G. A. Henty and Australia—Part I

‘I’m not sure about Marriott … I know we’ve got lots of G. A. Henty’, says Lady Edith Crawley to a convalescing World War I army officer in Season Two of Downton Abbey.

The grand estate of the Earl of Grantham, home to the Crawley family, might not have been typical of the way most British folk lived in 1917, but the presence of ‘lots of G. A. Henty’ was common—not just across social classes in England, but throughout the British Empire and beyond.

George Alfred Henty

George Alfred Henty

English author George Alfred Henty (8 December 1832–16 November 1902) had been dead for over a decade by the time Lady Edith made her observation about the contents of Downton’s library. In the quarter of a century leading up to his death, Henty had published nearly 100 books, almost all of them boys-own-adventure stories with precise historical settings.

Henty did not begin his working life as a novelist, but he had displayed a flair for writing from early adulthood. His letters home from the Crimean War showed sufficient promise for him to be offered work as a journalist and he subsequently became a war correspondent. His career as a children’s author took off in the 1880s. Henty had made a couple of forays into juvenile literature during the previous decade, but only turned to full-time fiction writing from 1880 until his death in 1902. In this 22-year period, he produced over 90 books.

‘There is nothing a boy likes better than a good description of a fight’

Henty’s plot lines invariably revolved around historical wars, skirmishes or other fracas. His biographer, George Manville Fenn, says that it quickly dawned on Henty that ‘there is nothing a boy likes better than a good description of a fight’ (George Alfred Henty: The Story of an Active Life, p. 319). Even so, Henty underpinned his narratives with thorough research and a commitment to accuracy.

The Tasmanian

‘Literature: New Books.’ The Tasmanian 26 January 1895, p. 5

Popular opinion had it that Henty readers could learn ‘in-depth history’, as well as ‘superior vocabulary and literary techniques’, while being ‘entertained by a master storyteller’ (Robinson Books G. A. Henty Collection).

Henty himself claimed that his facts—dates, places and military names—were ‘all strictly accurate’ and that those who read his tales ‘with care’ could reasonably expect to ‘pass an examination’ on the subjects he covered (‘Preface’, A Tale of the Peninsular War, 1880).

Invasions, Incursions and Insurrections


A selection of G. A. Henty titles from the National Library of Australia’s collection

Henty’s interests were broad. They ranged from Britain (Beric the Briton: A Story of the Roman Invasion and A March on London: Being a Story of Wat Tyler’s Insurrection), through Europe (By Pike and Dyke: A Tale of the Rise of the Dutch Republic and Through Russian Snows: A Story of Napoleon’s Retreat from Moscow), across North America (Redskin and Cowboy: A Tale of the Western Plains and With Wolfe in Canada: The Winning of a Continent) and into Asia (Among Malay Pirates: A Tale of Adventure and Peril and On the Irrawaddy: A Story of the First Burmese War). Although northern hemisphere events dominated, countries south of the equator were not entirely forgotten—there are some stories set in South Africa, New Zealand and Australia.

Henty’s Australian Connections

A Final Reckoning. Cover of Blackie's Colonial Library edition.

A Final Reckoning. Cover of Blackie’s Colonial Library edition.

Of the five novels Henty published in 1887, one was A Final Reckoning: A Tale of Bush Life in Australia, set predominantly in colonial New South Wales. An English lad, wrongly accused of theft, escapes conviction and migrates to the colonies. He acquits himself admirably in his job as a police officer (displaying customary British pluck and determination), captures the ne’er do well bushranger (who had committed the original crime in England), ‘gets the girl’, and moves up a notch or two in his socio-economic ranking. Hey ho, everyone’s happy (except the 50 or so Aboriginal men slaughtered along the way … more about that in a later instalment of my Henty-themed meanderings).

A Final Reckoning is Henty’s only major piece of writing set in Australia. (An excerpt from A Final Reckoning was published in the early 1920s in book form, under the title Among the Bushrangers, and there are a couple of short stories set in Australia.) But despite the lack of local settings, Henty’s tales were enormously popular throughout the Australian colonies.

A Trove Australia search (in February 2017) for occurrences of Henty’s name in Australia’s digitised newspapers delivers thousands of ‘hits’. ‘G. A. Henty’ appears over 3,500 times between 1880 and 1919. The peak period is in the 1890s when the author’s name is mentioned on nearly 2,000 occasions. (He is listed many more times, in association with his book titles, but with only his surname printed, minus the distinguishing ‘G. A.’ initials.)

‘A household word in all English-speaking lands

Serialisation advertisement in The Australian Star, 26 July 1899, p. 2

Serialisation advertisement in The Australian Star, 26 July 1899, p. 2

Almost half of Henty’s output was published in the 1890s, at an average of three to four books per year. During the same decade, several of his titles, including A Final Reckoning, A Hidden Foe, The Curse of Carne’s Hold and The Lost Heir, were serialised in colonial newspapers.

The Australian Star’s advertisement for The Lost Heir (reproduced at left) is characteristic of the period. It proclaims that the paper’s new story—‘a stirring tale of love and adventure—is ‘by a writer whose name is a household word in all English-speaking lands’.

The Australasian, Melbourne, 18 December 1891, p. 45

Copies of Henty books regularly found their way into the hands of Australian boys as school and Sunday School book prizes, and as Christmas presents. The Australasian’s advertisement in December 1891 (extract reproduced at right) is typical. It advertises six ‘Christmas Books, three of them by Henty. The Henty titles are: The Dash for Khartoum (‘the expedition up the Nile, for the relief of General Gordon at Khartoum’), Held Fast for England (‘the defence of Gibraltar during the famous siege of 1779-83’) and Redskin and Cowboy (‘a tale of the wild frontier regions of the United States’).

(As an aside, it is interesting to note that, of the three other books advertised, one is C. J. Hyne’s Stimson’s Reef, a tale in which the hero and his friends discover hidden treasure on an uninhabited island. The story is described as ‘just the kind [of book] that should be thoroughly enjoyed by every healthily constituted schoolboy’. Another of the books is Annie E. Armstrongs Three Bright Girls: A Story of Chance and Mischance, ‘evidently intended for young girls’. The girls and their mother, who have ‘previously lived in idleness and luxury’, are suddenly ‘plunged into poverty’. It appears that the upwardly-mobile outcomes afforded to Henty’s and Hyne’s heroes did not cross the gender divide.)

Henty’s Colonial Impact

What was the impact of this Henty deluge of the 1890s—a decade in which many colonial families suffered the effects of economic depression, but in which aspects of Australian identity, especial politically and artistically, were taking shape?

That’s the question I’ll consider in Part II of ‘G. A. Henty and Australia’.

Links and Sources:

  • Lady Edith Crawley (played by Laura Carmichael) in the Downton's Library. Downton Abbey (2010-2015) Carnival Film & Television in co-production with Masterpiece Theatre. http://www.itv.com/downtonabbey

    Lady Edith Crawley (played by Laura Carmichael) discussing books in Downton’s Library. Downton Abbey (2010-2015). Carnival Film & Television in co-production with Masterpiece Theatre. http://www.itv.com/downtonabbey

    Lady Edith’s quotation, which opens this post, is from Season 2, Episode 3 of Downton Abbey. You can find the script for the complete episode here. The book to which Lady Edith refers in the first part of the quote may be J. A. R. Marriott’s 1913 publication, England Since Waterloo. It is also possible that she is referring to a book by the British naval officer and author of seafaring adventures Captain Frederick Marryat, but a weighty tome by former Oxford don and Conservative parliamentarian J. A. R. Marriott would offer a greater contrast to her suggestion of Henty stories for the convalescing officer.

  • For more information on the library at Highclere Castle (the library used for the filming of Downton Abbey) visit the castle’s website.
  • Fenn, George Manville. George Alfred Henty: The Story of an Active Life. London: Blackie & Sons, 1907. (Full text available via the Internet Archive.)
  • Henty, G. A. The Final Reckoning: A Tale of Bush Life in Australia. London: Blackie & Sons, 1887. (Full text available on various internet platforms including the Internet Archive, Project Gutenberg, The Literature Network and the International Children’s Digital Library.)
  • The Robertson Books on CD: G. A. Henty Collection
  • Trove Australia
  • The Henty Society
  • G. A. Henty has quite a following on the Good Reads website. You can view readers’ comments on most of his novels here.
  • The Henty novels mentioned in this post, along with many more, are available at the National Library of Australia; for a list of these, click here.


A Ream of Writers

Throughout 2016, I began each week with a ‘Monday Meet the Author’ tweet. (A few illustrators snuck onto the list, too.) Here is a round-up of the Australian children’s book writers and illustrators, chosen at random, who featured in 2016’s Monday morning tweets. (Hyperlinked names link to authors’ websites.)


leigh-hobbs Leigh Hobbs is the current Australian Children’s Laureate. (You can discover more about this role and learn about previous laureates here.) As one of his 2016 duties, Hobbs addressed the audience at the Children’s Book Council of Australia (CBCA) conference in Sydney. His talk stressed the importance of a library in a child’s life. In a library, said Hobbs, a child is ‘free from the competitiveness of assessment and ranking’.


australia-illustratedTania McCartney is the founder of Kids’ Book Review and The 52-Week Illustration Challenge (first held in 2014). Her lifelong immersion in words and pictures is evident in her latest book, Australia Illustrated, published in late 2016 by EK Books. The finely drawn illustrations reflect McCartney’s interpretation of the iconic and the idiosyncratic in Australian culture.


a-little-bush-maidWhile most ‘Monday Meet the Author’ tweets featured contemporary writers, those who built the foundations of Australian children’s literature were not forgotten. Mary Grant Bruce (1878‒1958) will be remembered by many 20th century child readers for the 15 novels in her Billabong Books series, published between 1910 and 1942. The first book in the series, A Little Bush Maid, is still available from HarperCollins and an audio version is available from Bolinda.


wwi_austlitAustLit is Australia’s premier resource for connecting with the nation’s literature. One of the research projects undertaken by AustLit in recent years has been the representation of ‘World War I in Australian Literary Culture’. Part of that project drew together some pivotal children’s books that reflected war experiences – at home and abroad. The list includes three of Mary Grant Bruce’s Billabong Books along with Ethel Turner’s Cub trilogy. (Further AustLit research projects concentrating on children’s and young adult literature can be found via the Research Projects and Collaborations link.


jeannie-bakerJeannie Baker’s remarkable collages gave shape to a new book in 2016 – Circle, published by Walker Books Australia. In a YouTube video, Baker talks about her picture book making process, and about the migratory bird, the bar-tailed godwit, that inspired Circle. A travelling Circle exhibition, giving visitors an ‘up-close’ encounter with the detail and texture of Baker’s collages, runs until May 2018 in various cities around Australia. Details here.


ambelin-bgAmbelin Kwaymullina is an ‘Aboriginal writer and illustrator from the Palyku people’ of the Pilbara region. She says that most of her picture books ‘are a type of story that Aboriginal people call “teaching stories”’; they contain messages about ‘how to live in the world’. In 2016, Viking published Kwaymullina’s Dream Little One, Dream, a bedtime story that follows the day’s rhythms in the natural world.


elephants-have-wingsSusanne Gervay’s 2014 picture book, Elephants Have Wings, with illustrations by Anna Pignataro (see August listing below), is based on the parable of ‘The Blind Men and the Elephant’ and explores questions surrounding ‘What is truth?’ The book blends elements from the spiritual traditions of Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism and Sufism, extending into a Judeo-Christian ethos. Gervay and Pignataro’s joint Elephants Have Wings presentation at the 2016 CBCA conference was so intoxicating that on-site copies of the book sold out after their talk in less than ten minutes. There are some excellent Elephants Have Wings resources (including a page-by-page study guide) on Gervay’s website and you can see how the book’s cover developed in this YouTube clip.


jen-storerJen Storer is one of those authors (Allison Tait, see September listing below, is another) who share their creative ‘secrets’ with anyone who wants to listen and learn. Storer’s blog is filled with reflections on, and hints to enhance, the writing life. You will get a feel for her style by reading her 30 December 2016 blog in which she announces the upcoming ‘launcheroony’ of her next book .


atmosphericWith an abundance of quality children’s fiction available, it can be easy to overlook information books and non-fiction titles for children. One author with a gift for communicating ‘facts’ is Carole Wilkinson. Wilkinson has written several titles for Black Dog Books‘ (an imprint of Walker Books Australia) Drum series, a collection that uses ‘first-person accounts and non-fiction to bring history roaring to life’. The most recent of Wilkinson’s books in the series is Atmospheric, an exploration of climate change science. Atmospheric won the 2016 Wilderness Society Environment Award for Children’s Literature, Non-Fiction.


james-foleyJames Foley has a bit of a thing for Vikings ‒ he’s written The Last Viking and The Last Viking Returns – but, in his latest book, Brobot (published by Fremantle Press), he’s turned his attention to robotics. Enter Sally Tinker, ‘the world’s foremost inventor under the age of twelve’. You’ll find a free sample of Brobot, (in which Sally builds a ‘better brother’) here.


star-of-deltoraEmily Rodda has been writing children’s books for over 30 years and she has regularly won CBCA awards, as well as KOALA and YABBA Awards (voted for by children). Many of Rodda’s books take the form of series fiction, her first being the Rowan series, published from 1993 to 2003. But Rodda’s best-known series is the tripartite Deltora Quest collection. The first series (comprising eight books) was published in 2000, the second came out in 2002, and the third in 2003‒2004. There is also a related, standalone title, Tales of Deltora, published in 2005. Scholastic Australia is now publishing Rodda’s new Star of Deltora series.


The year’s ‘Monday Meet the Author’ tweets closed with an acknowledgement of two deaths in 2016: illustrator Kim Gamble (1952–2016) and author/illustrator Narelle Oliver (1960–2016).

kim-gambleKim Gamble collaborated with a raft of Australian children’s book authors, perhaps most notably with Anna and Barbara Fienberg on the Tashi series and with Anna Fienberg on the Minton series. Both series are published by Allen & Unwin.

narelle-oliverOver the course of her career, Narelle Oliver’s picture books were shortlisted for various premiers’ literary awards, and for the Wilderness Society Environment Award for Children’s Literature and the CBCA’s Picture Book of the Year Award. Scholastic Australia has Oliver’s book Cecil scheduled for publication in mid-2017.

The CBCA’s Reading Time journal has published both Anna Fienberg’s tribute to Kim Gamble and Robyn Sheahan-Bright’s speech for Narelle Oliver (delivered at the memorial for Oliver at the State Library of Queensland).

Links and Sources

You can find many more authors and illustrators on my ‘Australian Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators’ Pinterest board.

For further resources about Australian children’s book writers and illustrators, see:

national-centre-for-australian-childrens-literature asa scbwi