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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Sleeman, John Harvey Crothers (1880–1946)

by Bede Nairn

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

John Harvey Crothers Sleeman (1880-1946), journalist, was born on 22 January 1880 at Goldsborough, Victoria, son of John Sleeman, publican, from Cornwall, England, and his wife Mary, née Harvey, of Adelaide. Educated at primary level in State schools, he held various unskilled jobs and went to Western Australia in the gold rushes of the late 1890s. He was an engine driver living at Leonora when he married Sarah Jane Dryden in the Mount Malcolm Registry Office on 14 November 1905.

Self-confident, resourceful and frugal with the truth, Sleeman finally concentrated his diverse experience on journalism, becoming a sub-editor on the Kalgoorlie Sun. He collected improving literature, read randomly and acquired a veneer of learning. In 1917 he served for six months in the Australian Imperial Force, and was possibly the publicity officer of the Western Australian recruiting committee.

In Brisbane by 1921, Sleeman merged into the seamy fringe of politics. His career on the Brisbane Sun in 1921-26 was interrupted in 1922 by nearly three months in prison, plus a £500 fine, for attempting to bribe F. T. Brennan. Sleeman settled in Sydney in 1927 and became managing director of Beckett's Newspapers Ltd which took over the Sunday Times in April. His losing deals with W. J. Beckett in the yellow press world of Sydney included the publication of Beckett's Budget in 1927-30, which combined soft pornography with hard politics.

Sleeman's seasoned skills attracted J. T. Lang, who, on becoming premier in 1930, employed him as a government publicity officer. Working from the Treasury, Sleeman used his homespun economics to help to concoct the Lang Plan in February 1931. His familiarity with the murkier sources of party funds was invaluable in levying the takings from fruit (poker) machines illegally installed in some hotels and clubs.

Thus encouraged, Lang commissioned Sleeman to write his biography. Using the whole gamut of his erudition, Sleeman brought Socrates, Julius Caesar and similar celebrities into the story; he asserted that 'Lang is the greatest product of the Anglo-Saxon world since Lincoln'. He interspersed doubtful items supplied by Lang on his childhood and youth, including some of his long and infertile notes on politics. The book appeared in 1933 and added to the beguiling myth of Lang's popularity. But he repudiated payment of the agreed fee and Sleeman retaliated with Labour in Politics! … How Mr Lang's 'Victories' have Assisted High Finance (1936). His other books included White China (dedicated to Sun Yat-Sen and G. E. Morrison, 1933) and Letters to a Married Woman (1934).

In the 1930s Sleeman remained an optimist, worldly wise, good humoured and friendly. His demeanour complemented his ample build, stately gait with a walking-stick, and durable bowler hat. He struggled to make a living, and was employed intermittently by the Japanese consulate from 1938: payment in 1940 of £64 'for secret information for a 3 month period' showed that his skills had not diminished. But his rewards included brief internment in 1942 after Japan had entered World War II.

Survived by his wife, Sleeman died, childless, on 16 July 1946 at Darlinghurst, Sydney, of nephritis. An agnostic for most of his life, he was buried in the Anglican section of Botany cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • R. B. Walker, Yesterday's News (Syd, 1980)
  • B. Nairn, The ‘Big Fella’, Jack Lang and the Australian Labor Party, 1891-1949 (Melb, 1986)
  • Royal Commision on Greyhound Racing and Fruit Machines, Parliamentary Papers (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales) 1932, 1, p 993
  • Australasian Journalist, Feb, June 1917
  • Brisbane Courier, 30 Sept 1922
  • Sunday Times (Sydney), 24 Apr 1927
  • Smith's Weekly (Sydney), 6 Feb 1932
  • SP 26/5, box 6 (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Bede Nairn, 'Sleeman, John Harvey Crothers (1880–1946)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 26 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

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