Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Gordon, Adam Lindsay (1833–1870)

by Leonie Kramer

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

Adam Lindsay Gordon, c.1870

Adam Lindsay Gordon, c.1870

State Library of South Australia, 61704

Adam Lindsay Gordon (1833-1870), poet and horseman, was born on 19 October 1833 at Fayal, Azores, the only son of Adam Durnford Gordon, a retired captain of the Bengal cavalry and teacher of Hindustani, and his wife Harriet Gordon, who were cousins. His parents were in comfortable circumstances, his mother having inherited £20,000. He was educated at Cheltenham College, the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich in 1848-51 and the Royal Worcester Grammar School in 1852. Even in his early years he established a pattern of interests which he sustained throughout his life. As an adolescent he was taught riding and by 1852 was beginning his racing career. His fecklessness was apparent early. He himself said that his 'strength and health were broken by dissipation and humbug'.

His father secured Gordon an offer of a position in South Australia. He sailed in the Julia and arrived in Adelaide on 11 November 1853. On the 24th he joined the South Australian Mounted Police. He had hoped for a captaincy, and according to his own account was very near getting one 'but the rules compelled a man properly speaking to serve as a trooper'. He seems to have been content with his lot, since he wrote to his friend Charley Walker, 'I have done well, my boy, which you will be glad to hear and have got an easy billet in a station that suits me well, with the hope of a speedy promotion'. For two years he was stationed at Penola in the Mount Gambier region where he led a routine life with no remarkable incidents or exploits to interrupt his daily duties. He resigned on 4 November 1855 ostensibly to become a drover. His superior officer wrote that he had conducted himself 'remarkably well' and that he was sorry to lose him. Instead of droving Gordon took up horse-breaking in the south-east. He was in touch either directly or indirectly with his family in England, and his father gave him financial assistance until his death on 17 June 1857. In that year Gordon met Julian Tenison-Woods who was able to supply him with books and whose friendship stimulated Gordon's interest in literature.

On 29 April 1859 Gordon's mother died and on 26 October 1861 he received from her estate a legacy of £7000. Meantime he had continued as horse-breaker and steeplechase rider in country areas. The main records of him in this period concern his successes and failures at race meetings in the Penola and Mount Gambier districts. The legacy brought him relative prosperity. On 20 October 1862 he married Margaret Park, who was born in Glasgow. She had little education but was an excellent horsewoman. Even her hard work and practical good sense could not save Gordon from his financial imprudence and increasing melancholia. In March 1864 Gordon bought Dingley Dell, a cottage near Port MacDonnell. He also speculated in land and was mortgagee for several landholders. His first publication, 'The Feud', appeared in the Border Watch, 30 August. A new phase in Gordon's life began on 11 January 1865 when he received a deputation asking him to stand for the South Australian parliament. In the next two months he managed to combine steeplechasing and political campaigning. The sitting members were defeated and with John Riddoch, a loyal friend and lifelong supporter, Gordon was returned to the House of Assembly for the Victoria district, topping the poll. He combined his parliamentary duties with steeplechasing, travelling to races in Adelaide, Ballarat and Melbourne, and publishing poems. He resigned on 10 November 1866, probably because he had invested in land in Western Australia. On 11 December with Lambton Mount he landed at Bunbury with some 5000 sheep; in a few months his flock had been reduced by about one-third. In March 1867 he returned to Adelaide, gave up his temporary home in Glenelg and went back to Mount Gambier. His only child, Annie Lindsay, was born at Robe on 3 May. In June his first two volumes of poetry were published: Ashtaroth on 10 June and Sea Spray and Smoke Drift on the 19th. Their financial failure together with his losses in Western Australia and racing must have dissipated much of the legacy from his mother's estate.

On 22 November he rented Craig's livery stables in Ballarat, and in January 1868 he joined the Ballarat Troop of Light Horse. In March he was promoted senior sergeant but suffered a serious horse-riding accident, one of many that undermined his physical condition. On 14 April his daughter died. These private misfortunes, together with the failure of the livery stables, led to his wife's departure from Ballarat on 25 September. A small legacy enabled Gordon to settle his debts and on 1 October he left to stay for two months in Melbourne with Robert Power. His reputation was then growing. The Australasian printed articles on his feats of horsemanship, and he was praised for his poetic talents by the Colonial Monthly. In spite of private difficulties he continued his racing career, adding to his renown for recklessness and daring. In the early months of 1869 he was riding in various parts of Victoria, and in May he took lodgings in Brighton where his wife rejoined him. He was also continuing to publish poetry and prose. On 12 March 1870 he had another bad riding accident and wrote to Riddoch, 'I am hurt inside somewhere'.

In 1868 Gordon heard that he was heir to the family estate, Esslemont, in Scotland. He was convinced of his right to the estate but determined not to return to England. His letters show his increasing melancholia and preoccupation with financial difficulties. He hoped, by acquiring Esslemont, to guarantee his wife's financial security. In June he received news that the entail of Esslemont had been abolished and therefore he would not receive the inheritance. On 23 June 1870 his Bush Ballads and Galloping Rhymes was published and Henry Kendall showed him a proof copy of the enthusiastic review he had written. At dawn the next morning Gordon went to the beach at Brighton and shot himself.

The pattern of Gordon's life was strange. If the purpose of his migration to Australia was to escape the debilitating attractions of the company into which he had fallen as a young man in England, the life that he led merely served to exacerbate his own temperamental weaknesses. His real love was steeplechasing yet he had sufficient poetic talent to develop into a more substantial writer than he ever became. Long after he died, enthusiastic admirers made pilgrimages to his grave, to Dingley Dell and to other places associated with him. A bust unveiled on 11 May 1934 in Westminster Abbey by the Duke of York attests his extraordinary popularity. His literary reputation has now declined. His popular ballads with their narrative drive and vitality are in marked contrast to his more ambitious poems which, heavily imitative of Romantic and Victorian poetry, are marred by carelessness and inattention to detail. But his successes and failures in his poetry, as in his own life, are a reflection of the tastes and interests of his time.

A statue by Paul Montford is near Parliament House, Melbourne.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Humphris and D. Sladen, Adam Lindsay Gordon (Lond, 1912)
  • J. K. Moir, Adam Lindsay Gordon (State Library of Victoria)
  • Gordon letters (State Library of New South Wales, copies at Royal Historical Society of Victoria)
  • Gordon material, D3532 (State Records of South Australia).

Citation details

Leonie Kramer, 'Gordon, Adam Lindsay (1833–1870)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gordon-adam-lindsay-3635/text5653, published in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 23 August 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014