Day 41 of Colourisation Project – June 17
Born this day, June 17 1867, at Grenfell, New South Wales, Henry Lawson is perhaps amongst Australia’s best known writers and poets of the colonial period. An iconic figure among Australian writers, he is often referred to as Australia’s “greatest short story writer”. He was the son of publisher and feminist poet, Louisa Lawson.
Photographer unknown. Henry Lawson c. 1907 La Trobe Australian Manuscripts Collection. – Coloured by Loredana Crupi
Primarily a short story writer and balladist, he was a regular contributor to Australian Town and Country Journal and The Bulletin, Australia’s weekly magazine, which was highly influential at its heights in Australian culture and politics between 1890 and the first World War. At the same time he worked on The Republican, the radical weekly paper edited and published by his mother. His sympathies for the Labour movement and for an Australian republic shone through in his early work.
In 1887, the year of Queen Victoria’s jubilee, Lawson was inspired by the riots against the British monarchy resulting in the publication of “A Song of the Republic,” in the Bulletin.
In 1892, the Bulletin sent Lawson on assignment to the drought-stricken regions of the western part of New South Wales, where he was to report on the challenges facing rural Australians. This trip served as inspiration for a number of his subsequent works.
In 1894 with the help of his mother who published both the Republican and the Dawn publications, Lawson launched his first collection, Short Stories in Prose and Verse.
By 1896 Lawson secured a book contract with Angus and Robertson who published his volume of poetry, In the Days When the World Was Wide and the popular short story collection While the Billy Boils.
By the late 1990s, he was a prominent member of the Dawn and Dusk Club, a bohemian club well known for its patronage of writers and artists who socialised there.
Despite his position as the most celebrated Australian writer of the time, Lawson had a troubled life. Lawson suffered deeply from depression and due to unfortunate royalty deals with publishers was perpetually poor. He underwent long periods of homelessness and even became a beggar on the streets of Sydney, notably at the Circular Quay ferry turnstiles. He often did time in jail for drunkenness and non-payment of child support. Sadly, he also spent time in asylums and hospitals for mental illness. In 1908 he recorded his experience of jail in the haunting poem “One Hundred and Three” – his prison number. He refers to the prison as “Starvinghurst Gaol” because of the meagre rations given to the inmates.
In September 1922 Lawson died of a cerebral haemorrhage at the age of fifty-five.
So well regarded was he at the time for having been a ‘distinguished citizen’, that Lawson was the first person to be granted a state funeral (traditionally reserved for Governors, Chief Justices, etc.) in New South Wales. The Prime Minister of Australia, Billy Hughes and the Premier of New South Wales, Jack Lang attended his funeral.
“Beer makes you feel the way you ought to feel without beer.” Henry Lawson