Henry Lawson

1867-1922    |    NSW    |    Journalist & author

Henry Lawson became one of Australia’s first literary heroes as a poet and short story writer. Much of his work centres on the Australian bush and is considered among the first accurate descriptions of Australian life as it was at the time. Many of his works, including While the Billy Boils and The Drover’s Dog are Australian classics. The son of journalist and editor Louisa Lawson, he left school at 13 and began publishing poems in The Bulletin and his mother’s Republican newspaper. In an era when poetry and fiction were staples in Australia’s newspapers, Henry Lawson was one of the nation’s great story-tellers.

To federation Australia, Lawson was the new country’s most popular poet, bush balladeer and author. To a land looking for national identity, Lawson wrote a reality that turned into a myth.

Damien Murphy 




‘‘ACCIDENT TO MR. HENRY LAWSON’’ the headline ran in the December 8, 1902, issue of The Sydney Morning Herald. The page 6 story read: ‘‘Shortly after 10 o’clock on Saturday morning a fisherman named Sly, while walking along the cliffs at Manly, noticed a man lying near the water’s edge.

‘‘Sly climbed down a path which is used by fishermen, and found that the man was Mr Henry Lawson, poet and story-writer. He was quickly carried to the top of the cliffs, and Dr Hall, who was summoned, found that Mr Lawson was suffering from a broken ankle, a lacerated wound over the right eye, besides other injuries. It was ascertained that Mr Lawson had fallen over the cliffs, which at that place are about 80 or 90ft. high. He was conveyed to Sydney.’’

Some think it was suicide attempt. Beset by illness, alcoholism and the breakdown of his marriage, Lawson’s best writing was behind him by 1902. Ahead lay mental asylums and jail (for failing to pay child maintenance and drunkenness, including a stint in solitary at Darlinghurst Gaol for smuggling a pencil). Friends tried to save him from Sydney’s temptations: they got him a PR job at Leeton for the new Murrumbidgee Irrigation Scheme; they spirited him away to poet E.J. Brady’s artist camp at Mallacoota. But increasingly his writings reflected the inner turmoil as madness and the grog pulled him under.

Yet to federation Australia, Lawson was the new country’s most popular poet, bush balladeer and author. To a land looking for national identity, Lawson wrote a reality that turned into a myth. His stories captured the realism of bush life so often papered over by more romantic stylists whose antecedents rested more with English tradition and a hunger for a ‘home’ they had not seen.

Lawson’s cleared-eyed work uniquely captured the continent: dry, laconic, egalitarian, stoical. The sentences were short and sharp; adjectives were few. He caught the fears, heartaches and deprivations of the bush and defined a kind of endurance among ordinary and anonymous people that showed Australians they could take pride in their unique lives.

Lawson was born on the Grenfell goldfields of central western NSW, a region that continued to inform his writing even as he came to spend much of his adult life in the city. His father Niels Hertzberg Larsen, a Norwegian-born miner, had married a local woman Louisa Albury. They had five children but the marriage broke after 16 years and she took her younger children to Sydney in 1883. Lawson, her eldest, joined them the following year.

Louise Lawson was an early supporter of Federation. She used money from running boarding houses to buy shares in a radical newspaper The Republican in 1887. Her literary and bohemian world imbued Lawson and his first published poem, A Song of the Republic. It ran in The Bulletin in October 1887.

The year before, J.F. Archibald had purchased a controlling share in the magazine. Archibald turned it into the great inkwell for poets, cartoonists, short-stories and comic writers and when other Lawson poems tumbled into print - including The Wreck of the Derry Castle and Golden Gully, he became one of the earliest members of the magazine’s famed stable of writers, dubbed the ‘‘Bulletin School’’ by academics seeking to define Australia’s literary evolution.

In 1888, Lawson’s first short story was published in The Bulletin. His Father’s Mate gave a glimpse of the controlled power he had for the short sketch but his special talent lay fallow while he wrote for his mother’s newspaper. He was offered ‘‘the first, the last and only chance I got in journalism’’ on Gresley Lukin’s Brisbane Boomerang and contributed to William Lane’s The Worker.

When the 1890s depression bit hard, Lawson returned to Sydney to write and drink. Sometimes the pen won.

The memorable ‘‘Bulletin Debate’’ over the bush as romance or reality was argued mainly between Lawson and ‘‘Banjo’’ Paterson. It proved so popular that Archibald gave Lawson £5 and a train ticket to Bourke to write on the drought. Out of this trip came the stories upon which his enduring fame rests: On The Edge Of A Plain, The Union Buries Its Dead, and The Drover’s Wife.

In 1896, when Angus and Robertson published collections of Lawson’s short stories, While the Billy Boils, and poems, In the Days When the World was Wide, he became literary celebrity in the colony.

That same year he married Bertha Marie Louise Bredt, daughter of a prominent Sydney socialist. They moved to Western Australia, then New Zealand and later, England.

But London proved a catastrophe for the couple and their two young children. Lawson had gambled that success in London would stop the rot but he failed to impress the London literary circuit and was back to producing hack work to survive. Bertha was admitted to a mental hospital. They returned to Sydney and the Manly cliff face.

Writers who meet success early often find it hard to keep re-inventing themselves and by 1902, not only was Lawson’s literary life spinning its wheels but marital failure, madness, deafness and drink had blunted the courage that had enabled him to create so many profound stories.

Sydney watched as Lawson, wrecked by the grog and mental illness, frail and haunted, shrank before their eyes. He was nursed for some 15 years by his landlady Mrs Isabel Byers. In May 1920, the Commonwealth Literary Fund granted him a £1 a week pension. He died two years later, just 55. They gave him a State funeral.

Lawson left his estate to Mrs Byers: two suits, an overcoat, a tie, collar stud, spectacles, pipe, two packets of tobacco, walking stick and a pencil.

Lawson’s reputation took another hit in 2017 after NSW Supreme Court documents were made public containing domestic violence allegations that were filed in 1903 by his wife Bertha. The allegations were not new and strongly contested by Lawson’s great-niece who claims they were untested and made by a mentally unstable woman. But coinciding with the sesquicentenary of his birth, June 17, 1867, they shaded Lawson’s literary worth in 21st century eyes.

Damien Murphy is a reporter on the Sydney Morning Herald.

Further reading


John Barnes, 'A Man Apart: The Unwritten Tragedy of Henry Lawson', The Journal of the European Association for Studies of Australia, Vol. 7 No.1, 2016

The Essential Henry Lawson, B. Kiernan, Melbourne, 1982.

In Search of Henry Lawson, Manning Clark, Macmillan, South Melbourne, 1978.