Professor J. Le Gay Brereton: Sudden death: While on caravan tour [obituary, 3 February 1933]

[Editor: This article about John Le Gay Brereton was published in The Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney, NSW), 3 February 1933.]

Professor J. Le Gay Brereton.

Sudden death

While on caravan tour.

Professor John Le Gay Brereton, Professor of English Literature at the University of Sydney, died suddenly near Tamworth yesterday morning while on a caravan tour. He had been touring the country for about three months, and was on his way home when he became suddenly ill, and died from heart affection.

During his holiday Professor Brereton, together with a son and a party, had been touring through northern New South Wales. They had already journeyed through the North Coast, and were making towards Sydney in easy stages through the New England district. On Wednesday night the party camped near Calala bridge, a few miles outside Tamworth. Early yesterday morning Professor Brereton was observed to be seriously ill, and he died shortly afterwards.

The death of Professor Brereton in his 62nd year marks the passing of a man of letters whose distinguished scholarship, creative intellect and charm of personality had won for him an acknowledged place in literature. They gained for him also an enduring influence as one of the great Australian writers, because of the exquisite grace and feeling of his work, and the deep admiration of those who were sensible of the full measure of his achievements. No man revealed more modestly than Professor Brereton the powers of scholarship. It was because he avoided publicity that he possibly missed some of the honour that was the due of this original mind, whose fancy in prose and in verse expressed so strikingly his intellectual gifts.

The poorer for his passing are the field of literature, the University of Sydney (where he graduated B.A.), and countless undergraduates to whom he was general literary adviser. Yet at the same time they are the richer to-day for Professor Brereton’s influence and learning.

On the selection by the “Sydney Morning Herald” of Professor Brereton as the judge in its competition for an ode on the opening of the Federal Parliament at Canberra, it was written of him in an appreciation by a contributor:— “There is about his work a chastity of thought and manner and a simplicity that belong to the best in English poetry. He never attempts the bizarre. … His verse forms are always correct, and the treatment generally the very happiest. … Every form of verse, from ode to sonnet, from narrative verse to tender love lyric, has been handled by him with melody and feeling.”

Professor Brereton and Henry Lawson remained close friends from the time they were introduced to each other by Mary Gilmore many years ago until Lawson’s death. It was a lasting friendship, not only because of Professor Brereton’s unobtrusive charm, but also because of his influence on his distinguished companion in letters.


Professor Brereton was Assistant Librarian, and subsequently Librarian in the University of Sydney, until 1921, when he was appointed Professor of English Literature, following the establishment of the Chair in that domain of learning. The responsibility of determining the three best candidates for the honour of this professorship was deputed by the Senate of the University to a committee of professors in Great Britain. The committee’s first choice — and it had a wealth of scholarship in the British Empire at its command — was an Australian, and a graduate of the University, in Professor Brereton. The choice of the London committee was a tribute to the man, to the University, and to the city — Sydney — in which he was born. A son of the late Dr. John Le Gay Brereton, formerly of Yorkshire, Professor Brereton was educated at the Sydney Grammar School before passing on to the University.

Professor Brereton typified strikingly the democratic side of university life. It was because of his intense love of the bush that he was caravaning when he died. He had not only camped out with Lawson, but had carried a swag with him. One might easily have imagined Professor Brereton with his swag on his back. His sunburned face reflected his love of the out-of-doors. He never wore a hat, and was indifferent to sartorial niceties. His kindly nature expressed itself in many directions, notably in his readiness to assist other writers. He was president of the Fellowship of Australian Writers, which he had assisted to form. He filled, among other occupations, a post in the New South Wales Government Statistician’s office before becoming assistant librarian at the University.


Of his volumes of verse what was regarded by many as the best — “Swags Up” — appeared in 1928. His work showed a steady development from his first book onward for, while it reflected the same spirit throughout, it showed a marked gain in poetic power. His latest work also included, “Knocking Round,” a collection of criticisms in lighter vein — and of stories and reminiscences; and a one-act play “So Long, Mick,” which was specially staged in London as an illustration of a dramatic type. His “To-morrow,” it is said, could have been written only by a poet who had steeped himself in early Elizabethanism. One of his best-known books was “Landlopers,” a tramping idyll. It is the story of four weeks’ wandering, “billy” in hand, and swag on shoulder. Professor Brereton carried his scholarship lightly, although there was no doubt about his learning, partly because it was with the Elizabethans rather than with the Greek and Latin classics that his work lay mainly, but also because of his comparative simplicity. He was regarded as more simply and frankly a mystic than any other Australian poet, who, while looking beyond, was always able at the same time to meet the claims and the responsibilities of everyday life. Professor Brereton, like Brennan and others, wrote war verse, but it was not among his best work.

Professor Brereton was not only the outstanding Australian authority on the Elizabethan drama, but he also had an international reputation as a student and critic of it. He knew the Elizabethan language as few people have ever known it, as was revealed in his play “To-morrow” — a treatment of the life and character of the dramatic poet, Robert Greene. Professor Brereton wrote extensively on the Elizabethan drama. His international reputation in this regard was enhanced by his investigations of the structure and conduct of the Elizabethan theatre.

Professor Brereton is survived by Mrs. Brereton, a daughter (Mrs. G. Crampton), and four sons — Messrs. Wilfred, Merlin, Raymond, and Lionel Le Gay Brereton.

The body of Professor Brereton will arrive at the Central Railway Station at 9.50 o’clock this morning, and the funeral cortege will proceed immediately to Rookwood Cemetery.

The Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney, NSW), 3 February 1933, p. 10

Editor’s notes:
B.A. = Bachelor of Arts

billy = a metal pot or tin (usually with a wire or steel handle), used for boiling water over a camp fire (also known as a “billy can”)

caravaning = an alternate spelling of “caravanning”

Elizabethanism = a word, phrase, or element of the language used specific to the literature or culture of Elizabethan England (i.e. during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, 1533-1603)

idyll = short poem, piece of prose, or musical composition of a pastoral, rural, or rustic nature or setting; a contented, happy, peaceful, picturesque, sentimental, or simple episode, situation, or time period, especially one in a countryside setting

Messrs. = an abbreviation of “messieurs” (French), being the plural of “monsieur”; used in English as the plural of “Mister” (which is abbreviated as “Mr.”); the title is used in English prior to the names of two or more men (often used regarding a company, e.g. “the firm of Messrs. Bagot, Shakes, & Lewis”, “the firm of Messrs. Hogue, Davidson, & Co.”)

sartorial = of or relating to the quality, style, or wearing of clothing (especially regarding men’s clothing); of or relating to a tailor or the trade of tailoring

sensible = (archaic) being aware, cognizant, or perceptive of something; (archaic) able to appreciate, feel, perceive, sense or understand something; having, demonstrating, showing or using good sense, prudence, or wise judgment

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