Henry Lawson

Grenfell Mining Camp on 17 June 1897 was lashed by bitter winds and cold rain. The Larsen tent shuddered at the impact. Over the tumult of the elements came the lusty bellow of a newborn baby. Henry Hertzberg  had arrived, son for Louisa and Niels Hertzberg Larsen. Niels [Peter] was a Norwegian seaman, and Louisa [nee Albury] was a Golden Gully Australian girl with the soprano voice of an angel.

Henry had scarcely arrived when the family tent blew down. Mother and child were wrapped in coats and blankets and hurried to a kindly neighbour who offered them shelter.

At Henry’s christening, the clergyman was hard of hearing, and dutifully recorded Henry’s second name as Archibald in the church register. Henry, however, always considered his second name to be Hertzberg after his grandfather and father! [Lawson, Bertha, My Henry Lawson][1]

Henry spent his first three years in the mining camp. After the birth of his brother Charlie in the tent young Henry called home, Peter Larsen took up a selection and the family became farmers. The family lived in a rough hut built by Henry’s father. You will find an exact description of this abode in the story The Drover’s Wife.  Louisa decided to change the family name from Larsen to Lawson.

After his third son Peter was born, Henry’s father stayed away for three years while Henry’s mother ran the Gulgong Post Office. Louisa supplemented her meagre earnings by doing needlework and keeping cows, poultry and bees for their produce.

Henry did not like school and truanted often. A severe illness had made him deaf, so learning and making friends was difficult. Louisa wrote poetry and encouraged Henry to do the same. Henry’s father strongly disapproved. He called it ‘vaporisings’ and burnt the copy of the first poem Henry wrote.

Henry’s first published poem, The Song of the Republic, appeared in the October Bulletinin 1887. Henry had aspirations to enter Sydney University. After a gruelling day working for Hudson Brothers, the railway contractors, he attended night school. Three times he tried to pass his matriculation exams and three times he failed. His bitterness at this failure is expressed in The Uncultured Rhymer to his Cultured Critics.

I leave you alone in your cultured halls

To drivel and croak and cavil;

Till your voice goes further than college walls,

Keep out of the tracks we travel.

When he was 19 Henry went for Melbourne for treatment at the Eye and Ear Hospital. It was not successful. He returned to Sydney and worked with his father. Henry discovered that ‘under the influence of liquor he forgot his shyness; so he began to seek drink as an escape and a protection from his brooding thoughts.’[2]

Henry’s teetotaller father was appalled. He sent his son back to Louisa to get him away from the influence of his new drinking companions. Peter Larsen died unexpectedly on 31 December, 1888. Henry brooded over his death. Louisa still had faith in her son’s ability to write. She encouraged him to tell the story of their relationship: he consequently produced his first prose work, His Father’s Mate.

In 1895 Henry fell in love. Bertha’s mother saw a young man with no prospects whatsoever and placed every obstacle in their path. Henry persisted and eventually Bertha’s mother gave her consent. On 15 April 1896 Henry Archibald Lawson, journalist aged 28 years, and Bertha Marie Louise Bredt, aged 19 years, became husband and wife.

At first the marriage was filled with laughter and hope. Angus and Robertson gave Henry fifty pounds as an advance against a book. Henry was a wanderer and could never settle. Bouts of drinking stressed their relationship. Bertha of course accompanied him everywhere – to New Zealand, to England and across outback Australia.

Henry liked to dictate his work to Bertha. He would often wake her in the middle of the night to do so. She would sit in her dressing gown writing while he paced to and fro telling his story or poem to her. When Jim was born their relationship changed. Jim was a weakly baby and was always crying. His Father said the baby was too distracting and left home for 3 months until Jim had settled down. Bertha realised at this point ‘Harry should never have married at all, or undertaken responsibility of any kind.’[3]

‘Harry never set out to write – never deliberately said, “Now I’ll write something!” That of course explains, too why he never made a living. The story or verse had to grow in his mind, till it was almost perfect in shape and rhymes. Then he got me [Bertha] or someone else to write it down for him as he recited it. It was like going back to the old days of the singers of folk songs, men who could not write, but shaped their songs in their minds until they came from their lips almost perfect.’ [4]

In London, after two years ‘of not touching liquor’ [5] Lawson started drinking again. Not surprisingly, Bertha could not cope. In May 1901, she spent three months in Bethlehem Hospital as a ‘mental patient’.[6] By April 1902 Bertha had returned home to Australia with the children. Henry joined them in July. In December Henry attempted to commit suicide. In 1903 Bertha sought and obtained a decree for judicial separation.

Plagued by alcoholism and without Bertha beside him, Lawson’s life started to unravel. He was frequently gaoled for failure to pay maintenance for his children. After 1907 he spent numerous times in mental hospitals. He wandered the streets of Sydney, a frail and pathetic drunk.

To the end Bertha loved ‘her Harry’ and believed ‘that the mantle of Harry’ passed to his children Jim and Bertha as they too, wrote poetry. Jim wrote Winter Ploughing when he was a student at Hawkesbury College:

The log, soft cut of a searing share,

The moist black earth in curling row,

The silver mists on a frosty air

Through which raw breezes coldly blow


Behind the plough as he wends his way

The fresh wind blowing through shirt and hair,

The ploughman welcomes the rising day,

With leaping pulse to the clear, cold air. [7]


Bertha saw her Harry as a man of genius who lived in a world of his own where ordinary mortals could not follow his thoughts or understand his feelings.

He dedicated Skyline Riders to the gulf that separated his tormented world from others.

These are the songs of the friends I neglected,

And foes, too, in part.

These are the songs that were mostly rejected

But songs of my Heart.

He showed courage in the way he faced life – and when it came – death too, on 22 September, 1922. ‘He now rests where he would have loved to rest, on the sunny slopes of Waverley, [N.S.W.] overlooking the Pacific of which he wrote so beautifully, with the land he loved stretching away westward into the sunsets of his dreams.’ [8]

Henry Lawson was the first Australian to be accorded the honour of a State Funeral. He is featured on the Australian $10 note, pictured against scenes from the town of Gulgong in N.S.W. His statue, sculpted by George Lambert, stands in the Domain Sydney. His portrait by Norman Carter may be viewed in the Art Gallery of N.S.W. Parliament House, Canberra is home to another portrait painted by Norman Carter. ______________________________________________________________________

[1]Bertha, Lawson, My Henry Lawson Sydney: Frank Johnson, 1st Ed. May 1943]

[2]Lawson Ibid. P.27

[3]Lawson. Ibid p137

[4]Lawson. Ibid. P137

[5]Lawson Ibid. p.74

[6] Matthews, Brian. Australian Dictionary of Biography Lawson, Henry 1867 – 1922

[7] Lawson Ibid. P 136

[8]Lawson Ibid. P. 140


Poetry of Henry Lawson:

Lawson, Henry

Collected Verse Vol 1. 1835 – 1900

Pub 1967

ISBN E 000024593


Collected Verse Vol 2. 1901 – 1909

Pub 1967, 1968

ISBN E 002118368


Collected Verse Vol. 3 1910 – 1922 edited with introduction and notes by Colin Roderick

Pub 1969

ISBN E 002118350


The teams: Poems by Henry Lawson, illustrations by John King.

Pub 1986

ISBN 9780001843639


Poems of Henry Lawson selected by Walter Stone; illustrated by Pro Hart

Pub 2010

ISBN 9781742571119


Websites: The Henry Lawson Memorial & Literary Society Inc. Established 1923

[Incorporating The Australian Poetry Lovers’ Society]



Poem Hunter


Poets Page – Biography of Henry Lawson

Ebooks: Henry Lawson 502 Poems, includes a biography. [PDF – Free]


Project Gutenberg Australia – FREE ebooks.

Henry Lawson 1867 – 1922

Google: Henry Lawson – Project Gutenberg Australia.

All major works except A Campfire Yarn  & Fantasy of Man.

Poems and Short Stories are listed.



Lawson, Bertha: My Henry Lawson: Frank Johnson, Sydney May 1943 [1st Ed.]

Matthews, Brian. Australian Dictionary of Biography; Lawson, Henry 1867-1922


This article was kindly contributed by Robyn Youl of Bacchus Marsh

5 thoughts on “Henry Lawson

  1. Pingback: Weekly update | Australian Children's Poetry

  2. interesting story a lot of sadness..
    I heard a poem of henry Lawson on the radio recently. it began -“-here’s to the kids that are different” …. have been unable to find it anywhere. can anyone help ?? Iwould love to have a copy. many thanks

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