Robert Howe: Pioneering publisher

by Annie Hamilton 

Perched on a stool, bent over trays of lead type (the letters that were arranged into words in an old-fashioned printing press), Robert Howe was just eight years old when the King’s Representative inspected the printing office of Australia’s first newspaper. The Representative smiled at Robert’s convict father George (the government printer), astonished to see such a small boy hard at work on the newspaper called the Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser

Even though there was a shortage of ink, paper and printing equipment – as well as a lack of paying subscribers (there were plenty who signed up to receive the newspaper but refused to pay the bill!) – the Sydney Gazette soldiered on.  

The Gazette kept the early European settlers of Australia in touch with the news from home. Published three times a week, it contained excerpts from English literature which not only helped keep loyalty to England alive but also encouraged education.  

Robert’s father published material that encouraged a love of literature and aimed to help teachers and their students as they used it. He published his own poems as well as those of others. Some people think of him as the ‘father of Australian Literature’. 

But by the time young Robert was 25, his life had taken a downhill turn. He was living a life of reckless and careless self-indulgence until, one day, he experienced an unexpected spiritual awakening. In his own words, he was ‘wonderfully and mercifully visited by God and snatched from infamy in this world and Hell in the next’. 

Influenced by the early Methodist Church community in Sydney, he began Australia’s first magazine: The Australian Magazine; or, Compendium of Religious, Literary, and Miscellaneous Intelligence. He also inherited the printing and publishing business of his father at this time and, under his direction, the tone of the Sydney Gazette changed completely.  

Robert considered that to be ‘Printer to Immanuel [another name for Jesus]’ was far more important than being government printer, so morality and religion became two of the main themes of the newspaper. The Gazette began to reflect Robert Howe’s belief that faith in Jesus was the only possible way for colonial society to be rescued from the social problems and depravity he saw around him. 

However, his policies of promoting Christianity as the solution to national problems was not popular with everyone. It brought him into conflict with many people, and he was physically attacked, accused of crimes and taken to court, and even publicly horse-whipped. 

Robert knew that following Jesus was not always easy. Jesus himself said, ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.’ (Matthew 5:10 NIV) Robert Howe certainly learned this first-hand as he tried to share his faith and hope in Christ in the early days of Sydney and the New South Wales colony. 

Robert Howe met a sad end. He died while out fishing when his boat overturned. But he had had a huge impact on the publishing industry, by starting a magazine that encouraged Christian values and aimed to have a positive impact as Sydney made the transition from being a rough and dangerous convict colony to being the most important city of a free state. 

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