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Henry Lawson (1867 – 1922)

Henry Lawson was born on 17 June 1867 at Grenfell, New South Wales, the eldest child of Louisa Lawson and her husband Niels Hertzberg (Peter) Larsen, a Norwegian immigrant gold prospector and former sailor. The family moved around, following the gold rushes in the Mudgee district, before taking up at selection at Pipeclay Creek, near Eurunderee, in 1873. In 1876, after lobbying by Louisa Lawson, a public school was established at Eurunderee, which the Lawson children attended. The same year, Henry experienced a sudden illness which resulted in a hearing deficiency, a condition which deteriorated into partial deafness in his teenage years. The loss of his hearing, he later wrote, was an event that ‘was to cloud my whole life, to drive me into myself, and to be, in a great measure responsible for my writing.’ After a few years of frequently interrupted schooling, he went to work with his father, who was by this time working as a building contractor. When his parents separated in 1883, Henry and his siblings went with their mother to Sydney.

In 1884, Lawson was apprenticed as a coach-painter to a railway carriage-works company at Clyde, in the Western suburbs of Sydney, at the same time attending night school to improve his education. It was about this time that Lawson began writing his first poems. From 1887, while supporting himself with odd jobs, Lawson began publishing his verse in the Sydney press, especially the Bulletin and Australian Town and Country Journal. At the same time he worked on the Republican, the radical weekly paper edited and published by his mother. His sympathy for working Australians and strident support of the labour movement, and for an Australian republic, was evident in his early work. In early 1891 he accepted a job on the reporting staff of the Brisbane radical newspaper the Boomerang. Though he was in Brisbane for less than a year, Lawson’s time as a journalist there honed his abilities to produce verse and prose quickly, and he contributed political and topical poems to the Boomerang and to the Worker. By the time he returned to Sydney in late 1891, he had decided to make his living as a writer.

In Sydney Lawson lived with his aunt and at various hostels and doss-houses, writing sporadically, and falling into a hard-drinking lifestyle. His work appeared in Sydney papers such as Truth, the Worker and Louisa Lawson’s new weekly The Dawn, though the most important outlet for his poetry and stories was the Bulletin. In 1892 he was involved in a poetic ‘debate’ with ‘Banjo’ Paterson and others, on the merits of the bush versus city lifestyles, with Lawson satirising Paterson’s utopian view of bush life in his poem ‘The City Bushman.’ In September 1892, the Bulletin sent Lawson on a trip to Bourke, in western New South Wales, to report first-hand on the lives of bushmen and country workers. This was an important journey for Lawson, who was profoundly moved by the harshness of rural life and the resilience of the people who lived in the drought-stricken outback. By the time he returned to Sydney in mid-1893, he had a store of material and memories that he drew on for many years, and which provided the basis for many of his most celebrated stories and poems. In Sydney he renewed his contacts in socialist circles, and developed friendships with fellow writers including E. J. Brady, Roderic Quinn and Mary Gilmore. In November 1893, Lawson departed for New Zealand where he spent six months, writing for the press in Wellington and Pahiatua and later working as a telegraph line repairer in the South Island. He returned to Sydney at the end of July 1894 to take up a staff position on the Daily Worker, only to find the paper had folded shortly before his arrival. Disappointed, he returned to a hard-living bohemian life, carousing in Sydney’s hotels with companions including the poet John Le Gay Brereton.

The end of 1894 saw the publication of Lawson’s first collection, Short Stories in Prose and Verse, printed by Louisa Lawson on the Dawn’s press. The following year, he contracted with the Sydney bookselling firm of Angus and Robertson—who were in the process of publishing ‘Banjo’ Paterson’s collection The Man From Snowy River—to publish a volume of his verse. Lawson’s In the Days When the World Was Wide and Other Verses was published in February 1896, and was followed later that year by a prose collection, While the Billy Boils and Other Stories. Both books enjoyed a significant measure of critical and commercial success, but although Paterson had helped him negotiate generous terms with Angus and Robertson, Lawson, desperate for money, sold his copyrights in both books to the publishers and thus received only a limited share in their profits. This was a pattern repeated with later publications, and though the publisher George Robertson generally dealt generously with him—advancing him money over and above the terms they agreed—Lawson’s feelings of frustration and resentment at not being able to make an adequate living as a writer began to grow.

In April 1896, flushed with his initial publishing success, Lawson impulsively married Bertha Bredt, the daughter of socialist bookseller and boarding-house proprietor Matilda McNamara. The couple briefly moved to Perth in the hope of joining the gold rushes, but after camping in miserable conditions for a few months they returned to Sydney. With marriage the financial pressures on Lawson increased, but he continued his heavy drinking, and squabbles over his profligacy soon developed between Lawson and Bertha. Lawson interested Angus and Robertson in a mooted novel, but was not able to complete it, instead earning a meagre income selling his stories and poems to the Bulletin. In an effort to separate her husband from his drinking companions, Bertha saved money to take the couple to New Zealand in March 1897. Lawson secured employment as a teacher at a small Maori school at Mangamaunu, on the South Island, but quickly tired of the lonely life there and placed his hope once again in a literary career. Back in Sydney in 1898, he found employment as a clerk in the public service, while preparing to publish further collections of his verse and prose with Angus and Robertson. His bohemian excesses also resumed, notably with Victor Daley and the ‘Dawn and Dusk Club’. At the end of the year he spent a month at an alcoholic’s rehabilitation centre, leaving with an intention to live teetotal. The following year was a productive period for Lawson, leading to the publication of his second poetry collection, Verses Popular and Humorous, in 1900.

In April 1900, Lawson fulfilled a long-held wish by departing, with Bertha and their two young children, for England; their passage had been subsidised by contributions from the governor of New South Wales, Earl Beauchamp, and the wealthy bibliophile David Scott Mitchell. Lawson hoped for the kind of literary success in England which he felt the small size of the Australian market had denied him. His career in London began promisingly after he contracted with the prominent literary agent J. B. Pinker, though whom Lawson’s writing—including his famous ‘Joe Wilson’ stories—were placed in influential periodicals like Blackwood’s Magazine. However, Lawson soon returned to drinking in London, and Bertha suffered a mental breakdown and was hospitalised in an asylum for several months. Desperate for money once again, Lawson’s own health deteriorated, the quality of his work suffered, and the family returned to Sydney in 1902. His failure in London was a setback from which Lawson never fully recovered. He attempted suicide in late 1902, and the following year Bertha obtained a judicial separation from their marriage, citing her husband’s habitual drunkenness and alleging physical abuse.

Lawson continued to write and published a number of further collections of poetry and of prose, but critics have generally agreed that after his return to Australia his writing never regained its previous vitality and creative spark. The last twenty years of his life were a sad decline into alcoholism and abject poverty. He had long periods of homelessness, became a beggar on Sydney’s streets, was frequently gaoled for non-payment of child support, and spent time in asylums and hospitals for mental illness. The generosity of publishers like George Robertson and J. F. Archibald (of the Bulletin), and of numerous friends, sustained Lawson at times, but his health and state of mind continued to decline, and he died of a cerebral haemorrhage on 2 September 1922. He was buried, with a State Funeral, two days later. An iconic figure among Australian writers, Lawson’s poetry has received substantially less critical attention than his short stories. Yet his importance within the ‘Bush Ballad’ school of poetry, so popular in the 1890s and early twentieth century, is clear. His verse never attained any particular sophistication in its structure or expression, but at its best it shares the perceptiveness and clarity of his fiction, and may be placed in the same realist tradition.

Poetry Collections
  • Short Stories in Prose and Verse (Sydney: Louisa Lawson, [1894]).
  • In the Days When the World Was Wide and other verses (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1896).
  • Verses, Popular and Humorous (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1900).
  • When I Was King and Other Verses (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1905).
  • The Skyline Riders and Other Verses (Sydney: Fergusson, 1910).
  • For Australia and Other Poems (Melbourne: Standard Publishing, 1913).
  • My Army, O, My Army! And Other Songs (Sydney: Tyrrell’s, 1915).
  • Song of the Dardanelles and Other Verses (London: Harrap, 1916).
  • Selected Poems of Henry Lawson (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1918).
  • Joseph’s Dreams (Adelaide: Hassell Press, 1923).
  • The Auld Shop and the New (Adelaide: Hassell Press, 1923).
  • Winnowed Verse (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1924).
  • Humorous Verses (Sydney: Cornstalk Publishing, 1924).
  • Poetical Works of Henry Lawson (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1925).
Suggested Further Reading
  • John Barnes, ‘Henry Lawson and the “Pinker of Literary Agents” ,’ Australian Literary Studies 23.2 (2007): pp. 89–105.
  • Horgan, Mark and Michael Sharkey, ‘Vision Splendid or Sandy Blight? The Paterson-Lawson Debate’, in Ken Stewart, ed., The 1890s: Australian Literature and Literary Culture (St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 1996), pp. 66-94.
  • Alex I. Jones, ‘Sound Symbolism in Henry Lawson’s Poetry,’ in Margaret Harris and Elizabeth Webby, eds., Reconnoitres: Essays in Australian Literature in Honour of G. A. Wilkes (South Melbourne, Vic: Sydney University Press in assoc. with Oxford University Press, 1992), pp. 54–60.
  • Christopher Lee, ‘Henry Lawson (1867–1922),’ in Selina Samuels, ed., Australian Literature 1788–1914 (Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 2001), pp. 217–33.
  • Christopher Lee, ‘An Uncultured Rhymer and his Cultural Critics: Henry Lawson, Class Politics and Colonial Literature,’ Victorian Poetry 40.1 (2002): pp. 87–104.
  • Brian Matthews, ‘Lawson, Henry (1867–1922),’ Australian Dictionary of Biography.
  • Colin Roderick, Henry Lawson: A Life (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1992).
  • Meg Tasker and Lucy Sussex, ‘ “That Wild Run to London”: Henry and Bertha Lawson in England,’ Australian Literary Studies 23.2 (2007): pp. 168–86.