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Marriage, money and moving around

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Romance vs reality

What was Henry Lawson like as a young man? Tall, slender and good looking with remarkable eyes – and although he was shy, lacking in self-confidence and very sensitive, he still had considerable powers of attraction.

In 1895 he’d met Bertha Marie Louise Bredt, the daughter of radical feminist and boarding house proprietor Matilda (Bertha) Bredt and step-daughter of W.H. McNamara, owner of a well-known socialist bookshop in Castlereagh Street, as well as the sister-in-law of politician Jack Lang. Their courtship was short and intense, and even though Bertha had been warned about Lawson’s drinking habits, they married impulsively on 15 April 1896.

But Lawson’s money problems only increased with marriage and, as he continued his carousing ways, he failed to keep publishing commitments and was forced to live on his meagre earnings from selling stories and poems to the Bulletin.

Wedded bliss was short-lived and Bertha tried to get her husband away from his bohemian companions. The couple went to Western Australia and then to New Zealand, where their son, Joseph (Jim), was born on 16 February 1898. The New Zealand move was not a success and the pair returned to Sydney, where Lawson resumed his old ways. Their daughter, Bertha Louisa, was born two years later, on 11 February 1900.

Old portrait of a woman sitting with a hat and formal clothing
Series 07: Henry Lawson family photographs, friends and memorial events, 1897-1956 - Bertha Lawson
1897-1956
Rodway, Florence, 1881-1971
View collection item detail
Digital ID: 
a6176025
Family portrait of man with their daughter seated on is lap
Series 07: Henry Lawson family photographs, friends and memorial events, 1897-1956 - Henry Lawson and his daughter
1897-1956
Rodway, Florence, 1881-1971
View collection item detail
Digital ID: 
a6176006
Old photographic portrait of a woman in period clothing standing and holding onto a bannister
Series 07: Henry Lawson family photographs, friends and memorial events, 1897-1956 - Bertha Brendt Jr, Melbourne, 1890
1897-1956
Rodway, Florence, 1881-1971
View collection item detail
Digital ID: 
a6176020
Old portrait photo of a boy sitting down in a chair
Series 07: Henry Lawson family photographs, friends and memorial events, 1897-1956 - Joseph Lawson
1897-1956
Rodway, Florence, 1881-1971
PXE 1101 / Box 1
View collection item detail
Digital ID: 
a6176010
Painting portrait of girl circa 1913, wearing a bow in her long hair whilst seated
Bertha Lawson, ca.1913 / portrait by F. Rodway
ca.1913
Rodway, Florence, 1881-1971
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Digital ID: 
a128546
Portait painting of a man seated sideways, Henry Lawson
Henry Lawson, 1914 / Florence Rodway
1914
Rodway, Florence, 1881-1971
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Digital ID: 
a6140001
Portrait photograph of man with moustache sitting down and holding their hat, Henry Lawson
Portraits of Norman and Lionel Lindsay, family and friends, ca. 1900-1912 / photographed chiefly by Lionel Lindsay - Henry Lawson
ca. 1900-1912
Lindsay, Lionel, Sir, 1874-1961
View collection item detail
Digital ID: 
a2005230

Greener pastures?

After 12 years of working as a writer in Australia, Lawson claimed he’d only earned £700 in total.

In ‘Pursuing Literature in Australia’, an article published in the Bulletin in 1899, Lawson blamed the small Australian market, which he felt had denied him the chance of living by his writing alone. Believing London could offer that chance, Lawson sought help to raise the fare from two high-profile public benefactors – Earl Beauchamp, the Governor of NSW, and book collector David Scott Mitchell. On 20 April 1900, he left for England with Bertha and their two children.

He had some literary success – Blackwood & Sons took two books, The Country I Came From and Joe Wilson and his Mates, and Methuen & Company published a book of prose and verse, Children of the Bush.

But it wasn’t the dream they’d imagined. Lawson soon began drinking again and Bertha became seriously ill, so the children were placed in temporary foster care while she was hospitalised. Barely able to pay the bills, Lawson was writing under duress.

By the time the family returned to Australia in mid 1902, the marriage was over and, in March 1903, Bertha Lawson obtained a legal separation from her husband.

Lawson started writing his autobiography in 1903, and while his recollections are invaluable, it was a difficult time to be reminiscing. Lawson was only 36, yet his literary failure in London was a setback from which the author never fully recovered.

When I have served the selfish turn
Of some all-worldly few,
And Folly’s lamps have ceased to burn,
Then I’ll come back to you.
[‘The Way of the World’, 1900]

Marriage, money and moving around - the author’s struggle

London and Sydney - the trouble with money

Lawson’s appeals to Earl Beauchamp, Governor of NSW, and book collector David Scott Mitchell for his fare to London were not his only applications to acquaintances and friends for money.

After his return to Sydney in 1903, Lawson spent time in and out of Darlinghurst Gaol over the next several years, applying frequently to others for loans or requesting payment of debts.

Old handwritten letter , first page, dated 4 February 1900 addressed to a Mr Mitchell
Holograph letter to David Scott Mitchell from Henry Lawson, Chaplin Cottage, Charles Street, North Sydney, asking for financial assistance to enable him to take his work to England, 4 February 1900 - First Page
4 February 1900
Mitchell, David Scott, 1836-1907
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Digital ID: 
a6200001
Old handwritten letter noted as page number 2 from 4 February 1900
Holograph letter to David Scott Mitchell from Henry Lawson, Chaplin Cottage, Charles Street, North Sydney, asking for financial assistance to enable him to take his work to England, 4 February 1900 - Page 2
4 February 1900
Mitchell, David Scott, 1836-1907
View collection item detail
Digital ID: 
a6200002
Page 3 of an old handwritten letter from 4 February 1900
Holograph letter to David Scott Mitchell from Henry Lawson, Chaplin Cottage, Charles Street, North Sydney, asking for financial assistance to enable him to take his work to England, 4 February 1900 - Page 3
4 February 1900
Mitchell, David Scott, 1836-1907
View collection item detail
Digital ID: 
a6200003
Page 4 of old handwritten letter dated 4 February 1900
Holograph letter to David Scott Mitchell from Henry Lawson, Chaplin Cottage, Charles Street, North Sydney, asking for financial assistance to enable him to take his work to England, 4 February 1900 - Page 4
4 February 1900
Mitchell, David Scott, 1836-1907
View collection item detail
Digital ID: 
a6200004
Old handwritten letter signed by Henry Lawson dated 4 April 1905 asking for financial help
Autograph letter signed by Henry Lawson, from Darlinghurst Gaol, to Bland Holt, asking for financial help, April 4th, 1905
1905
Lawson, Henry, 1867-1922
View collection item detail
Digital ID: 
a6173001

Son of the South - ‘A fragment of autobiography’

Between 1903 and 1908, Henry Lawson wrote parts of his autobiography in a two-volume manuscript, ‘A fragment of autobiography’, which is now held in the Mitchell Library. The narrative begins with his earliest memories and goes on to discuss his first publishing experience. It’s an honest and fascinating insight into the troubled writer’s life.

This story has been developed with the support of the State Library of NSW Foundation.

We would like to acknowledge the generosity of Curtis & Massey-Greene Families in recognition of "Faces In The Street" - St Vincent's Urban Mental Health Research Institute