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Evans, George Essex (1863–1909)

by M. D. O'Hagan

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

George Essex Evans (1863-1909), poet, journalist and public servant, was born on 18 June 1863 at Regents Park, London, youngest son of John Evans, Q.C., Liberal M.P. for Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire, 1847-52, and his wife Mary Ann, née Owen. Evans's father died in 1864 and the family returned to Wales where George entered Haverfordwest Grammar School. When he was 10 the family moved to Jersey where he attended St James College. He excelled at sport but was considered a rather dull student. Increasing deafness precluded an intended career in the army, and the family's depleted fortunes caused him, his brother John and two sisters to migrate to Queensland in 1881.

The brothers acquired a farm at Allora on the Darling Downs but George was injured in a riding accident and worked as a teacher and an agricultural reporter for the Queenslander. In 1883 he joined a surveying expedition to the Gulf country, then resumed farming before finally joining the public service in 1888 as a bailiff in the Lands Department. He was a clerk in the Patents Office in 1891-93, then became registrar for births, deaths and marriages at Toowoomba. While still in the public service he contributed poetry, criticism and articles to many Australian, and to some British, newspapers and journals. He wrote a regular column in 1902-05 first for the Darling Downs Gazette and then for the Toowoomba Chronicle. In 1892 and 1893 he had edited a literary annual, the Antipodean, with John Tighe Ryan. Published in London, it aimed to win an English as well as an Australian audience; many of Australia's best-known authors and public men contributed. Although it sold over 13,000 copies of its first issue it proved to be uneconomic. Evans revived it in 1897, bringing out another annual with A. B. Paterson as first editor, but again the venture proved unsuccessful and no more issues appeared. In 1905 he tried his hand at publishing his own weekly newspaper, the Rag, which was circulated in southern Queensland. It lasted for some fifty issues.

On 6 November 1899 at Drayton he married Blanche Hopkins, née Eglinton, a widow with two children; he ran a small dairy near Toowoomba, part time, and delivered milk. Evans found it a constant struggle to make a living and in 1905 was incapacitated for six months by a major operation.

Evans's first volume of poetry, The Repentance of Magdalene Despar and Other Poems, was published in London in 1891. Loraine and Other Verses appeared in 1898 and The Secret Key and Other Verses in 1906. A collected volume of his poems was published posthumously in 1928. Descriptive, reflective, narrative and patriotic poems predominate in his work, but the poet's concern with a moral and physical law as part of a 'universal system' is reflected throughout.

His patriotic poems brought Evans to national attention. He commemorated in verse the Federation movement, Queensland's golden jubilee, Australia's statesmen and the work of the pioneers. The award of a £50 prize for a poem to celebrate Federation was the occasion for a biting critique from A. G. Stephens who found the ode to be 'a statement of the trite, a re-iteration of the obvious'. Alfred Deakin on the other hand demonstrated genuine admiration for the poet in a long correspondence. There is some evidence for Evans's claim that his Federal song helped materially in the Queensland and Western Australian Federation campaigns. In reviewing Loraine in 1898 Stephens said 'the Red Page opinion of Mr Evans' verses is that considered as poetry with a P they are readable and regular enough but essentially uninspired. Often neatly didactic or pleasantly descriptive they have no wings'. His publications were, however, generally well received in Australia and England and he was one of the best-known and most popular poets of the day. When Evans died in Toowoomba on 10 November 1909 after an operation for gall-stones, his passing was mourned throughout the country. He was survived by his wife and son. Deakin described him as Australia's 'national poet'.

Evans's poetry was appreciated most by those who knew him personally and his reputation has lasted longer in Queensland than in any other State. A monument to his memory was erected at Toowoomba and a pilgrimage and memorial lecture are held each year in his honour.

Select Bibliography

  • H. A. Kellow, Queensland Poets (Lond, 1930)
  • K. Lynch, Cultural Developments in Queensland, 1880-1930 (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Queensland, 1955)
  • R. M. Fiddes, A Minor Public Poet … (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Queensland, 1965)
  • D. Birchley, The Life and Works of George Essex Evans (1863-1909) (M.A. thesis, University of Queensland, 1978)
  • Alfred Deakin papers (National Library of Australia)
  • G. E. Evans papers (University of Queensland Library).

Citation details

M. D. O'Hagan, 'Evans, George Essex (1863–1909)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/evans-george-essex-6121/text10497, published in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 22 September 2014.

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

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