Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Brereton, John Le Gay (1871–1933)

by H. P. Heseltine

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

John Le Gay Brereton, photographed by Sam Hood

John Le Gay Brereton, photographed by Sam Hood

State Library of New South Wales, 399

John Le Gay Brereton (1871-1933), scholar and writer, was born on 2 September 1871 in Sydney, fifth son of John Le Gay Brereton, medical practitioner, and his wife Mary, née Tongue. His parents had arrived in Melbourne in the Dover Castle on 25 July 1859 and moved to Sydney. His father practised in the city, was a minor poet and a leading member of the Swedenborgian community. In 1882 the family moved to a new home, Osgathorpe, at Gladesville. Brereton was educated at Sydney Grammar School from 1881 and at the University of Sydney (B.A., 1894), where he read English under Professor (Sir) Mungo MacCallum and, as editor of the student magazine Hermes, began to write seriously.

Brereton tried a variety of occupations—schoolteacher, tea merchant, clerk in the New South Wales government statistician's office. At the same time he continued to write, and made many literary friends, notably Henry Lawson and Christopher Brennan. His first book, The Song of Brotherhood and Other Verses, was published in 1896. Landlopers, a prose work based on a walking tour to the Blue Mountains and the South Coast, followed in 1899. Much of his writing in the 1890s conformed to the prevailing attitudes of egalitarianism and nationalism. At its best, it was distinguished by the mystic pantheism which was the basis of his personal religious faith. His poetry was characterized by his love of mountains and streams. Regarding himself as a 'brother of birds and trees' he was a vegetarian; he loved to spend holidays tramping through the bush.

On 21 December 1900 Brereton married Laura Winifred Odd, daughter of a neighbour. In 1902 he was appointed assistant librarian at the University of Sydney under the titular librarian Henry Barff. He advised the government architect Walter Vernon on the design of the first permanent library building. Under his direction its holdings were greatly expanded and the catalogue made systematic. He encouraged students, young writers and artists and, a member of the Casuals Club from 1907, moved in literary and artistic circles outside the university. In 1908 he published another book of poetry, Sea and Sky.

In the 1900s Brereton started to build his European reputation as a literary scholar and in 1909 published Elizabethan Drama: Notes and Studies. He contributed articles on Shakespeare and Marlowe to learned journals and in 1914 sent a critical edition of Lust's Dominion (of disputed authorship) to the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium. The manuscript was lost in the German invasion, and was eventually published in 1931. Although strongly anti-militarist he was more sympathetic to the British cause in 1914 than he had been to Australian participation in the South African War and in 1915 brought out a book of poems relating to the war, The Burning Marl. That year he was promoted to university librarian.

In 1921 Brereton was appointed professor of English literature. He had a pervasive influence on his students and had long promoted the education of women at the university. Tall and loose-limbed, he was invariably hatless. Academic responsibilities occupied most of his time and energies; nevertheless in 1923 he was a foundation member of the English Association, in 1929 first president of the Fellowship of Australian Writers and in 1931 an organizer of the Sydney P.E.N. Club. He published a further volume of verse, Swags Up! (1928), and a volume of essays, Knocking Round (1930); with Bertha Lawson edited Henry Lawson, by His Mates (1931); and contributed innumerable letters and poems on diverse subjects to the Sydney Morning Herald, often under the pseudonym 'Basil Garstang'.

Brereton died suddenly on 2 February 1933 near Tamworth, while on a caravan tour. He was survived by his wife, four sons and a daughter. His portrait is held by the University of Sydney.

Brereton was not a major writer, but his verse did make a distinct contribution to the development of Australian poetry, while Landlopers is a uniquely charming prose idyll. His academic labours place him among the leading humanist scholars of his day, he was a rare academic on familiar terms with creative writers, while his gentle, whimsical, and sometimes melancholy personality made him widely loved and respected.

His elder brother Ernest Le Gay (1869-1932), mining engineer and lecturer, was born on 10 April 1869 in Sydney and educated at Sydney Grammar School and at Christ's College, Christchurch, New Zealand, but did not matriculate. Between prospecting on the New South Wales goldfields, he was apprenticed to a naval architect, worked as a mining engineer and occasionally visited Sydney to attend university lectures on engineering and metallurgy. In 1903 Brereton was elected an associate of the Institution of Mining and Metallurgy, London. He was appointed demonstrator in chemistry at the University of Sydney in 1908, and married Lorna Beatrice Russell in Melbourne on 2 June 1910. In 1916 he was awarded a B.Sc. research degree for work on the origins and nature of gold deposits in New South Wales, and was appointed lecturer. He was a member of the Australian Chemical Institute and of the Royal Society of New South Wales.

Survived by his wife, daughter and two sons, Brereton died at Turramurra on 4 August 1932 and was cremated with Anglican rites.

Select Bibliography

  • H. P. Heseltine, J. Le G. Brereton (Melb, 1965), and for bibliography
  • Hermes, Lent 1933
  • Lone Hand (Sydney), June 1920
  • Today (Melbourne), 26 Dec 1931
  • Art in Australia, 15 Apr 1933
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 17 Mar 1927, 3 Feb, 9 Sept 1933, 21 Feb 1948
  • Sydney Mail, 12 Oct 1927
  • J. Le G. Brereton letters (State Library of Victoria)
  • Brereton papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • private information.

Citation details

H. P. Heseltine, 'Brereton, John Le Gay (1871–1933)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/brereton-john-le-gay-5351/text9047, published in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 17 April 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

John Le Gay Brereton, photographed by Sam Hood

John Le Gay Brereton, photographed by Sam Hood

State Library of New South Wales, 399