John Norton (journalist)

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John Norton, newspaper owner

John Norton, (25 January 1858 – 9 April 1916), was an English-born Australian journalist, editor and member of the New South Wales Parliament. He was a writer and newspaper proprietor best known for his Sydney newspaper the Truth. John Norton was arguably one of Australia's most controversial public figures ever.

Life, career and controversy[edit]

John Norton claimed to have been born in Brighton, Sussex, England but may have been born in London. He was the only son of John Norton, stonemason, who died before he was born, and his mother was Mary Davis. In 1860, his mother remarried Benjamin Timothy Herring, a silk-weaver, who allegedly mistreated his stepson. He apparently spent some time in Paris and learned to speak good French. He claimed to have walked to Constantinople in 1880, where he became a journalist.[1]

Norton emigrated to Australia in 1884 and soon became chief reporter on the Evening News, which supported free trade. In 1885 he edited the official report of the Third Intercolonial Trades Union Congress. One of its resolutions condemned the New South Wales Governments contribution of 250,000 to assist migration from Europe. Norton was selected by the Trades and Labor Council of New South Wales to go to Europe in 1886 to tell potential immigrants that Australia was not a workers' paradise. He attended a trade union congress in Hull and spoke in French to one in Paris.[2]

On his return, Norton became editor of the Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners Advocate, but was sacked for drunkenness after a few months. Within a few weeks of its establishment in August 1890, he then joined the Truth, which favoured exposé articles. He soon became its editor and in April 1891 he altered its masthead to claim proprietorship,[3] but was sacked as editor for repeated drunkedness.

He became the owner of the Sydney newspaper, The Truth in 1896 and it became even more abusive of public figures, leading to increased circulation and legal action including trials for criminal libel and sedition, which he generally managed to beat. He established editions of the Truth in Queensland, Victoria (The Truth) and Western Australia by 1903. Norton's staunchly nationalistic paper published many late-19th-century Australian authors such as Henry Lawson.

From humble beginnings, John Norton became one of Australia's most successful media figures, and he became fabulously rich. He and his family lived in huge mansion called St. Helena, situated at Torrington Road, Maroubra in Sydney's eastern suburbs.

The Grohn affair

In 1906, Norton was accused in the press of attempted murder. He became embroiled in a murder investigation regarding the death of a man named George Grohn (de Groen) who died in mysterious circumstances in John Norton's house on 9 November 1902. [4] The men were both drunk on the night Grohn died and Norton gave evidence that George Grohn had died because he had accidentally fallen down the stairs, but the investigating police and others believed Norton had hit Grohn on the head with a bottle, killing him instantly. Norton was alleged to have organised a Randwick physician named Dr. Osborne H. Reddall to issue a death certificate stating Grohn had died of natural causes. It was also alleged that the death certificate was written out while Dr. Reddall was in The Truth's Sydney office - before the physician had even viewed the body. Norton held on to Grohn's death certificate for two years until he finally registered the death in 1904. These details emerged in 1906, and the police immediately requested that Grohn's death be investigated by the City Coroner. Grohn's body was exhumed from its grave at Rookwood Cemetery for an autopsy. The 1906 inquest into Grohn's death produced an open finding due to lack of medical evidence, but serious doubts over the incident always remained.[5]

Wowser

John Norton is generally considered the person who invented the Australian word 'wowser', meaning one whose overdeveloped sense of morality drives them to deprive others of their pleasures; a person regarded as excessively puritanical; a killjoy. His name is mentioned as the inventor of this word in the Macquarie Dictionary. [6]

"I invented the word myself," he wrote. "I was the first man publicly to use the word. I first gave it public utterance in the City Council, when I applied it to Alderman G.J. Waterhouse, whom I referred to as the white, woolly, weary, watery, word-wasting wowser from Waverley". Gustavus John Waterhouse (1850-1929) was the Mayor of Waverley on two occasions and was an Alderman on Waverley Council for many years. [7]

The earliest occasion on which the word wowser appears in print in a newspaper in the National Library of Australia's Trove collection was in the Perth Sunday Times on 2 August 1903, on pages 1 and 10. It appeared on page 1 of the same newspaper on 30 August 1903. It seems not to have appeared in print before that time, but was common in that newspaper thereafter. It either travelled rapidly to W.A. and found fertile ground there, or it was originated in Western Australia.

Parliamentary career[edit]

John Norton served for nearly 12 years in the N.S.W. Legislative Assembly and made many enemies among other politicians. Conversely, he was very popular among his constituents. He was initially elected as the member for Sydney-Fitzroy at a by-election in June 1898 and served until the July 1898 elections. Redmer Yska in his book "Truth:The Rise and Fall of the People's Paper" states on page 16 that Norton, in a drunken stupor, once urinated in view of members on the floor of the chamber.

The Norton-Meagher fracas

John Norton featured in one of the most sensational incidents Sydney had ever witnessed back on 21 September 1898. [8] Norton's bitter rival and fellow politician, Richard Meagher (1866–1931), member for Tweed, horsewhipped Norton in Sydney's busy Pitt Street in front of hundreds of bystanders. Meagher was angry at Norton for labeling him Mr. "Mendax" Meagher in Norton's Truth Newspaper. Norton also described Meagher as the "premier perjurer of our public life and the champion criminal of the continent". After he had been whipped, Norton responded by firing three shots at Meagher with a revolver. Both men were charged with assault at Central Police Court, although Meagher was fined just ₤5 and John Norton was found not guilty.[9] [10]

John Norton represented Northumberland, from 1899 to 1901; Surry Hills, from 1904 to 1906; and Darling Harbour from 1907 to 1910.

He was also elected three times as a Sydney alderman between 1898 and 1906.[11] He also ran unsuccessfully for the Senate in 1901 and 1906.

Marriage, separation and death[edit]

John Norton married Ada McGrath (1871-1960) on 29 April 1897 at St James' Church, Sydney. They had a son, Ezra Norton (1897–1967). Ten years later they had a daughter, Joan Norton (1907–1940). Initially, the family lived at Watsons Bay but by 1905 they had moved to the St Helena mansion that overlooked Maroubra Beach.

Their marriage was not a happy one. John and Ada Norton were judicially separated on 9 November 1915 on the grounds of Norton's drunkenness, cruelty and adultery. John Norton represented himself during the proceedings while Richard Windeyer KC acted on behalf of Mrs Ada Norton. [12] Details of the divorce trial appeared in the national press, including Norton's own newspaper The Truth.

John Norton was a chronic alcoholic and suffered from megalomania for most of his adult life. [13]

John Norton died at a private hospital in Melbourne of Uraemia and kidney failure on 9 April 1916. He had been seriously ill for some months and had been in a coma for a week before his death. His wife, son and daughter were at his bedside when he died. [14]

His body was returned to Sydney for burial. On 15 April 1916, huge crowds attended his funeral service at St James' Church, Sydney and later at his elaborate burial at South Head Cemetery (refer:Waverley Cemetery).[13] [15]

Family challenge of Norton's estate[edit]

In his will John Norton disinherited his wife Ada and son Ezra and left the bulk of his estate to his 9-year-old daughter, Joan. The estate seemed to many to be greatly undervalued, even though it was presented for probate at £106,000.00. [16]

Mrs Ada Norton persuaded the New South Wales Parliament to backdate the new Testator's Family Maintenance Act to take effect before Norton's death. Under this legislation, she succeeded in having his will rewritten in 1920 so that she and Ezra Norton each received a third of his inheritance, allowing Ezra Norton to gain control of The Truth Media Group. By 1927, John Norton's Estate had been re-valued at £600,000.00.[17] [18]

Later, his daughter Joan Norton, as Mrs Ben Shashoua, was the petitioner behind the bankruptcy of Sydney businessman Hugh D. McIntosh.[19] She married Ben Shashoua in London on 9 January 1930 although they separated after 6 months and she returned to Sydney. Like her father, Joan Shashoua (née Norton) died from alcoholism in Sydney on 7 March 1940 and was buried in the Norton family plot at South Head Cemetery. She left an estate valued at £71,146.00 to her mother Ada and her brother Ezra Norton. [20]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Pearl 1958, pp. 20-24
  2. ^ Pearl 1958, pp. 29-31
  3. ^ Pearl 1958, p. 47
  4. ^ Sydney Morning Herald. George Grohn - Funeral Notice . 10th November 1902 (Page 10).
  5. ^ Sydney Morning Herald. George Grohn's Death. Conclusion of Inquest. - Open Verdict . 16 October 1906. page 5
  6. ^ The Macquarie Concise Dictionary, 2nd Edition. Macquarie Library Press, Australia. 1988. (ISBN 0 949757 49 7)
  7. ^ Sydney Morning Herald. Death of G.J.Waterhouse- Obituary: 6 August 1929.
  8. ^ The Queanbeyan Age. Whip v Revolver. - Meagher & Norton At War ! - 24 September 1898. (page 4)
  9. ^ Pearl 1958, pp. 130-3
  10. ^ Sydney Morning Herald. The Norton-Meagher Fracas . 15 October 1898. (page 7).
  11. ^ "Mr John Norton (1857 - 1916)". Members of Parliament. Parliament of New South Wales. Retrieved 9 February 2010. 
  12. ^ The Argus, Melbourne. Norton Divorce Case. Judicial Separation Granted. - 10 November 1915. (page 5)
  13. ^ a b Cannon, Michael. "Norton, John (1858 - 1916)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Australian National University. Retrieved 2007-02-26. 
  14. ^ Sandra Hall. Tabloid Man. 4th Estate Press, Australia. 2008 (page 96) - (ISBN 978 0 7322 8259 2)
  15. ^ Sydney Morning Herald. Funeral Notice: John Norton. 14 April 1916. (page 5)
  16. ^ Sandra Hall. Tabloid Man, 2008
  17. ^ Pearl 1958, p. 245
  18. ^ Sydney Morning Herald. John Norton's Estate, Income Accumulations . 22 November 1927 (page 8)
  19. ^ The Argus 7 November 1930
  20. ^ Sydney Morning Herald. Mrs Shashoua's Will For Probate. Estate of £71,146.00. - 10 December 1940. (page 11)

References[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Cannon, Michael. That damned democrat : John Norton, an Australian populist, 1858-1916 Melbourne University Press, 1981. ISBN 0522842151
  • Hall, Sandra. Tabloid Man- The life and times of Ezra Norton. Fourth Estate Press. 2008. (ISBN 978 0 7322 8259 2).
  • Pearl, Cyril. Wild Men Of Sydney. Universal Books. 1958, 1970.
Parliament of New South Wales
Preceded by
John McElhone
Member for Sydney-Fitzroy
1898
Succeeded by
Henry Chapman
Preceded by
Richard Stevenson
Member for Northumberland
1899–1904
Succeeded by
Matthew Charlton
Preceded by
New seat
Member for Surry Hills
1904–1906
Succeeded by
Albert Bruntnell
Preceded by
William Daley
Member for Darling Harbour
1907–1910
Succeeded by
John Cochran