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Editor with a literary love for life

BILL HORNADGE, 1918-2013

Offbeat and cheery: Bill Hornadge, the founder of Seven Seas Stamps, holding one of his books. Photo: Fairfax Archive

Bill Hornadge was by any measure an extraordinary man. He intended to be a journalist from an early age but is probably best known as the founder of Seven Seas Stamps, the company that advertised in every comic book in the country and sent millions and millions of stamps around Australia.

Hornadge started the first half of his working life with a temporary job at the iconic and irreverent Smith’s Weekly when he was 16, and the following year had his first copy published in the Australian Women’s Weekly of March 10 1934, a ”clever verse” titled Whistling Wind for which he was awarded five shillings.

Hornadge quickly realised he would never land a job on a major newspaper without shorthand, so he spent six months at technical college gaining the requisite speed and accuracy.

Simultaneously he began selling stamps from the family home at Catherine Hill Bay and shortly after his 18th birthday, launched a bi-monthly The Australian Stamp Collector, with his mother, Lily, as its subeditor. He charged three pence a copy and continued its publication until 1939.

Despite his youth, Hornadge clearly understood the value of cross promotion and used his fledgling magazine to establish the South Seas Stamp Club, along with a wholesale stamp magazine, a wholesale approvals business and a small printing entity.

However, the lure of newspapers was stronger than his love of philately and in 1942 he joined the Northern Star at Lismore as a junior journalist. In Lismore, he met Jean Dunning and they married the following year.

Hornadge rose through the ranks at the Star but was restless and wanted a newspaper of his own. He established the North Coast Review at Murwillumbah with his father, Thomas, but when the Review didn’t meet his expectations, joined The Sydney Morning Herald as a subeditor.

Hornadge was 31 when he replied to an advertisement in The Sydney Morning Herald for a position at the Dubbo Liberal that sought ”a relieving man for one month, senior, with country experience preferred”. He was appointed, instead, to the full time position of editor of the (then) tri-weekly.

The Liberal’s new proprietor, Leo Armati, had recently retired from a stellar career in journalism that had included more than seven years as editor of the Sydney Sun and had brought to the Liberal the reputation of a hard taskmaster with a fiery temper.

Armati, then 67, had a burning ambition to reinvigorate the moribund Liberal and quickly embraced Hornadge’s skill and youthful energy to implement sweeping changes to the newspaper. Hornadge had been surprised to learn that he was the only applicant but soon learned that the dearth of applicants for his new position was because most Sydney journalists knew Armati was difficult to work with and a tyrant in the newsroom.

Less than a year later, Hornadge was thrown into managing (and editing) the Liberal after Armati and his wife, Patricia, were seriously injured when their car collided with a train. Hornadge, with Doug Tomsett the production manager, kept the struggling business afloat for more than six months until their irritable proprietor returned. Armati came back to work with expansionary plans uppermost and pressed Hornadge to establish a fourth edition of the Liberal. Years later, Hornadge wrote that ”working for Leo was like sitting on a volcano; you never knew when he was going to explode”.

One Friday afternoon, the two men clashed one last time. Hornadge lost his temper and a furious argument culminated with Hornadge lifting a portable typewriter above his head as if to throw it at Armati who, in turn, had reached for a 15-centimetre long copy spike that he thrust towards Hornadge’s stomach. Hornadge later said that it was a Mexican standoff: ”Neither of us could move, so I put my typewriter down and resigned.”

Hornadge had gained valuable management experience while Armati was away, which gave him confidence to make a prompt and unplanned career change, and immediately turned his energies to creating a philatelic business. He named the new enterprise Seven Seas Stamps. He and Jean worked from a spare bedroom, sorting and packaging stamps for sale.

Seven Seas Stamps grew rapidly and as additional staff was employed the business literally took over the house, forcing Hornadge to move the business to larger premises. In April 1954, he published Volume 1, No.1 edition of Stamp News, replicating his earlier modest endeavour, but this time with great success, often publishing editions of more than 300 pages.

Following a trip to the US in 1957, Hornadge decided to sell stamps ”on approval” and for the next decade took a full-page advertisement in every comic book published in Australia. He believed children would be his main customers, but soon realised adults were also keen collectors. As a direct result, Seven Seas Stamps became the largest mail order operation of its kind in the world and was soon dispatching 5000 customer selections a week.

His fledgling company soared to even greater heights in 1963, when it won a contract with Ampol Petroleum to handle a major national sales promotion based on stamp collecting. Ampol’s initial order to launch its planned three-month campaign was for 2 million packets of stamps. The public response was staggering. The promotion lasted 18 months and at its peak required Seven Seas Stamps to assemble 250,000 packets of stamps a week.In 1971, Hornadge sold Seven Seas Stamps to Sydney businessman Kevin Duffy to concentrate on developing Stamp News and a comprehensive range of stamp catalogues.

Hornadge was the archetypal storyteller. He was a prolific author of mostly self-published gems on the most obscure topics, including The Australian Slanguage (1980) and Cricket in Australia 1804-1884 (2006).

One of Hornadge’s first books, Chidley’s Answer to the Sex Problem (1971) caused a minor furore in Dubbo because its then-controversial subject was not often publicly discussed, let alone documented in such an explicit fashion.

His biography Lennie Lower: He Made a Nation Laugh (1993) told the story of the humorist acclaimed for many years as Australia’s funniest writer.

Hornadge was a keen Rotarian who was awarded the prestigious Paul Harris Fellowship and for many years was leader of the Rotary Youth Exchange program. He formed the Dubbo Philatelic Society, local branch of Rostrum and was a vibrant contributor to U3A, the University of the Third Age, for which he taught popular Australian history classes.

Hornadge was almost always impeccably dressed, often wearing a suit and tie, to match his meticulous writing and presentation – typed and double spaced – a constant reminder of how newspaper copy was written in the ”old days”.

He was a disarmingly cheery, charmingly offbeat personality who lived a long life with joie de vivre.

Bill Hornadge is survived by daughters Kerrie and Lindy, sons-in-law Anthony and Ron, grandchildren Sharni, Kristy, Scott, Alexander, Triona and Joanna and great-grandchildren Sophie and Beau. Jean died in 1990.

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