Thomas Henry Kendall

Though his education was slight and he was plagued throughout his life with a variety of personal troubles, Thomas Henry Kendall (1839-1882) persevered with his verse to become Australia's best known 19th century poet. Kendall grew up on the southern coast of the continent and drew his inspiration from the surrounding natural environment as well as the local traditions.

Early Life

Kendall was born on April 18, 1839, in Kirmington, Australia, a twin son of Basil Kendall and Melinda McNally. Kendall's given names were Thomas Henry, but he was often referred to as Henry Clarence Kendall. With twin brother Basil, he was brought up among the mountains and cool rainforests of the south coast of New South Wales. Like his father before him, Basil Kendall, the poet's father, had led an adventurous life at sea before becoming a farmer. Basil and his wife settled on farmland in Kirmington, living in a primitive cottage where their sons were born.

In 1844, Basil Kendall moved his family to the coastal regions of Illawarra in the Clarence River district. Before he got married, Basil Kendall had lost almost all of one lung and, by this time, his health had begun to fail. He found it hard to support his family, which had grown to include three daughters. He died in 1851 when Henry Kendall was 12 years old.

After Basil Kendall's death, Kendall's mother moved her children back to the south coast, near Woolongong, and the family was soon scattered, the children taken in by various relatives who cared for them. Henry and his brother lived with relatives on the South Coast in Illawarra. The area was said to be especially beautiful, and the environment made an enormous impression on Kendall. The lush and beautiful surroundings influenced some of his later landscape poetry, especially in such works as "Bell Birds," "September in Australia," and "Narrara Creek."

In 1855, after a brief education, the 14-year-old Kendall followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather and went to sea. He worked as a cabin boy on a whaling brig, the Plumstead, which was owned by his uncle Joseph. During the two-year voyage in the South Seas, the vessel stopped at many islands. Like the landscape of Australia, the sublime beauty of the Pacific scenery made a powerful impression on Kendall, and he referred to his experiences in two of his poems, "The Ballad of Tanna" and "Beyond Kerguelen." He found the rigors of life at sea, however, to be extremely harsh, and most of his memories of the experience were bad ones. This reaction to the experience seemed in keeping with his natural disposition. All throughout his life, even when he was a young boy, Kendall was, for the most part, unhappy. As he grew older, he was increasingly shy, inclined toward melancholy, and possessed of a keen ambition that often made him feel thwarted in his efforts. These qualities would contribute to a difficult adult life.

Started Writing Poetry

In March of 1857, he returned to Australia. Living in Sydney, and only 16 years old, he became the primary support of his mother and sisters, working at various jobs including errand boy, shop assistant, and public servant. Kendall was very devoted to his mother, who was an attractive, strong-willed woman who recognized in her son a gift for written verse. Kendall credited her with his later literary accomplishments. He always felt that he inherited his talent from her, and she helped with his education and encouraged him to write poetry.

By 1859, Kendall's poetry began to appear in newspapers and magazines published in Sydney and Melbourne. His first verse that appeared in print, published under the title "O tell me, ye breezes," appeared in The Australian Home Companion and Band of Hope Journal.

His poetry drew favorable notices in Australia and England and would lead to important and supportive friendships with people such as Henry Parkes, an editor; Charles Harpur, a well-known Australian poet; and Daniel Henry Deniehy, an orator and critic. In 1859, Parkes, then the editor of The Empire, a newspaper, published a poem, "Silent Years," signed by one "Mr. H. Kendall, N.A.P." Kendall had attached those initials to his name. They stood for Native Australian Poet. The next year, Parkes published Kendall's verses on the wreck of the Dunbar, titled "The Merchant Ship," which Kendall had written when he was sixteen.

Established Important Friendships

At the time, Kendall also sent some poems to The Sydney Morning Herald, which gained the attention of Henry Halloran, a civil servant and amateur writer, who contacted Kendall and tried to help him. Later, it was said of Kendall that he may have been unlucky in life but lucky in friendships, which proved beneficial to a young man who was shy and nervous.

During this period, Kendall's mother introduced him to Sheridan Moore, a well-known literary critic. Moore admired Kendall's work and helped to get his poetry published. Moore later would introduce Kendall to James Lionel Michael, a Grafton solicitor, who hired Kendall as his clerk. Michael was a cultured, literate man who also wrote poetry. Both a friend and an employer, Michael opened his huge, personal library to Kendall and encouraged the young man in his own poetic pursuits.

After employment in Grafton, Kendall had a somewhat nomadic work history and changed jobs and locations several times. For a while, he work in Dungog on the Williams River and then at Scone, where he only worked for a month or two before he returned to Sydney. In October of 1862, while living in Sydney, Kendall published his first volume of poetry, Poems and Songs. The collection gained favorable notices and proved to be popular.

More good reviews followed, including ones for his poem "The Empire" as well as for his work that appeared in the literary publication Athenaeum over the next four years. In 1866, his growing body of work received high praise by G. B. Barton in his Poets and Prose Writers of New South Wales.

In August of 1863, Parkes used his influence to secure Kendall a clerkship in the Surveyor-General's Department in Sydney at 150 pounds a year. In 1866, he was transferred to the Colonial Secretary's Office, where he earned 200 pounds a year. He combined these positions with some journalism work and continued writing poetry. His poetry from this period would later be published in two volumes, Leaves from an Australian Forest (1869) and Songs from the Mountains (1880). The poems demonstrated his appreciation of nature and of the beautiful Australian landscape and bush.

Marriage and Financial Difficulties

In 1867, despite his natural shyness, he gave a series of lectures at the Sydney School of Arts. After one of these lectures, coincidentally titled "Love, Courtship and Marriage," Kendall met Charlotte Rutter, daughter of a government medical officer and accompanied her home. They immediately fell in love and married the next year, the same year that Kendall received a prize for the best Australian poem for "A Death in the Bush." The contest's judge, author Richard Hengist Horne, wrote an article in Melbourne and Sydney newspapers in which he praised Kendall as a true poet. He also stated that if the contest had awarded three prizes instead of one, Kendall would have received the other two prizes for his other submissions, "The Glen of Arrawatta" and "Dungog."

The award and the praise bolstered Kendall's confidence enough that he decided he wanted to work exclusively as a writer. He resigned his post in the Colonial Secretary's Office in March of 1869 and moved to Melbourne with his wife and their recently born daughter. Kendall opted to move to that city because, at the time, it was a center of literary activity. Still, he found it difficult to establish himself on his writing alone. He tried to work as a full-time journalist, but his efforts met with little success. His second volume of poetry, Leaves from Australian Forests, received good reviews but made little money.

Suffered a Nervous Breakdown

Besides the financial problems, Kendall experienced some personal tragedies. In April of 1869, Michael, his friend and former employer, was found dead in the Clarence River. Also, in June, Harpur, the fellow poet who had encouraged Kendall, passed away. Meanwhile, personal problems plagued the troubled poet. By 1870, he and his wife lived in poverty, and he was suffering a drinking problem. After they returned to New South Wales that year, Kendall suffered a nervous breakdown and was placed in an institution.

When healthy again, Kendall again sought work as a journalist, writing prose and poetry, but his earnings were small. He also established friendships with George Gordon McCrae and Lindsay Gordon, two leading figures of the Melbourne literary scene. The friendships provided Kendall with encouragement but also brought him sadness. Kendall and Gordon had become very close, so it was devastating to Kendall when Gordon committed suicide at the age of 37.

The next two years were particularly troublesome for Kendall. The depression brought on by his friend's death further darkened his already melancholy spirit. In addition, his poor business sense and his alcoholism resulted in poverty that in turn led to a temporary breakdown of his marriage. Then, in 1871, his first-born daughter, Araluen, died. This, combined with his lack of success, led him increasingly to seek solace in alcohol. He returned to Sydney a broken man, and he would spend periods in a Sydney asylum seeking a cure for his addiction.

Attained Peace in Later Years

Fortunately for Kendall he recovered, thanks to the efforts of his devoted wife, who reconciled with him, and the help of some friends. He emerged from the darkest period of his life to find personal peace and produce his best poetic works.

Those friends—George and Michale Fagan—were timber merchants in Brisbane, and they took care of Kendall until he was well enough to take a position as storekeeper with their company. For the remaining years of his relatively short life, Kendall lived a tranquil existence with his wife and family. By this time, Kendall had two sons, and in 1876 he would have another son and a daughter.

During these final years, Kendall received some gratifying recognition for his talents. In 1879, he wrote the lyrics for the opening Cantata sung at the Sydney International Exhibition. He also won a prize for a poem he wrote about the Exhibition. In addition, his third collection of poetry, Songs from the Mountains (1890) earned him a huge profit. This last book published while he was still alive is generally regarded to include his best work, reflecting a greater command of the craft and demonstrating a high level of imagination.

In 1881, his old friend Parkes helped him secure the position of Inspectorship of State Forests at 500 pounds a year. The experience Kendall gained in the Fagan brothers' timber business proved especially helpful. However, by this time in his life, Kendall's health began failing, and the outdoor work drained him physically. During one of his forest inspections, he caught a chill that affected his lungs and brought about tuberculosis. He went to Sydney for treatment, but he died there on August 1, 1882, in his wife's arms. He was only 43 years old. He was buried at Waverley, which overlooked the ocean.

Kendall's wife survived him for more than 40 years. In all, they had seven children. The town Kendall in northern New South Wales was named after him. Kendall has been remembered long after his death, and a compilation of his work, The Poetical Works of Henry Kendall, was published in 1966.

Today, many regard his poetry to be the best produced by any Australian poet, and individual poems have been described as "singing pictures." His poetry has also been described as mellifluous and highly descriptive. Modern scholars marvel that he was able to produce such a copious and effective body of work in light of his personal troubles as well as the harsh surroundings of 19th century Australia.


Kendall, Henry, Leaves from Australian Forests: Poetical Works of Henry Kendall, Lloyd O'Neil, 1970.


"Henry Kendall: Australian Poet," (March 15, 2003).

"Henry Clarence Kendall,", (March 15, 2003).

"The Poems of Henry Kendall," Project Book Read, (March 15, 2003).

Stevens, Bertram, "Biographical Notes, Henry Kendall-Preface, " (March 15, 2003).