History Week 2009 is wrapping up this weekend, and in keeping with theme of Scandals, Crime and Corruption, lets take a look at a scandal-monger and muck-raker of days gone by: John Norton, who was the editor of Sydney newspaper The Truth.

The Truth was Sydney’s premier scandal sheet in the first half of the twentieth century. It was published weekly from 1890 through to the 1950s, at which time it was absorbed by The Daily Mirror. Described as a mixture of Who Weekly (or New Weekly) and the National Enquirer, it was the precursor to today’s daily tabloid newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph.

The Truth had great populist appeal. It published stories about sport, divorce, murder, rape and arson, and lots of other scandalous topics which were received with gusto from its largely working class audience.

John Norton, Editor of The Truth - State Library of NSW, Lala Fisher - papers, 1895-1981, MLMSS 6432
John Norton, Editor of The Truth – State Library of NSW, Lala Fisher – papers, 1895-1981, MLMSS 6432

John Norton acquired The Truth in 1896, and his colourful, purple prose featured heavily. Norton was, in essence, a muck-raking journalist. He became infamous for his ‘foaming torrents of abuse’ in the pages of paper, and to this end, was a big fan of alliteration, with attention grabbing headlines like ‘libidinous lecheries and lascivious lapses’ to describe Lord Dudley, or ‘flabby, fat and flatulent’ to refer to Queen Victoria, being the norm. Understandably, he was taken to court several times for libel. He was also accused of blackmail, moral turpitude and murder, but was acquitted on all counts.

Possibly one Norton’s greatest claims to fame was his assertion that he coined the term ‘wowser’ to describe a ‘fanatically puritanical person’ or a killjoy, although there is some dispute about his claim.

In addition to being a newspaper man, Norton was a politician. An early mover and shaker in the Labour movement, he was also  a member of the NSW Parliament and an alderman on the City of Sydney Council.

He was a mercurial and bellicose character, and regularly resorted to physical violence. In September 1898, he was horse-whipped in Pitt Street by fellow parliamentarian, R D Meagher. In retaliation, Norton pulled a revolver and fired. Luckily for Meagher, he missed.

John Norton was several times in court for assaulting his wife, who he reportedly beat insensible with a fish on one occasion. Despite their tumultuous union, and her marriage to another man after his death, they were buried together.

A chronic drunkard, he was  known to drink up to six bottles of brandy in one sitting, and was often to be found rolling around in his office in a drunken haze.

When Norton died in 1916, his estate included a house, called St Helena, at Maroubra Bay, which was packed to the rafters with Napoleon Bonaparte memorabilia including over 50 ‘busts, statues and portraits’.

Following a dispute over John Norton’s will, his son Ezra took over The Truth in the 1920s.

For more on John Norton and The Truth, have a look at That Damned Democrat: John Norton, an Australian populist, 1858-1916 by Michael Cannon and Cyril Pearl’s Wild Men of Sydney.

Laila is giving some talks at Newcastle and Maitland this weekend, as part of History Week 2009, if you happen to be in the Hunter region: http://www.historycouncilnsw.org.au/events/-beaten-track

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