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The History of the Jews in New Zealand

Chapter XXI — Jews and Journalism

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Chapter XXI
Jews and Journalism

When the miners poured into the South Island during the gold-rush, they demanded all types of commodities. One item which they regarded as indispensable to their comfort and needs was news. They thirsted for messages from home and knowledge of the intricacies of the political situation in New Zealand and the storm centres of the wide world. They wanted to know where work could be found, the price of gold and the opinions of the leader writers, and they expected learned articles on every conceivable subject. Keen competition fired the editors to express themselves forcibly. Miners did not enjoy platitudes. In any case, editors at that time usually took up journalism as a profession in order to make their opinions known to the public. The days when shareholders directed an editor's theme had not yet arrived. Alert, wily, witty, informed, sanguine, principled men conducted the miners' newspapers, and raised the standard of the New Zealand Press from that of parochial gazettes to make it a potent force of opinion both within the country and abroad. Two fearless, clever, experienced Jewish journalists began the metamorphosis—Benjamin Leopold Farjeon and Julius Vogel, both of whom became famed throughout the world, the former as a novelist and the latter as a politician.

Farjeon came from Whitechapel, the heart of the East End of London. His father, a strict Sephardi, insisted with severity upon his children's compliance with Jewish custom. Conformity irked Farjeon, who worked as a printer's devil by day and studied hard at night. At the age of thirteen he wrote verse. Three years later, with the help of an uncle, he left his unhappy home for Australia, and on board ship published fourteen issues of a handwritten news sheet, the Ocean Record. On arrival in Melbourne, he joined a group of Sephardi Jews under the leadership of Henry Cohen Pirani, which contemplated forming its own congregation with the assistance of the Bevis Marks Synagogue in London. On moving to Bendigo, then called Sandhurst, he took an active part in the assembly of the first congregation in the mining city. He started various newspapers, each of which contained his feature "Salmagundi on the Goldfields", in which he recounted the experiences which later became material for his novels. Finally, he received a more permanent post on the Bendigo Advertiser. Whilst there, he took a keen interest in amateur theatricals. He wrote, produced and acted page 153 for the Bendigo Histrionic Club and the Sandhurst Garrick Club, societies which he himself helped to form. It is believed that either he or Julius Vogel, or both in conjunction, wanted to print a Jewish newspaper, the Australian Jewish Chronicle. Farjeon and Vogel met again in Dunedin, drawn thence by the discovery of gold. They themselves did not, however, seek the precious metal. They had a greater passion—printer's ink. They knew the miners and how to write about them and for them. Farjeon came as a correspondent for the Melbourne Argus, Vogel as a freelance journalist.

Like Farjeon, Vogel had been born in the Dutch Jewish quarter of the East End of London. According to his own account, he had been a delicate lad until thirteen years of age, and had been taught at home by his parents, Albert Leopold and Phoebe Vogel. They died a year later, from which time onwards his maternal grandfather, Alexander Isaac, a West Indian merchant, cared for him. He studied at the University College School, made a voyage to South America under the auspices of his grandfather, and worked in a stockbroker's office. When the news of Australian gold fired his imagination, he took a course in metallurgy and chemistry at the Royal School of Mines in order to fit himself for a new life. He arrived alone in Melbourne when only seventeen years of age. There is good reason to doubt the story of Vogel's education and the suggestion of his grandfather's wealth. The account of Vogel's early life appeared in the Otago Witness in an article probably deriving from Vogel himself. He had by that time reached the top rung of the political ladder, and it would not have suited him to suggest that he had no education at all. But his friends who knew him in Australia and on his arrival in New Zealand remembered the boast, which he had often expressed, that he was a "self-educated man". They laughed and scoffed at the tale of his studies. He could not have had much schooling even on his own admission, for between his thirteenth and seventeenth years he worked in his grandfather's office and as a stockbroker's clerk. The true facts probably were that he had never sailed for South America and that his parents could not afford to educate him. When they died he had to work as an office boy to eke out a living. It really made the saga of his career more romantic and extraordinary.

So many migrants were pouring into Melbourne when Vogel arrived in 1852, that he had to sleep in one of the seven thousand tents, the city's Canvas Town, beside the River Yarra. With A. S. Grant as a partner, he opened an assaying office in Flinders Lane, succeeding because of the support given to him by Montefiore and Kuhl and the Bank of Australasia. One week he cleared £57. He smelted tin into bricks and stamped on them, "From the first ton of colonial tin". These sold as souvenirs at a guinea each. A shortage of flour on the goldfields led him into a speculation in which he page 154 lost all his money. By the time his consignment arrived on the goldfields, the price had dropped considerably below the sum he had paid for it. He decided to go to the gold-mining town of Maryborough, where he partnered Dr Gagen in a drug-store and a Mr White in a wine and spirit business. A man with a fertile brain, he spent many of the long evenings writing for the Maryborough Advertiser, discovering a talent for journalism which led to an offer to conduct the Maryborough and Dunolly Times when the editor fell sick. He advocated the building of a Mechanics' Institute, energetic police action when two Jewish jewellery pedlars were cruelly murdered, and the improvement of conditions favouring the miners. His advocacy and righteous assertiveness won him popularity amongst the diggers, who knew him as a man always ready for a speculation and as a keen card-player. Independent by nature, he resolved to print his own newspaper. He bought a store at Inglewood, and published the Inglewood Advertiser, which became so popular that after eight numbers it appeared with advertisements only and without a word of news. His passion for lively company consolidated his gambling habits. He could not keep money. He transferred to Talbot where he edited the Talbot Leader, but during the slump he moved over to Avoca. When only twenty-six years old, he stood as a candidate for the Victorian Legislative Assembly as a freetrader independent. Badly defeated and sadly disappointed, he accepted the suggestion of Wolf Harris of Bing and Harris to go to Dunedin to start a newspaper for the miners.

In order to gain a perspective of conditions, he first wrote for the Colonist, and later acquired an interest in the Otago Witness. Persuading his partner, W. H. Cutten, to start a daily newspaper, a venture never before attempted in New Zealand, Vogel became part-owner and editor of the Otago Daily Times, with Benjamin L. Farjeon as manager and sub-leader writer. The first number appeared on Friday, 15 November, 1861, and consisted of five small pages. Twelve days later the premises were burnt down. Undaunted, the partners erected another building, and from that time the Otago Daily Times became one of the leading newspapers in the country. Farjeon did not act only as sub-editor. He also worked as a compositor, receiving with his co-workers 50 per cent more when transcribing Vogel's almost illegible handwriting. Maintaining his interest in the stage, Farjeon took part in the formation of the Dunedin Garrick Club and boosted it through his writings. Whilst working on the newspaper, his thoughts turned to authorship, and because of his possessing a remarkable quality, which, by an extraordinary coincidence, Vogel also shared, he fulfilled his ambition. He could think clearly about two separate ideas at the same time. Vogel's capacity for dual thought was paralleled by his capacity for food. He ate twice as much as the ordinary man. Through his gargantuan appetite he suffered from page 155 "poor man's gout". Farjeon's ability to carry two trains of thought simultaneously enabled him to complete his first novel Shadows on the Snow whilst performing his work as a compositor.

Favourably received by the local population, Farjeon sent the novel to Charles Dickens who saw merit in it and advised him to continue. Believing he had more opportunity in England, Farjeon prepared to return to the country of his birth, and in December, 1867, Vogel, in the office of the Otago Daily Times, presented his bosom friend with a gold case as a farewell token of esteem. A close bond had grown between them. Farjeon had bought a half share in the firm, and frequently he wrote Vogel's leading articles. So that copy would be ready in time, search parties would often have to be sent out for Vogel, who would be indulging his passion for cards. When he could not be found, Farjeon completed the task, but when the searchers did find him, Vogel would sit down and write an involved article in clear, lucid style in a matter of minutes.

When Farjeon returned to England he took with him the manuscript of another novel entitled Grif, which he published in London and which sold over 300,000 copies. He led a Bohemian life, meeting all types of artists and writers including Charles Dickens and Joseph L. Jefferson, whose daughter, Margaret, he married. He wrote many books and plays, drawing from his Australian and New Zealand experiences as well as depicting characters of his co-religionists whom he treated sympathetically. Apart from his successful writings, he also founded a literary family which included his daughter Eleanor and his grandson J. Jefferson Farjeon.

Before Farjeon left for London, the Otago Daily Times had been transformed into a public company which retained Vogel's services as editor. The arrangement did not last long. The day had arrived when directors and shareholders took a hand in laying down the political policy of the paper. Vogel differed with his principals. He advocated the separation of the South Island from the North Island. The Maori Wars in the north cost the taxpayers and the Government enormous sums of money which the authorities raised by heavy levies upon the rising wealth gained from gold and sheep in the peaceful south. Vogel persisted in his advocacy. Indispensable Vogel discovered that the directors of the newspaper he had founded did not regard him as absolutely essential. They dismissed him. He started another newspaper of his own, the New Zealand Sun, but it did not pay, and it folded up after a short life. Never discouraged, he then left Dunedin to reside in Auckland, where he bought the Southern Cross, the most famous of the early New Zealand newspapers. Accumulating political responsibilities impelled him to re-sell soon after he had acquired the newspaper. His name, however, had grown in the political sphere, and the directors retained his services at a very large salary, which enabled him to concentrate on politics and to write whenever page 156 he or the owners thought it necessary because of the political situation. By 1876, the urgency of his political career absorbed nearly all of his time. He severed his connection with the Southern Cross. His passion for printer's ink had been overwhelmed by his pleasure in power.

When Vogel and Farjeon laboured in partnership on the Otago Daily Times they engaged a clever young Jewish lad of sixteen as an office boy and student reporter. Mark Cohen worked for his co-religionists for about a year. Disgruntled about the low wages which he and his fellow printer's devils were receiving, he organized a strike of office boys. He next worked for the Evening Star. His private study of law, and his experience as a boy in London and at school in Ballarat and Melbourne, helped him as a reporter. Apart from a short time on the Independent and the Sun, he spent the rest of his life in association with the Star, progressing step by step until, in 1893, the newspaper offered him the post of editor. He won his way by long and devoted service, by efficiency and capable journalism, and as a forceful, convincing writer. A knack of choosing brilliant men to serve and write for the Star stamped him as a skilled and observant leader.

Civic minded, he served on the Dunedin City Council, contesting in 1888 the mayoral elections, in which he suffered defeat. Apart from journalism, education remained his strongest interest. After helping to organize the Dunedin and Suburban Schools' Association, he acted as its Chairman, as he did also of the Otago Education Board. He was a founder of the Dunedin Technical Classes and the Dunedin Free Kindergarten Association, the latter organization electing him a life member in recognition of his services. He believed in free public libraries and served as Honorary Secretary for the Dunedin branch, helping to organize the New Zealand Library Association. At the end of the nineteenth century, Mark Cohen was regarded as a man of considerable influence in the city of Dunedin and in the Province of Otago.

Another passionate educationalist, Frederick Pirani, also earned his living by journalism. His father, Henry Cohen Pirani, had come over from Victoria to follow the miners to Hokitika, where he was connected with a local newspaper. H. C. Pirani had been an imposing and an important figure in the early Jewish life in Melbourne, taking part in the establishment of its Jewish school, and leading the small group of Sephardi Jews. At one stage he favoured the establishment of a separate Sephardi congregation in Victoria, hoping for aid and support from the sister community at Bevis Marks, London. He conducted Sephardi services on the High Holydays, firstly in the hall of the synagogue of the Melbourne Hebrew Congregation and later at his own home. Financial difficulties may have brought him to the west coast of New Zealand where Frederick Pirani received his education. Both page 157 he and his brother David received an apprenticeship in the printing trade. Whilst David engaged in journalism in Hawkes Bay, Poverty Bay and Palmerston North, Frederick served as a tyro on the Wanganui Herald. The two brothers travelled a great deal, David returning to Victoria where he started the Woodend Star and then the Eaglehawk Standard, and Frederick going to Blenheim where he served on the school committee. Finally, the two brothers joined forces in 1891, when they took over the Wanganui Standard, and later again when they moved to Palmerston North to conduct the Manawatu Daily Standard.

Extremely able and confident, Frederick Pirani possessed a vital, trenchant pen, expressing his opinions forthrightly and fearlessly. Besides his entry into politics, he had many other interests which were indicated by the different types of organization on which he served. He acted as Chairman of the Palmerston North School Board, Chairman of the Wanganui Education Board, President of the Manawatu and West Coast Agricultural and Pastoral Association, as a member of the Wellington Land Board and the Middle District University Council and as a member of the Borough Council. He was the only member returned to the Licensing Council on a Temperance ticket. His energy, vitality and effervescent brilliance mirrored an earlier Vogel, and as a young man it seemed as if he would follow in Vogel's footsteps and reach the heights of success.

Among other Jews connected with the Press, two young stars shone brightly in the firmament of journalism, maintaining the high standards set by Vogel and Farjeon. Frederick Ehrenfried Baume attracted attention at the University of Otago by his brilliant versatility, winning medals for science and political economy besides completing the courses in commerce and journalism. When he had completed his studies he accepted a post as editor of the Timaru Herald, but later he changed his profession, practising in Auckland as a lawyer and entering local politics by serving as a member of the Auckland City Council and the Auckland Harbour Board.

Phineas Selig, the son of the Rev. B. A. Selig, first received his taste for journalism as a reader in the Government Printing Office, and later worked in the same capacity on the Lyttelton Times. Transferring to Sydney for experience, he acted as a correspondent for The Times, London. On his return, he started the Referee with A. E. Bird. It became the official calendar for all the New Zealand Jockey Clubs. When he amalgamated with the Canterbury Press Company in 1891, he became the editor of the Referee portion of the Weekly Press and Referee, later being appointed manager of the whole concern. As a great sporting administrator, he was appointed President of the New Zealand Trotting Association and later of the Trotting page 158 Conference. He loved athletics. As one of the oldest councillors of the New Zealand Amateur Athletic Association, he managed many touring teams which competed in Australia. He also founded the Public Schools' Amateur Athletic Association of North Canterbury. With the passing of the years, the Press recognized him as the doyen of sporting journalists.

Small as their numbers may have been, the Jews made a substantial contribution to the New Zealand Press, influencing it for the welfare of the public, and raising it to a standard equal to any in other parts of the world.