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    Barry Watts toasts a memory...

HENRY LAWSON

"Good gracious!" said the Earl

"Dear Robertson," wrote Henry Lawson to his publisher in 1906, "I am greatly pressed for debt and in deep trouble. Bearer is my landlady – you can give it to her. "

This was not the first time Lawson had sent a begging letter ... as usual he had been spending his meagre income on drink, an affliction that plagued most of his adult life. Lawson, acclaimed as Australia’s greatest bush poet and short story writer, was moving towards the end of his often sad journey.

Four years prior to writing this note, Lawson had arrived back after a couple of years in London with his wife and two children. His trip had been paid for by ‘a good friend’ - Earl Beauchamp, the Governor of New South Wales.

Their first meeting is described in Old Books, Old Friends, Old Sydney , the reminiscences of bookseller James R. Tyrrell:

One day I was attending to a highly important customer - the State Governor - when Henry came in and stood near by.
"Who is that man, Mr Tyrrell?" asked Earl Beauchamp in a low voice.
"That’s our greatest Australian poet Henry Lawson," I told him.
"Good gracious!" he said.
He turned to Henry and shook hands with him. Henry saluted, and passed on down the shop ...

Henry acknowledged the Governor’s friendship years later by dedicating My Army, O, My Army to him; the book was published by James Tyrrell.

But it had been a dismal time away for the Lawsons. The cold English winter, combined with illness and never-ending poverty, had taxed their marriage beyond endurance.

The Lawson’s return to Australia coincided with Mary Gilmore’s roundabout voyage home from 'Cosme' in Paraguay. The families met again in London and booked passage home on the same ship. Mary's diary shows she appeared to take an almost instant dislike to Henry’s wife Bertha:

Within half an hour she was telling me how unhappy she was and how badly he was treating her … nothing on earth would make her live with him again once she got away.

That night Will [Mary's husband] said to me – ‘If that woman were my wife I would wring her neck! She isn’t fit to be any man’s wife.’ Mrs Lawson had given me to understand that Henry was guilty of unnameable brutality.

To be fair to Bertha, this one-sided criticism does not emerge in the several biographies of Henry written after his death. Bertram Stevens, who knew the couple before they were married and afterwards, wrote:

The change in them on their return [from England] was painfully noticeable, especially in Henry and I could easily believe that he had had a bad time … on listening to her [Bertha] my sympathy went out to her. Besides, I know very well how badly Lawson used to drink and what a dreadful trial he must have been to anyone, especially his wife.

Shortly after their return, Lawson lived apart from his family. His income was pitifully small and he had great difficulty supporting himself, let alone others. He turned again to drink and so began the steady personal deterioration that marked his final twenty years. His wife, Bertha, filed for a judicial separation in 1903, alleging cruelty and habitual drunkenness. It was granted, and Henry agreed to pay alimony.

Within a month, as Lawson was ‘drying out’ in a convalescent hospital, his wife’s solicitors were arranging with Angus & Robertson to pay a portion of Lawson’s earnings direct to her.

He was soon in deeper trouble – the police were looking for him for the non-payment of maintenance, and in April 1904 he was arrested for being drunk and disorderly, and sent to gaol. Theatre manager Bland Holt, an old friend, paid Lawson’s arrears and the writer was freed; only to be served with a further summons. This was paid out by book collector David Scott Mitchell, endower of the Mitchell Library, Sydney.

Henry Lawson’s best writing days were now behind him. He was frequently in and out of gaols and mental homes from 1905 to 1910, either for drunkenness or the non-payment of maintenance. His many literary admirers and political friends usually rallied to his financial aid.

Lawson died on 2 September 1922. George Robertson, his main publisher, helped arrange a state funeral for him and wrote to Prime Minister Billie Hughes:

I hope the Commonwealth Government will give some portion of Henry Lawson’s pension to the old lady who mothered him for over twenty years. I refer to Mrs Byers, who must now be well into her seventies.

To be Henry’s housekeeper was no sinecure, as you may know. The old lady slaved for and tended him without thought of reward, and with scant thanks, I am afraid, from Henry himself … her unselfish devotion to Australia’s greatest writer deserves some slight national recognition.

Robertson was less sympathetic when he wrote to a bookseller about Lawson: "He died suddenly with two unopened bottles of beer in the house. That would have troubled him a lot more than the company kept by his immortal works!"

© BARRY JOHN WATTS 2002

 

 

Henry Lawson, popular Australian writer Henry Lawson,
gifted short story writer,
was 'in deep trouble'


'Henry Lawson' - David Low caricature 'Henry saluted, and
passed on down the shop',
(Caricature by David Low)


Lawson nursing his daughter 'Henry Lawson nursing his
daughter during the good times


Fellow passenger, Mary Gilmore Mary Gilmore recorded an
instant dislike to Henry's wife


Lawson's home at North Sydney Henry boarded with Mrs Byers
in this Euroka Street house in
North Sydney


Lawson's statue, Domain, Sydney George Lambert's statue of
Henry Lawson in the
Domain, Sydney

   
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