Henry Lawson

Did you see us sailing past by Henry Lawson

Henry Lawson was born on the goldfields of Grenfell NSW on 17 June 1867 and is one of Australia’s best loved poets and even in his own time a legendary figure. While the poems written by Lawson about Twofold Bay are far from his best [indeed his poem Ben Boyd's Tower seems unfinished to me] the story of how Lawson came to pass through Eden is an interesting if rather sad one.

 

From the early 1900s Lawson's personal and creative life entered a sad decline into alcoholism and abject poverty. Lawson had always been a heavy drinker but as his marriage to Bertha Marie Louise Bredt disintegrated his drinking spiraled out of control.  


On the morning of December 6 1902 Lawson was found by a fisherman at Fairy Bower, a small beach at Manly.  In an apparent attempt at suicide while intoxicated he had jumped from a 90 foot cliff.  The Sydney Morning Herald reported the next day that he had broken his foot and injured his head. E.J. Brady was amongst the friends that came to his rescue and helped him financially after this unfortunate event.

Between 1905 and 1910 he was regularly in prison for drunkenness and non-payment of maintenance to his wife for the upkeep of their two young children.

In October 1909 Bertha (who by now Henry was calling "the she-baboon") slapped another summons on Lawson, £15/12/- with costs. Lawson found himself again in Darlinghurst Gaol.  Lawson's landlady, Mrs Byers and his friends came to his aid.


Editor and critic Bertram Stevens wrote, "Mrs Byers  came to me about getting him out, and I called a meeting of some friends at the Edinburgh Cattle Hotel."  According to Tom Mutch [journalist, politician and historian who met Lawson in Sydney in 1903, when Mutch joined the staff of the Australian Worker ], those who attended were Stevens, J. Le Gay Brereton, Norman Lilley, Rod Quinn, J. S. Ryan, Fred Brown. Bernard Shaw, Hector Lamond, and Mutch himself.

Stevens wrote further : "I saw Mrs Lawson and she agreed to forego the amount due if we guaranteed that Lawson would leave Sydney and not molest her as he had done. We raised about £30 and I saw Lawson at Darlinghurst Gaol and offered him three alternatives—a trip around the Pacific, a visit to a station belonging to someone Robert Kaleski knew, or a visit to E. J. Brady at Mallacoota. He refused them all at first, but eventually agreed to go to Brady's place."

Tom Mutch: "On Friday, 25th February 1910, I shanghaied him on the S.S. Sydney and at 7 p.m. or thereabouts he and I were standing at the bow as the vessel dipped and ploughed through the Sydney Heads and turned on her southward course.

Henry was in a very morose and depressed mood, and as the lights of Sydney disappeared behind them he recited some lines from his 1908 poem Ports o' Call

 

We fear no Hell hereafter,
We hope for no reward,
We always sail on Friday

With thirteen men aboard.

 

By the time they reached Eden, however, his mood had changed, and he had evidently made a resolution to do his best to 'straighten' himself out, for during his stay at the pub [The Commercial Hotel*] overnight he refused to touch anything but lemonade. Even the fact that a noisy sleeper-cutters' drinking bout was in progress all night in the room underneath failed to make him change his mind."

At dawn the next morning he and Mutch caught a coach and went on to Merrimingo, on the Genoa River, where Ted Brady met them. The evening of February 27 March was spent at Allan's Accommodation House, Mallacoota before moving onto Brady's camp.

From a letter to his son , Joseph written in March 1910"I’ve just come back from a 4 day’s tramp up the coast and over the sandhills past Cape Howe, and the cairn [a pile of stones] on the border between New South Wales and Victoria. The country is very wild and rough and there is no-one there. We took flour and baking powder, and shot a duck or two at the fresh water lake, a little inland. We are 45 miles by rough bush road, 26 miles by lakes and river [in row boat] from Eden; the only way is by sail boat, or what they call “auxiliary cutter” [a ketch with small oil engine in her] when the weather is favourable and the bar at the entrance of the lower lake is open’ that is, not silted up with sand.

 

By April 2 Lawson was back at the Commercial Hotel in Eden. It is said that the poems 'Did You See Us Sailing Past?', 'The Bar' and 'Ben Boyd's Tower' were said to be inspired by thirty year old school teacher Margaret Midson who he met in Eden during his stay.

In his later years Lawson was in and out of hospitals and sanatoriums and was often seen on Sydney streets begging money for alcohol.
 
In 1920, Lawson was granted a £1 per week pension from the Commonwealth Literary Fund, which supported him for the rest of his life."

On September  2nd 1922  he died in his sleep from a cerebral haemorrhage aged 55.  He was the first Australian writer to be awarded a state funeral.

 

                  

THE BAR

by Heny Lawson 1910

We tried to get over the Bar today,
Today on the morning tide;
And whether I go, or whether I stay
Let fate and the Bar decide;
But my Love — New Love — with your eyes of grey,
The weary world is wide!

We kedged* her back and we poled her back
In time for the ebbing tide,
For the sky was grey and the rocks were black
And the rollers broke outside,
And its O My Love but the lines are slack,
And the weary world is wide.

We'd try to get over the Bar tonight,
Tonight on the highest tide;
But the moon is dull that last night was bright
And the world is dark outside,
O Love — New Love! — is your face so white,
And the weary world so wide?

We tried to get over the bar today,
Tomorrow we'll try again —
Oh, Love! New Love of the grey eyes, say
Is the strife of man in vain?
The glass might lie, and the needle stray,
But the path of love is plain!

When over the Bar, there is no return
In the time of the Autumn gales —
But whether the sea or the Bush it be,
The heart of a man prevails —
O Love! New Love, you may watch the sea
Where your Bushman sailor sails!

 

*Kedge: to move a ship by using a small anchor

 

*The Commercial Hotel - M. A Goggin, Proprietress, formally known as the Family Hotel run by Mrs. Crichton was located in Imlay Street where the Fishermens Club car park now stands

 

 

Sources:
Matthews, Brian, 'Lawson, Henry (1867–1922)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/lawson-henry-7118/text12279, accessed 2 July 2012.
This article was first published in hard copy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986
Faces in the Street by Pip Wilson http://www.henrylawson.info/
Henry Lawson Festival - Grenfell, NSW http://www.henrylawsonfestival.com.au/