Early Lawson

Henry Lawson, the celebrated Australian short story writer and poet, was born near Grenfell, NSW on 17th June 1867. His childhood, spent on a small selection at Eurunderee, NSW, was unhappy and difficult. His parents struggled with poverty, drought and an unsuccessful marriage. Henry, called "Barmy" by his classmates, was lonely and ostracised at school. At the age of thirteen a partial hearing loss deteriorated into deafness and forced Henry to leave school to work on the farm and to help his father as a carpenter.

Henry Lawson, aged 18 or 19

  An early photograph of Henry Lawson, aged eighteen or nineteen.

Lawson Collection (Lawson 185)

Autograph note by Henry Lawson

  Autograph note by Henry Lawson accompanying the portrait above, written in the Bulletin Office, dated October 9th, 1903.

It reads:

"This portrait of me was taken by Eden when I was eighteen or nineteen and enlarged by them. I was a better man and a bigger fool in those days.
Yours truly,
Henry Lawson."

Lawson Collection (Lawson 185)

After his parents separated in 1883 Henry's mother, Louisa Lawson, moved to Sydney. There she became involved in women's rights and later worked as a writer and publisher, setting up her own printing press known as The Dawn in 1888. Henry eventually joined Louisa in Sydney, where he found work as an apprentice coach painter at Clyde during the day and in the evenings attended night school. A love of literature had been nurtured in Henry from an early age by Louisa and he began to write around this time. His first poem, "Song of the Republic" was published by The Bulletin in 1887 and his first short story, "His Father's Mate" was published in 1888. Lawson's verse was extremely popular with the public, but it was his prose which was regarded most highly by the critics. Louisa Lawson published Henry's first book, "Short Stories in Prose and Verse" on The Dawn press in 1894.

Henry Lawson's first published book

  Henry Lawson, Short Stories in Prose and Verse
Sydney: Louisa Lawson, no date (1894).

Henry Lawson's first published book, printed by his mother, Louisa Lawson on The Dawn press. Although it was well received by critics, it was not a commercial success. Inscribed by Henry Lawson and Bertha Lawson, his wife, on the front cover.

Lawson Collection (Lawson 17)


Lawson formed a lifelong friendship with the young writer Mary Cameron (later Dame Mary Gilmore) early in his career; he also began drinking, something which was to afflict him for the rest of his life. Despite the growing popularity of his poetry and prose Lawson could not earn enough money to support himself through writing and still had to find work where he could. In 1890 he moved to Brisbane to write for the Boomerang, an important labour newspaper, until it closed in 1892. This job had a formative influence on his writing and turned out to be the only full-time writing job he held in his life.

Encouraged by J.F.Archibald, the editor of the Bulletin, Lawson then went to Bourke and spent a year travelling the outback with a swag, doing unskilled jobs in shearing sheds. His experiences in the bush provided much of the inspiration and many of the characters for later stories and sketches. In 1893, again desperate for work, he spent a year in New Zealand where he worked as a sawmill hand and telegraph linesman. He returned to Australia in 1894 and married Bertha Bredt, a nurse, in 1896.

Letter to Brereton on birth of Lawson's son. Click to enlarge.

  Note from Henry Lawson to John Le Gay Brereton, poet and later Challis Professor of English Literature, University of Sydney, dated February 16th, 1898.

The note was written from Wellington, New Zealand on the birth of Lawson's son, Joseph (known as "Jim"). The baby was born during an earthquake. This was Lawson's second stay in New Zealand. Lawson and his family returned to Sydney shortly afterwards. Lawson and Brereton met through Mary Gilmore.

The note reads:

"Dear Jack,
Your note alright. Boy. Both doing well.
Good luck old man
Yours joyfully
Henry Lawson"

Lawson Collection (Lawson 35)

Original pen drawing by Norman Linsday

  Norman Lindsay's original pen drawing for the cover of Lawson's While the Billy Boils with instructions to the line block maker on the reverse side (1906).

Lawson Collection (Lawson 41)

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