Louisa Lawson

Louisa Lawson (1848-1920), newspaper proprietor, was born on 17 February 1848 on 'Guntawang' station, near Mudgee, New South Wales, second of twelve children of Harriet (born Winn) and Harry Albury, station hand. She was educated at the Mudgee national school. Kept home to help care for her younger siblings, she resented the drudgery. On 7 July l866 she married Niels Hertzberg Larsen (Peter Lawson). They joined the Weddin Mountain gold rush and he later took up a 16 ha selection at Eurunderee, near Mudgee.

Between 1867 and 1877 Louisa bore five children, one of whom died in infancy. Peter was often away from home, at a goldrush or on contract work. Louisa sold dairy produce, fattened cattle, opened a store and ran a post office. Drought forced them off the selection in 1883; Louisa moved to Sydney with her younger children and kept up a pretence of being separated from her husband by misfortune, but the marriage had ended. He sent money irregularly to help support the children; she did washing and sewing and took in boarders.

Reared a strict Methodist and deeply religious throughout life, Louisa investigated spiritualism and found friends through the Progressive Spiritualist Lyceum at Leigh House, Sydney. In 1887-88 with her son Henry, later famous for his poetry and short stories, she edited the Republican. In 1888 she started Dawn, announcing that it would publicise women's wrongs, fight their battles and sue for their suffrage. It offered a mix of service features - household hints and patterns - along with literary items and news. It was a commercial success. When Peter died in December 1888, leaving 1103 pounds to Louisa, she enlarged her printing plant and accepted job printing.

In 1889 the Typographical Association, which refused membership to women, tried to drive Mrs Lawson out of business. Her printers, women who had learnt the trade outside Australia, were harassed on their way to work by male printers, who from outside the building used mirrors to flash light into the women's eyes as they worked.

In May 1889 Louisa announced the formation of a Dawn Club for women, which became a suffrage society. She encouraged women to become practised public speakers, having persuaded the Sydney School of Arts debating club to admit women; in 1893 she was elected to its board of management. Through Dawn she created a public knowledge of women's affairs which helped move opinion towards their enfranchisement. In editorials she presented feminist arguments for opening the legal profession to women, for appointing women as prison warders, factory inspectors and magistrates, and allowing hospital appointments to women doctors. She blamed prostitution on men and evil laws, and urged parents to equip their daughters to earn a living and not keep them home as unpaid domestic labour. She featured instances where the law failed to protect women.

Mrs Lawson was also a practical philanthropist, organising collections of seeds and bulbs for the Ragged Schools and regularly attending prize-givings. She supported crèches as a means of providing relief for overworked mothers.

When the Womanhood Suffrage League was formed in 1891, Mrs Lawson joined its Council, allowed it the use of Dawn offices and printed its literature free of charge. She spoke frequently at League meetings, was a member of the League's deputation to the Premier in 1892, and was widely reported for saying women must have the vote 'to redeem the world from bad laws passed by wicked men'. She was drawn into the dispute on which her friend Lady Windeyer (q.v.) resigned as president, and resigned from the council though she continued to publicise the cause: 'our space is too limited to waste one line in anything but praise and encouragement for women'.

In 1900 Louisa was thrown from a tram, injuring her knee and spine, and was bedridden for many months. She had invented and patented a buckle for fastening mailbags which she had been supplying in small quantities to the post office, but in 1900 a conspiracy formed to deprive her of the benefits of her invention. She was subsequently awarded compensation, but the amount was reduced on appeal to 60 pounds.

After 1901 Dawn lost some of its earlier vitality and inventiveness. Novelties disappeared and there were fewer lively short news items reporting women's activities. Advertising fell away and in l905 Dawn closed. Louisa had remained politically active; she joined the council of the Women's Progressive Association and continued campaigning for the appointment of women to public office. She was increasingly troubled by family matters. Earlier in Henry's writing career, she had given advice and encouragement and arranged the publication of his first volume of poetry, but the two became estranged: he was an alcoholic repeatedly gaoled for failing to pay maintenance for his children. Her other sons suffered mental breakdowns and she and her daughter quarrelled.

She retired to her cottage in Marrickville and supported herself as a freelance writer, mainly with short stories which appeared in the Sydney Mail, the Evening News, the Worker and Woman's Budget. Her poems, published as The Lonely Crossing (1906), have recently been re- evaluated: her poem 'To a Libertine' is 'a tense, psychologically subtle evocation of a woman destroyed because true innocence in a world of men is simply vulnerability'; her voice was 'unequivocally a feminine one'.

In impoverished circumstances, she tended her garden, living near her son Peter and his family; another son sometimes stayed with her. Her Dolly Dear poems capture the humour and warmth of an old woman's love for children:

Oh Dolly dear won't it be drand

Two biftdays - just fink! - two!

For Dramma's four years old to day

And I am eighty-two.

In most surviving photographs Louisa appears stern faced. Big-boned, as befitted a country-woman, she told the editor of the Bulletin's 'Red Page': 'And why shouldn't a woman be tall and strong?' She died in Gladesville Hospital for the Insane on 12 August 1920.

Heather Radi

Brian Matthews Louisa 1987.