On New Year’s Day, 1838, pioneer John Pascoe Fawkner published Melbourne’s first newspaper. Printing presses were scarce in the colony, so Fawkner handwrote the newspaper himself.

Faded handwritten cover page of Melbourne's first newspaper, The Melbourne AdvertiserThe first edition of The Melbourne Advertiser, published on New Year’s Day, 1838

Journalist Edmund Finn (aka ‘Garryowen’) described The Melbourne Advertiser as ‘a miserable rag,’ consisting of eight hand-ruled columns of ‘very inferior’ reading matter.1 Little regard was displayed for punctuation or grammar. There was a preponderance for capital letters, with fullstops making odd, erratic appearances.

The newspaper consisted largely of ads, the majority of which were placed by Fawkner himself. Goods proffered for sale included ’20 Choice Pigs fit for breeding or for the butcher’, ‘20,000 shingles at 20/ per 1000’, and ‘one to 30 good useful Horses’ fit to ‘Carry a Lady’.

Handwritten advertisement from The Melbourne AdvertiserAdvertisement from The Melbourne Advertiser, 1 January 1838, p. 1

The newspaper cost one shilling, and people could purchase it from Fawkner’s Hotel, which was located on the corner of Market and Collins Streets. You can see the hotel’s distinctive pyramid roof on the hill in this view of Melbourne from 1840:

Shows Batman's Hill, later to become the site of Spencer Street Railway Yards, and sailing ships. This work shows Melbourne from the south bank of the Yarra River, looking across from the turning basin.Melbourne from the South Bank of the Yarra, 1840. Oil painting by Eleanor McGlinn; H265

Subsequent editions of the newspaper were slightly improved, if only in their diversity of content. There were maxims (‘The Triumph of Woman lies not in the admiration of Her Lover but in the respect of her Husband…’), riddles with no answers (‘What letter of the Alphabet goes all round Great Britain?’), a ‘Poet’s Corner’ (‘The Lover to his Intended’), and even the odd spot of news reporting:

On Friday last the 6 Bushrangers who some time past stole a Boat from this Town entered the Hut of M r O’Connor’s Station near Western Port and took 3 Guns one Pistol a quantity of Gunpowder and Shot Pr (sic) of Boots Some Flour, Tea, Sugar, & upon Mr O. C. urging the danger of being left without firearms they promised to return two of the Guns and Pistol… (The Melbourne Advertiser, 26 February 1838)

The third edition of the newspaper was written by an amanuensis (a literary or artistic assistant), and you can see the difference in the quality of the handwriting:

Handwritten banner for the Melbourne AdvertiserBanner from The Melbourne Advertiser, vol. 1, no. 3, 15 January 1838

Handwritten weather report from The Melbourne AdvertiserWeather report from The Melbourne Advertiser, vol. 1, no. 3, 15 January 1838

Melbourne’s handwritten newspaper lasted for 10 editions – the 10th appearing with the following postscript:

This number was not fully Written out
when press and Type arrived, and
No. 10 was printed,
But unfortunately was lost or
stolen, and so lost to
May 4th, 1838.

Fawkner had procured an old wooden printing press from Launceston, and the next edition of the Advertiser appeared ‘in all the battered glory of half-defaced type.’ Its motto declared: ‘We Aim to Lead, not Drive,’ and its contents were ‘almost as seedy as the letter-press.’ 2

Excerpt from print edition of the Melbourne Advertiser featuring the motto 'We aim to lead, not drive.'Leader from the first print edition of The Melbourne Advertiser, 5 March, 1838

The newspaper’s print debut was a short-lived affair. Colonial law required that Fawkner had a publishing license. He didn’t, so after just 17 editions, Melbourne’s ‘miserable rag’ came to an abrupt end.

You can read all the editions of The Melbourne Advertiser online, with the exception of editions 13 and 16, which are not held by the Library.

  1. Finn, Edmund, 1888, The chronicles of early Melbourne, 1835 to 1852 : Historical, anecdotal and personal by “Garryowen”, vol. 2, p. 820
  2. Finn, Edmund, 1888, The chronicles of early Melbourne, 1835 to 1852 : Historical, anecdotal and personal by “Garryowen”, vol. 2, p. 823

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