The mother of Henry Lawson
The following contribution to the July number of “Aussie” is by Gertrude Lawson, sister of the late Henry Lawson.
In 1845, the time when pioneer settlers were making Australian history, a young couple migrated over the Great Dividing Range, N.S.W., through Mudgee and on to “Guntawang,” Robert Rous’ station.
They were “Handsome” Henry Albury and his wife Harriet.
Henry Albury ‘was the son of a farmer, who leased one of Cox’s farms at Mulgoa. He was a handsome man, six foot two in his stockings. The broad shoulders supported a massive head, with fine, open features and wonderful eyes — eyes which yet look upon the world from the third and fourth generation of his descendants.
The wife, Harriet, was a clergyman’s daughter, cultured and refined. She. had attained all the educational requirements of her day, a fine advantage in itself, but a poor equipment for the life of an Australian pioneer.
Through long years of hardships, heartaches and weary longings for the life to which she had been accustomed, she patiently played her part in spite of the buffetings of the rough bush life amongst bark huts, diggers’ shanties and bullock drivers’ depots. Nor did she lose that fine polish which only strong natures such as hers can attain. Self-possessed always, even when she had to utilise a burning stick from the fire to scare some too venturesome naked native — and it is said that she did not lose her poise when one of these interesting gentlemen crawled from beneath her bed, but with cool complacency escorted him, with a flaming torch in her hand, to the door.
Her grandson, Henry Lawson, who, by the way, is four and a half years older than her youngest son, Ernest, immortalised her in his “Black Bonnett.” in which he paints, with true pen, a word portrait of her as only a poet could express his sentiment towards one he venerated and loved.
The young couple settled down in a split-slab and bark-roof humpy. It was a long structure divided into three portions. Ticket-of-leave men and their wives occupied the extreme ends, while Henry Albury and his refined girl-wife lived in the centre.
The matrimonial relations of these ticket of leave men were always a source of amusement to Henry Albury. In later years he was never weary of detailing the method by which these men procured their wives.
Ticket-of-leave men, settlers and others who required domestic help, would travel to Parramatta, where buxom women convicts would be paraded upon the prison square for their consideration as prospective brides. It was a time of momentous anxiety for the grooms. The situation was almost tragic to the interested parties, but comical to the onlookers. There was no time for sentiment. A man might pick a blessing on [sic: or] an encumbrance; it was simply a matter of luck. He inspected the batch, picked out a likely looking one, and was married then and there. From that moment he had the responsibility of a blessing or a curse.
It was between two of such matrimonial ventures that gentle Harriet Albury was destined to live for the next four years. A keen sense of humour carried her through the trying period.
Here her first two children were born; eight others were born at Murgee and Wallerawang. All are living except her second child, Louisa, the mother of Henry Lawson, who died last year.
Louisa was a lusty infant; she learnt to crawl early, preferred the company of men, and soon established herself a prime favourite with the bullock drivers. Consequently her first words did not induce the thrill of pride and admiration usually felt by proud parents.
Louisa grew rapidly, and at thirteen was very tall for her age, and was wonderfully like her father in all her characteristics.
She delighted in school; and her school days were the happiest of her life. Although she was never a favourite with her schoolmates, probably because they did not understand her, she was beloved by her master, Mr. Alpress, who was a fine classical scholar, and who encouraged his “star” pupil in her love for literature and poetry, oftimes lending her books from his collection.
He did his best to persuade her parents to allow her to become a teachers, but this met with a storm of opposition. She was told that such a career for a woman was unseemly. Her place was in the home, to learn domestic things, and to marry. Her books and her poetry were destroyed, she was lectured upon the wisdom of being practical, and was told to do something of real value by way of helping mother with the baby.
This seemed reasonable enough to the ever obedient girl, but there was a call stronger and more compelling than duty. The thought of disobedience seared her deeply, but the chained spirit clamoured for expression. Fires burned within, which refused to be quenched by the cold water of reason; antagonism against the cut and dried routine of her life arose and refused suppression.
Her sisters say of her: Louisa was the odd one of the family; truthful, honourable, generous to a fault, but antagonistic always. Perhaps it may have been eccentricity. Anyway we never understood her.
She was clever at handicrafts, and made yards of beautiful lace which she sold at the then decent price of fourpence a yard. The proceeds purchased candles and writing materials which enabled her to study and write. It was thus she wrote:—
I love at eve to wander
Alone upon the hills,
While nature, with her mysteries,
My soul with wonder fills.
A king in robes of crimson
And ermine, seeking rest,
The sun in golden splendour
Sinks in the solemn west.
His grandeur awes and thrills me,
I kneel upon the sod,
Bow down my head and worship
His Mighty Maker — God.
And it was thus amid the birds and flowers, the blue sky and sunshine, that she laid the foundation for the building of the poetical genius of her famous son. Unaided and alone, she sought inspiration and expression with naught but the Book of Nature to guide her.
Her mother’s inherent refinement and her father’s unexpressed poetical nature — he could neither read nor write, which was not unusual among the settlers of the day — undoubtedly had combined in her mental make-up, and had lent keenness to her perception. She loved Nature, and was never weary of voicing her appreciation in song and poetry. She said of Henry: “It is odd, almost uncanny, that he expresses the ideas that I so longed to express from childhood.”
It was her hunger, here alone in the church of her own creation — hunger for human sympathy and understanding — that made her cry out to the infinite and find recognition there. The rebuffs of her home life no longer took effect, she had in the ranges a refuge. All this had its purpose, because, when ten-year-old Henry developed the same dream nature, she allowed no one to crush it, not even the practical, level- headed father, but developed in this long-limbed, freckled-faced bush child, all the things that to the onlooker seemed unpractical and useless to an unpromising-looking child of an unsuccessful settler.
Louisa Albury was nearing sixteen when calamity came to her father. He, up to this time, had prospered. He owned three cottages in Mudgee and two teams of bullocks, besides a numerous family of bonnie, intelligent girls.
Robert Rouse needed a million bricks for Guntawang, and commissioned Henry Albury to make them. The home in Mudgee was let, the family packed upon one of the teams and all were taken back to Guntawang. The kilns were built and ready for the fires when the rains set in — abnormal rains, such as generally follow a prolonged drought in that district. The flood waters arose and covered the flat where the kilns were built. Henry Albury was the last to leave, and then he was forced to swim two miles to safety.
He was in debt for men’s wages and rations and the upkeep of his numerous family, extending over months. The cottages were sold to pay the debt. But still disaster came upon disaster. He could find no work for his teams, and had to turn the cattle adrift in the ranges. All his bullocks, wandering over unfenced areas of range land, were lost or stolen, one waggon was undergoing repair, and as he could not find the money to release it, it was foreclosed upon. His remaining horse fell down a cutting, broke its leg and had to be destroyed. He became disheartened, and drowned his troubles in the subtle cup. The family began to feel desperate straits.
They moved out to Wilbertree, where Henry Albury eked out a livelihood timber-getting. Often there was not sufficient food, but he would not consent to the children going to service. He did not believe it right for girls to leave their own roof until they went into homes of their own.
One memorable night Louisa Albury awoke to find the bush alive with strange sounds, and seeking the cause, discovered the hillside alive with hundreds of moving lights. Diggers were pegging out their claims. In the morning her home was the centre of a goldfield.
A new and busy life commenced for the lonely girl. Her father secured a licence and opened a shanty and store combined, with a post office attached.
Louisa was now seventeen; she had grown tall and attractive. With the advent of new people about her, some keen and scientific, she found an outlet for her wit. She discovered her power of fascinating, and also holding her admirers in check with a merciless tongue. She talked freely with them, because she desired to know the world. She trained her mind against other minds, and discovered her power of perception. She had a host of admirers, but they feared her. She hated love sentiment, which she called “bosh.”
Throughout the whole of her life she rigidly regarded sentimental speeches as weakness and folly. She met them with the lash of witty sarcasm, until few had the courage to risk making the advance. Thirteen of the diggers aspired for her hand.
A German who grew tobacco in the gully trained her voice. “She vood be covered mit money, ven she was in Yarmony.” was his verdict.
One evening when the bar room was deserted (the diggers were busy in their camps cooking and washing off the day’s clay), she commenced to practise, allowing her voice to rise to its full volume of sound. At the conclusion of her song, something touched her elbow, and quickly turning, she found the large room literally packed with diggers who had, fearful of disturbing her, tip-toed in as silently as mice. They packed the counters and tables, and even stood upon the window sills, hanging over the low, bark partitions and holding on by the rafters. Then the deafening applause rang out, and pressing requests were made for another song, all of which the trembling girl refused. Once again, narrow convention dealt her a blow.
The diggers offered to send her to England to have her voice properly trained, but the parents still persisted that a public life for a woman was a disgrace. The irony of it was that she was permitted to sing to the diggers to attract their custom.
The field rose to its full glory, and declined. The family then moved to Eurendree.
Poverty and loss still assailed them. The weary, harassed mother, angry with Louisa for her repeated refusals of really good offers of marriage from lucky diggers, lost patience at last, and severely scolded her.
The thrust went deep, and the girl flew into the bush to cry out her despair. The mental storm was soul-racking.
It was here, a victim of despair, seated on a log in Golden Gully, that practical “Peter the Swede” found her.
She told him that her people could no longer afford to keep her, and she did not know how to change her environment.
He suggested a way out of the difficulty, by marriage with him. He was wise enough to avoid the usual lover’s blandishments. The proposal was matter-of-fact, and the girl accepted in the same spirit.
Another storm arose when her choice of an unknown foreigner became known.
No assistance was given her to prepare for her marriage. Her father refused to interfere, and her mother simply washed her hands of the whole affair, refusing to even speak of the approaching union.
Meanwhile, Peter went to Gulgong, where a new rush had broken out. He built a store and stocked it heavily. All the goods were brought from Sydney by bullock waggons.
It was burnt to the ground two days after he opened it. He lost every penny he possessed.
He wrote to his promised bride, releasing her from her promise, but she refused her freedom. A week later they were married at Mudgee, and he took her to his hut in Golden Gully.
A fortnight after his marriage “Peter the Swede” (or Peter Lawson) bottomed a payable hole, out of which he and his mate took £200 worth of wash.
William Slee, Peter Lawson’s mate, wrote informing him of the rush at Grenfell. Peter packed his outfit on the dray, harnessed up old Blucher, and with his girl wife; headed south-west, for the ranges which lay between him and Grenfell.
The Western Argus (Kalgoorlie, WA), Tuesday 26 September 1922, page 2