John Norton (Australian journalist)

John Norton January 25, 1858 - April 9, 1916), was an English-born Australian journalist, editor and member of the New South Wales Parliament. He was a writer and newspaper editor best known for his Sydney newspaper "the Truth". He was also an incorrigible alcoholic, said by one of his chauffeurs to have consumed in one of his binges about a dozen bottles of brandy and "Chartreuse wine" every two days.


Norton claimed to have been born in Brighton, Sussex, England (but may have been born in London, only son of John Norton, stonemason, who died before he was born, according to a document "purporting to be his birth-certificate". His mother remarried Benjamin Herring, a silk-weaver, who allegedly mistreated his stepson. He apparently spent some time in Paris and learned to speak good French. He claimed to have walked to Constantinople in 1880, where he became a journalist. [cite book
last =Pearl
first =Cyril
title =Wild Men of Sydney
publisher = W.H. Allen
date = 1958
location =London
pages =255
id = ISBN 0207135398

Norton migrated to Australia in 1884 and soon became chief reporter on the "Evening News", which supported free trade. In 1885 he edited the official report of the Third Intercolonial Trades Union Congress. One of its resolutions condemned the New South Wales Governments contribution of 250,000 to assist migration from Europe. Norton was selected to by the Trades and Labor Council of New South Wales to go to Europe in 1886 to tell potential immigrants that Australia was not a workers' paradise. He attended a trade union congress in Hull and spoke in French to one in Paris. [Pearl, pp29-31]

On his return, Norton became editor of the Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners Advocate, but was sacked for drunkenness after a few months. Within a few weeks of its establishment in August 1890, he then joined "the Truth", which favoured exposé articles. He soon became its editor and in April 1891 he altered its masthead to claim proprieorship, [Pearl, p47] but was sacked as editor for repeated drunkedness. He acquired "the Truth" in 1896 and it became even more abusive of public figures, leading to increased circulation and legal action including trials for criminal libel and sedition, which he generally managed to beat. He established editions of "the Truth" in Queensland, Victoria (The Truth) and Western Australia by 1903. Norton's staunchly nationalistic paper published many late-19th-Century Australian authors such as Henry Lawson.


Norton is generally considered (though this is disputed) the person who invented the Australian word 'wowser', meaning one whose overdeveloped sense of morality drives them to deprive others of their pleasures; a person regarded as excessively puritanical; a killjoy.

"I invented the word myself," he wrote. "I was the first man publicly to use the word. I first gave it public utterance in the City Council, when I applied it to Alderman Waterhouse, whom I referred to as the white, woolly, weary, watery, word-wasting wowser from Waverley."

Parliamentary career

Norton served for nearly 12 years in in the Legislative Assembly. He was elected as the member for Sydney-Fitzroy at a by-election in June 1898 and served until the July 1898 elections. In September 1898, Richard Meagher horsewhiped Norton in Pitt Street for calling him in "the Truth" "Mendax Meagher" and the "premier perjurer of our public life and the champion criminal of the continent", causing Norton to attempt to shoot Meagher. Both were charged with assault, but Meagher was fined just £5 and Norton was found not guilty. [Pearl, pp130-3]

Norton represented Northumberland, from 1899 to 1901; Surry Hills, from 1904 to 1906; and Darling Harbour from 1907 to 1910. He was elected three times as a Sydney alderman between 1898 and 1906.cite web
title =Mr John Norton (1857 - 1916)
work =Members of Parliament
publisher =Parliament of New South Wales
url =!OpenDocument
accessdate = 2007-02-26
] He also ran unsuccessfully for the Senate in 1901 and 1906.

Marriage, separation and death

In 1897 Norton and Ada McGrath had a son, Ezra Norton, and they married three weeks later. They had a daughter, Joan, in 1907. They were judicially separated in 1915 on the grounds of Norton's drunkenness, cruelty and adultery.cite web
title =Norton, John (1858 - 1916)
publisher =Australian National University
work=Australian Dictionary of Biography
url =
accessdate = 2007-02-26

Starting poor, he died in Melbourne of kidney disease, one of the wealthiest Australians. Huge crowds attended his funeral at Sydney's South Head cemetery. Norton disinherited Ada and Ezra Norton and left the bulk of his estate to Joan. Mrs Norton persuaded the New South Wales Parliament to backdate the new "Testator's Family Maintenance Act" to take effect before Norton's death. Under this legislation, she succeeded in having his will rewritten in 1920 so that she and Ezra Norton each received a third of his inheritance, allowing Ezra Norton to gain control of the "Truth" group. [Pearl, p245]


NAME=Norton, John
ALTERNATIVE NAMES=Norton, John Napoleon
SHORT DESCRIPTION=Australian journalist and politician
DATE OF BIRTH=January 25, 1858
PLACE OF BIRTH=Brighton, Sussex, England
DATE OF DEATH=April 9, 1916
PLACE OF DEATH=Melbourne, Australia

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