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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 9, Issue 1 (April 2, 1934.)


Henry Lawson.

Henry Lawson.

Henry Lawson visited New Zealand on two occasions, both in the ‘nineties. He was not married on his first trip over; he brought his bride with him on his second voyage of discovery, and their first-born, Jim, was born in Wellington.

Long before I had met Henry I had been interested in his prose and verse, for I also was a contributor to the Sydney “Bulletin,” in which most of Henry's best work was originally published. I had a Lawson lecture in my repertoire given in those days of the ‘nineties to the literary and debating societies of Wellington and suburbs, and had written him up in the “Otago Witness.”

It can be easily realised how interested I was, therefore, when a fellow worker on the “New Zealand Times” told me one afternoon that Henry Lawson was in Wellington. What was he doing here on this side of the Tasman Sea? I asked. “He's stranded!” was the reply.

On learning that Lawson was spending his nights on “the Rec.” (Waterloo Quay to-day), I asked my informant to bring Henry along so that something could be done for him.

On our first meeting I arranged with the Sydneysider that he was to stay with me for a fortnight. (The tale is told in “Henry Lawson, by His Mates,” pp. 51 to 55, published in 1931 by Angus and Robertson for a fund for the indigent writers of Australia. It is a splendid compilation of Law-sonia.)

Henry Lawson was wonderfully well treated by Wellington folk. He was not lionised, for this rather taciturn and gawky Australian genius was very shy of the limelight in those days and his deafness when in a room was a handicap. Strange to say, his hearing was good —even sharp and sensitive—in the open and on the crowded thoroughfare. Often he pulled me up sharply as we walked down Cuba Street into town with the remark: “You needn't shout, Tom—I'm not deaf, you know!”

The men who put their hands into their pockets and helped Henry otherwise, included the late Gresley Lukin (editor of the “Post”), the late Charles Wilson (editor of the “New Zealand Mail”—later Parliamentary Librarian), Edward Tregear (first Secretary of the Labour Dept), Herbert Baillie (then in partnership with his late brother John, the artist, in a bookshop in Cuba Street. The photograph reproduced with this article has not previously been published. It was taken by John Baillie in the back room of their shop one afternoon when Henry and I were visiting the Baillie's.)

Jack Louisson, now living in retirement in Palmerston North, then in the Telegraph Dept. in Wellington, was another good pal. Henry got a job with Jack's brother pioneering a telegraph line through Marlborough, and the poet thoroughly enjoyed that adventure. I'm writing of nearly forty years ago.

When on his second visit Henry brought a wife to Wellington, Mrs. Grace Neill, organiser of the Women's Bureau of the Labour Dept., under Ed. Tregear, proved a staunch friend. Lawson wrote quite a quantity of both prose and verse during his first visit. Some of it I placed with that kindly-natured editor of the “Otago Witness,” the late Wm. Fenwick. Charles Wilson accepted much of it— and paid for some of it out of his own pocket, as the “Mail” could not afford to pay for contributions.

On his second visit, when he and his wife got charge of the native school near Kaikoura (North Canterbury), Henry wrote me that he was inspired to write the book of his life. He would immortalise the South Island Maori in this magnum opus. It was to be a book that would make more than the billy boil. He wrote me later in great glee that he had completed the first chapter of his book on the Maori. But, alas, he could not keep that chapter in hand and add other chapters to it. Sustained effort had always been against Henry's nature. He rounded that chapter off into an article and sent it as such to the “Bulletin.” Later he sent another article. That was all the contribution he made to the big work he dreamed about. But that was Henry Lawson—he dreamed dreams. Yet, after all, when his disabilities are remembered—he had no education, as such, and writing was hard physical labour, a very slow process—he had a remarkable output of good-quality writing that was published. He destroyed many MSS., for he was his own most severe critic. I got an order for him from a southern editor for a column article. Henry was very hard up. He needed that guinea. It took him eight hours to write it. I approved of it. He read it over again—and then put it into the fire! He just didn't like it. “It's not up to standard, Tom,” was his only comment. And he didn't fulfil that order. Yet he was neither a moody nor a perverse man. He was extremely good-natured. His eyes were large and brown; his voice soft.

His mind was that of the versifier. He was absorbed in verse of all kinds —blank, poetic or jingling. His memory for verse was remarkable. Once read, a poem was his for always and he could repeat his own verse by the hour. Often as we sat o' nights yarning or talking of writers and I quoted a line from current versifiers or poets, Henry would complete the whole verse, whether it was Kipling's or his special bete noir, “Banjo” Paterson. Rudyard he admired, but he thought there were no poets in the whole wide page 38 page 39 world to compare with the song-birds that were kept in the “Bulletin's” cage.

I have mentioned that Henry had some experience in Marlborough's outback. While in the telegraph camp behind Blenheim “or further on,” he wrote me apropos of Tom Bracken's complaint about the ingratitude of New Zealanders generally, and editors particularly, in not supporting local industry in poets. As this bit of Lawsonia has not been published before nor have I seen any of Henry's MS. reproduced even in Australia, it will make a fitting rounding off and tailpiece to my rambling thoughts and memories of a typical out-back Australian who told me one night that he was describing himself when he wrote in “Middleton's Rouseabout” (page 97, “In the Days When the World was Wide”):

“Tall and freckled and sandy, Face of a country lout; This is the picture of Andy, Middleton's Rouseabout.”