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Ogilvie, William Henry (Will) (1869–1963)

by Clement Semmler

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

William Henry Ogilvie (1869-1963), by John Kinmont Moir, 1937

William Henry Ogilvie (1869-1963), by John Kinmont Moir, 1937

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an24165298

William Henry (Will) Ogilvie (1869-1963), poet and journalist, was born on 21 August 1869 near Kelso, Roxburghshire, Scotland, second of eight children of George Ogilvie and his wife Agnes Campbell, née Christie. His father's family had managed estates in the Scottish Border country for 300 years—recently as chamberlains to the Dukes of Buccleuch. George Ogilvie had laid out the beautiful grounds of the family home, Holefield. William was sent as a boarder to Kelso High School, riding his pony home and back at weekends, then went to Fettes College, Edinburgh, where he excelled as athlete and scholar, winning the major prize for Latin verse. In 1888 he returned to Holefield and his father's farm.

His love of horses and the ballads of Adam Lindsay Gordon turned his eyes to Australia. His father agreed that 'colonial experience' would benefit him. So in 1889 Will came to Australia with an introduction to William Scott of Belalie station, north of Bourke, whither Ogilvie travelled from Sydney by Cobb & Co. coach.

He was wholly captivated by the outback and for twelve years roamed from the Channel country of Queensland to the Coorong of South Australia. Horse-breaking, droving, mustering and camping out on the vast plains became the salt of life to him. As he wrote in My Life in the Open (London, 1910) the Australian bush 'has a peculiar witchery of its own … that spell that brings the drover and traveller back again and again to worship at the shrine of its silent beauty; that charm that chains the true bushman to his love though half the world lies between'.

This love of the outback he translated almost immediately into verses and ballads that appeared first in the Bulletin, for which he wrote most of his many hundreds of poems, though some also were published in the Sydney Mail, the Parkes Independent, the Australasian and the Melbourne Weekly Times.

His verses covered every facet of bush life and every part of the outback he knew. In his memoirs Ogilvie tells how, scribbled on the backs of letters and envelopes, one of his ballads was written under a gum-tree between Forbes and Bogan Gate in the intervals of flinging sticks and stones at refractory ewes; another was written on the lignum plains of Gippsland; another at a station near Mount Gambier. He wrote as he rode: his rhythmic lines seem to keep time to the beat of horse-hooves, the crack of the stockwhip and the clink of snaffle-bars.

Among his best-known poems are the often-anthologized ballad, 'The Death of Ben Hall, 'The Riding of the Rebel' and 'Fair Girls and Gray Horses', the title-piece of his first collection (Sydney, 1898). One of his poems, 'On Morant' ('He should have been one of the Cavaliers/Who fought in King Charles's cause') was written for Harry 'The Breaker' Morant whom he had met in the early 1890s and with whom he had become firm friends, each admiring the other's horsemanship.

In 1901 Ogilvie returned to Scotland where he settled back for the rest of his life into a countryman's life, riding and hunting but continuing to write. He sent back verses to the Bulletin certainly until 1905. Further collections of his Australian poems were published in Sydney, Hearts of Gold and Other Verses (1903) and The Australian and Other Verses (1916). He wrote much verse and prose for London Punch, the Scotsman, Country Life, Spectator and the Sunday Graphic (to which he contributed topical verses throughout World War I, including his popularization of a British officer's comment that the Australian soldier was 'the bravest thing God ever made'). He published eighteen books of Scottish verse and prose including The Collected Sporting Verse of W. H. Ogilvie (London, 1932) and The Border Poems (London, 1959).

In 1905-07 he visited Iowa State College, United States of America, as instructor in agricultural journalism. On his return to Scotland he married on 24 June 1908, in the parish church at Jedburgh, Katherine Margaret Scott Anderson, two of whose uncles owned a station near Broken Hill. Ogilvie enlisted in World War I but, too old for active service, was given charge of remount depots. Survived by his wife and a son and daughter, he died on 30 January 1963 at Ashkirk, Selkirk, Scotland, and was cremated.

Ogilvie is recognized as a bush balladist comparable with Gordon and 'Banjo' Paterson, particularly with regard to horses and horsemanship. As Vance Palmer noted, he struck a 'more lyrical note than was usually sounded by the bush poets of the Bulletin', and H. M. Green considered that Ogilvie was a far better craftsman than any other balladist except C. H. Souter: 'he was a poet as least as much as a balladist'.

Ogilvie's writing derived from the Scottish Border ballads and from them he infused a glow of romanticism into the Australian bush. His contemporaries saw the harsher colours, he the softer and mellower ones. There is lovemaking and tenderness in his ballads as well as outback adventures and deeds of equestrian derring-do: if there was drought and dust and deserts of dry bones there were, too, pretty girls at the far-off stations and in the remote townships, and music and dancing now and then in the woolsheds and barns. And if sentiment sometimes overlapped his poems, it was more than compensated for by his lyricism and sensitivity:

I loved the wide gold glitter of the plains
Spread out before us like a silent sea,
The lazy lapping of the loose-held reins,
The sense of motion and of mystery …

Select Bibliography

  • W. H. Ogilvie, Saddle for a Throne, T. E. Williams compiler (Adel, 1952)
  • D. Stewart, Introduction to W. H. Ogilvie, Fair Girls and Gray Horses (Syd, 1958)
  • Bulletin, 4 Feb 1963
  • Mrs K. M. Ogilvie, biographical notes (manuscript, privately held).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Clement Semmler, 'Ogilvie, William Henry (Will) (1869–1963)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/ogilvie-william-henry-will-7890/text13719, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 20 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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