Henry Lawson's Socialist Vision


  • Michael Wilding


Henry Lawson (1867-1922) was born on the Grenfell goldfield in New South Wales. His father was a Norwegian seaman who had jumped ship in Australia. His mother was the daughter of English immigrants. 'They were supposed to have come of English gipsies and were hop pickers in Kent', Lawson wrote in his uncompleted autobiography.2 His parents separated and Lawson worked with his father as a carpenter and painter, and then went to live with his mother in Sydney:


I worked about in various private shops and did a bit of house-painting too. I knew what it was, when I was out of work for a few days in winter, to turn out shivering and be down at the Herald office at four o'clock on bitter mornings, and be one of the haggard group striking matches and running them down the wanted columns on the damp sheets posted outside. I knew what it was to tramp long distances and be one of the hopeless crowd of applicants. I knew what it was to drift about the streets in shabby and patched clothes and feel furtive and criminal-like. I knew all that before I wrote 'Faces in the Street' -before I was twenty. 3


In 1887 the Mayor of Sydney called a public meeting to plan celebrations for Queen Victoria's jubilee. The meeting and its immediate successors were taken over by republicans and freethinkers. 'Recent immigrants from the English working classes and the petty bourgeoisie touched with socialistic principles, aided by the old convict leaven, had humiliated the loyalists', writes Manning Clark.4 A Republican Union emerged, attracting British born radicals like Thomas Walker, George Black and John Norton~ as well as native radicals like J. D. Fitzgerald and Louisa Lawson. Within a month the Republican was launched and Henry helped print it, contributed political articles, and was registered publisher. When the Republican Union split after a year and the Republican ceased publication, Louisa took over the press to produce The Dawn, Australia's first woman's magazine. Henry continued to help print and to contribute. His first book, Short Stories in Prose and Verse (1894) was produced by Louisa on the Dawn press. It was in this context that Lawson wrote his first published poem, 'A Song of the Republic' which the Bulletin published on eight hours day, 1887