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Blair, David (1820–1899)

by Jill Roe

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

David Blair (1820-1899), journalist, was born on 4 June 1820 in County Monaghan, Ireland, son of Thomas Blair, soldier, and his wife Jane, née Burns, both of Scottish descent. After elementary education he became a 'juvenile teacher' and then went to the Hibernian Military School, Dublin, where he was a model pupil, gifted in composition. He left in 1835, worked in an uncle's business but found it distasteful and in 1840 joined the Ordnance Survey of Ireland as a calculator stationed in Limerick and then Cork. In 1841 he transferred to Southampton where for almost nine years he worked on the triangulation of England and the survey of London. Intelligent, zealous and ambitious, he remained unsatisfied in his work, even speculating in 1848 on a military career, and found expression in supporting the Chartists as a lecturer in Southampton, in reading and in church activities. Deeply interested in intellectual movements he professed social reformist ideas within a Presbyterian piety which provided him at 30 with the missing direction. Attracted by an advertisement in the British Banner, he joined John Dunmore Lang's contingent of trainee clergymen for New South Wales and arrived in the Clifton at Sydney in March 1850.

He was ordained in October and appointed to the Bathurst Street Church. Influenced by Lang's republican views and democratic activism, Blair clashed with him and by November 1851 was at the Turon goldfield, lecturing, preaching, writing and even prospecting. The life was rough and unrewarding and he soon returned to Sydney, joining (Sir) Henry Parkes on the Empire. By January 1852 he was in Victoria, eagle-eyed for advancement. He soon achieved prominence as secretary of the Anti-Transportation League. He was also the Sydney Morning Herald's correspondent and sub-editor on the Argus until 1854 when, dissatisfied with his wage and angered by the conservatism of the Argus during Eureka, he tried unsuccessfully to start a more radical paper. Not surprisingly, he joined Thomas Bright, an ex-Empire man, on the raw, outspokenly egalitarian Age. Involved in political problems similar to those he had pondered as a Chartist, he continuously advocated such principles as fully representative responsible government, totally free selection and the complete separation of church and state especially in education, while attacking inequality, the squattocracy and corrupt politicians. As a supporter of the diggers he also attacked illegal and unjust actions of government at public meetings as well as in print, and so became associated with the radical Land Reform League of 1855. He entered politics himself in 1856.

Periodic employments characterized Blair's career, but his first years in Melbourne were stabilizing. In 1852 he had married Annie Macpherson, sister of James Grant, later minister of lands, and settled to a career as journalist, politician, controversialist and littérateur. With a slashing style, relentless principles and prodigious knowledge he contributed more than the ten thousand leaders attributed to him and the innumerable speeches, lectures, articles, dramatic criticism and letters-to-the-editor on such subjects as surveying, spiritualism, drinking, democracy, Shakespeare or immortality. His articulate involvement in his intellectual milieu, local and British, established him as a man of quality. The Victorian Review could depend on Blair for an abstruse article, the Beefsteak Club for a speech, the Shakespeare Society for a debate, at a time when such men were not abundant. Privately Blair saw himself not only as an intellectual but as a Christian. The man who in 1860 claimed to know the lost secret of Christianity and followed scientific developments remained assured of literal New Testament truth and his own immortality. He had attacked the earlier 'mental hanky-panky' of spiritualism, phrenology and free-thought and was in 1893 debating with theosophists in the Bacchus Marsh Express. His confidence sustained him throughout his multifarious activities.

As a politician Blair achieved little, though as member for Talbot in 1856-59 and Crowlands in 1868-71 he served his constituents' concerns with roads, water and leases; as a parliamentarian his fidelity to constitutional forms made him unpopular. In the 1860s and 1870s he served on the technological commission and was secretary to the commissions on religious education, penal discipline and friendly societies. His public career culminated in the publication of three historical works: in 1876 the fulsome introduction to Henry Parkes, Speeches on Various Occasions Connected With the Public Affairs of New South Wales 1848-1874; in 1878 the pioneering work, The History of Australasia; and in 1881 the grandiose Cyclopedia of Australasia, confidently presented as the essential reference book. He intended to further patriotism and to make a permanent contribution to the civilization of the south, but his work was marred by unashamed plagiarism, inaccuracy and subjective assessments. He died on 19 February 1899 at his home, Oyama, Armadale, and was buried in the Melbourne general cemetery. He was survived by two sons and four daughters.

Too dogmatic as a scholar, too unimaginative as a literary man and too principled as a politician, Blair's contribution came from his role as a man of letters and his talent for journalism. Lack of humility and sympathy led to an unpopularity entirely unrelated to the high standards by which he lived and wrote.

Select Bibliography

  • A. D. Gilchrist (ed), John Dunmore Lang, vol 1 (Melb, 1951)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Victoria), 1856-59, 1868-71
  • Melbourne Review, 2 (1877), 3 (1879)
  • Victorian Review, 1 (1879)
  • Centennial Magazine, 1 (1888), 2 (1889)
  • Age (Melbourne), 7 Dec 1854, 9 Apr 1856, 20 Feb 1899
  • Argus (Melbourne), 26 Dec 1885
  • Table Talk, 23 Aug 1899
  • David Blair papers (National Library of Australia)
  • David Blair letters (State Library of Victoria)
  • Henry Parkes letters (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Jill Roe, 'Blair, David (1820–1899)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://labouraustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/blair-david-3011/text4407, accessed 23 November 2017.

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