This is Grenfell, a small gold rush town out west – about 370 kms west of Sydney. And once it really was the wild west. Before the railway arrived, this region was a haven for bushrangers, or highwaymen. In fact, the town is named after a man who was shot and killed by bushrangers on the road near here.
Bushrangers were bandits or outlaws of the Australian bush or outback. Most of them were escaped convicts who used the bush as a refuge to hide from the police. They harassed the settlers, miners, and Aborigines of the frontier in the 1800’s. These highwaymen or outlaws, followed the usual pattern of robbery, pillage and murder. They specialised in robbing, or ‘bailing up’ stagecoaches, banks, and small settlements.
Bushranging thrived here during the gold rush years of the 1850’s and 1860’s. The area was a refuge for bushrangers whose names and exploits are a rich part of the town’s history. But that’s not what Grenfell is best known for today.
Every year, over the Queen’s birthday weekend in June, Grenfell comes alive in a celebration of art and artists. The cause of this celebration is a festival aptly named The Henry Lawson Festival, which commemorates the life of the town’s most famous son. It’s been held annually for over 60 years and gives an indication of the popularity and esteem that Lawson is held in this town.
Henry Lawson, one of Australia’s most celebrated poets and short story writers, was born in Grenfell and is honoured with a statue on the aptly named Main Street. He sits, weary but relaxed, poised with pen in hand, ready to write on his notepad.
Further up Main street there’s a bronze bust of Lawson with the reference to his Grenfell birthplace from one of his celebrated poems, Said Grenfell to My Spirit. – “Though you sing of dear old Mudgee; and the home on Pipeclay flat. You were born on Grenfell Goldfield and you can’t get over that.”
Grenfell was founded by Cornelius O’Brien, a shepherd who discovered gold in the area. Within weeks of his discovery, miners flocked to the site and began setting up their tents and bark huts along the banks of Emu Creek.
Before long businesses began to spring up among the scattering of rough dwellings, servicing the growing population of miners who continued to crowd into the newly founded outpost. The town was first called Emu Creek, but its name was later changed to Grenfell in January of 1867.
The name change was in honour of the Gold Commissioner in the area, who was then based in Forbes, John Granville Grenfell. Commissioner Grenfell was travelling in the area by stagecoach in December 1866 when his coach was ambushed by bushrangers.
The robbers called for the coach to halt, but the driver refused to comply, and the bushrangers opened fire on the conveyance. Grenfell was shot twice and died of his wounds about twenty-four hours later. As a mark of respect, the mining colony along the banks of Emu Creek was renamed Grenfell and went on to become one of the richest mining outposts in New South Wales in the late 1860s. In fact, over 20 tonnes of gold came from this area. It was around this time, most likely in 1866 with the first rush of miners who came into the area, that Henry Lawson’s father settled in Grenfell.
Join us this week, as we take a closer look at the life and times of Henry Lawson, one of Australia’s most celebrated writers and poets, and discover the importance of hope in facing life’s challenges.
Henry Archibald Hertzberg Lawson was born on the 17th June 1867, in a tent on the goldfields of Grenfell. A white obelisk marks the tent site near where his parents mined and where their first child, Henry, was born.
Lawson’s father, Niels Larsen was born in Norway and went to sea at the age of 21. He arrived in Melbourne as a quartermaster in 1855, but he jumped ship to seek his fortune. He teamed up with his shipmate and friend, John Slee who had sailed to Melbourne from Germany.
Larsen – who anglicised his name and changed it to Peter Lawson – and Slee first went to the goldfields of Ballarat where they began to pan for gold in earnest. Over the next decade Slee and Lawson hopped from one minefield to the next, with little success. Eventually they made their way to NSW where they mined in the goldfields at Lambing Flat and New Pipeclay, now known as Eurunderee. While mining in this area in 1866, Lawson married Louisa Albury, who was one of twelve children born into an impoverished mining family.
Henry Lawson was the oldest of four children and was named after his maternal grandfather Henry Albury. Lawson’s father was often away from home mining and his mother was left to care for him and his siblings on her own.
Life was difficult and particularly after Lawson’s mother Louisa suffered the loss of a child. Louisa struggled to overcome her grief for her baby daughter Tegan, who died at just eight months old. So Louisa left the rest of the children in Henry’s care. Henry came to resent the responsibility and it soon caused friction between him and his mother.
Henry’s parent’s marriage was an unhappy one and eventually the couple became estranged. When Lawson was ten, he attended school in Eurunderee, then known as Pipeclay. It was around this time that he fell ill and suffered a serious ear infection.
The infection was so severe that it left him partially deaf. By the time he turned fourteen he was completely deaf. This proved to be an incredible challenge for young Lawson, and an impediment to completing his education.
Because of his hearing disability Lawson’s education was largely made up of reading. Lawson began to read Dickens, and a host of other authors. While studying at school in Mudgee, Lawson’s master taught him about poetry which most likely provided a foundation for Lawson’s future literary career.
Lawson’s father took up odd jobs and his mother moved to Sydney where she began to operate and manage boarding houses in an attempt to make a living. At first Lawson worked with his father on building jobs in the Blue Mountains before later moving to Sydney at his mother’s request.
While living with his mother in Sydney in the early 1880s Lawson worked during the day and studied at night hoping to pass his university entrance exams so that he could pursue higher education. Unfortunately, he failed these exams and could not gain entrance into university.
Despite this setback Lawson took up writing. His mother Louisa proved to have a significant influence over his early literary career. Louisa Lawson used money she had saved while running her boarding houses to buy shares in a pro-federation newspaper called The Republican. During this time, she enlisted Henry’s help to edit the newspaper which they printed on an old press they set up in Louisa’s cottage. The paper called for an Australian republic, a daring and radical idea at the time.
Around this time Henry Lawson wrote his first poem A Song of the Republic which was published in The Bulletin in October 1887. Soon after this he published The Wreck of Old Derry Castle, followed by Golden Gully. While writing poetry Lawson was also helping his mother publish The Republican. Later on, in 1888, Louisa Lawson launched her own periodical, which she edited and published. Her journal The Dawn was the first Australian journal produced solely by women and was circulated in Australia and overseas.
Louisa published The Dawn monthly for 17 years and at one point had 10 female writers and editors on her staff. Henry Lawson contributed poems and stories for the paper as well and then in 1894, The Dawn press printed Lawson’s first book Short Stories in Prose and Verse.
In many ways, despite their tenuous relationship with each other Henry and Louisa Lawson partnered with each other in their writing and publishing endeavours, and Louisa is thought to have greatly influenced her son’s early work.
Despite his obvious talents Lawson struggled to find regular work and was often penniless. He had a string of jobs throughout the 1890s which paid very little. He tried working at several newspapers but that was unsuccessful and so went back to the country to find work.
At Toorale Station near Bourke, he worked as a roustabout, doing odd jobs. During this time, he experienced first-hand the harsh and unforgiving conditions that many of the squatters and drovers faced during the terrible drought that was plaguing NSW. All these experiences inspired Lawson to produce countless poem and short stories detailing the reality of what he had seen.
Around this time Lawson travelled between Hungerford and Bourke in NSW, and the conditions he saw confirmed his view of life in the bush. Unlike Banjo Paterson, Lawson’s perspective of the Australian bush was harsh, stark and unforgiving.
Lawson has seen the unforgiving side of life in the barren outback, and he felt compelled to paint an accurate picture of what he had seen and heard, often detailing the devastating effects of drought and loneliness in vivid language.
Australia’s two favourite poets and writers – Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson – by coincidence lived parallel lives. They were born two years apart, and just over 100 kms apart. Both ended up working as writers for the Bulletin in Sydney – but they provided contrasting opinions of life in the Australian bush.
Banjo Paterson romanticised life in the bush and pictured an idyllic and idealised view of life in the bush. Lawson in contrast, wrote about the cruel and unforgiving nature of the Australian bush and the appalling conditions that many inhabitants of the bush faced.
In 1896 Lawson published his most successful collection of prose, While the Billy Boils. It was, in many ways, a direct assault on the work of writers like Banjo Paterson and others, at once shattering their idyllic perspective of life in the Australian bush and replacing it with a grim and stark reality.
One of Lawson’s best-known pieces of prose The Drover’s Wife is an example of this stripped down, bare bones version of reality that Lawson tried so hard to depict. The Drover’s Wife is a heart breaking and tragic depiction of the loneliness and desperation of life in the Australian bush.
During the 1890s, while Lawson’s literary career was taking off, his personal life experienced some significant struggles. In 1896, Lawson married Bertha Bredt with whom he had two children. But their marriage was doomed because of Lawson’s sometimes erratic and abusive behaviour which led to him spending some months in gaol.
Lawson died of a cerebral haemorrhage in Sydney in 1922. He was given a state funeral, the first Australian to be granted a state funeral on the grounds of having been a distinguished citizen. His funeral was attended by the Prime Minister of Australia and other state dignitaries as well as thousands of citizens. He was buried here in the Waverley Cemetery in Bronte.
Henry Lawson was loved by the Australian people and his poetry and short stories continue to be read and appreciated in Australian schools today.
Henry Lawson was honoured by being on the original $10 note when decimal currency was introduced in 1966. His poetry and the gold mining town of Gulgong near Grenfell, his birthplace, is featured in the background.
Lawson is also commemorated by a bronze memorial statue situated on a green knoll in a secluded part of the Domain, by the road leading to Lady Macquarie’s Chair. It was the first statue of an Australian poet to be erected in the Commonwealth. It features Lawson flanked by Australian icons from his works about the Australian bush, a swagman, a fence post and a dog.
Lawson’s legacy was his unique perspective of bush life. In many ways it was a sad and haunting depiction of the harsh realities of life in the Australian outback, fraught with loneliness, danger and hopelessness.
Lawson’s renowned short story, The Drover’s Wife, tells of a woman stuck in the middle of nowhere with four small children while her husband was out droving to make a living. Her closest neighbours were 19 kms away and lived in a small shack by the side of the road.
She herself lived in a small rundown shack with nothing but a ferocious dog and a stout stick to protect her from the dangers that lurked around her. And, interestingly, despite the fact that she was in the middle of nowhere the dangers around her abounded.
There was the threat of wandering drovers and bushmen, snakes and other wild animals and the most menacing of all, disease. In each instance she found herself alone, having to face down each threat with nothing more than her wits and her angry dog.
She had not seen her husband in over six months and had no way of contacting him and she lost one of her children while he was away. It is a sad, difficult story to read and it leaves the reader with a sense of bleakness and hopelessness, which is perhaps an echo of what Lawson himself felt when he looked at life
Though a fictitious rendering of life in the bush The Drover’s Wife is remarkably similar to the true story of Joseph and Julia Steed. The only significant difference between the two stories is Joseph and Julia Steed’s faith.
The Steeds decided to move their family from Adelaide into the Australian bush. Joseph Steed decided to sell Christian books and after purchasing a bicycle he began cycling from place to place peddling his wares.
At first, the Steeds lived in Broken Hill, New South Wales for a period of two years.
During this time, much like The Drover’s Wife, Julia Steed was living alone in a tent with three small children in the middle of nowhere with no neighbours for miles. Julia even had her fourth child while she was living in the tent.
After Broken Hill the Steed family moved to Scott Creek. Once more they were living in the middle of nowhere and once more, they were living in a tent. The environment they were living in was stark and bleak, but the Steed’s story is not tinged with hopelessness.
Even though their circumstances were difficult Joseph and Julia Steed’s story is filled with hope because their time in the bush was spent bringing hope to others. The Bible and the good news of Jesus had changed their lives and they in turn wanted to share that blessing.
It was her sense of mission and purpose that gave Julia Steed the courage to endure her husband’s long absences and the harsh, unforgiving environment of the Australian bush. During their stay in Scott Creek the Steeds made friends with another family who lived not too far from their tent.
Julia Steed and Ann Scragg became friends and often spent time together whenever they could. Then one day tragedy struck. Ann Scragg’s young son Walter became very ill. There was no doctor or nurse nearby and the nearest main road was five kms away.
Julia Steed gathered young Walter Scragg in her arms and carried him the five kms to the main road. She prayed all the way there because she knew that getting to the main road was no guarantee that they would get help.
Once Julia reached the main road, she cradled the sick young boy in her arms and sat by the side of the road, praying for God to provide help. Before long a man came past in a horse drawn cart and he gave Julia and Walter a ride to the nearest train station.
Julia managed to catch the weekly train into Adelaide where she was able to get Walter the medical attention he needed and saved little Walter Scragg’s life.
The similarities between Henry Lawson’s perspective of the Australian bush and Julia Steed’s experience are striking. Much like Lawson depicted, life in the bush was hard. It was filled with unforeseen dangers and loneliness. It was a harsh life.
But unlike the tragic sense of hopelessness that permeates Lawson’s work, like for example The Drover’s Wife, the true story of Julia Steed is filled with a sense of purpose and hope.
While The Drover’s Wife spent countless mind-numbing hours alone and adrift, women like Julia Steed who lived and experienced the terrible realities of life in the Australian bush were filled with a sense of courage and purpose.
The hope and purpose she found was a result of her relationship with Jesus. It was her commitment to God that led her to the bush in the first place and it was her commitment to God that gave her the courage and the fortitude to face its challenges.
While Lawson’s depictions of the Australian bush ring true, they are also missing a vital element; Hope, and this element is something that knowing and serving Jesus can provide. The Bible can give us hope, even in the bleakest situation.
The stories of The Drover’s Wife and Julia Steed bring to mind a story found in the Bible. It too, is a story of a woman in desperate circumstances, nearly despairing of any hope, but it is also a story of how God is able to bring hope even in the most depressing circumstances.
The story is found in the book of 1 Kings chapter 17. Israel and its immediate surroundings have been ravaged by drought for a prolonged period of time and in the little town of Zarephath a poor widow was struggling to put food on the table.
She had one son and the two of them were preparing to have their last meal when Elijah, the prophet of God, came to their home. God Himself had sent Elijah to the widow and he arrived at the widow’s home just as she was gathering sticks for a fire.
Elijah asked her for some food and she told him that she had nothing left but a little bit of flour and oil that she was hoping to use to cook her son and herself a final meal before they too gave way to the horrors of the famine that was raging around them.
After hearing her sad story Elijah made a strange request of her. He told her to go in and make a little loaf of bread for him first and then he promised her that God would make sure that her flour and oil would not run out for the duration of the famine.
Choosing to take a leap of faith the woman listened to Elijah and made him a loaf of bread first and then she made one for her son and for herself. What followed was nothing short of a miracle. Each morning the widow woke up to find just enough flour and oil to make a loaf of bread for everyone in the house until the famine ended.
The story of the widow is similar to the previous two stories we’ve looked at. A struggling woman facing the harsh realities of life with little hope for the future but once again the difference between the widow and the drover’s wife is that the widow found hope in God’s word.
As a result of Elijah’s message from God the widow was given the opportunity to provide for herself and her son during her time of need. This is often how God works. When we are facing dire circumstances, He provides us with hope through His word.
This hope may not always come in the form of material comfort, but it always provides us with exactly what we need, when we need it so that we never need to feel closed in by hopelessness and the challenges that surround us.
But another interesting point to take away from the story of the widow of Zarephath is how the word of God provided her with hope. God challenged her to find hope by first extending hope to others.
Elijah was as destitute as the woman was. Probably more so because while the woman had at least a little flour and a little oil and a roof over her head, Elijah had nothing but the clothes on his back. But God challenged the woman to use the little that she had to help someone who had even less than she did and in serving someone else she herself found hope.
In the book Altruism and Health: Perspectives from Empirical Research, scientists from various disciplines present a series of articles dealing with the relationship between altruistic, or selfless, behaviour and mental health.
What much of this research shows is that those who unselfishly invest in others find their lives are more meaningful and are usually happier than their selfish counterparts. Altruism or selflessness also produces a better state of mental health as well.
The Bible focuses almost entirely on this concept. Over and over again the Bible contrasts selfishness and unselfishness showing the effects that each mindset has on individuals, communities, and nations.
The mind and heart of Jesus were filled with a spirit of selfless service. In everything He did Jesus strove to serve others. In Matthew 20:28, speaking of himself, Jesus says, “Just as the Son of man did not come to be serve, but to give His life a ransom for many.” (NKJV)
Jesus’ life was filled with little acts of selfless service and in bringing hope to others. In Proverbs 11:25 the Bible says, “The generous soul will be made rich, and he who waters will also be watered himself.” NKJV
The Bible tells us that in order to find hope and meaning in life we must turn our focus outward to helping others. We see this principle in the life of Joseph and Julia Steed. They were willing to leave their comfortable home and go into the Australian bush in order to help others find God – and the happiness and inner-peace He brings.
And even though this meant their lives were filled with a host of challenges and difficulties, it was this spirit of selfless service that gave them the meaning and purpose they needed to face their challenges and overcome them.
Henry Lawson’s work deals with one of the most fundamental human needs; hope. His depictions of the harsh realities of bush life give us a sense of hopelessness and in so doing help us to understand how much we need hope.
The lives of Joseph and Julia Steed show us how hope can come from a sense of purpose and how purpose can come from committing our lives to serving a cause that is bigger than ourselves.
Similarly, the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath give us a glimpse into how we too can overcome difficult circumstances and find hope; by reaching out to share what little we have with those who have even less.
Right now, the world is reeling with wave after wave of disaster and strife. Millions have lost their livelihoods and families are pressed down and struggling to survive. If ever there was a time when we have come face to face with the stark realities of life, it is now.
But the challenges we find ourselves facing are an opportunity to reach out and be a blessing to those around us. During a time of unprecedented loneliness and hopelessness we have the opportunity to reach out and share what little we have with those who have even less.
If you would like to reach out to God and find meaning and hope to face whatever uncertainties lie ahead. Then I’d like to recommend the free gift we have for all our Incredible Journey viewers today.
It’s the booklet, The Superpower of Words. This booklet is our gift to you and is absolutely free. I guarantee there are no costs or obligations whatsoever. So, make the most of this wonderful opportunity to receive the gift we have for you today.
If you have enjoyed our journey to rural Australia and seeing life through the eyes of Henry Lawson, and our reflections on the purpose, meaning and hope a belief in God can bring, then be sure to join us again next week, when we will share another of life’s journeys together. Until then, let’s pray together and ask God to give us hope so that we can face the challenges of life, knowing that He is with us and will bring us through. Let’s pray!
Dear Heavenly Father, we thank you that we have a God who loves us and cares for us. Lord, we all face significant challenges in our lives today. At times these challenges seem about to overwhelm us. And so it’s easy and natural to get depressed and despondent. But may we always remember that You are with us, and that You will never leave us or forsake us. Please give us peace and hope. In Jesus name we pray, Amen.