The battle with the bottle
‘Beer makes you feel the way you ought to feel without beer’ – it’s an often quoted and enjoyed line of Lawson’s, but the tragic reality behind this comment cast a shadow over the writer’s life.
Suffering from depression and alcoholism, Henry Lawson did several short stints of ‘time’ at Darlinghurst Gaol between 1905 and 1910 for repeated public drunkenness and failure to pay child support. He also spent time in rehabilitation sanatoriums and visited the Darlinghurst Reception House, which operated as a psychiatric assessment hospital catering for mentally ill patients who’d normally have been placed in gaol.
Lawson said that he turned to alcohol to forget his shyness, his deafness, and for relief and refuge from the many things he felt so keenly but which it seemed he would never be able to attain. Only when he was drinking, it seemed, did the author feel confident, able to face the world and capable of doing anything.
‘Starvinghurst Gaol’ was the name Lawson gave it, because of the paltry rations given to prisoners. And in 1908, he would write about his time in Darlinghurst Gaol in the poem ‘One Hundred and Three’, which referred to his prison number.
According to publisher George Robertson, the police were always very kind to Lawson. On many occasions he was never formally ‘charged’ or ‘committed’. Rather, he was picked up on the streets (or he came in of his own accord) and kept in the cells to sober up, only being released after the public houses had closed.
But with release he’d return to his old ways and the bottle. He’d constantly write to friends and colleagues asking for money, often using his landlady, Mrs Isabel Byers, as his messenger.
Mrs Byers, a fellow poet who’d befriended Lawson in 1904, would give the writer food and shelter for the rest of his life, but she couldn’t save him as the battles with alcohol, depression and poverty continued.
At his lowest point, Henry Lawson could be seen wandering Sydney, begging for money, having become one of the faces in the street he’d written about more than a decade ago. Everyone knew Lawson from his works but few would associate with him, although George Robertson, John Le Gay Brereton and the poet E.J. Brady often helped him out financially. Lawson stayed with other friends for short respites from drinking but always returned to Mrs Byers’ home.
In 1916, his friends found him a position at Yanco, providing data for the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Scheme. This was a prohibition area and Lawson described it as the driest place he’d ever been, but his health improved and he continued to produce work there that was well received.
Returning to Sydney, Lawson fell into old habits once more. He had a small allowance from his publishers, which was enough to sustain him, and in 1920, he was granted a lifetime pension of £1 per week from the Commonwealth Literary Fund. But for Henry Lawson, this boon had come too late.
He suffered a brain haemorrhage on 14 July 1921 yet continued to work, writing about his travels to London. At age 55 and still writing, Henry Lawson died peacefully in his sleep on 2 September 1922, at Mrs Byers’ home in Abbotsford, NSW.
So the days of my tramping are over,
And the days of my riding are done.
(Written Afterwards, from Verses Popular and Humorous, 1900)
Hard times - and rays of hope
Friends in need
Among the friends and colleagues who were there for Henry Lawson in bad times as well as good, he was always grateful to his publishers J.F. Archibald and George Robertson. J. F. Archibald, editor of the Bulletin and founder of Australia’s famous portrait award the Archibald Prize, was a long-time supporter of writers and artists. It was Archibald who helped Lawson in his early days as a Bulletin author, guiding him through his kindness and sensitive editing to shape his unique, laconic writing style. Lawson would later dedicate In the Days When the World Was Wide to Archibald. The editor died in 1919 and is buried at Sydney’s Waverley Cemetery, the same place Lawson lies. Publisher George Robertson was also a great support to Lawson, both personally and professionally. ‘Redgum’ (the journalist J.G. Lockley) recalled Lawson’s gratitude in an article in the Sydney Morning Herald dated 2 September 1933. In 1910, he reported, Lawson wrote the poem ‘The Auld Shop and the New’ which, Lawson claims on the title page, was ‘Written specially for “The Chief”, George Robertson, of Angus and Robertson, as some slight acknowledgement of and small return for his splendid generosity during years of trouble.’
Keeping the memory alive
Further proof that Lawson did not lack friends and admirers can be seen from the volume ‘Henry Lawson by his mates’, published nine years after his death.