Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

History Revisited - building a New England media empire

MIGHTIER THAN THE SWORD: in his Extra column this week, Jim Belshaw explores the background and achievements of journalist Ernest Christian Sommerlad
In 1950, all the Northern media (press, radio and then television) was locally or regionally controlled. By 2000 all this had been swept with local media becoming part of external media empires.

One result of these changes is the disappearance in large part of the press figures that once formed such a distinctive part of Northern life. Ernest Christian Sommerlad was one such.

Earnest by nature, constantly active and a devout Christian in belief, E C Sommerlad was part journalist, part community activist and publicist, part politician, part writer, part business man whose influence endures to today.

Sommerlad was born on 30 January 1886 at Tenterfield, the youngest of twelve children. His parents, John and Louisa, had emigrated to Australia from Germany, forming part of the several waves of German immigrants that settled in the Clarence and at various localities on the Tablelands.

At eleven, Sommerlad left school to help on the family farm. Restless, he enrolled at Newington College in Sydney at the age of 21 (his classmates were all 14), passing the junior public examination in 1908. After theological training, Sommerlad left for Fiji as a missionary, but returned after six months because of a throat infection that made preaching difficult.

He remained active within the Methodist Church, this involvement providing one of the continuing threads of his life.

In February 1912, Sommerlad joined the Inverell Times as a reporter, moving three months later to the rival Inverell Argus where he quickly rose to editor. It was during this Inverell period that Sommerlad met a young sharefarmer called David Drummond. Also a devout Methodist and equally earnest, Drummond and Sommerlad formed a close friendship that spread across Sommerlad’s varied interests.

In May 1918, Sommerlad purchased the Glen Innes Examiner, laying the base that would later become Northern Newspapers, a key part of the Sommerlad publishing dynasty.  

Here three threads in Sommerlad’s life come into play.

The first was journalism and writing, interests he retained until the end of his life when in 1950, two years before his death, he published Mightier than the Sword, the first handbook on Australian journalism.

The second thread was his role as a publisher and business man. This was reflected in the growth of his own newspapers, in the role he played in local newspaper consolidation during the 1920s and then in the evolution of the country press and its association. As first general manager, then Managing Director and then Chairman of Country Press Ltd, he built the organisation into a major business.

The third thread was Sommerlad’s involvement in politics and community development.

He became actively involved in the new political movements emerging in the North after the First World War including the Country Party and the New State Movement. Totally committed to the North and Northern development, he used his paper as his pulpit to promote local and regional causes.

E C Sommerlad died in 1952. He left a considerable legacy.
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 16 December 2015. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014, here for 2015.
This is the last column for 2015. The next column will appear in the paper on 13 January 2016, on this blog on 20 January. 

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