Biography of Henry Lawson

Henry Archibald Hertzberg Lawson (17 June 1867 – 2 September 1922) was an Australian writer and bush poet. Along with his contemporary Banjo Paterson, Lawson is among the best-known Australian poets and fiction writers of the colonial period and is often called Australia's "greatest short story writer".A vocal nationalist and republican, Lawson regularly contributed to The Bulletin, and many of his works helped popularise the Australian vernacular in fiction. He wrote prolifically into the 1890s, after which his output declined, in part due to struggles with alcoholism and mental illness. At times destitute, he spent periods in Darlinghurst Gaol and psychiatric institutions. After he died in 1922 following a cerebral haemorrhage, Lawson became the first Australian writer to be granted a state funeral.

He was the son of the poet, publisher and feminist Louisa Lawson.

Family and early life

Henry Lawson was born 17 June 1867 in a town on the Grenfell goldfields of New South Wales. His father was Niels Hertzberg Larsen, a Norwegian-born miner. Niels Larsen went to sea at 21 and arrived in Melbourne in 1855 to join the gold rush, along with partner William Henry John Slee. Lawson's parents met at the goldfields of Pipeclay (now Eurunderee, Locality Mudgee). Niels and Louisa Albury (1848–1920) married on 7 July 1866 when he was 32 and she 18. On Henry's birth, the family surname was Anglicised and Niels became Peter Lawson. The newly married couple were to have an unhappy marriage. Louisa, after family-raising, took a significant part in women's movements, and edited a women's paper called The Dawn (published May 1888 to July 1905). She also published her son's first volume, and around 1904 brought out a volume of her own, Dert and Do, a simple story of 18,000 words. In 1905 she collected and published her own verses, The Lonely Crossing and other Poems. Louisa likely had a strong influence on her son's literary work in its earliest days. Peter Lawson's grave (with headstone) is in the little private cemetery at Hartley Vale, New South Wales, a few minutes' walk behind what was Collitt's Inn.

Lawson attended school at Eurunderee from 2 October 1876 but experienced an ear infection around this time. It left him with partial deafness and by the age of fourteen he had lost his hearing entirely. However, his master John Tierney was kind and did all he could for Lawson, who was quite shy. Lawson later attended a Catholic school at Mudgee, New South Wales around 8 km away; the master there, Mr Kevan, would teach Lawson about poetry. Lawson was a keen reader of Dickens and Marryat and Australian novels such as Marcus Clarke's For the Term of His Natural Life (1874) and Rolf Boldrewood's Robbery Under Arms (1882); an aunt had also given him a volume by Bret Harte. Reading became a major source of his education because, due to his deafness, he had trouble learning in the classroom.

In 1883, after working on building jobs with his father in the Blue Mountains, Lawson joined his mother in Sydney at her request. Louisa was then living with Henry's sister and brother. At this time, Lawson was working during the day and studying at night for his matriculation in the hopes of receiving a university education. However, he failed his exams. Lawson lived in a boarding house along William Street and wrote a poem titled William Street. Lawson also spent time in Newcastle at the Wickham School of Arts while working for the Hudson Brothers branch railway workshops. He remarked that he "haunted the School of Arts, still with an idea of learning before it was too late." At around 20 years of age Lawson went to the eye and ear hospital in Melbourne but nothing could be done for his deafness.In 1890 he began a relationship with Mary Gilmore. She writes of an unofficial engagement and Lawson's wish to marry her, but it was broken by his frequent absences from Sydney. The story of the relationship is told in Anne Brooksbank's play All My Love.

In 1896, Lawson married Bertha Bredt, Jr., daughter of Bertha Bredt, the prominent socialist. The marriage ended very unhappily. Bertha filed for divorce and in her affidavit she stated: My husband has during three years and upwards been a habitual drunkard and habitually been guilty of cruelty towards me. My affidavit consists of the acts and matters following. That my husband during the last three years struck me in the face and about the body and blacked my eye and hit me with a bottle and attempted to stab me and pulled me out of bed when I was ill and purposely made a noise in my room when I was ill and pulled my hair and repeatedly used abusive and insulting language to me and was guilty of divers other acts of cruelty to me whereby my health and safety are endangered.

A judicial separation was granted and was declared in June 1903. They had two children, son Jim (Joseph) and daughter Bertha.

Poetry and prose writing

Henry Lawson's first published poem was 'A Song of the Republic' which appeared in The Bulletin, 1 October 1887; his mother's republican friends were an influence. This was followed by 'The Wreck of the Derry Castle' and then 'Golden Gully.' Prefixed to the former poem was an editorial note:

In publishing the subjoined verses we take pleasure in stating that the writer is a boy of 17 years, a young Australian, who has as yet had an imperfect education and is earning his living under some difficulties as a housepainter, a youth whose poetic genius here speaks eloquently for itself.

Lawson was 20 years old, not 17.In 1890-1891 Lawson worked in Albany. He then received an offer to write for the Brisbane Boomerang in 1891, but he lasted only around 7–8 months as the Boomerang was soon in trouble. While in Brisbane he contributed to William Lane's Worker; he later angled for an editorial position with the similarly named Worker of Sydney, but was unsuccessful. He returned to Sydney and continued to write for the Bulletin which, in 1892, paid for an inland trip where he experienced the harsh realities of drought-affected New South Wales. He also worked as a roustabout in the woolshed at Toorale Station. This resulted in his contributions to the Bulletin Debate and became a source for many of his stories in subsequent years. Elder writes of the trek Lawson took between Hungerford and Bourke as "the most important trek in Australian literary history" and says that "it confirmed all his prejudices about the Australian bush. Lawson had no romantic illusions about a 'rural idyll'." As Elder continues, his grim view of the outback was far removed from "the romantic idyll of brave horsemen and beautiful scenery depicted in the poetry of Banjo Paterson".Lawson's most successful prose collection is While the Billy Boils, published in 1896. In it he "continued his assault on Paterson and the romantics, and in the process, virtually reinvented Australian realism". Elder writes that "he used short, sharp sentences, with language as raw as Ernest Hemingway or Raymond Carver. With sparse adjectives and honed-to-the-bone description, Lawson created a style and defined Australians: dryly laconic, passionately egalitarian and deeply humane." Most of his work focuses on the Australian bush, such as the desolate "Past Carin'", and is considered by some to be among the first accurate descriptions of Australian life as it was at the time. "The Drover's Wife" with its "heart-breaking depiction of bleakness and loneliness" is regarded as one of his finest short stories. It is regularly studied in schools and has often been adapted for film and theatre.

Lawson was a firm believer in the merits of the sketch story, commonly known simply as 'the sketch,' claiming that "the sketch story is best of all." Lawson's Jack Mitchell story On the Edge of a Plain is often cited as one of the most accomplished examples of the sketch.Like the majority of Australians, Lawson lived in a city, but had had plenty of experience in outback life, in fact, many of his stories reflected his experiences in real life. In Sydney in 1898 he was a prominent member of the Dawn and Dusk Club, a bohemian club of writer friends who met for drinks and conversation.

Later years

In 1903 he bought a room at Mrs Isabel Byers' Coffee Palace in North Sydney. This marked the beginning of a 20-year friendship between Mrs Byers and Lawson. Despite his position as the most celebrated Australian writer of the time, Lawson was deeply depressed and perpetually poor. He lacked money due to unfortunate royalty deals with publishers. His ex-wife repeatedly reported him for non-payment of child maintenance. He was gaoled at Darlinghurst Gaol for drunkenness, wife desertion, child desertion, and non-payment of child support seven times between 1905 and 1909, for a total of 159 days and recorded his experience in the haunting poem "One Hundred and Three" (his prison number) which was published in 1908. He refers to the prison as "Starvinghurst Gaol" because of the meagre rations given to the inmates.At this time, Lawson became withdrawn, alcoholic, and unable to carry on the usual routine of life.

Mrs Byers (née Ward) was an excellent poet herself and, although of modest education, had been writing vivid poetry since her teens in a similar style to Lawson's. Long separated from her husband and elderly, Mrs Byers was, at the time she met Lawson, a woman of independent means looking forward to retirement. Byers regarded Lawson as Australia's greatest living poet, and hoped to sustain him well enough to keep him writing. She negotiated on his behalf with publishers, helped to arrange contact with his children, contacted friends and supporters to help him financially, and assisted and nursed him through his mental and alcohol problems. She wrote countless letters on his behalf and knocked on any doors that could provide Henry with financial assistance or a publishing deal.It was in Mrs Isabel Byers' home that Henry Lawson died, of a cerebral hemorrhage, in Abbotsford, Sydney in 1922. He was given a state funeral. His death registration on the NSW Births, Deaths & Marriages index is ref. 10451/1922 and was recorded at the Petersham Registration District. It shows his parents as Peter and Louisa. His funeral was attended by the Prime Minister Billy Hughes and the (later) Premier of New South Wales, Jack Lang (who was the husband of Lawson's sister-in-law Hilda Bredt), as well as thousands of citizens. He is interred at Waverley Cemetery Lawson was the first person to be granted a New South Wales state funeral (traditionally reserved for Governors, Chief Justices, etc.) on the grounds of having been a 'distinguished citizen'.


A bronze statue of Lawson accompanied by a swagman, a dog and a fencepost (reflecting his writing) stands in The Domain, Sydney. The Henry Lawson Memorial committee raised money through public donation to commission the statue by sculptor George Washington Lambert in 1927. The work was unveiled on 28 July 1931 by the Governor of New South Wales, Sir Philip Game.In 1949 Lawson was the subject of an Australian postage stamp.

Lawson's "The Drover's Wife" short story was featured on a 1991 $1.20 stamp, and a 2017 $1.00 stamp, both from Australia Post.

In 2017 Lawson was again featured on two Australian postage stamps, one featuring Mitchell: A Character Sketch and the other The Drover's Wife and family, including dog, pitted against the snake.He was featured on the first (paper) Australian ten-dollar note issued in 1966 when decimal currency was first introduced into Australia. Lawson was pictured against scenes from the town of Gulgong in NSW. This note was replaced by a polymer note in 1993; the polymer series had different people featured on the notes.


Lawson's treatment (or lack thereof) of Aboriginal Australians in his work has been criticised and debated. Author Ryan Butta writes that there are some "glaring omissions" in Lawson's writings about Bourke, in particular the Afghan cameleers who were there at the time, and being written about in local newspapers, and who were responsible for opening up the interior of the continent.



Short Stories in Prose and Verse (1894) - short stories, prose, poetry

While the Billy Boils (1896) - short stories

In the Days When the World was Wide and Other Verses (1896) - poetry

Verses, Popular and Humorous (1900) - poetry

On the Track (1900) - short stories

Over the Sliprails (1900) - short stories

On the Track, and, Over the Sliprails (1900) - short stories

Popular Verses (1900) - poetry

Humorous Verses (1900) - poetry

The Country I Come From (1901) - short stories

Joe Wilson and His Mates (1901) - short stories

Children of the Bush (1902) - short stories, prose, poetry

When I Was King and Other Verses (1905) - poetry

The Elder Son (1905) - poetry

When I Was King (1905) - poetry

The Romance of the Swag (1907) - short stories, prose

Send Round the Hat (1907) - short stories

The Skyline Riders and Other Verses (1910) - poetry

The Rising of the Court and Other Sketches in Prose and Verse (1910) - short stories, prose, poetry

For Australia and Other Poems (1913) - poetry

Triangles of Life and Other Stories (1913) - short stories

My Army, O, My Army! and Other Songs (1915) - poetry

Song of the Dardanelles and Other Verses (1916) - poetry

Selected Poems of Henry Lawson (1918) - poetry

Posthumous collections

Poems of Henry Lawson (1973)

The Best of Henry Lawson for Young Australians (1973)

The Drover's Wife and Other Stories (1974)

The World of Henry Lawson (1974)

The Poems of Henry Lawson (1975)

Poems of Henry Lawson : Volume Two (1975)

Favourite Stories (1976)

Henry Lawson : favourite verse (1978)

Henry Lawson Poems (1979)

Henry Lawson's Mates : The Complete Stories of Henry Lawson (1979)

The Essential Henry Lawson : The Best Works of Australia's Greatest Writer (1982)

A Camp-Fire Yarn: Henry Lawson Complete Works 1885-1900 (1984)

A Fantasy of Man: Henry Lawson Complete Works 1901-1922 (1984)

Henry Lawson Favourites (1984)

Henry Lawson, The Master Story-Teller : Prose Writings (1984)

The Penguin Henry Lawson Short Stories (1986)

The Songs of Henry Lawson (1989)

The Roaring Days (1994) (aka The Henry Lawson Collection Vol. 1)

On the Wallaby Track (1994) (aka The Henry Lawson Collection Vol. 2)

Popular poems, short stories and sketches

"Australian Loyalty" (essay, 1887)

"Faces in the Street" (poem, 1888)

"Andy's Gone with Cattle" (poem, 1888)

"United Division" (essay, 1888)

"The Teams" (poem, 1889)

"A Neglected History" (essay)

"Freedom on the Wallaby" (poem, 1891)

"The Babies of Walloon" (poem, 1891)

"The Bush Undertaker" (short story, 1892)

"The City Bushman" (poem, 1892)

"Up The Country" (poem, 1892)

"The Grog-an'-Grumble Steeplechase" (poem, 1892)

"The Drover's Wife" (short story, 1892)

"Saint Peter" (poem, 1893)

"The Union Buries Its Dead" (short story, 1893)

"Steelman's Pupil" (short story, 1895)

"The Geological Spieler" (short story, 1896)

"The Iron-Bark Chip" (short story, 1900)

"The Loaded Dog" (short story, 1901)

"A Child in the Dark, and a Foreign Father" (short story, 1902)

"Triangles of Life, and other stories" (short stories, 1916)

"Scots of the Riverina" (poem, 1917)

Recurring characters

Joe Wilson

"Brighten's Sister-in-law"

"A Double Buggy at Lahey Creek"

"Water Them Geraniums"

"Joe Wilson's Courtship"

Jack Mitchell

"Mitchell: A Character Sketch"

"On the Edge of a Plain"

"'Some Day'"

"Shooting The Moon"

"Our Pipes"

"Bill, the Ventriloquial Rooster"

"Enter Mitchell"

"Mitchell Doesn't Believe in the Sack"

"Another of Mitchell's Plans"

Steelman and Smith

"The Geological Spieler"

"Steelman's Pupil"

"An Oversight of Steelman’s"

"How Steelman told his Story"

"A Gentleman Sharper and Steelman Sharper"

Dave Regan, Jim Bently and/or Andy Page

"The Loaded Dog"

"The Iron-Bark Chip"

"Andy Page's Rival"

"The Mystery of Dave Regan"

"Poisonous Jimmy Gets Left"

Brummy Hewson

Lawson in popular culture

While the Billy Boils by Beaumont Smith

Trooper Campbell by Raymond Longford

Taking his Chance by Raymond Longford

Bulletin Debate

Recording of Henry Lawson's works by actor Jack Thompson

The Drover's Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson: a play, novel and film by Leah Purcell

Lawson by John Schumann



Elder, Bruce (2008) "In Lawson's Tracks" in Griffith Review (19): 93–95, 113–115, Autumn 2008

Falkiner, Suzanne (1992) Wilderness (The Writers' Landscape), Sydney, Simon & Schuster

Further reading

Phillips, A. A. (March 1965). "Henry Lawson revisited". Meanjin Quarterly. 24 (1): 4–17.

Wright, Judith (1967). Henry Lawson. Great Australians. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

Clark, Manning (1978). In Search of Henry Lawson. Melbourne. The MacMillan Company of Australia Pty. Ltd.

Ollif, Lorna (1978). 'Louisa Lawson - Henry Lawson's Crusading Mother'. Rigby Limited.

External links

Works by Henry Lawson at Project Gutenberg

Works by Henry Lawson at Project Gutenberg Australia

Works by Henry Lawson in eBook form at Standard Ebooks

Page of Henry Lawson at

Works by or about Henry Lawson at Internet Archive

Works by Henry Lawson at LibriVox (public domain audiobooks)

Henry Lawson - Essays, Short Stories and Verse Collections

Henry Lawson and Louisa Lawson Online Chronology

Jack Thompson reads The Poems of Henry Lawson

Lawson, Henry (1867-1922) National Library of Australia, Trove, People and Organisation record for Henry Lawson

Poetry Archive: 125 poems of Henry Lawson

The Drover’s Wife at

Henry Lawson at Library of Congress Authorities, with 70 catalogue records

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