The Mercury's Editors

There have been 18 editors of The Mercury in its history spanning three centuries, and one of them held the position twice. He was Thomas Lockyer Bright (1863-64 and 1865-68). The first editor was William Coote, who held the position from the paper's inception in July 1854 until 1857. Coote was a grocer who had a shop next to the printing office and he was able to combine the two occupations.

One of the most short-lived editors was John Donellan Balfe. A native of County Meath, Ireland, Balfe was engaged by John Davies in 1868 for a one-year term as editor. He was regarded as an able political journalist and was a member of the House of Assembly from 1857 to 1881, except for a short period between 1872 and 1874. His contract with Mr Davies was for 12 months, under an agreement that pledged him to total abstinence. He was also obliged to vote in the House of Assembly consistently with his editorials. Balfe was dismissed by Mr Davies after only four months, following a breach of the first clause. He sued the company for £500 and lost, but a select committee in 1869 found the second clause to be a breach of parliamentary privilege. The Balfe name lived on, with his descendants continuing the journalistic tradition this century. Both the late Eric Balfe, and his son Barrie, filled the chief political roundsman's seat at The Mercury.


The Editors of The Mercury


William Coote

Editors of the
1857-61 Samuel Prout Hill  
Tasmanian Mail
1863-64 Thomas Lockyer Bright  
1865 James Allen  
James Patterson 1877
1865-68 Thomas Lockyer Bright  
Mr Davies
1868 John Donnellan Balfe  

F. Humphries

1868 James C. Patterson  
F. Carrington
1868-83 James Simpson  
C.J. Fox
1883-1912 Henry Richard "H.R." Nicholls  
G.B. Edwards
1912-31 William Henry Simmonds  
F.W. Moore to 1892
1931-43 Frederick Usher  
G.E. Langridge 1892-1901
1944-54 Charles Ellis "C.E." Davies  
Edwin Ings 1901-07
1954-70 Roy E. Shone  
David Black 1907-09
1970-82 Dennis Newton Hawker  
J.M. Day
1982-84 T.C. Malcolm Williams  
Ronald Smith
1984-86 James "Jim" Burns  
P.H. Thurston
1986-88 Barry Dargaville  
Fred Usher to 1922
1988-2001 Ian McCausland  
Miss Constance Cummins 1922-31
2001-2012 Garry Bailey  
J.E. Thorpe 1931-35
2012-2014 Andrew Holman    
2014-present Matt Deighton  

*List sourced from final issue,

27 June1935



William Coote

Source: State Library of Queensland

Samuel Prout Hill:

Source: National Gallery of Australia

John Donnellan Balfe

Source: LINC Tasmania

H.R. Nicholls

Source: LINC Tasmania

William Simmonds

Fred Usher
C.E. Davies
Roy Shone
Dennis Hawker
Mal Williams

Jim Burns
Barry Dargaville
Ian McCausland
Garry Bailey
Andrew Holman

John Davies - Founder

John Donnellan Balfe - Editor, Politician, Spy?

Back to The History of The Mercury








Irish plots with a Tassie twist


JOHN Donnellan Balfe was an interesting choice for the position of editor of The Mercury, an appointment made by the newspaper's founder John Davies. In 1868 Balfe had been in Tasmania 18 years and been part of Governor Sir William Denison's administration as deputy comptroller of the Convict Department. The active power behind the Hobart Town Advertiser, he was a serving Member of the House of Assembly, a Justice of the Peace, a member of various committees and, as a Catholic Irishman, active in the society of his countrymen.

Davies must have had reservations about the man he was hiring as editor, because he asked Balfe to enter into a contract with two major conditions: he was to pledge himself to total abstinence from alcohol and to vote in the House of Assembly in accordance with The Mercury's editorials. The contract was for 12 months but he was dismissed after just four, following a breach of the first clause. He sued the company for 500 Pounds - and lost - but a select committee in 1869 found the second clause to be a breach of parliamentary privilege.

It's unlikely Davies was aware of the mysterious (some would say treacherous) background of alfe before his arrival in Hobart Town aboard the Australasia on October 18, 1850. Born in County Meath, Ireland on January 8, 1816, he was the son of James Balfe and Sara Sutherland. The family was in comfortable circumstances and John was able to attend the famous Clongowes Wood College, County Kildare where he was taught by the Jesuits. After that education he bought a career in the army and as a member of the Life Guards he was part of an exclusive brotherhood: regimental standing orders said their officers were drawn from "the most select of families of competent noblemen and gentlemen of the kingdom''. Their main duty was to guard the sovereign's life. The future short-term editor of The Mercury paraded as a Life Guard at the coronation of Queen Victoria in 1837 but later removed himself (or was he removed?) from the army and returned to Ireland. In 1850 he married Mary, the daughter of Terrence O'Reilly and sister of Christopher who was later a member of both Houses of the Tasmanian Parliament.

Ireland was in turmoil in the 1840s. Agitation for home rule and the removal of English forces was going on; politician Daniel O'Connell's meetings were attracting hundreds of thousands from all levels of society. The British Government was anxious and 35,000 troops were sent to an island only a fraction bigger than this state.
After O'Connell's arrest, and indications the "great liberator'' might have been cowed by the government and his advancing age, a new, younger group of "liberators'' emerged. They had been involved with the O'Connell people but broke away as they realised the agitation needed re-energising. That new group was identified as the Young Irelanders.

Among the Irish members of the British Parliament at Westminster was one destined to be the reluctant leader of the Young Irelanders, William Smith O'Brien. He had been relentlessly pushing the Irish cause and with the advent of the great potato famine of 1845-49 he bravely confronted the House of Commons over mismanagement of government assistance to Ireland. He was appalled by the indifference to his country's plight by many of his political colleagues, The Times of London and other conservative papers. The scion of Ireland's ancient aristocracy, this descendant of King Brian Boru was pushed into action - against his reserved nature.

During the course of the Young Irelanders' formal activities at home, John Donnellan Balfe was accepted into the movement, having been nominated and seconded by Charles Gavan Duffy and William Smith O'Brien. He was given the task of liaising with the "British Chartists'', a movement pressing its government for the abolition of property qualifications for Members of Parliament, payment for members, vote by ballot and other basic rights. In 1848, they presented a petition with two million signatures. Minor improvements were achieved but elements of the Young Irelanders movement lost patience with O'Connell's non-violent approach while their countrymen were dropping like flies from the famine. That was compounded by the sight of cargoes leaving Irish docks for England, full of Irish produce.

Lawyer-turned-journalist John Mitchel took a more aggressive approach, referring to the Lord Lieutenant as "Butcher'' Clarendon and challenging him to arrest him over the comments - claiming only a "packed'' jury would convict him. This challenge resulted in the hasty introduction of a new treason law and the arrest and conviction of Mitchel by the "packed'' jury he had predicted. With 80 per cent of Irelanders being Catholic, not one Catholic was selected for the jury; the foreman, Dublin tailor John Witty, was rewarded with a quick shift to Australia with an appointment as a magistrate. Fellow Young Irelanders John Martin and Kevin Izod O'Doherty were similarly sentenced and four others were sentenced to death for sedition - William Smith O'Brien, Thomas Francis Meagher, Terrence Bellew McManus and Patrick O'Donoghue. Their sentences were commuted to transportation for life to Van Diemen's Land.

All seven eventually arrived here with special dispensations from the Colonial Department. As educated gentlemen they were not to be treated as other convicts. After agreeing to parole on the condition they would not try to escape, they were allocated to areas where they would effectively be free, with only a visit to the local police magistrate each month. They were supposedly not to leave their alloted area without formal permission. All agreed, with the exception of Smith O'Brien, who was sent to Maria Island. As they settled into their incarceration they were amazed to find, within their antipodean jail, former colleague John Donnellan Balfe, as the newly appointed deputy comptroller of the Convict Department. They had known their movement back in Ireland had been spied upon - but was it from within?

Balfe's cleverness had him free of suspicion but, in fact, he was Britain's prize informer. Known by the code name "The general'',Balfe was greatly relied on by Lord Clarendon. Although he was prone to exaggerate his evidence to plump up his importance, enormous damage was done to the Young Irelander movement and the individuals involved. While the seven incarcerated Young Irelanders were suspicious of Balfe's involvement in their downfall, they kept tight-lipped until a series of events encouraged them to speak out. Thomas Francis Meagher made a dramatic escape after sending a letter revoking his parole and offering a time and place (Lake Sorell) if authorities wanted to arrest him. Out of the mist appeared Balfe. As "Dion'' he wrote scathingly in various newspapers of Meagher's escape being ungentlemanly. Everyone knew the true identity of "Dion'', so he was at last out in the open.

Back in Ireland The Nation had printed an expose of the secret liaisons of Balfe and Lord Clarendon at Dublin Castle. Those revelations confirmed the suspicions of some and also freed from suspicion certain Young Irelander colleagues whose names had been leaked by the British to cover the activities of "The general'' - Balfe. All this was soon transmitted to Van Diemen's Land. Patrick Donoghue, a former Dublin law clerk, had started The Irish Exile newspaper in Hobart. An impetuous and aggressive individual, keen on drink and a fight, he was determined to make Balfe's life hell. In a letter to the Launceston Examiner he wrote, in part: "Dr Hampton, comptroller of Convict Department, beware lest the Macquarie St hulk may be wrecked by the imprudence of your subaltern.''
Governor Denison was less than impressed by this outburst of literary skill from his convict O'Donoghue. He had him arrested and sent to Port Arthur for three months to cool down. On his release, O'Donoghue escaped to America.

Young Irelander John Mitchel brought his family out from Ireland and settled at Nant Cottage, Bothwell. The family followed after his dramatic escape to America, where three of his sons later featured in the Civil War: eldest son John fired the first effective shot of the war and was killed at Fort Sumter, where he was commanding officer; another, William, was killed and the third, James, was wounded. Mitchel never forgot his old colleague Balfe. In a letter sent from Washington to Mrs Jane Williams, of Ratho, Bothwell on May 1, 1859 he wrote: "Balfe! - and is it possible that this latter monster still affronts the sun? There is certainly something in the air of VDL favourable to rascality.''

The enigma called John DonnellanBalfe continued on his way, acting as the public mouthpiece of Governor Denison in endeavouring to provide cheap labour for the gentry by the continuation of transportation. In 1852 he had been convicted and fined 200 Pounds for assaulting T.G. Gregson, who had a brief term as premier in 1857. Later, he incurred the wrath of a police magistrate at Franklin who petitioned the governor overBalfe's right to be a justice of the peace. He was accused of drunkenness and perjury, survived a couple of periods of bankruptcy, and continually clashed with the authorities. On the other side of the ledger, he retained a seat in the House of Assembly for 20 years, representing three different electorates. He was never to be a minister but was an active and vocal committee man - sometimes too vocal. House of Assembly votes and proceedings of October 19, 1877 record: "Mr Balfe having appeared in his place, Mr Speaker called on him to withdraw the disorderly words used by him last night and apologise for having used them within the precincts of the House. Mr Balfe apologises.''

Balfe died at his Battery Point home on December 13, 1880 and was buried at the Cornelian Bay cemetery.
Any doubt about his association with the British Government during the 1840s agitation in Ireland is eliminated when it is revealed that upon his arrival in Van Diemen's Land in 1850 he had two letters of introduction - one from Earl Grey, Secretary for War and Colonies (1846-52) and the other from Earl Clarendon, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland (1847-52) and British Foreign Minister. Charles Gavan Duffy, who had introduced Balfe to the Young Irelander movement, was not transported but spent various periods in jail in Ireland. He became a member of the Westminster Parliament, migrated to Australia, became premier of Victoria and ultimately accepted a knighthood for services to the Crown. Thomas Francis Meagher became a general in the Union army in the Civil War and died mysteriously while acting Governor of Montana, aged 44, a suspected victim of vigilantes.

From The Mercury, November 26, 2005