Black and white photography of author Patrick White, taken in Kings Cross in Sydney in 1980

Portrait of Patrick White, Kings Cross, New South Wales 1980. By Yang, William. Contributed by National Library of Australia, nla.pic-vn4247784

The Sydney Writers’ Festival is underway, with a range of interesting events centred around storytelling and the nice tagline ‘it’s thinking season’. So I thought I’d take a look at the history of the written word in our city.

The Dictionary has a wonderfully detailed essay on the history of writing in Sydney by Elizabeth Webby, Professor of Australian Literature, at the University of Sydney. In it she reveals some rather interesting facts. Did you know:

  • from the moment the First Fleet landed the race was on to see who could get the first accounts of settlement to London publishers
  • printing presses arrived in Sydney with the First Fleet but the first newspaper didn’t go to press until 1803
  • the pleasures of Sydney have provided inspirations to poets since the early years of the colony
  • the first novel was published in Australia in 1838
  • from the high to the low, Australia’s first detective novel was published in 1842.

Sydney witnessed its first writers when those that came with the First Fleet wrote back home of their journey and the new colony. Some of the officers in the fleet wrote of the various flora and fauna they saw, and the land’s indigenous inhabitants. In fact officers Watkin Tench and David Collins were competing to see who would be the first to get their accounts of the new settlement to London publishers. It turns out, Tench won that race.

But there were other accounts from free settlers and convicts, such as the successful businesswoman Mary Reibey, who was arrested for stealing a horse while dressed as a boy in 1791 and transported to Australia. There’s a lovely miniature portrait of her which you can find in the Dictionary, and you might just recognise her with her little round spectacles as the face which appears on our $20 note! She wrote to her aunt the day after she arrived in Sydney that she thought ‘it looks a pleasant place’.

Although a printing press had arrived in Sydney in 1788, Australia’s first newspaper, the Sydney Gazette, did not begin publication until March 1803. Poetry became a popular genre as newspapers were not illustrated at the time. And the Dictionary includes one poem, published in 1830 by an anonymous author, which I have to quote. Titled ‘The Pleasures of Sydney’ it covers some of the sights:  ‘…How little we thought,  Fifty years could have wrought,  Such a place as that darling Hyde Park’.

The mid to late 19th century saw the emergence of some of Australia’s most well-known poets, including Henry Lawson, ‘Banjo’ Paterson and Victor Daley. Many of these early poets describe what sounds like a very different Sydney; Christopher Brennan described an experience on a tram down George Street in 1908, passing shops lit with ‘the electrics’ ghastly blue’, Kenneth Slessor described Kings Cross in his famous 1939 poem ‘Five Bells’: ‘The red globes of light, the liquor-green, / The pulsing arrow and the running fire…You find this ugly, I find it lovely’.

Murder of a Nymph book cover 1951

Murder of a Nymph book cover 1951. By Marxchivist. Contributed by Flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/tom1231/261904734

The first novel published in Sydney was Anna Maria Bunn‘s The Guardian from 1838. Set in Ireland, it only made passing references to Australia (mainly uncomplimentary). Australia’s first fictional detective tale was John Lang’s Legends of Australia, published in 1842. Another century passed by before the genre took off. Two sisters writing under the pen name Margot Neville published 18 crime novels during the 1940s and 50s, including one titled Murder of a Nymph. The book’s cover features an unfortunate, rather buxom blonde under the tagline, ‘She would never steal another woman’s man again!’

One of Australia’s most prominent English-language novelists of the twentieth century was English-born Australian and long term resident of Sydney, Patrick White. White published 12 novels, three short-story collections and eight plays, and won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1973. He wrote about life in Sydney, with many of his later works set in and around Centennial Park, which he campaigned to preserve during the 1970s.

The Sydney Writers’ Festival has a host of talks, exhibitions, performances, special events and workshops – details are available on the website: http://www.swf.org.au/. You can read more about literature on the Dictionary here including essays, information about authors, organisations and some great images to browse and enjoy.

You can listen to a podcast of my segment with Mitch at 2SER Breakfast here. Tune in again next week for more of Sydney’s history courtesy of the Dictionary of Sydney, on 107.3 at 8:20am. Don’t miss it!

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