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David Rowbotham (1924 – 2010)




David Rowbotham was born in Toowoomba, in the Darling Downs region of Queensland, on 27 August 1924. His father Harold was a shoemaker and his mother Phyllis a musician; both were from pioneering Darling Downs families. He spent some of his childhood in Brisbane, where his father practised his trade at Breakfast Creek, before the family moved back to Toowoomba. Rowbotham attended Toowoomba East State School before winning a scholarship to Toowoomba Grammar School; he subsequently earned a scholarship to the Teacher’s Training College in Brisbane. In 1941, aged just sixteen, he became a probationary teacher at Oakley, in the Darling Downs.

In 1942, Rowbotham joined the Royal Australian Air Force, and served as a wireless operator in the South-West Pacific until 1945. His interest in writing developed through the war years—he kept a poetry notebook and took a journalism course by correspondence—and the experience of war, along with that of growing up during the Great Depression, provided a fruitful thematic source for his later poetry. After the war, Rowbotham returned to study, first at the University of Queensland, and then the University of Sydney. At this time he also began publishing his poems in Australian journals including the Bulletin and Southerly, and his work appeared in several anthologies. He worked as a publisher’s assistant at Angus and Robertson, and as a freelance journalist in Sydney, and later London. In London in 1951, he met Ethel Matthews, a New Zealand-born nurse, and the two married before returning to Australia. Rowbotham continued his career as a journalist in Queensland, first as a staff columnist for the Toowoomba Chronicle, before joining the staff of the Courier-Mail in Brisbane in 1955, where he was the paper’s longstanding reviewer of books and theatre. His long association with the Courier-Mail was interrupted for some years in the 1960s, when he took up a teaching position at the University of Queensland, but he returned to the Courier-Mail as the paper’s inaugural arts editor (from 1969) and later literary editor (from 1980). He remained in this position until sudden illness forced him to resign in 1987.

While working as a journalist, teacher, and editor, Rowbotham also pursued a distinguished career as a poet. His first collection, Ploughman and Poet, appeared in 1954, and he would go on to publish fourteen further collections in his lifetime, including four acclaimed volumes written in his eighties: The Cave in the Sky (2005), The Brown Island and Other Poems (2005), The Star of Engelmeer (2006) and Rogue Moons (2007). A lyric poet in the tradition of other post-war Australian poets like David Campbell and Judith Wright, his contribution to Australian literature was recognised by a number of awards, including the Australia Council’s Writers’ Emeritus Award (1989), the Order of Australia (AM) in 1991, and the Patrick White Award in 2007. He was also active in the wider promotion of Australian literature, helping to found major literary festivals and associations including the Waruna Festival (later the Brisbane Writers’ Festival), the Adelaide Festival, and the Australian Society of Authors. David Rowbotham died in Brisbane on 6 October 2010.  

Poetry Collections

Ploughman and Poet (Sydney: Lyre Bird Writers, 1954).

Inland: poems (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1958).

All the Room (Brisbane: Jacaranda Press, 1964).

Bungalow and Hurricane: new poems (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1967).

The Makers of the Ark: poems (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1970).

The Pen of Feathers: poems (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1971).

Selected Poems (St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 1975).

Maydays: poems (St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 1980).

New and Selected Poems 1945–1993 (Ringwood, Vic: Penguin, 1994).

The Ebony Gates: new and wayside poems (Rockhampton, Qld: Central Queensland University Press, 1996).

Poems for America (Carindale, Qld: Interactive Press, 2002).

The Cave in the Sky: poems at eighty (Warners Bay, NSW: Picaro Press, 2005).

The Brown Island: and other poems (Warners Bay, NSW: Picaro Press, 2005).

The Star of Engelmeer (Warners Bay, NSW: Picaro Press, 2006).

Rogue Moons (Warners Bay, NSW: Picaro Press, 2007).

Suggested Further Reading

Nicholas Birns, ‘To Invest with Surprise: A Visit with David Rowbotham,’ Antipodes 16.2 (2002), pp. 177–81.

Hazel de Berg, ‘David Rowbotham Interviewed by Hazel de Berg.’ (Canberra: National Library of Australia, 1976). Sound tape reel. 

Noni Durack, ‘No One Anywhere Wise Enough,’ Australian Book Review no. 159 (1994), pp. 39–40.

John Lloyd, ‘David Rowbotham: The Lyric Gift,’ Makar no.8 (1961), pp. 3–6

David Rowbotham, ‘Three Talks: David Malouf, Les Murray and David Rowbotham: David Rowbotham,’ Australian Literary Studies 11.3 (1984), pp. 324–27.

‘David Rowbotham: A Chronicle,’ Internet, http://www.qct.com.au/rowbotham

Coral A. Readdy, ‘The Poetry of David Rowbotham: Notes on a Change of Emphasis in His Work,’ Makar no. 17 (1963), pp. 18–22.

John Strugnell, Focus on David Rowbotham. Artists in Queensland (St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 1969).