Henry Lawson is Australia’s most famous writer, known best for his short stories although he also wrote poetry. Yet the centenary of his death passed last week almost without notice. He had a few Mountain connections.
Henry was deaf and shy and had an unhappy childhood, his parents often at odds. After leaving school he found himself working for his father Peter at Mount Victoria, in 1881. Peter was a builder in a small way, and Henry’s job was to paint the cottages after they’d been put up. Most houses then were built of wood - there is not enough clay on the Mountains to make bricks, and for most people it was too expensive to bring them up from the plains.
Lawson seems to have enjoyed his time up here, and began to write verse. Poetry was hugely popular then, and published in most newspapers and magazines. But it was a particular type of poetry, light verse with mundane observations on life. It was a bit like the lyrics of pop music, and the fact it had rhythm and rhyme also gave it some of the appeal of the songs that would supplant it when radio came along.
Henry’s grandfather also lived at Mount Victoria, as caretaker for one of the big houses, and Henry stayed with him for a while. He returned to Sydney but came back to Mount Victoria later in the decade, and wrote poems that were published in newspapers including the Lithgow Enterprise. The poems contained Lawson’s characteristic bitterness, and he began to make a small name for himself.
Lawson made friends too, a group of five young men he later called ‘the Mountain Push’ and who would camp out or just walk around the area by day and night. Lawson was always restless, and once dragged one of these friends out of bed to walk to Blackeath so they could see Govetts Leap by moonlight.
A friend from that time recalled, ‘Henry loved the beauty of the gullies and ranges. It has been said that he had no eye for the wonders of nature, but I know differently … He enjoyed beautiful scenery in a quiet way.’
It was these friends who told Lawson the story that became his poem ‘Ghost at the Second Bridge’, about the murder of Catherine Collitts on Victoria Pass. Other yarns, about old buildings – he was particularly interested in ghosts at the time – later led to short stories. In fact, it was in the Mountains that he announced his decision to turn from verse to the prose that would make him famous.
Henry’s father died at Mount Victoria on 31 December 1888, just after seeing his son’s first story published in the Bulletin. For some reason he was buried in the cemetery at the foot of Cox’s Pass, down in Hartley Vale – I haven’t been able to find out why they took him all the way down there, instead of to the more convenient resting place in Mount Victoria.
Lawson became a bitter and desperate alcoholic in his later life. He was given a pension by the government (rare at the time), to acknowledge his literary achievement, but the money had to be kept out of his hands to stop him from blowing it on a binge.
In January 1922 he was living at a boarding house in Leichhardt Street, Katoomba. The hope was that the Mountains might help with his physical and emotional ailments. He spent several weeks here, but apparently to little avail, for he returned to Sydney, where he died later that year.