Henry Lawson’s other skill

Henry Lawson remains one of Australia’s best known poets and authors a century after his death. Poems such as ‘The Lights of Cobb & Co’, ‘The Teams’ and ‘Andy’s Gone with Cattle’, and short stories like ‘Joe Wilson and his Mates’ flowed from his pen. His face has adorned banknotes and stamps.

Henry Lawson’s life was glorious and tragic in equal measure. At once blessed with insight and eloquence, humour and empathy, he was also cursed with melancholy loneliness and alcoholism. As a young man in the 1880s he struggled to overcome a limited education and the isolation of profound deafness. Yet, in the vernacular of the day, he was not without prospects. Henry Lawson was a skilled tradesman; a coach painter.

Henry became apprenticed as a 16-year-old in 1883 to Hudson Brothers, a large construction and railway engineering company with over 1000 staff. He learned his trade painting railway carriages and wagons at Hudson Brothers new workshops at Clyde (Granville) in Sydney, and for a time at their Newcastle works. Henry seems to have been at least proficient, as he considered Hudson Brothers good employers who ‘imported the best mechanics and treated and paid them well.’ [1] (However he may have had a rough time with his foreman at Newcastle.)

A railway carriage built by Hudson Bros. in the 1880s. Image State Library of New South Wales.
Hudon Bros. workshops at Clyde (Granville) in Sydney. Image State Library of New South Wales.

Henry subsequently worked for coachbuilder William Kerridge in Castlereagh Street Sydney, the home of ‘quality’ coachmakers such as Vial’s and Angus and Sons. Kerridge’s carriages regularly won prizes at the Sydney Show, and William Kerridge himself sometimes judged carriage classes. Indeed he was regarded highly enough to be made chairman of a coachbuilder’s conference in 1886. (Sydney Morning Herald, 7 Dec 1886. p8).  Henry Lawson later described William Kerridge as ‘an old fashioned tradesman and gentleman’ who had some employees with him for over 30 years. And in return William Kerridge wrote Henry a reference describing him as ‘a steady, trustworthy, hardworking, young man.’ This was certainly a description at odds with Henry Lawson’s later decline into alcoholism and poor mental health.

Coach painting was quite an involved trade to learn. Paints did not come premixed. Painters ground coloured ochre, and blended white lead base powder with linseed oil, terebene hardener, varnish and other mysterious additives. The trade at the time seemed somewhere between science and alchemy. Coach painters painted, sanded and rubbed back coat after coat of paint to produce glossy finishes. It took over a week to properly paint a carriage. Painters could ‘pull’ fine straight lines, paint intricate scrolls, and even produce signage and lettering on trade vehicles. For this they were paid at the same rate as the blacksmiths, body makers, and upholstery trimmers, and even a little more in some shops than the wheelwrights, although apprentices were paid only a fraction of the tradesman’s rate. (SMH, 11 June 1884. p12.)

Paint recipes from The Coach Painter’s Handbook and Guide, Henry J Drane.
A popular brand of paint provided the inspiration for Arvie’s surname.

Unfortunately ill winds were blowing towards Henry Lawson, the carriage industry and the country. The carriage conference William Kerridge chaired in 1886 discussed the effects of drought and cheap imported components on the trade. And an economic depression which even consumed the huge Hudson Brothers business was just around the corner. In 1890 William Kerridge closed the doors of his Castlereagh Street workshop but Henry Lawson had already moved on. He had studied at night while an apprentice in the unsuccessful hope of matriculating to university. A life of letters called.

In the late 1880s he was house painting for money but also establishing his name as a poet. Poems such as ‘Faces in the Street’ (1888) and ‘Second Class Wait Here’ (1899) depict the circles Henry moved in at the time, amongst Sydney’s poor in tenement slums. (Today properties in Phillip Street where he lived for a time and Castlereagh Street are amongst the most expensive in Australia.)

Although he considered Hudson Brothers good and fair employers, Henry Lawson drew on his time as an apprentice coach painter as the setting for two of his darkest short stories; ‘Two Boys at Grinder Brothers’’ and ‘Arvie Aspinall’s Alarm Clock’. Arvie Aspinall, is a very young apprentice at Grinder Brothers’ Railway Coach Factory. He tries to help his widowed mother pay the bills, but they still struggle to make ends meet. Arvie has neither the time nor money for interests outside of work believing… ‘it would be better if young fellows of this country didn’t think so much about racin’ and fightin’.’[2] His subcontractor boss Collins underpays the underage apprentice ‘babies’ and works them beyond the standard hours. And he preaches in the park on Sunday.

Arvie is given an alarm clock by a benevolent society after it was reported in a local paper that he was found sleeping outside the factory, having arrived for work in the dark with no way of telling the time.[3] The benevolent society as it turns out is supported by the Grinder family, but their charity is paid for by the labour of those they purport to help, and only extends so far as to keep the workforce ‘grinding’ on in poverty.

On the face of Arvie’s clock are the words,

Early to bed and early to rise
Makes a man healthy wealthy and wise.

‘“Mother!” he said suddenly, “I think it lies.”’ Young Arvie, suffering from overwork, malnutrition and an untreated chest infection dies shortly after in his sleep.[4]

Henry Lawson was writing in the depths of the 1890s economic depression which exacerbated the plight of an already poor underclass. The stories are a reminder that ‘The Wonders of the Victorian Age’ in our museums, such as the railway rolling stock at the Workshops Rail Museum, were produced by a multitude of long forgotten Arvie Aspinalls working long hours, six days a week. And the urban coach painters, blacksmiths, coachbuilders and wheelwrights who built the carriages in Cobb + Co Museum almost never owned one themselves.

Jeff Powell
Curator, Cobb+Co Museum


[1] A Fragment of Autobiography

[2] Two Boys at Grinder Brothers

[3] Arvie Aspinall’s Alarm Clock

[4] Ibid

References

Geoff Barker, 2018 ‘Hudson Brothers’ Building & Engineering Company’. State Library of NSW.

Henry J Drane, 1896 The Coach Painter’s Handbook and Guide, London. Reproduced in Harness, Vehicles, Timber and Coach-Painting, Dene Bindery, Liverpool NSW 1980.

Ross Edmonds, ‘Henry Lawson and the Wickham School of Arts’, Hunter Living Histories, University of Newcastle.

Peter FitzSimonds, ‘From the Archive’, Sydney Morning Herald, 25 Jan

Henry Lawson, ‘Arvie Aspinall’s Alarm Clock’ first appeared in The Bulletin, 11 June 1892, page 11. Also 1896, While the Billy Boils. Angus and Robertson, Sydney.

Henry Lawson, A Fragment of Autobiography (vol 2) 1899. Angus & Robertson Manuscripts, State Library of NSW.

Henry Lawson, 1900 ‘Two Boys at Grinder Brothers’, Over the Sliprails. Angus and Robertson, Sydney.

Mike Scanlon, ‘Henry Lawson link should be marked.’ Newscastle Herald, 14 March 2014.

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