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.


Ruined by a Fondness for Beer—Part II

In Part I of ‘On Being Ruined by a Fondness for Beer’, I sketched the life of Derwent Moultrie Coleridge, grandson of the opium-addled poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, until his arrival in Australia in 1851. Here is a quick re-cap: the young Coleridge was born in Cornwall in 1828; he completed his early education in London (excelling mostly at hairstyles and fashion); in 1847, he went up to Oxford where he was rusticated (effectively expelled) during his first year; in 1848, he tried his luck at Jesus College, Cambridge, but the outcome was much the same—Coleridge was confirmed as a spendthrift, a womaniser and a carouser.

Derwent and Mary Coleridge. Unknown photographer, 1856. NPG P322 © National Portrait Gallery, London.

Derwent and Mary Coleridge. Unknown photographer, 1856. NPG P322 © National Portrait Gallery, London.

Coleridge’s parents, wearied by his ‘career of reckless dissipation’ (Hainton, p. 234), decided to pack him off to the Antipodes with a small quantity of cash and a fond hope that he would redeem himself—or at least be far enough removed from them so as to cause no further embarrassment.

Exile in the Antipodes

A family connection provided the Coleridges with an introduction to the explorer and South Australian Colonial Secretary Charles Sturt. The plan was that Sturt would administer minimal funds until the young man found regular employment.  On the eve of his departure, Coleridge wrote to his mother: ‘As you read this I shall be on my way to a new world, to find new friends, to lead, I hope in all ways, a new life. What I shall do wherewith to gain my bread I know not … I may even now … become an honest upright man’ (qtd in Hainton, p. 236).

Departure of Emigration Ship. Illustrated London News 6 July 1850: 16.

Departure of Emigration Ship. Illustrated London News, 6 July 1850: 16.

Despite his best hopes, Coleridge did not make an auspicious start. Nearly two years passed before he made contact with his family. Again writing to his mother (qtd in Hainton, p. 237), he relayed the ‘almost insurmountable’ difficulties of his life in South Australia. He had struggled to find work and had often gone without food or shelter.

When Sturt had been unable to find suitable employment for the young man, Coleridge had briefly joined a road gang. His next job was with a publican’s family where he lasted only five weeks. (Finding the workload disagreeable, he gave his master a horsewhipping.) Positions in bars and mines followed before he decided to head for the goldfields, but after three weeks of arduous trudging, and with his shoes worn out, he settled—temporarily—on work at a sheep station. Then, continuing his migration eastwards, he took jobs with the police in Victoria.

Teaching—A Profession Better Suiting a Gentleman

Eventually, Coleridge found an occupation that suited him better: he became a Resident Assistant Master at the newly-established Geelong Grammar School. When he joined the staff in 1859, the school boasted a principal who had studied at Oxford, a vice-principal who hailed from St John’s College, Cambridge, and two further assistant masters with qualifications from King’s College, London, and Trinity College, Dublin.

Early Geelong Grammar School Building, completed 1857. Image sourced via Wayback Machine.

Early Geelong Grammar School Building, completed 1857. Image sourced via Wayback Machine.

At last, life seemed more promising. In a letter dated 10 February 1859 (qtd in Persse, p. 114), Coleridge swoons with delight over his new situation at Geelong Grammar. ‘The tone here is so high’, he says, ‘quite up to an English public school’. He happily recites his grandfather’s poetry to the students, he lounges around after supper reading Tennyson and Longfellow with his fellow masters, and he plays cricket on Saturdays (the latter recreation affording ‘no end of openings for incipient flirtations’). In March, he writes that he has been accepted into the local Literary and Scientific Association, and has gained his first promotion at the school. He is also visiting ‘some really good families—Clergy, Doctors and Trustees of the School’ (115). He even writes of returning to England (between terms) ‘to matriculate at the University’ (116).

Coleridge’s self-declared hope of establishing an honest and upright life with new friends seems to be coming to fruition. By April 1859, there is the prospect of a rise in salary; he is leading a ‘quiet life’; he has ‘entree to all good houses in Geelong’; and his friends are solid ‘family folk’. He is even introduced to the Governor of Victoria. ‘So you see’, he reassures his mother, ‘I’m in the land of grandeur and good things’.

But, Alas…

Coleridge’s good fortune did not last. At the end of 1859, Geelong Grammar School closed (albeit temporarily). Student numbers had not reached expected levels; lower than anticipated income had led to a debt of £7,000; and the school had lost its battle for educational supremacy with its rival, the Geelong National Grammar School. The teaching job that had promised salvation for Coleridge came to an abrupt end. And so, as Shakespeare’s Henry V would have it: ‘Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more’.

Coleridge starts over in Melbourne. According to The Unknown Coleridge (a biography of Coleridge’s father), the 32-year-old Coleridge took up a post at Brighton Park School, but that job did not last long, and nor did his next position in a survey office.

In 1863, Coleridge makes the decision to return to England. Once there, he travels to the Lake District and the Isle of Man with his father, and follows this journey with a seven-week tour of Switzerland and Germany with a small party of family and family friends. His parents press him to remain in England, but, after a further six months, Coleridge decides to return to Australia.

He sails on the Royal Albert with 53 other passengers—44 travelling steerage and 10, including Coleridge, in saloon class. Paying for the more expensive saloon passage entitles Coleridge to the privacy of a cabin, superior catering, and the advantage of promenade space on the poop deck—a world away from those languishing below deck in steerage.

State Records Authority of New South Wales: Shipping Master's Office; Passengers Arriving 1855 - 1922.

State Records Authority of New South Wales: Shipping Master’s Office; Passengers Arriving 1855 – 1922.

A Second ‘New Start’

St Mark's Collegiate School. Advertisement, Sydney Morning Herald, 6 Jul 1864: 6

St Mark’s Collegiate School. Advertisement, Sydney Morning Herald, 6 July 1864: 6.

Coleridge must have arranged a teaching position in New South Wales prior to his departure from England. He docks in Sydney on Wednesday, 10 August 1864, but an advertisement for St Mark’s Collegiate School in Macquarie Fields, near Liverpool, had appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald a month earlier. It named Coleridge as a staff member in the Classics Department. The address listed beside his name is that of his father’s teacher training college in Chelsea. Another staff member at Coleridge’s new school, W G Collings, is a graduate of that same London establishment.

Perhaps everything will turn out well after all. Coleridge is still a relatively young man, just shy of his 36th birthday, and he has a new job in a reputable school (the headmaster of which is George Fairfowl Macarthur, great nephew of the pastoralist John Macarthur). So, what happens next?

History repeats itself. In late 1868, George Macarthur accepts the position of headmaster at his alma mater, The King’s School, Sydney. Some of his masters and students accompany him to King’s, and St Mark’s Collegiate School closes down. It is not certain that Coleridge was still working at the school at the time of the closure, but what is certain is that by the following year the name ‘Derwent Moultrie Coleridge, teacher’ begins to appear in the entry logs of Darlinghurst Gaol.

Darlinghurst Gaol log book, 25 October 1869.

Darlinghurst Gaol log book, 25 October 1869.

Eleven years later, Coleridge is dead. But by then, he has left his mark—literally—in the pages of Sydney’s colonial history, his name permanently linked with such eminent persons as the explorer W C Wentworth and Queen Victoria’s second son, Prince Alfred. This last phase of Coleridge’s life will be explored in the third and final part of ‘On Being Ruined by a Fondness for Beer’.

Links and Sources

My thanks to the Geelong Grammar School Archivist for searching out information on Derwent Moultrie Coleridge, and thanks also to the Friends of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (@FriendsofSTC) for alerting me to the Haintons’ biography of Coleridge’s father.

‘Departures.’ Illustrated London News. 22 January 1949: 106.

Derwent Coleridge; Mary Coleridge (née Pridham). Unknown photographer. 1856. NPG P322 © National Portrait Gallery, London. Reproduced under Creation Commons Attribution (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0).

Hainton, Raymonde, and Godfrey Hainton. The Unknown Coleridge: The Life and Times of Derwent Coleridge 1800-1883. London: Janus, 1996. (This book is a biography of Derwent Moultrie Coleridge’s father and includes extracts of letters written to and by Coleridge. The letters are held in the Derwent Moultrie Coleridge Collection (MS-0855), Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas.)

‘Some Letters from Derwent M Coleridge’ in Persse, Michael, and Justin Corfield. Geelong Grammarians: A Biographical Register (1st ed). Corio, Vic: Geelong Grammar School in association with Geelong Grammar Foundation & the Old Geelong Grammarians, 1996.

Geelong Grammar School building at the time of Coleridge’s employment (on the site bounded by Moorabool, McKillop, Yarra and Maude Streets). Image sourced via cached GGS website, Wayback Machine.

Mariners and Ships in Australian Waters: Royal Albert.’ State Records Authority of New South Wales: Shipping Master’s Office; Passengers Arriving 1855‒1922.

Advertising.’ The Sydney Morning Herald. 6 July 1864: 6.

Macquarie Fields: One of Our Earliest Schools.’ The Sydney Morning Herald. 1 August 1931: 7.

(Newspaper items quoted in this blog post were sourced via Trove Australia’s digitised newspapers collection.)