Henry Lawson (1867 – 1922)
Henry Lawson (1867 – 1922) was an acclaimed Australian short story writer and poet. He is often referred to as the “greatest Australian writer.” Although this claim cannot be quantified and is disputable, what cannot be argued is that Lawson is the most well-known writer of Australia’s colonial period. His stories and poems are known for their candid revelations of life in the Australian bush. Among Lawson’s most celebrated works are his short story The Drover’s Wife and the poem “Andy’s Gone with Cattle.” He continues to be read in each succeeding generation and is taught in schools worldwide.
Birth and Childhood
Henry Lawson was born in Grenfell, New South Wales on 17 June 1867 to Niels Hertzberg Larsen and Louisa Larsen, née Albury. Henry’s father, Niels, was a Norwegian miner who set sail at 21 years of age to make his fortune. In 1855, exhausted by life on the sea and tempted by rumours of gold, Niels jumped ship while in port at Melbourne. Niels and Louisa met at what is now Eurunderee, New South Wales, but was then a popular goldfield known as Pipeclay. At the age of 32, in 1866, Niels Hertzberg Larsen married 18-year-old Louisa Albury, and Henry was born the following the year. With the birth of Henry, the couple decided to Anglicize their surname to Lawson. In addition, Niels took the Christian name of Peter.
The marriage of Peter and Louisa Lawson was filled with strife, and each year they grew more distant. The family rarely settled in one place for long, as Peter constantly searched for gold. Peter was often absent from the household, and Louisa grew lonely and depressed. Much of the household work fell on the shoulders of young Henry. Although Henry was distraught over the dissolving relations of his parents, he had no choice but to trudge through the family’s hardships. His chores and introverted personality kept him from friendships outside the family, and young Henry suffered ridicule from the other children. In many ways, Henry had never known the joys often associated with modern childhood.
After years of constantly moving, the Lawson’s gave birth to their third child in 1873 and settled more permanently where they had begun in Pipeclay. Even though the family was in strife and Henry was responsible for back-breaking toil on a daily basis, Louisa suffered that he should attend school. In fact, it was the labours of Louisa that led to the public school being built in the district when Henry was eight years old. At the age of nine, Henry was finally allowed to attend the school founded by his mother. However, later that year, Henry suffered from a major illness and ear infection that left him partially deaf.
Over the next four years, Henry would attend school intermittently, giving him a total of three years schooling. His hearing continued to deteriorate until, at 14 years of age, Henry suffered an almost total and incurable deafness. This condition led to a deeper sense of isolation that he would carry for the rest of his life. The school’s teacher, John Tierney, would be a great source of inspiration for Henry, but over the next three years, he would rarely attend classes on a regular basis.
On to Sydney
Henry’s broken schooling came to an end in 1880 when he turned 17 years of age. He instead began to work with his father on construction jobs locally and in the Blue Mountains. This lasted for three years until Louisa could finally take no more of her marriage with Peter. She took the younger children with her to live in Sydney. Later that same year, Henry joined them. Louisa and Peter kept up the pretence that they had separated due to financial hardship and the ability of Louisa to work in the city, but for all intents and purposes, the marriage was over.
Henry soon became apprenticed as a coach painter at Hudson Bros. At the same time, he attended night school in preparation for admittance to university. Later, Lawson would write a story about this period of his life entitled “Arvie Aspinall’s Alarm Clock.” If the story is to be taken at face value, he had found no more happiness in Sydney that he had known in Pipeclay. He was just as exhausted working all day and going to school all night as he had been before. His classmates, again, were unrelenting, and the stress ultimately led him to failing his classes.
Lawson attempted to find higher-paying and more meaningful work after he was unable to pass his examinations. He was turned down by most employers, and he found the work of the ones who took him on too difficult with his deafness. At the age of 20, he travelled to Melbourne on word that a doctor at the Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital may be able to help with his hearing, but he returned after being told, once again, the condition was permanent and nothing could be done.
Beginning to Write
Shortly after his trip to Melbourne, Lawson began to write poetry. His first poems were representative of the influence of his mother and her radical friends. Louisa Lawson’s grandfather was a great storyteller, and she had held an interest in poetry herself since she was young. Henry became a published poet in 1887 with his poem “A Song of the Republic” printed in the October issue of the Bulletin. Several of his other works were published shortly thereafter, including “Golden Guilty” and “The Wreck of the Derry Castle.”
A few years after first being published, Henry’s mother Louisa bought a small local paper called the Republican. This allowed Henry’s poetry to be published virtually without restriction. Under the name of Archie Lawson, Henry and Louisa wrote and edited most of the copy printed in the paper. In 1888, Louisa started a second paper, Dawn, to publicise the fledgling women’s rights movement. Dawn became a commercial success. On the last day of the year, word came that Peter had died. Even though he rarely gave Louisa any support through the years, he left her with over £1100, which she invested in her publishing business.
By 1890, Henry had made a name for himself as a local poet of some note. Some of the poems from this time are considered to be the greatest he would ever write. Celebrated poems from this period include “The Watch on the Kerb” and “Andy’s Gone with Cattle.” The following year, Lawson took a job as a journalist for the Brisbane Boomerang. However, the Boomerang suffered a financial defeat late in 1891, and Lawson had to be released. He returned for a time to Sydney.
Expansion of Experience and Writing
After returning to Sydney, Lawson lost a great deal of direction in both his life and his writing. His poetry jumped from topic-to-topic, some contemporary and some reminiscent. Notwithstanding, one of his greatest works, an early example of his mastery of prose, was written: “The Drover’s Wife.”
In 1892, the Bulletin paid for Lawson to take a journey inland to Burke. Lawson was greatly affected by the drought-ravaged lands. He wrote of the horrors he witnessed over the course of the next several months. When he returned to Sydney, Lawson produced some of his most powerful work, such as “The Bush Undertaker” and “The Union Buries its Dead.” Through the next four years, Lawson’s short stories would be published into widely-read collections.
When Lawson was not writing, he always slipped back into his depression and introverted lifestyle. He began to drink heavily. For a time, he moved to New Zealand and worked as a telegraph linesman to take his mind off writing and to help him stop drinking. He returned to Sydney in 1894 on a promise to work for a new paper, the Daily Worker. When the paper fell under only days after arriving, Lawson immediately fell back into the bottle.
Henry Lawson met Bertha Marie Louise Bredt in 1895 after contracting to publish two new books. The couple had what was described as a brief but intense courtship. Despite warnings of Lawson’s drinking, he and Bertha were married on 15 April 1896. Later that year, Lawson finished the two books: In the Days when the World was Wide and While the Billy Boils, one of the most beloved works in the history of Australian literature.
For a time, the Lawsons travelled to Western Australia seeking gold, but departed with nothing but Henry’s alcohol-fuelled escapades to show for their time, as several writer friends of Henry’s were present. Together, they became known as the Dawn and Dusk Club, or the Duskers, for short. Due to the success of his two new books, Henry Lawson became a recognised author throughout the continent and noted public figure.
Bertha arranged for them to live in New Zealand in an attempt to lead a calm and civil lifestyle. After teaching in a village of Maori for some time, Henry again grew restless. The couple returned to Sydney in late 1897. Bertha became pregnant and Henry had received offers from prominent British publishers, so he settled down for a time. After writing a script for a play that was found too difficult to stage, Henry returned to his previous lifestyle where he achieved a new level of angst, frustration, and drunkenness.
Henry Lawson entered a sanitarium for alcoholics in 1898. Upon being released, he began work on new books under contract from his previous publisher, Angus & Robertson. In hopes of making a new beginning, Henry, Bertha, their son Joseph, and their two-month-old daughter Bertha set sail for London in 1900.
Later, Lawson would look back at his hopes for the trip in London and call the entire endeavour a nightmarish catastrophe. His time in London was not without successes and not without opportunity. Some historians chalk up what happened in London simply as bad luck. When he first arrived, he hired a notable literary agent, and he wrote the four pieces featuring what would become his iconic protagonist Joe Wilson. After that, however, it was all downhill. His work suffered, and Bertha, was admitted to a psychiatric hospital for three months. Lawson was barely able to pay the bills by writing under duress.
The Lawson family returned to Sydney in 1902 but fared little better there. Henry attempted suicide in December of that year. Four months later, Bertha sought and was awarded a legal separation from Henry. Henry lived under strain and in squalor for most of his life afterward. He suffered from having made bad deals for royalties on his previous works. He was unable to pay child supported awarded to Bertha by the court. He was incarcerated at Darlinghurst Gaol for several years for a combination of failure to pay alimony and public drunkenness. Lawson’s time at Darlinghurst was recorded in his poem “One Hundred and Three,” which was his prison number while he was there.
Upon his release, Lawson withdrew completely from life and returned to the bottle. He continued to write but would spend time in and out of mental hospitals. During this time he wrote the books The Skyline Riders, My Army, o my Army, and Triangles of Life.
Around 1908, Henry was taken in by poet Isabella Byers, as he could no longer function on his own. He was frequently seen wandering the streets of Sydney. Everyone knew him from his works, but few would associate with him. He would travel to the homes of other friends on occasion for short periods before returning to the Abbotsford home of Ms. Byers. In 1920, Lawson was granted a £1 per week pension from the Commonwealth Literary Fund, which supported him for the rest of his life.
On 2 September 1922, Henry Lawson died of a cerebral haemorrhage in the home of Ms. Byers. He was honoured with a state funeral, which was attended by both Jack Lang, Premier of New South Wales, and W.M. Hughes, Prime Minister of Australia. He now rests at Waverley Cemetery in Sydney.