Great Australian Writer & Poet
Henry Hertzberg Lawson was born on 17 June, 1867 on the goldfields at Grenfell, New South Wales. His father was originally a Norwegian sailor whose name was Neils Larsen. He changed his name to Peter Lawson and became a gold miner. His mother, Louisa (nee Albury) was a very independent lady and she had a great influence on Henry’s life. Peter and Louisa had four other children besides Henry – Charles, Peter, Getrude and Henrietta (who died from an illness, in 1879). Henry went to school at Eurunderee and Mudgee but during the few years he was there, he was often picked on by the other children. At the age of nine, he developed an ear infection and became partially deaf. By the time he was fourteen, he was totally deaf. He had a very difficult childhood as the family were very poor. After leaving school early, Lawson helped his father on building projects. His first employment came as an apprentice railway coach painter in 1887. He often worried about being late for work because his deafness meant he could not hear the alarm.
His parents separated in 1883 and Lawson moved to Sydney with his mother. In 1887, Louisa bought a newspaper called the Republican and it was here that Lawson’s first writing was published. That same year, the Bulletin published Lawson’s first poem and in 1888, it published his first short story, “His Father’s Mate”. On New Year’s Eve, 1888, Lawson’s father died. In 1890, Lawson travelled to Albany, WA where he wrote for the Albany Observer but returned in September, 1890 and travelled to Brisbane where he accepted a position on the Brisbane newspaper, the Boomerang, in 1891.
Between 1888 and 1892, Lawson published many of his most famous poems like “Andy’s Gone with Cattle”, “The Roaring Days” and ‘The Drover’s Wife”. In 1892, Lawson walked from Bourke to Hungerford and back and it was during this time that he came to be very conscious of the hardships of bush life. Also in 1892, Lawson met up with Banjo Patterson, another famous Australian writer, to debate their views of life in the bush.
Lawson also worked as a shearer and lived with the other workers. He travelled to New Zealand for seven months where he worked as a shearer. Offered a position with the Worker, Lawson returned to Sydney. When the Worker reverted to a weekly newspaper, he became first a provincial editor and then a contributor. In 1894 his first collection was published and Lawson met Bertha Bredt who became his wife in 1896. Bertha Bredt was the step daughter of Sydney bookseller and radical, W.H. McNamara as well as the sister-in-law of the politician Jack Lang. Lawson and Bertha had two children, their son Jim, was born 10 February, 1898 and baby Bertha in 1899. They travelled again to New Zealand where both Lawson and Bertha worked as school teachers at a Maori school at Mangamaunu near Kaikoura, in the South Island.
Lawson, always a heavy drinker, had struggled with alcoholism since 1888 but was not troubled by it during his stay in New Zealand despite the solitude. After his return from New Zealand in 1898 however, his alcoholism recurred. Lawson published two more prose collections but was becoming more disenchanted with Australia and in 1900, the family travelled to England, helped financially by Earl Beauchamp, the governor of NSW, David Scott Mitchell and the publisher, George Robertson. They rented a house at Harpeden, 40 km north of London. Lawson continued to write some of his best work in England but by 1902 decided to return to Australia because of financial problems and illness.
After his return from England on 21 May, 1902, Lawson and his wife separated and Lawson became increasingly unstable. Bertha and the two children moved into Bertha’s mother’s place when he failed to pay the maintenance to her and Bertha issued a summons for him because she was afraid of Lawson’s behaviour. On 31 December, the magistrate ordered Henry to pay Bertha 2 pounds weekly. His mother Louisa also suffered mental problems after her publication “Dawn”, a woman’s magazine with a strong suffragette bias, finally closed in 1905. She died in the Gladesville Hospital for the Insane on 12 August, 1920.
Between 1905 and 1910, Lawson was regularly in prison for non-payment of maintenance and inebriation. He was also in mental and rehabilitation sanatoriums and gradually progressed into a pathetic, dissolute, alcoholic wandering the Sydney streets, begging for money for alcohol. He even tried to commit suicide by jumping off a cliff but survived despite serious injuries. His friends, J. Le Gay Brereton, E.J. Brady and George Robertson, came to his rescue and helped him financially
Mrs Isabel Byers, who was twenty years older than Lawson, befriended him and constantly provided shelter and food for him from 1904. In 1916, his friends found him a position at Leeton, providing data for the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area. Lawson continued to produce his works during the First World War and was well received. On 14 July, 1921, Lawson had a stroke but continued to write about his travels to London. Between 1920 and 1922, the government provided a pension for Lawson. On September 2, 1922, at age 55, Lawson finally died peacefully in his sleep while still writing and was given a state funeral on 4 September, the first writer to be given one. Henry Lawson remains one of Australia’s most famous writers and his portrait was on our ten dollar note.
During his life, Lawson lived and wrote in widely different environments and had known life as a bush worker, house painter, telegraph linesman, journalist and rouseabout. Much of what he saw and experienced went into his short stories but his deepest feelings are revealed in his verse. Even in his earliest life, he was haunted by the impermanence of life and his poetry in his day was often criticised as being too melancholy. Lawson did not shrink from reminding people that they must face and endure their lives, although Lawson himself never lost hope.
Said Grenfell to my Spirit
by Henry Lawson
Said Grenfell to my spirit, “You’ve been writing very free
Of the charms of other places, and you don’t remember me.
You have claimed another native place and think it’s Nature’s law,
Since you never paid a visit to a town you never saw:
So you sing of Mudgee Mountains, willowed stream and grassy flat:
But I put a charm upon you and you won’t get over that.”
O said Grenfell to my spirit, ” Though you write of breezy peaks,
Golden Gullies, wattle sidings, and the pools in she-oak creeks,
Of the place your kin were born in and the childhood that you knew,
And your father’s distant Norway (though it has some claim on you),
Though you sing of dear old Mudgee and the home on Pipeclay Flat,
You were born on Grenfell goldfield – and you can’t get over that .”