Henry Lawson (1867–1922) was a writer and poet, who was known as the “Poet of the People”. His writing was distinctly Australian, with stories, characters and language that reflected various aspects of Australian life and identity, both pre and post Federation, including republicanism, poverty and his own experiences in the outback. Along with his contemporary Banjo Paterson, Lawson is an important figure in Australia’s early literary culture. He is best remembered and acclaimed for his short stories, though he did also publish many poems, including the notable “Andy’s Gone with Cattle” and “Faces in the Street”.
Lawson wrote in a straight-forward style, using direct language, short sentences and the distinctly accented dialogue of his characters to convey his carefully constructed tales. His stories evoke rich imagery, and while they are often sardonic and humorous in tone, many also possess a sombre or reflective quality.
Henry Lawson was born on 17 June 1867 at Grenfell, New South Wales. To commemorate the 150th anniversary of his birth, Australia Post is releasing an issue of two stamps on 13 June 2017.
The stamp and minisheet designs
The stamps and minisheet, by Australian illustrators Jamie and Leanne Tufrey, depict two pieces of Lawson’s short fiction: the very well-known “The Drover’s Wife” and the lesser known “Mitchell: a Character Sketch”. Jamie has illustrated several stamp issues for Australia Post, including Air Force Aviation in 2011. Jamie and Leanne also illustrated the Bush Ballads stamp issue (2013), which focused on the work of Banjo Paterson.
The stories are conveyed in the stamp designs through emblematic scenes from each story. The imagery in the minisheet relates to the imaginative life of Henry Lawson and also references his unfortunate deafness, acquired during childhood.
“Mitchell: A Character Sketch” is a comedic story that follows the theme of the “little man” who outsmarts figures of authority. Peppered with the slang of the time, the story follows a conversation between Mitchell, “a Sydney jackeroo who had been round a bit”, the station cook and his manager, as Mitchell seeks to obtain food for himself and his mates.
The troubled life of Henry Lawson
The son of immigrant gold prospector Niels Hertzberg (Peter) Larsen and Louisa Lawson, Henry Lawson was the eldest sibling of four and a fairly unhappy child, due in part to partial deafness that resulted from illness. Lawson said that this deafness affected not just his childhood but his entire life; it made him inward-turning and most likely drove his compulsion to write.
After prospecting for gold around Victoria, the Lawsons settled, in 1873, at Pipeclay Creek, near Eurunderee, New South Wales. Louisa was a vocal advocate for founding a local school, though Henry’s illness interrupted his schooling several times and led to his leaving early. He was working for his father as a building contractor when his parents’ marriage broke down in 1883, after which he and his siblings moved to Sydney with their mother. There he attended night school to improve his education, while working as an apprentice stagecoach painter.
Within a few years, his first poems were published. His work appeared in The Bulletin, which also published Banjo Paterson, and the Australian Town and Country Journal. His first published poem was “A Song of the Republic” (Bulletin, 1 October 1887). Lawson also worked at the Republican, a radical news weekly edited and published by Louisa.
Moving to Brisbane (for less than a year) in 1891, he worked as a journalist for the Boomerang, publishing his writing there, in the Worker and in Louisa’s new publication, The Dawn. Returning to Sydney, Lawson sought to establish a life of writing, but he was an unsettled man and spent much time in Sydney’s bars.
The Bulletin bankrolled a journey to drought-affected Central Australia in 1892, and this trip to Bourke proved significant to Lawson’s writing. He was deeply affected by the hardship of rural living, and this journey provided a rich vein of material for his writing. Following his return, his Sydney lifestyle was little changed, carousing with his bohemian buddies through Sydney bars. Louisa published his first book, Short Stories in Prose and Verse, in 1894. A year later he was contracted to Angus & Robertson, which published his well-received collection While the Billy Boils.
Soon after meeting Bertha Marie Louise Bred (daughter of a socialist bookseller mother) in 1895 they married. His drinking led Bertha to arrange for their move to New Zealand, where their stay was brief. In 1900, and with the financial aid of supporters, the couple, now with two children, departed Sydney for London. Here, Lawson believed, his literary skills would be appreciated and he would be a success. But London was difficult for them and they were back in Sydney by mid-1902. Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine did, however, publish Lawson’s Joe Wilson Stories (the four written out of chronological order), which are considered among his best. Joe Wilson was just one of Lawson’s recurring characters; another is Jack Mitchell, in the shorter prose pieces. Lawson’s idea of the sketch is exemplified in his use of Mitchell.
London took its toll on the health of both Henry and Bertha, as well as on their already fragile relationship. Lawson attempted suicide in December 1902 and Bertha, whose mental health had led to her confinement in London, sought separation months later. Lawson’s life continued its downward spiral over the next two decades. He often lived in poverty, was homeless and even incarcerated for not paying child support or due to his mental health, but he continued to write. His best writing, however, had occurred earlier in his career.
Lawson died of a cerebral haemorrhage on 2 September 1922, and was given a state funeral days later.
The Henry Lawson: 1867–1922 stamp issue is available from 13 June 2017, online, at participating Post Offices and via mail order on 1800 331 794, while stocks last.
This article was produced at the time of publication and will not be updated.