State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 28 October 1981


Henry and Bertha Lawson: Some Unpublished Letters and Stories

In April 1907 Henry Lawson sold to the Melbourne publisher, Thomas Lothian,1 some manuscripts for fifty pounds. They were to be used for two books, one of verse and one of prose. Their agreement2 stated that the prose was not to be published before 1 July 1907, and the verse before the following November.
The manuscripts were in two parcels and Lothian soon realised that there was insufficient material for the planned volumes.3 The following months saw a criss-cross of letters and interviews between the sober Scot and intemperate Lawson. On one occasion Lothian arrived at his office in the morning to find Lawson drunk on the doorstep.4 By December his patience was exhausted and he wrote the following to Lawson in response to a further postponement:
If you can truly think that there has been the slightest pleasure in my doing business with you, that my former experiences should make me anxious or pleased to meet you, then I will apologize.
After destroying three Agreements, and preparing new ones … after obliging you by paying for books that were guaranteed to be ready for publication three months from acceptance, (and it will be over twelve months according to your last cool advice, before any start can be made on them): after other interviews that I remember well, I regret that I fail to see why I should desire any fresh interviews.
From my point of view, your letter is just about “the last straw.”5
Lothian had to wait a further six years for the books to be published although two miniature booklets,6 each containing a single story, were issued in 1911. However, For Australia and other poems7 and Triangles of life and other stories8 did not appear until late 1913.9
In 1952 Thomas Lothian retired from active participation in the Lothian Publishing Company and donated its records to the State, then Public, Library of Victoria. He placed a long restriction on their access and it is only in recent years when the 59 boxes10 were sorted and catalogued that these original Lawson manuscripts11 have come to light. Their discovery is an important find in Lawson scholarship for there is considerably more material than what appeared in For Australia and Triangles of Life. There are several unpublished letters and short stories, and some unpublished and variant poetry. A checklist of them is given in this issue.
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The most interesting items amongst the unpublished material are a series of nine letters from Bertha Lawson to her husband, written mainly at the time of the break-up of their marriage. They are important not only because of the obvious Lawson relevance but in the wider context of the picture they give of the deserted mother struggling to bring up her children in an unsympathetic society.
Bertha Maria Louise Bredt and Henry Archibald Lawson were married on 15 April 1896. She was 19, he 28. Friends and family had warned her against the marriage12 and, although there were many happy and tender moments, it was not a success. It was so, not just because they were unsuited, but because Lawson's temperament and bohemian inclinations were not compatible with the restrictions that a conventional marriage places on both of the partners. In his own words,
I am human, very human, and if in the days misspent,
I have injured man or women, it was done without intent.
If at times I blundered blindly — bitter heart and aching brow —
If I wrote a line unkindly — I am sorry for it now.13
After periods in Western Australia and New Zealand in between prolonged sprees in Sydney, Henry Lawson took his wife and two young children to London in April 1900. He went as an optimist who was going to conquer the literary world but returned two years later in poor health, broke and homesick. Despite some considerable success14 his intemperate
habits were, as usual, the main cause of his failure to make a living.
Bertha's health in England was not good and she was for a time hospitalized. Stress and worry over Henry and her marriage were partly responsible for her sickness. She sailed for Australia with the two children before Henry but was joined by him when their ship was delayed at Colombo. They arrived in Adelaide early in July 1902 and Henry disembarked and took the train to Melbourne. Bertha stated in her reminiscences15 that he went to see her brother to effect a reconciliation: in fact it is almost certain that he went to see his confidant, and possibly lover, Hannah Thornburn.16 To his dismay he found that she had died on 1 June while he was at sea. According to Manning Clark17 her death broke Lawson. Certainly his best work was written before she died. He was never again able to recapture the subtle poignancy of his earlier writings.
The family were reunited in Sydney in late July 1902. Henry was obviously in a bad state and he spent a few days resting in a private hospital.18 He had been drinking heavily and Bertha tried unsuccessfully to have him admit himself into an inebriates’ home for six months.19 They took a cottage in Manly but Lawson continued to deteriorate. Bertha, sick with worry and fearing for her safety, made a complaint under oath that on 4 December she was forced to leave their residence “under reasonable apprehension of danger to her person … and … therefore … to have been deserted … without reasonable cause”20 On 6 December Lawson was summonsed21 to answer her complaint and on the same morning he was found lying injured by the water's edge at Manly, having apparently fallen some eighty feet from the cliffs above. He was taken to Sydney and remanded from the Central Police Station as being of unsound mind and admitted to Sydney Hospital suffering from a broken ankle and lacerations.22
Publicly Lawson tended to treat his fall as a joke.23 Recovering in hospital he wrote to George Robertson24 on 17 December, “I wasn't a success as a flying machine, was I?” and which Robertson annotated with, “Henry Lawson fell over a cliff at Manly — drunk, of course.”25 However the fall was not just caused by drunkeness and has to be considered as a possible suicide attempt. In an unpublished poem entitled ‘Lawson's fall’, Henry wrote,
Twas the white clouds flying over, or the crawling sea below,—
Or the torture of the present or the dreams of long ago,
Or the horror of the future born of black-days, fate — or all —
Never mind! the gods who saw it know the cause of Lawsons fall.26
The accident coupled with the enforced absence from alcohol while recuperating brought Henry and Bertha closer together than they had been for some time. However in the New Year Bertha suffered a breakdown and with Henry now out of hospital and back on the bottle the couple were again estranged. About late February or early March they were reunited and took another cottage in Manly.27
Their reconciliation was shortlived. By April28 the couple were separated, this time permanently. Henry after a drying out spell in the Thomas Walker Convalescent Hospital at Parramatta River went to live with Isobel Byers at her coffee house in North Sydney.29 Bertha was left on her own with two children and no money. She did not receive any alimony until 23 May and was forced to pawn her wedding ring.30 To add to her troubles she found that their recent brief reconciliation had resulted in a pregnancy.31 On 4 June 1903 the Lawsons were awarded a judicial separation without admissions with costs awarded against Henry.32
The letters reproduced below begin at the time of the family's return to Sydney in July 1902 and all, except one, were written during the period described immediately above. The undated letters have been tentatively dated from internal and external evidence and all are printed as written except for minor standardization of punctuation.


Thomas Carlyle Lothian (1884–1974), proprietor and founder of the Lothian Publishing Company. For further biographical details and a history of the company see [Stuart Sayers] The house of Lothian is seventy-five (Melbourne: Lothian Publishing Co., 1963).


Lothian to Lawson's agent, A. B. Davies, 7 May 1907. Lothian Publishing Company Papers, MS 6026, La Trobe Collection, State Library of Victoria (hereafter Lothian Papers).


Lothian to Lawson, 7 March 1907. Lothian Papers.


T. C. Lothian to Harry F. Chaplin, 12 September 1961. Quoted in Harry F. Chaplin, Henry Lawson: his books, manuscripts, autograph letters and association copies, Studies in Australian Bibliography, no. 21, (Sydney: Wentworth Press, 1974), p. 41.


Lothian to Lawson, 5 December 1907. Lothian Papers.


For bibliographical details see George Mackaness, An annotated bibliography of Henry Lawson (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1951), items 13 and 14.


See Mackaness, item 15.


See Mackaness, item 16.


The legal deposit copies of both books were received by the Public Library of Victoria on 2 October 1913.


7.2 metres.


30 cm.


See Bertha Lawson, My Henry Lawson (Sydney: Frank Johnson, 1943), chapter three, ‘Our meeting and marriage’.


Henry Lawson, “The last review’ [June 1904], Colin Roderick, ed., Henry Lawson. Collected verse (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1968), vol. 2, p. 61.


Lawson had two books published while he was in England, viz., Joe Wilson and his mates (Mackaness item 7) and Children of the bush (Mackaness item 8). See also Lawson to the Bulletin [May 1902] in Colin Roderick, ed., Henry Lawson. Letters 1890–1922 (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1970) [hereafter Letters], no. 109, p. 132.


Bertha Lawson, op. cit., pp. 79–80.


See note 13 to ‘The Editor of the Comet’.


Manning Clark, In search of Henry Lawson (Melbourne: Macmillan, 1978), p. 102, 133.


Lawson to Bland Holt [August 1902], Letters, no. 110, pp. 132–33.


David Ferguson to Walter Alan Woods, 28 October 1902, Letters, note to letter 118, p.444.


Summons to Henry Archibald Lawson, 6 December 1902. Lothian Papers.


Ibid. Probably due to his accident the complaint against Lawson was not heard until 31 December when he was ordered to pay £2 per week alimony. [Summons, 31 December 1902]. Lothian Papers. The payments were possibly never started, as early in the New Year Bertha stopped all legal proceedings against Lawson. See letter IV below.


Details from the Sydney Morning Herald, 8 December 1902, p.8. and the Australasian (Melbourne). 13 December 1902, p. 1405.


Lawson to the Bulletin [December 1902], Letters, no. 121, p.138.


Letters, no. 119, p. 137.


Letters, note to letter 119, p.444.


Lothian Papers. There is also an incomplete story referring to the incident which hints at a suicide attempt. See checklist for details.


Receipt dated 25 March for rent for one week commencing 11 March 1903. Lothian Papers. See also letters IV and V below.


See letter VI below.


Lawson to W. Ashe [Alan?] Woods, 15 September 1903, Letters, no. 127, pp. 140–14.


Receipt. Lothian Papers. Letter VI below.


Letter VIII below. The child was stillborn.


James C. Elphinstone, solicitor, to Henry Lawson, 4 June 1903. Lothian Papers.