated preaching (as an unattached evangelist) with writing for the press on theological and political topics. David, while a university student in Germany, came to the same conclusions as his brothers with regard to orthodox Calvinism, and decided that the vocation of a journalist would suit him better than that of a clergyman. Ultimately the three brothers, acting independently of each other, and each choosing his own time, came to Melbourne (then rendered attractive by the gold discoveries), and found themselves associated at successive periods with the same undertaking.

The first to arrive was Ebenezer, in 1853. About a year later, on October 17, 1854, the Age was established on co-operative principles by a combination of writers and printers with Mr. Ebenezer Syme, Mr. T. L. Bright, and Mr. David Blair as its first editors. Mr. M. K. Armstrong, of the Kyneton Guardian, is one of the few survivors — perhaps the only one — of this co-partnery. Radicalism was already in the air, though responsible government and full Parliamentary representation had yet to come. At the same time, circumstances were scarcely favourable for new enterprises. An abnormal state of things existed in Melbourne. The inrush of population, the superabundant production of gold, the lavish spending of lucky diggers, and the scarcity of necessities as well as luxuries, caused prices to run high. Everything seemed extravagantly dear to people just landed from the old world. The smallest coin then in circulation was the sixpenny-piece, which occupied the place which the penny and halfpenny fill now. A few penny tokens imported by storekeepers were current, but there was little demand for them. The new daily paper, published like its contemporaries at 6d. a copy, made little headway at the outset, and might have come to a sudden end had it not been for the supplies brought in by its weekly issue on which the printers depended for their wages. In a very short time the cooperative experiment had to be abandoned and Mr. Ebenezer Syme was able, with the assistance of his political supporters, to become sole proprietor. His views were those of an extreme radical, and he ventilated them on the platform and in the press with unmistakable force. People generally were then too busy money-making to greatly care for advanced politics and Parliament (called into existence in 1856) too new to its duties to take up novel problems.

In the meantime Mr. David Syme had left Scotland for the benefit of his health to pay a visit to California (which, as a great gold-producing country, had two years' start of Victoria), and after a brief sojourn there, he followed the rush from San Francisco to Melbourne. After his arrival, he first had a look round on his own account and then agreed to share with his brother the management of the Age. This gave Ebenezer the chance he hungered for to enter political life, and in 1859 he obtained election to the Legislative Assembly as member for Avoca. He was a telling speaker, both on the platform and in Parliament. His previous practice as a preacher and his earnestness made speaking easy for him. But his Parliamentary career was brief, for in May, 1860, he died prematurely at the age of 34, after a severe illness. His interests in the paper descended to his family, but the control of its policy passed into the hands of the reserved and hitherto little known Mr. David Syme, who, practically unaided, directed its subsequent fortunes for over 50 years. Mr. George Syme first arrived from England in 1859, on a visit only. In 1863 he took up his residence permanently in Melbourne and became one of the Age's leading writers, afterwards assuming the editorship of the Leader.

Up to this time the Radical party had counted for little either in Parliament or the country. But events shortly afterwards took a sudden turn with the appearance in the Legislative Assembly of the forerunners of the Labour party of today. The new men demanded protection, which politicians wishful of retaining power were quite ready to concede. There had already been agitation for free selection and it was continued with energy. Radical proposals in many other forms came to the front, disputes arose between the two Houses over questions of privilege, the fiscal question led incidentally to the deadlock of 1865-7, and, with a reduction in the price of his paper to "popular rates," Mr. Syme got his first real opportunity. After a time came a political lull, and then, in the seventies, a second term of high excitement yielded great advantages for Mr. Syme.

The career of Mr. Syme as a citizen and newspaper proprietor cannot be discussed apart from politics. He was a man of forceful temperament and extreme opinions. His politics wore not the politics of the Argus nor of the people with whom this journal has long been in association. To discuss them on the present occasion would be inappropriate. Suffice it to say that Mr. Syme had his own way of handling public questions and his own way of dealing with public men. There was no toleration for opinions diverse from his own and he expected the leading men of the party he was supporting to accept and give effect to whatever policy he deemed it advisable to put forward. How he dealt with men who opposed him it is unnecessary to say. The public of today is able to judge for itself. Any views which Mr. Syme held to be of primary importance were strongly pressed by him on public attention. He had much more of the energy, eagerness and one-sidedness of a Crusader than the prudence and moderation of the practical statesman. On the whole, he exercised greater influence over men and Ministers than over Parliaments, and many schemes which he put forward for revolutionising the constitution, though vehemently advocated, failed to find acceptance. Among these were annual Parliaments, the plebiscite, a neutral flag, &c. On the question of federation, which he tried to block, Mr. Syme found himself "backing the wrong horse." We need say no more on this head than that it is rarely, if ever, in the power of any single individual will to force or induce the people to give up habits of thought, modes of working, or institutions they have long been used to. Judged by the usual standards Mr. Syme undoubtedly won success as a journalist, and such success is due almost entirely to his own determination. At the same time, he received loyal service from many able men in all departments of journalism, among whom may be named Mr. James Harrison, his principal editor in the sixties and seventies; Mr. George Paton Smith, a politician, lawyer, and writer of the same period; Mr. A. L. Windsor, a recent lawyer and writer; and Professor Charles H. Pearson, who was an active member of the editorial staff from the time he took up politics until he attained office as a Minister.

The position to which protection has attained in Victoria is largely due to the ceaseless, vigorous, and — if we may say so without any wish to be offensive — remorseless advocacy of Mr. Syme. This is not the place to dicuss controversially the procedure he followed, or the intolerance shown by him to men who conscientiously withstood him, over problems which have perplexed thinkers and legislators for several generations. The principles which should govern the discussion of subjects of the greatest importance are not, for the moment, in question. What it concerns us to admit is the earnestness, the vigilance, and the fighting qualities of a combatant who himself was not disposed to concede merit to an opponent or to show quarter in political warfare. Advocacy maintained without wavering, in season and out of season, necessarily found favour with all classes of persons interested intellectually, emotionally, or for prosaic reasons in the development of manufacturing by means of high Customs duties.

The fiscal issue was the one above all others on which Mr. Syme and the public he influenced were ever in accord. They understood him on this question better than on others about which he was equally earnest but not so successful. It served as a lasting bond of union between them. He made the mistake of pushing his views on this issue further than was prudent. By exciting public opinion you may cause people to "lose their heads," but in ordinary times they will not be driven, however insistent the driving. At various periods up to 1892, the Victorian Parliament was ready and willing to give effect to appeals for increased protective duties, but in 1895 it took the stand, in spite of strong advocacy to the contrary, that things had gone too far, and it considerably modified the Berry tariff passed three years previously. A similar spirit of moderation has, on the whole, characterised the operations of the Federal Parliament each time that it has had the tariff under consideration (since it began with that question in 1901), notwithstanding the clamorous demands made upon it to regard "high duties" as scientific fiscalism. It is only in exceptional cases, explainable by the use of special political pressure, that the "taste for blood" has been unduly gratified. Throughout Victorian politics, the sphere of Mr. Syme’s energy, each period of excitement has been followed by a long term of sobriety, and the student who has heard or read of the violent times we have come through must be surprised to find how few the changes are which have been made in the constitution. For a quarter of a century past Victoria has been the least radical of the five continental Australian states.

Though widely known by name Mr. Syme was personally known to comparatively few citizens. Long as he had lived in Melbourne there were probably thousands of everyday street pedestrians who failed to recognise him when he chanced to pass by. Tall and spare of figure, and wearing a close cropped moustache and beard, he usually took his short walks from place to place in the city alone. The exact opposite of his brother Ebenezer in this respect, he never as an individual citizen played a public part in any movements, social or political; he was never seen on the platform or even in a committee room. Most of his time was spent in the privacy of his office or his home or with a limited circle of friends who saw him from day to day.

It is understood that, except perhaps when he first took up journalism in Melbourne, Mr. Syme wrote seldom. He left the execution of his plans to selected representatives, and attended only to organisation and control. Some of his leisure he devoted to writing on philosophic or economic topics for English magazines. Articles bearing his signature appeared occasionally in the Westminster Review, a periodical of the serious type, with which his brother Ebenezer had once been connected. His favourite topics of study belonged to the class his countrymen speak of as hard reading. The books he produced included The Outlines of Industrial Science, Representative Government in England, The Modification of Organisms (an attempted criticism of Darwinism), and The Soul. Some of these were first issued by installments in newspaper articles. Mr. Syme, besides being a newspaper proprietor on a large scale, owned considerable areas of land, both in Victoria and in New South Wales. He was also connected with manufacturing and other town enterprises, but the extent of his interests was only known to the business representatives through whom he carried on his operations. Up to about 18 years ago the newspaper was conducted by Mr. Syme in conjunction with Mr. Joseph Cowen Syme, the eldest son of Mr. Ebenezer Syme, as business manager. When the Partnership then subsisting was dissolved, Mr. David Syme, by purchase, became sole proprietor.

From time to time it fills to the lot of newspaper proprietors (in common with other citizens) to promote and support movements of a philanthropic and charitable character. Mr. Syme was liberal as well as judicious in his gifts, and where the object in view gained his special interest he subscribed largely. The most important of the special undertakings he was associated with was the fitting out of two scientific expeditions conducted by Professor Baldwin Spencer, of the Melbourne University, and Mr. Francis James Gillen (of South Australia) to Central and North Australia to inquire into the usages, ceremonies, and beliefs of the aborigines. The result was the publication by Messrs. Spencer and Gillen of a work of inestimable scientific value. Mr. Syme is numbered among the patriotic citizens who have given handsome donations to the Melbourne University (in his case for the foundation of a scholarship).

Mr. Syme was married in 1859 to Miss Annabella Johnson (daughter of an early Victorian colonist), who survives him. He has left five sons and two daughters, viz.:—

Herbert, the eldest son; Francis, of "Dalry," near Healesville; Arthur Edward, practicing at Lilydale as a doctor; Geoffrey; Oswald, of "Killara," near Lilydale; Mrs. William Macallister, of "Tarrawarra," near Yarra Glen; and Miss Olive Syme. Mr. Herbert Syme has been manager of the Age since the retirement of his cousin, Mr. Joseph Cowen Syme; and Mr. Oswald Syme has for some time been associated with the literary department of the paper. Dr. George A. Syme, the Collins-street surgeon, is the son of Mr. David Syme’s eldest brother George.

Original publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

'Syme, David (1827–1908)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 16 April 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]


2 October, 1827
North Berwick, East Lothian, Scotland


14 February, 1908 (aged 80)
Kew, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cause of Death

heart disease

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

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