FENWICK, Sir George
Newspaper manager and editor.
A new biography of Fenwick, George appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
George Fenwick was born on 2 February 1847, in Sunderland, Durham, where his father Robert was an ardent supporter of the Chartist movement. In 1853 the family emigrated to Victoria and, after an unprofitable stay, were persuaded by W. H. Reynolds, then Otago's Immigration Agent, to move to Otago where they arrived on the ship Challenger on 23 January 1856. Fenwick was educated in Dunedin at the Lower High Street School and J. G. S. Grant's Academy, and at the age of 12 years, in 1859, was apprenticed as a printer to the Otago Witness. Two years later he entered the service of Julius Vogel'sOtago Daily Times. He decided to try his luck in Australia and spent some time in Sydney in 1866, before accepting a position on the Townsville Cleveland Bay Express, but returned to Dunedin on the death of his mother during the same year and rejoined the Otago Daily Times. In 1868 he accepted an offer of partnership in the Tuapeka Press at Lawrence with James Matthews, a former Times colleague, but the district could not support two papers and the Tuapeka Times bought out the Press in September 1869. Throughout his business career, Fenwick never forgot the importance of this lesson in the economics of newspaper publishing.
Fenwick and Matthews then founded the Cromwell Argus. To complete the Press contracts while forestalling a threatened rival paper to the Argus, Fenwick struck off the first issue at the Press office in Lawrence and carried the copies on horseback, riding nearly 90 miles to deliver them in Cromwell by the following morning. Before long he found country journalism too limited and sold his interest in the Argus to his brother William, and joined John Mackay in his Dunedin printing business. In 1875 he accepted the position of manager of the Otago Guardian. The proprietors were losing money and sold the property to George M. Reed, the editor, who retained Fenwick as manager and soon afterwards took him into partnership. Fenwick realised that Dunedin could not support two morning dailies and persuaded Reed to join him in an extremely ambitious scheme. With the assistance of W. H. Reynolds as negotiator, Reed and Fenwick became the proprietors of the rival Otago Daily Times, which now incorporated the Guardian, and the weekly Otago Witness, incorporating the Southern Mercury. The amalgamation necessitated a reduction in staff and the former Times employees founded the rival Morning Herald published at one penny in competition with the Times at threepence. Fenwick's answer was to float the Otago Daily Times and Witness Co. Ltd. in April 1878, with himself as managing-director and Reed as editor of the Times. The success of the enterprise was assured when, after 28 months of argument, he persuaded the directors to reduce the price of the Times to a penny in February 1881. Fenwick immediately undertook a canvass in the city and the province, with the result that the circulation doubled in a fortnight and trebled in three weeks. Reed returned to England in 1879 and thereafter Fenwick controlled the development of the paper, first as managing-director and from 1890 as editor and manager.
As manager Fenwick showed immense ability and by energetic administration and shrewd business acumen developed the company into a sound commercial concern. He was a founder of the Newspaper Proprietors' Association. Far sighted and progressive, he saw the need for a reputable paper to keep abreast of changing conditions and in 1897 visited England and America to purchase linotype machinery to supersede the handset machines. The result was a larger paper with an increased revenue from advertisements, though he saw to it that advertising remained subordinate to the dissemination of news.
Fenwick believed that a daily paper should be dignified and free from sensationalism and should supply the public with accurate up-to-date news. To this end he was one of the inaugurators of the New Zealand Press Association. Though his policy was conservative, he was never afraid to champion a controversial cause if he believed it to be just. In 1888 Rutherford Waddell preached a sermon in St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church, Dunedin, attacking the sweating industry, and the Times, after investigating his charges, supported the attack with a series of special articles. The outcome was the formation of the Dunedin Tailoresses' Union, and Fenwick was asked to arbitrate in the ensuing dispute between the tailoresses and their employers. In 1881 he had arbitrated in a dispute between seamen and shipowners, and his genius for inspiring confidence in both parties and for honest and fair treatment caused him to be appealed to in a number of subsequent disputes.
For nearly 20 years he was editor as well as manager and proved himself a truly great editor. He considered that the paper was a national rather than a provincial organ and his journalistic sense was acute and perceptive. Under his direction the Otago Daily Times became one of the most influential and respected newspapers in the country. He used the paper's and his personal influence to support a number of causes, including the establishment of satisfactory public abattoirs, the financial support of the University of Otago, and the inauguration of the Hocken Wing of the Otago Museum. He declined political and municipal offices as incompatible with his editorial duties. Fenwick relinquished the editorship to James Hutchinson in 1909. In the same year he visited Great Britain as one of the New Zealand delegation to the first Imperial Press Conference and was appointed chairman of the New Zealand delegation. He also served as chairman of the 1918 delegation. In 1919 he was knighted both for his services to journalism and to the community.
A man of wide sympathies, Fenwick was a member of many organisations. He founded the Otago Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1885 to counter the prevailing cruelty to horses. He was Government member of the Prisons Board from its foundation in 1927 and a vice-president of the Patients' and Prisoners' Aid Society. He served on the governing bodies of the Hocken Library, the Dunedin Public Art Gallery, the Young Men's Christian Association, the Rotary Club, and the Dunedin Chamber of Commerce. He possessed great strength of character and a strong personal magnetism combined with considerable powers of persuasion which he employed to gain support or raise funds for various worthy causes. Energetic and vigorous, he delighted in tramping and was a keen gardener and amateur botanist. He published a number of pamphlets on his tramps and his botanical collections.
Fenwick married Jane, daughter of David Proudfoot, in 1874. He died in Dunedin on 23 September 1929.
by Gloria Margaret Strathern, B.A., DIP.N.Z.L.S. formerly Librarian, Hocken Library, Dunedin.
- Otago Daily Times, 24 Sep 1929 (Obit)
- Dominion, 24 Sep 1929 (Obit).