EB Odds & Ends

A Newsletter of Eagles Byte Historic Research

No. 26 December 1997

Louisa and Henry

"Full half the sorrows of women rise from marriages foolishly made, or from nuptial ties,
which being made cry out for severance."

- Louisa Lawson

In 1879 Nora Helmer slammed the door. What Ibsen's heroine left behind was a comfortable, middle-class existence, hollow or not. What Louisa Albury Larsen (Lawson) left behind, in the gold fields of Australia, was far, far from a doll house. When she died in Gladesville Hospital for the Insane, on August 12, 1920, she had led two lives, neither easy. But she left Australia two legacies.

Her first legacy began developing at her birth, 72 years earlier. She was born in Guntawang, about a hundred miles northwest of Sydney, on Feb 17, 1848. Her father Henry Albury, who boasted gypsy blood, had emigrated from England, only to end up in the rural slums of an impoverished New South Wales. His major solace was found in the bottle; most of his peers also found it there. Her mother Harriet Wynn's past is hidden in mystery, but she had "seen service". She longed for gentility and may have passed this desire on to her daughter. That and a primary level education were Louisa's only foundation for the struggles of life in the drear hinterlands of New South Wales.

Australia's poor were no different than the poor in Britain, the U. S. or Canada, and a woman's lot was no exception. They worked as hard as their men to wrest some sort of life from the farms, many of them too often getting thanked by the back of the husband's hand. The kitchens and backyards were their only world, with a few hours out to give birth every year or so. The majority accepted it as the way life was. They had as much political clout as an African slave, and less solidarity. And their daughters could either become domestics or marry and hope not to repeat their mother's mistakes. Louisa took the latter course.

In February of 1851, when Louisa was three, Edward Hammond Hargraves discovered gold at nearby Lewis Ponds Creek and the world rushed in, as it had in California, two years previously. There's no sign that Henry Albury was ever in a position to benefit. Subsequent discoveries would keep the world's argonauts flocking to southeastern Australia over the next decade-and-a-half. It was the arrival in 1855, of the Norwegian sailor Neils Hertzberg Larsen, fleeing from a life gone sour when his brother had stolen the woman he loved. He arrived in Melbourne armed with a Scandinavian-Lutheran view of the world, a knowledge of navigation, the ability to function in five languages and his own aspirations. He possessed nothing else on the day he wandered into Guntawang and spotted Louisa sitting on a log. He must have spotted in her some spark of the gentility he sought. He had little to offer her but escape, when he asked her to become his wife. It was what she wanted more than anything. She said yes, and on July 7th, 1866 they were married in the nearby parsonage at Mudgee.

Their first child, a son, was born in a tent at the Grenfell goldfield on Emu Creek, eleven months later, on June 16th. Within a few years the gold again played out and Larsen and his family began a series of moves, always seeking the elusive bonanza. In 1871 the move was to Gulgong. Two years later it was to Pipeclay, where Larsen acquired some land, built a slab and bark house and took up subsistence farming. Louisa had gone from the frying pan into another frying pan.

Sometime during the following years Larsen would change his own first name to Peter and anglicize the family name to Lawson. And the Lawson clan was growing. Two more sons and two daughters followed. They were lean years for Louisa and Neils/Peter, full of constant bickering and a struggle to survive. Louisa became increasingly frustrated and stifled. Something had to give. It turned out to be the marriage. She slammed her door in 1883, and left for Sydney, a capital city seething with feminists, spiritualists, and radicals. She was soon settled in a house in the suburb of Marrickville and the following year her eldest son Henry joined her there.

"...battle, as only wife and mother can, against the immorality of the age and
the temptation and dirt which assail the moral and physical well being of her
loved ones."
- Louisa Lawson

Her own woman at last, Louisa blossomed. She immediately threw herself headlong into the political and literary arenas of the capital, surrounding herself with radical thinkers and social reformers. In 1887 the Republican, a radical monthly, published its first issue, symbolically on July 4th. Louisa was soon at the helm of the journal and in 1888 she founded Australia's first feminist journal, Dawn. The paper was run, printed and written exclusively by women and carried advice on women's issues such as divorce and women's right to vote, as well as carrying fashion notes, short stories, sewing patterns. Most importantly it reported on the progress of women's suffrage throughout Australia and overseas. She founded the Dawn Club, a women's association, the same year. She was in the vanguard of the socialists attacking the male privileges of Sydney's School of Arts. Ankle-length skirts were soon seen among the armchairs of the Reading Room and on the platform of the Debating Club. (It was only when they assaulted the final male sanctuary, the billiard table, that resistance and reaction solidified.) Not having enough irons in the fire, she also wrote and published children's stories and a book of verse. Never at rest, she established the Association of Women in 1889 and merged it with Rose Scott's Womanhood Suffrage League two years later.

The efforts of Louisa and her Australian sisters paid off. On June 16th, 1902, the national legislature in Melbourne passed the Uniform Franchise Act. All British subjects were given the vote, with the exception of Asians, Aborigines and Africans. Women, for the first time anywhere, were not excluded. And Louisa Albury Lawson was hailed as 'The mother of womanhood suffrage.'

When Henry joined his mother in 1884 he too was rebelling against the poverty of the exhausted mining camps and farms and, like her, he turned to the written word - but at tremendous cost. When he was nine he had begun to notice difficulty in hearing, and the malady worsened throughout his youth, eventually leaving him totally deaf by the time he was 14. His first employment came as an apprentice railway coach painter, in 1887. His years at the Hudson Brother's works were straight out of Dickens. In later years he would write of putting his alarm clock on a tin sheet touching his pillow so the vibrations would wake him in time to head off for work. Still he would remain awake half the night, fearful of missing the alarm. "There were times I would have given up my soul for another hour's sleep." He'd head for the workmen's train, past huddled, rag-wrapped forms of the unemployed sleeping on benches or on the grass. Once at the coach works he'd begin his twelve-hour shift, taking down the old surface of carriage sides, applying the lead coloring and filling material, then buffing the new coat to a shine. Often blood would come from his fingertips and begin trickling over the pumice stone. At the end of his shift it was off to night school for a few hours before dragging himself home to begin the daily cycle all over again. Possibly in part because of his handicap he failed his final exam.

"The grandest battles have been fought / With broken hearts behind them"

Without the Heart
- Henry Lawson

In the meantime, Henry had begun to write. The same year he went to work at the coach works he sold a poem, A Song of the Republic, to the Sydney satirical periodical Bulletin. The next year the magazine also published his first short story, His Father's Mate. But selling an occasional piece was not going to put enough money in his pocket. In 1891 he found employment on a Brisbane periodical, the Boomerang, for six months. Three years later he found work for awhile in New Zealand on a telephone line work gang. He met a young lady, Bertha Bredt, in 1895 and married her in 1896. A son and a daughter would arrive over the next few years, as Henry struggled on. He taught school for a year in New Zealand, traveled to Great Britain seeking work, then returned to Australia, unsuccessful. Employment continued to elude him.

His marriage began unraveling, echoing that of his parents. He turned to drink. Never in robust health, the rest of his life would be punctuated by periods spent drying out in hospitals or doing jail time for nonpayment of child support.

And still the words came. His mother's periodicals provided an outlet for some of his early verse and Henry found literary encouragement among her circle of acquaintances. The Sydney firm of Angus and Robertson began to publish his works. The years passed and the words flowed. Words of poetry that marched in martial, Kiplingesque steps across the page. Simple, unadorned prose that portrayed the vernacular of the outback and the urban underclass. Revealed it to readers in the cities. Mirrored it back to its subjects.

Words that told of the steeplechase, the sport of the workingman - "An ' the Screamer put his tongue out, and he won by half-a-tongue." Words that described his rambles across the countryside - "Then slowly we crawled by the trees that kept tally, Of the miles that were passed on the long journey down..." Words of rue - "I would, I would in vain / That I were single once again! / But ah, alas, that will not be / Till apples grow on the willow tree." Words that called for his fellow Australians to become an Australian people rather than transplanted Britons - "Banish from under your bonny skies / Those old-world errors and wrongs and lies. / Making a hell in a Paradise / That belongs to your sons and you. ...But your ranks grow longer and deep fast, / And ye shall swell to an army vast, / And free from the wrongs of the North and Past / The land that belongs to you."

Henry Lawson's fame had grown as the first two decades of the twentieth century proceeded. Many critics began referring to him as a national poet. But life began taking its toll, on his body and on his work. Critical acclaim faded, almost as quickly as it had arisen. In 1920, while his mother lay worn out and fading in Gladesville Hospital, Henry lay in another hospital, struggling to overcome the destroyer in the bottle. He received a Commonwealth Literary Fund pension and struggled to repair his life. Then Louisa passed away. Henry would not outlast her by long. In 1921 he was hospitalized with a cerebral hemorrhage. On September 1922, Henry Albury Larsen died at Abbotsford, Sydney.

For he shall write a simple song
to rouse men's hearts and cheer them,
And thousands roar the words along!
And kingdoms quake to hear them.
However faint and frail the form,
The strong heart has succeeded.
. . .
The grandest battles have been fought
With broken hearts behind them.

Without the Heart
- Henry Lawson


"An ' the Screamer put his tongue out..." The Grog-an'-grumble Steeplechase
"Then slowly we crawled by the trees..." Capertree Valley
"I would, I would in vain..." Unidentified in source
"Banish from under your bonny skies..." A Song of the Republic

Henry Lawson also wrote tender, gentle words. One of the finest methods of sampling these is to hear them performed by singer Priscilla Herdman, as set to her own music and that of others. They can be heard on her album Water Lily, re-released, on CD, in 1995 by Philo/Rounder. Included are Lawson's Andy's Gone With Cattle; The Drover's Sweetheart; Do You Think that I Do Not Know; The Bush Girl; Reedy River; The Shame of Going Back.


A search of Eagles Byte chronologies for the code lbr (labor) turns up the following for the years 1920 and 1921:

Jan 5
Labor organizer William (Big Bill) Haywood is arrested in Chicago, bailed out.

Jan 31
Haywood is rearrested, bailed out.

Oct 5
The U. S.Circuit Court of Appeals rules against William Haywood.

Jan 24
Switzerland bars the import of foreign labor.

Jan 25
The U. S. reports 3,500,000 are unemployed.

Mar 31
William Haywood flees the U. S. for asylum in the Soviet Union. ** Great Britain declares a state of emergency because of strikes by coal miners.

Apr 4
American Federation of Labor (AFL) president Samuel Gompers asks President Warren G. Harding to free all political prisoners.

Jun 25
Samuel Gompers is reelected president of the AFL for the 40th time, in Denver, Colorado.

Jun 28
The three-month British coal strike is settled.

Jul 1
The U. S. Railroad Labor Board reduces railroad workers' wages by 12%.

Jul 19
The U. S. reports there are 8,000,000 working women in the country.

Nov 3
Striking New York City milk drivers pour thousands of gallons into city streets.

Nov 22
William Haywood contracts with V. I. Lenin to establish a colony in Western Siberia run by exiled U. S. workers.

Dec 19
The Supreme Court holds an Arizona picketing law invalid, in Truax v. Corrigan.

Almost 20,000 U. S. businesses fail. Many workers strike. ** The U. S. Steel Corporation cuts wages three times. ** Labor union members begin singing Which Side Are You On?.


No URL this month. The Lawson material came from a variety of sources.

EB SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY (more detailed versions available)

I hope you've enjoyed this issue of Odds & Ends. I'd like to take this occasion to wish you and your families and friends the happiest of holiday seasons, and look forward to another year of exploration.

- David Minor


Copyright 1997 David Minor / Eagles Byte