Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Dyson, Edward George (1865–1931)

by Graeme Davison

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

Edward George Dyson (1865-1931), by May and Mina Moore, c1927

Edward George Dyson (1865-1931), by May and Mina Moore, c1927

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an3085155

Edward George Dyson (1865-1931), writer, was born on 4 March 1865 at Morrisons near Ballarat, Victoria, second child of George Arthur Dyson and his wife Jane, née Mayall. His father, a Londoner by birth, had arrived in the colony in 1852 and later worked as a miner and mining engineer in the Ballarat district. His mother, daughter of a Lancashire cotton-spinner, came, so Dyson said, 'from a life of refinement in England' and it was she, perhaps, who fostered the artistic inclinations of her three talented sons, Edward, William Henry and Ambrose.

Much of Dyson's boyhood was spent on the move as his father followed his employment from Morrison to Alfredton, Bendigo and Soldier's Hill. Shunted from school to school he recoiled from formal education with 'bewilderment and loathing'. He learned much more, as boy and writer, from the blighted landscape beyond the school yard. 'The deserted mines took hold of me', he later wrote, 'and I haunted them like a familiar spirit'. Scrambling across mullock heaps, hunting rats in worked-out shafts and yarning with old prospectors, he stored up the memories and anecdotes that fed his prolific literary career. Waddy, the grey weather-board township described in his later mining stories, is Alfredton, while many of his stock characters—the Wesleyan class-leader, the Irish saloon-keeper, the Chinese laundryman—were modelled on childhood acquaintances.

When he was 12 Dyson left school to help his father, who by then was working as a dry-goods hawker, another experience he used years later in his Tommy the Hawker (1911). During his teens he worked in various jobs 'below and on top' at Ballarat, Clunes, Bungaree, Lefroy (Tasmania), Smeaton and Gordon. About 1883 the family settled in South Melbourne and Ted, the mainstay of the family since the death of his elder brother in 1879, went to work in his uncle's paper-bag factory.

Dyson had already contributed short pieces to the Ballarat and Melbourne press and in 1885 some paragraphs sent to the Sydney Bulletin drew an encouraging reply from J. F. Archibald. After a short stint as sub-editor on the weekly Life, he struck out as a freelance writer and by the end of the decade material over his usual pen-name, 'Silas Snell', had appeared in Australian Tit-bits, Melbourne Punch and other papers. His first real success came in 1889 when his short story 'A golden shanty' was used as the title-piece in the Bulletin's Christmas anthology.

The popularity of the Bulletin inspired Dyson and the artist Tom Durkin to begin their own two-man local version, the Bull Ant (later the Ant), which enjoyed a short but merry life until its closure in mid-1892. With creditors at his heels, Dyson resumed freelancing and in the mid-1890s he was among the most prolific of the Bulletin's contributors. He produced his first and best book of verse, Rhymes from the Mines, in 1896.

For Dyson writing was a trade as much as a vocation. In 1889 he reflected on his former life as a miner, comparing it favourably with 'the weary curse of slinging rhymes / When wages, not the will, impels'. To maintain his heavy work schedule, he evolved an elaborate system of literary book-keeping. He jotted down ideas, facts and phrases in his notebooks; then, as they were turned into finished stories, he entered the titles and proceeds in a ledger. From a trough in the mid-1890s, his earnings quickly rose to over £600 a year and by 1901 he could afford to turn down William Macleod's generous offer of a permanent job on the Bulletin at £10 a week.

In the late 1890s Dyson and his brothers, together with Lionel, Percy and Norman Lindsay, their fellow refugees from goldfields Methodism, founded the Bohemian Ishmael Club. In their company Dyson unleashed his humour in bawdy playlets, satirical speeches and mock liturgies that reveal how far he shared the enthusiasm of his younger confrères for Nietzsche, Ibsen and the Décadence.

After 1900, as his brothers and sisters were launched on their own careers and marriages, Dyson's financial responsibilities eased. But he kept up his 'machine-like productiveness', writing jokes and captions for Melbourne Punch, attempting to break into the theatre with melodramas for the Bland Holt and Robert Brough companies, and keeping up a constant supply of stories, long and short. With Below and on Top (1898), The Gold-Stealers (1901) and In the Roaring Fifties (1906) he worked through his reserves of goldfields material. Then capitalizing on the vogue for larrikin literature, he turned his own adolescent factory experiences to account in his Fact'ry 'ands (1906), Benno and some of the Push (1911), and Spats' Fact'ry (1914). Dyson eschewed the gloomy realism of Arthur Morrison and Louis Stone and his 'comic sketches' celebrate the perennial gaucherie of youth rather than expose the problems of the slums.

On 9 September 1914 the inveterate bachelor was married to 22-year-old Dorothy Boyes, a music teacher, at St George's Church of England, Royal Park; in 1917 a daughter was born. Except for Hello Soldier! (1919), a transparent attempt to emulate C. J. Dennis's brand of digger humour, he published little of consequence during the war period. With an income of some £800 a year from investments, royalties and occasional journalism he apparently looked forward to a secure and relaxed old age. Sadly, it was not to be. In the wake of the 1919 influenza pandemic, he contracted encephalitis, which left him drowsy, withdrawn and inarticulate. He died on 22 August 1931 at his home in Elwood and was cremated with Anglican rites.

In his life, as in his writings, Dyson was an essential product of the Victorian goldfields. In middle life he retained the sturdy build and brisk movements of a working miner. While he and his fellow Ishmaelites rejected the philistinism of goldfields Methodism, they retained the hard work-discipline and gritty determination to succeed that so often went with it. Dyson was the most professional Australian writer of his generation and, like his great contemporary Arnold Bennett, an habitual word-counter. Even with his natural fluency it took method and application to become 'the only writer to freelance a competence in Australia'. His was a lesser talent than Lawson's or Paterson's and his brand of facetious humour has not worn well. But his goldfields stories and poems formed an authentic strand of the consciously Australian literature which the Bulletin had set out to create in the 1890s.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Bedford, Naught to Thirty-Three (Syd, 1944)
  • N. Lindsay, Bohemians of the Bulletin (Syd, 1965)
  • Free Lance (Melbourne), 14 May 1896
  • Bulletin, 21 Nov 1912
  • Argus (Melbourne), 24 Aug 1931
  • E. G. Dyson papers (State Library of Victoria).

Citation details

Graeme Davison, 'Dyson, Edward George (1865–1931)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/dyson-edward-george-6073/text10397, published in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 1 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Edward George Dyson (1865-1931), by May and Mina Moore, c1927

Edward George Dyson (1865-1931), by May and Mina Moore, c1927

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an3085155

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Snell, Silas
Birth

4 March 1865
Ballarat, Victoria, Australia

Death

22 August 1931
Elwood, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence
Occupation