Henry Lawson is one of the best-loved Australian writers of the 19th century. Like his contemporary Banjo Paterson, Lawson helped create a view of the bush which still seems relevant today. Some people dismiss it as ‘the myth of the bush’ but it helped Australians to better understand their country and come to grips with the hardships experienced by early settlers.
As you drive into Grenfell in New South Wales’ central west, you can’t miss the fact that Henry Lawson was born there. A large sign on the edge of town proclaims that Grenfell is the ‘Birth place of Henry Lawson’ and along the main street is a Lawson Memorial with a bust of the poet, the Loaded Dog Cafe, and several murals depicting Lawson.
To get a feel for Lawson’s origins, you have to head for Lawson Park. It is located beside Lawson Oval in Lawson Drive, which runs off Henry Lawson Way. Yes, they take their most famous son very seriously in this part of the world. A white obelisk in the park marks the place where Henry was born. Plaques on the obelisk give quotes from his writings, including the autobiographical poem Said Grenfell to My Spirit which has a line that reads, “You were born on Grenfell goldfield – and you can’t get over that.”
Note that there is no building on the site where Lawson was born. He was actually born in a tent.
LAWSON IN MUDGEE
Peter never managed to hit pay dirt on the Grenfell goldfields and the family moved home frequently, following the gold rushes. In 1873, the Lawsons moved to Eurunderee (then known as Pipeclay Flat) on the north side of Mudgee. Lawson later described his childhood here in warmly nostalgic terms. In the main street of Mudgee is a memorial to Henry Lawson which proclaims that his “Poems and stories have so truly presented Australia to the world.”
At Eurunderee, you can still see where the Lawsons lived. The site of their home is on the minor road from Mudgee to Gulgong, now known as Henry Lawson Drive. A plaque explains the historical significance of the site, but all that remains of the old homestead is the fireplace and chimney.
There are more reminders of Henry Lawson’s childhood in Gulgong, about 30km north of Mudgee. The historic Prince of Wales Opera House in Mayne Street, which is indeed the main street, was built in 1871. It appears in Lawson’s poem The Last Review. Other buildings in the street were featured on the first $10 note in 1966, along with a portrait of Henry Lawson.
In Medley Street, you can see a private residence named Landsdowne, which is also known as The Lawson House. This wooden cottage was built in the 1880s for Lawson’s aunt Phoebe by his father. Lawson helped with the painting. In Anzac Memorial Park, there are war memorials, flower gardens and a statue of Henry Lawson.
THE HENRY LAWSON CENTRE
Gulgong’s biggest attraction for Henry Lawson fans is the Henry Lawson Centre. Located in the town’s old Salvation Hall, the centre has many paintings, documents and exhibits about Henry’s life and times. Staff at the centre are proud of the fact that it has the second largest collection of Lawson’s writing in New South Wales, being second only to the State Library in Sydney.
Judging from his poems and stories, Lawson gives the impression that he enjoyed his childhood in the Mudgee/Gulgong area. But it was a very difficult time for his parents. Their marriage eventually failed, with Louisa going off to live in Sydney with Henry’s younger siblings. At first, Henry stayed in Gulgong working with his father, but then went to Sydney in 1883.
Lawson had a tough time in Sydney. He dealt with deafness resulting from a childhood illness and studied for matriculation but failed his examinations. But, despite these hardships, he started writing poetry and articles for magazines. When he was just 20 years of age, he had his first poem published. Five years later, the short story The Drover’s Wife was published. This account of the hardships of a woman looking after her family while the husband is off droving is still a much-loved Australian classic.
LASWON TRAVELS ACROSS NSW
In 1892, The Bulletin sent Lawson on a trip around drought-stricken New South Wales. He wrote, “You can have no idea of the horrors of the country out here, men tramp and beg and live like dogs.” The tragic and humorous sights he saw while were recounted in his writings for years afterwards.
In 1896, Henry married Bertha (nee Bredt) and also had two books of verse published by Angus and Robertson. The couple moved to Western Australia for a while but subsequently moved back to Sydney and then on to New Zealand for about eight months.
Frustrated by his limited success in Australia, Lawson moved to London with his family in 1900. When they returned to Sydney in 1902, Lawson described his time in London as a “nightmare … that wrecked and ruined me”. [Pic: Getty]
BACK IN SYDNEY
Although life had been tough for Henry Lawson until 1902, it took a drastic turn for the worse from then onwards. He was separated from his wife in 1903, lived in squalid conditions, had frequent spells in gaol and was admitted to a mental hospital several times. He had become more of a battler than the people who he described in his stories and poems. In 1922, he died a broken man and was buried at Waverley Cemetery near Bronte Beach in Sydney. He is also honoured by a statue in The Domain in Sydney.
THE 'HENRY LAWSON TRAIL'
Lawson’s birthplace of Grenfell is 365km west of Sydney and 210km north-west of Canberra. Mudgee is 270km north-west of Sydney, and 290km north-east of Mudgee. Gulgong is a further 30km north of Mudgee.
WHAT TO SEE
- Grenfell – visit Lawson Park, the birthplace of Henry Lawson
- Mudgee – visit Lawsons’ old home on Henry Lawson Drive, Eurunderee, and the nearby school.
- Gulgong – pay a visit to the Prince of Wales Opera House in Mayne Street which appears in the poem The Last Review; and Landsdowne house in Medley Street which was built in 1880 for Lawson’s aunt Phoebe by his father. Another must-see is the Henry Lawson Centre in Mayne Street which has the second-largest collection of Lawson’s writings in New South Wales.
HOLIDAY PARKS IN MUDGEE AND GRENFELL, NSW
- Mudgee Valley Tourist Park | Ph: (02) 6171 3100 | Cnr Bell and Market streets, Mudgee, NSW
- Mudgee Riverside Caravan & Tourist Park | Ph: (02) 6171 3533 | 22 Short Street, Mudgee, NSW
- Mudgee Tourist and Van Resort | Ph: (02) 6171 3534 | Lions Drive, Mudgee, NSW
- Grenfell Caravan Park | Ph: (02) 6171 3397 | 10 Grafton Street, Grenfell, NSW