Reprint: In the Nineties by Dora Wilcox

Days of Lawson and Lambert

What a wonderful place was the Sydney of the 'nineties! The sunshine was more mellow then, and the wattle blossom more golden or perhaps it was that they appeared so, seen through the eyes of youth. But however that may be, the foreshores of the harbour were undoubtedly more beautiful than they are to-day, for there was still bush where there are streets and houses now. Fine old homes, too, many of which have disappeared were still standing In spacious grounds which have long since been cut up into building blocks. Manly was then not even a village, and Watson's Bay, with its scrub and its flannel flowers, was a favourite picnicking ground. In Sydney itself steam trams puffed their way towards the pleasant suburb of Leichhardt, whilst Potts Point was a reserve for the rich and fashionable. Hansom cabs abounded, but young ladies who did not wish to be considered "fast" did not drive in them alone, any more than they sat upon the tops of horse-drawn omnibuses. There were no skyscrapers in those days, but visitors from New Zealand gazed with awe and admiration at the two cathedrals, at the Town Hall and the Post Office and at the Equitable Building in George-street. Lower down, towards the Quay, where the big steamers berthed, there existed a Chinatown, fearsome yet fascinating.

How delightful seemed King-street then, with Quong Tart's tearooms, and shops where flowers, unknown to dwellers in colder climates, were arranged with exquisite taste, or where strange fruits, such as guavas and mangoes, were plied beside familiar apples and pears! Living was unbelievably cheap in those days, and no peaches are so luscious now as those which street vendors sold for /2 a dozen. Truly, Sydney seemed a wonderful city to a girl straight from school in a small New Zealand town. And then the young men who were doing wonders with their pencils or their pens! Frank Mahony was drawing Australia as it was, and George Lambert had not yet gone off to Paris and London. Will Ogilvie was in New South Wales singing of Fair Girls and Gray Horses; Victor Daley was in the brief sunshine between the Dawn and the Dusk, and the Hidden Tide was sweeping Roderic Quinn on to the magic shores of poetry.

The women of New South Wales were enfranchised later than their sisters across the Tasman, but some of them, too, were doing wonderful things. Mary Gilmore was off to Paraguay, the dreams of Louise Mack were already in flower, and amongst the musicians there was Mme. Charbonnet-Kellermann. Upon the stage, Nellie Stewart, who died recently, enchanted her audiences before Florence Young and Violet Varley, who died so long ago. Then, in the early nineties there was Mr. Robert Brough and an altogether admirable company at the Criterion.

A Valued Volume

Another woman of singular ability and energy was actually running a newspaper at 402 George-street, and there, from that small and dingy office of the "Dawn," she published a small volume of "Short Stories In Verse and Prose," by her son, Henry Lawson. It contains the most beautiful of his tales, the most beautiful of all Australian tales, "The Drover's Wife." No one could have foreseen then how much sought after this volume was to become, and it was in the lost year of the nineties that Louisa Lawson gave a copy of the then unsold, to a New Zealander as she sailed for Europe from Sydney one burning February day. Books are lost and books are stolen every week, and every month or thereabouts books are borrowed, never to be seen again. But this volume, so small, so insubstantial in its paper cover, was to lead a charmed life. It was to go three times round the world, to lie safe in a Belgian attic during the war, whilst the library at Louvain went up in smoke and the Cloth Hall at Ypres was battered into dust, and finally to return to Sydney, whence it came.

It is nearly 40 years since Henry Lawson's "Short Stories" were issued by his mother, and each year since 1894 his fame has grown, outspreading the limits of his native land, and now the statue of this son of Australia stands upon Australian soil, beneath Australian trees. Henry Lawson himself is gone, and George Lambert is gone also, but their work remains. Yet is it incomplete if the living are content to remember the past alone, to honour only the dead. All created work is in itself -  or should be - creative; and these men of vision and achievement laid down a lighted torch for others to take up. The statesman, the farmer, the manufacturer, the labourer all these are necessary for the making of a nation, but it is the artists who crown it with a wreath of imperishable laurel in the sight of all the peoples.

First published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 1 August 1931

[Thanks to the National Library of Australia's newspaper digitisation project for this piece.]

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on March 12, 2010 8:01 AM.

2009 Australian Shadows Awards Shortlists was the previous entry in this blog.

Poem: The Bard of Booralee by G. B. is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

Monthly Archives

Powered by Movable Type 4.23-en