In search of Henry Lawson's mother's birthplace


In search of Henry Lawson's mother's birthplaceI notice some twenty-year anniversaries being cited as 2007 touches the half-way mark. Twenty years ago, speaking at the Brandenburg Gate, President Ronald Regan memorably invited "General Secretary Gorbachev to tear down this wall!" In the same month, in Britain, his bosom buddy, Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher, won her third successive election. And a week or so later Teddy Seymour cruised into the harbour at Frederiksted, St Croix, to become the first black man to officially circumnavigate the world.

Meanwhile, though curiously unremarked upon by local or international media, my friends, Rick Hosking, Syd Harrex and I set out from Adelaide to drive to Newcastle where we would attend a special gathering of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature. ASAL, as it was known (the founders having abandoned attempts to denote its national reach because the acronym would have been on the nose) was running a three-day conference to mark the 120th anniversary of the birth of Henry Lawson (born 17 June 1867).

We would meet up with other scholarly mates on the way — Peter Pierce, Rob Gerster, Bruce Bennett and Barry Andrews — in Wellington, New South Wales. Since none of us had ever been to Wellington, we agreed to meet at the nearest pub to the TAB. This arrangement worked perfectly and, after a lunch at the pub and a flutter at the TAB, we set off to do some touring in the ‘Lawson country’ before heading for Newcastle.

I was agonising my way through the final months of writing a book about Louisa Lawson — Henry’s mother — so I was keen to see Eurunderee, where the Lawsons had lived for several years, and Guntawang, where Louisa was born on ‘Hungry’ Rouse’s station in February 1848.

Eurunderee was easy. A spare, ivy-wrapped monument marked the spot on that “old hilly corner” and the symmetry of vineyards had mostly replaced the drought-blasted paddocks that Louisa finally abandoned in 1883. But Guntawang was a different matter. Our two-car convoy nudged its tentative way through the network of tracks — at least so they were twenty years ago — in the country of Ratscastle Creek, Slasher’s Flat, Two Mile Flat and Guntawang. Yet somehow it was hard to feel confident that we were approaching any kind of actual settlement.

"There are signs that lead you on [I later wrote]. You turn this way and that between the long, taut wire fences, the black or green posts that march precisely past, the sighing undulations of grasses and crops on which the late afternoon sun falls with dusty, dramatic grace. At a roadside gate, a man sitting on a tractor yarns with a mate leaning on its mudguard, and both wave you amiably on your way as you bump slowly by. ‘Guntawang’ said a sign a mile or so back; ‘Guntawang’ said another small, beaten-up looking piece of board nailed to a handy fence- strainer. But – navigating no matter how carefully – you never arrive: there is no pub, no post office, no CWA; no change in the benign parquetry of land ploughed, harvested, under crop, straggling with native scrub.

There is nothing else. Nothing else at all."

In search of Henry Lawson's mother's birthplaceThat’s how I ended the book. The ‘discovery’ of Guntawang was a curious experience and none of us was sure whether it was a good thing or not that the birthplace of a woman like Louisa Lawson remained so anonymous.

I was reminded of this expedition when Stephanie, the daughter of a friend in the next town, asked if I would help her with a school literature project. Naturally, I was happy to do so and happier still when I discovered the topic was Henry Lawson.

She had chosen Lawson, however, because no one else had. No one was interested, she explained. There was nothing there for them, apparently, nothing there at all. Her teacher, she later told me, seemed unhappy with her choice, as if it was in some way maverick, and berated her when she revealed she had consulted "a professor" who "knew lots about Henry Lawson."

As an old Irishman in Dublin once said to me, when he discovered that the fax machine in the office he was minding was not, as he’d thought, a photocopier but that it didn’t matter because he couldn’t work either of them, "It’s a remarkable world we live in." Remarkable indeed when one of our seminal writers is scarcely studied, hardly mentioned any more in schools and universities; when you can "get into trouble" for having an inoffensive shot at a bit of Lawsonian research.

Lawson will turn 140 this year; his Russian contemporary, Chekhov, with whom as a short story writer he has been honourably compared, will be 147. I bet old Anton’s moment creates more official ripples and waves in the Ukraine than Henry’s does here.



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Existing comments

Thank you for this article I really enjoyed it. I am researching Louisa Lawson for an article for teens. You are right she and Henry do not receive the acclaim they deserve.
Elizabeth heath | 02 February 2010

Guntawang does exist. It is a locality and a privately owned horse stud. The home Louisa live in still stands.
Lyndsey | 29 September 2012

Guntawang Station (where my mother grew up) on the Guntawang Road west of Gulgong is a well known station. The Rouses owned it after the Coxes first took it up and Louisa Lawson was born there. It is easy to find.
Julia perry | 27 January 2013


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