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Biography of Henry Lawson

Henry Lawson was born in a tent on the Grenfell Gold field on a stormy night of the 16th – 17th June, 1867 to Peter Larsen (A Norwegian sailor who jumped ship to dig for Gold) and Louisa Albury (the granddaughter of John and Anne Albury who with their four sons became bounty emigrants in 1838 from England to New South Wales). A few days later Louisa registered his birth at Forbes as Henry Lawson.

Lawson grew up at Pipeclay, where his father took up a selection of land to farm. Henry attended a school from the age of eight (1875) with irregular attendance due to the need to help on the farm.  A severe infection caused his deafness that proved a torment to him. Henry Lawson was greatly influenced by a teacher by the name of John Tierney, but his schooling ended after four years because he was needed as “his father’s mate”.  After a few unsuccessful years building and farming, father and son went to Lithgow in the Blue Mountains to work on the railway lines.

Later he joined his mother Louisa in Sydney and became an apprentice coach painter taking the train each morning from Redfern station to Granville.  Though poverty stricken, Henry saw the need for a better education and began night school in English and History.  He was described as shy and withdrawn, likely due to his deafness.

After a year in Melbourne, Lawson returned to Sydney living on a subsistent wage which caused him to identify with people who were deprived and he began to write dissident poetry, “A Song of the Republic” and later  protest song, “Faces in the Street” published in The Bulletin.  His first short story was “His Father’s Mate” recounting his time working with his father.

During the 1990s, The Bulletin’s editor, J. F. Archibald, nurtured a debate about the “true” nature of Australia in the pages of The Bulletin. The two main antagonists were • Banjo Paterson, arguing for the beauty of rural Australia, and Lawson, who had a darker, more realistic view of rural hardship.

Eager to give the argument some real-life clout, Archibald gave Lawson a rail ticket to Bourke and a note. It was a chance for the writer to see the real outback close up.  The story “In a Dry Season” was written based on the trip to Bourke and Hungerford.

Lawson accepted the challenge. He lived in Bourke for a while in a corrugated iron shed over the road from the Carrier’s Arms (which, in subsequent fiction, he would call the Shearer’s Arms) and took a variety of odd jobs in the area. He walked more than 200 kilometres from Bourke to Hungerford experienced the full horror of the “great grey plain” in drought and eventually returned to the city to write “While The Billy Boils”.

In this, he continued his assault on Paterson while creating a new style of writing: dryly laconic, intensely Australian, passionately egalitarian and socialist and deeply humane.

The dead-straight dirt road between Hungerford and Bourke still exists and, even in spring and autumn, you’ll feel the heat.  One person declared it was so hot in Burke that when  locals died and went to hell they sent back for — extra blankets. Your shoes will be covered in a fine layer of red bulldust, you’ll start to flag and always, on the horizon, there will be that blue oceanic mirage that has driven travellers mad.

When Lawson walked this road in 1892 — possibly the most important trek in Australian literary history — he would have experienced all this and more. He took three weeks to make the journey from Bourke to Hungerford. Lawson never got over this tortuous journey and it coloured his whole view of the outback.

Quickly returning to a Sydney lacking in work, Lawson sailed to New Zealand where he picked up some odd jobs for a year before returning to New South Wales and a job writing for The Worker

In 1894 his mother published his first book, Short Stories in Prose and Verse, which included “The Drover’s Wife”.  Two years later Lawson married Bertha Bredt, a Victorian girl living in Sydney.  Together they travelled to Western Australia for a year.  This was followed by extended stays in New Zealand, teaching school, back to Sydney and then finally England for two years.  England welcomed him as a noted colonial writer and he completed his longest works there, the Joe Wilson stories. He also re-published The Drover's Wife.

During the time in London, Bertha was admitted to Bethlam Royal Hospital as a mental patient. She and the children returned to Australia and Henry came back later.  The couple separated soon after, with Bertha claiming violent behaviour. Lawson's life spiraled out of control.

With his marriage ruined he drifted from job to job until 1920 when his health began to deteriorate and he drank too much as alcohol as compensation for his tormented condition,  “Beer makes a man feel like he ought to feel without beer.”

His later years were spent living in a boarding house with time spent in gaol for failure to pay alimony and drunkenness.  Lawson died in September 22, 1922, a broken man.

1Bruce Elder, Lawson’s long Walk,  SMH.  Traveller,  May 9 – 10, 2009.

Frank Moorhouse writes:   (The Australian review - Oct. 28-29, 2017)

 Lawson scholar Paul Eggert, in Biography of a Book: Henry Lawson’s While the Billy Boils (2013), recounts Lawson’s death, at the age of 55, and funeral:

He died in poverty on the morning of 2 September 1922, a Saturday. Well known around the streets of inner Sydney as a ruin of a man, a sad alcoholic, he was nevertheless accorded a state funeral on Monday the 4th. George Robertson and then Phillip Harris, editor of the Aussie, approached the state government on the Saturday for a New South Wales state funeral. The requests were turned down; but the chance arrival of the Prime Minister of the Commonwealth of Australia, Billy Hughes, by train on the Sunday morning changed everything … A deputation organised by Harris and Mary Gilmore put the case for a state funeral to him. He ordered the funeral for the next day at St Andrew’s Cathedral in Sydney. The newspapers on the Monday were able to report his tribute: “[Lawson] knew intimately the real Australia, and was its greatest minstrel. He sang of its wide spaces, its dense bush, its droughts, its floods. He loved Australia … None was his master. He was the poet of Australia, the minstrel of the people.”

During his short lifetime, Lawson published 23 collections of stories and verse.


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