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Wilmot, Frank Leslie (1881–1942)

by Geoffrey Serle

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Frank Leslie Thompson Wilmot (1881-1942), poet, bookseller and publisher, was born on 6 April 1881 at Collingwood, Melbourne, second of five children of Henry William Wilmot (1855-1907), ironmonger, and his wife Elizabeth Mary, née Hind, both Australian born. Henry was a socialist, a follower of William Morris and well versed in various handcrafts. Frank was educated at Clifton Hill and North Fitzroy State schools, leaving at 13 to join E. W. Cole's Book Arcade.

He began writing verse as a child: when he was 11 he sent a poem to the BulletinJules Francois Archibald replied encouragingly—and he was first published in the Tocsin; the poem was captioned 'A 16-year old Democrat sends the following'. Thus began his association with Bernard O'Dowd, a mentor and in some respects a model. Wilmot began to dream of some day publishing and editing 'a first-class literary periodical'. In 1901-02, on his own primitive press, he produced eight lively issues of the monthly, Microbe, which he largely wrote; Joseph Conrad was then his chief literary enthusiasm. He continued to print and publish occasional books, notably through his Galleon Press. After steady rejection of his poems by the Bulletin, possibly because of Alfred George Stephens' prejudice against him, he was accepted in 1905-06 as 'Furnley Maurice', the pseudonym he continued to use. His verse and prose began to be published widely at home and occasionally abroad. On 24 August 1910 at Christ Church, St Kilda, he married with Anglican rites Ida Lizzie Meeking; they settled at Surrey Hills and were to have two sons. His Bay and Padie Book: Kiddie Songs (1917) was commercially successful over four editions.

A down-to-earth democrat, always a man of the people attracted to popular pastimes, Wilmot had been involved on the fringes of the Victorian Socialist Party. Although he could see most sides of the question, he saw World War I primarily in terms of its folly and wickedness; his pacifist leanings were expressed in his 'To God from The Warring [Weary] Nations' (1916) and he worked against conscription. He joined Vance Palmer and Frederick Sinclaire in their movement to define and encourage national sentiment and contributed to the latter's Fellowship. With his friends Frederick Macartney, Henry Tate and others, in 1916 Wilmot founded the Melbourne Literary Club and printed its journal, Birth. In the early 1920s he joined the Y Club, associated with the Pioneer Players and was a leading member of the literary club established by Percival Serle whom he assisted in compiling An Australasian Anthology (1927). Later prominent in the Fellowship of Australian Writers, he campaigned against book censorship and lectured for the Commonwealth Literary Fund of whose advisory body he was a member.

Wilmot remained with the Book Arcade, eventually as manager, until its demise in 1929; his occupation aided his developing command of world literature in breadth and depth, and he became a natural focus for Melbourne writers and littérateurs. He bought Cole's lending library and also launched out as a bookseller in Little Collins Street, but was saved in the Depression by appointment early in 1932 as the first full-time manager of the Melbourne University Press and Bookroom. His initial salary of £300 was raised to £450 from 1934; he did his share of counter work and had no separate room until 1940. The business mildly flourished, with profits from publishing (less than £1000 a year) outstripping bookselling. The half-dozen books published annually included (Sir) Stephen Roberts's The Squatting Age in Australia, Morris Miller's Australian Literature, Brian Fitzpatrick's The British Empire in Australia, and—an especial pleasure—Robert FitzGerald's Moonlight Acre. 'Is it so good that it is our duty to lose money by publishing it?', he asked his reader A. A. Phillips. Wilmot also published, once editing, once co-editing, three profitable anthologies for schools. While he fitted in congenially at the university, he considered it 'remote from life and unaware of its own inherent snobbery'.

Always totally up-to-date in awareness of contemporary poets, he read W. B. Yeats, Rupert Brooke and the Georgians, and especially Ezra Pound and other Americans; E. E. Cummings and Carl Sandburg were lasting influences. Although attracted early to the colloquial, Wilmot wrote predominantly in conventional styles in his earlier substantial volumes—Unconditioned Songs (1913), Eyes of Vigilance (1920), Arrows of Longing (1921), and the lyrical The Gully and other Verses (1929) which reflected his love for the Dandenongs. But in an essay in his volume, Romance (1922), he condemned current Australian poetry as 'the last word in conventional English verse production'. He continued doggedly to experiment, striving to reflect 'everyday life and language' and to extend poetry's frontiers. His belief in spontaneity involved an unwillingness to revise.

He found his full voice eventually in Melbourne Odes (1934), his major volume:

The juggernauting trams and the prolonged
Crash of the Cafeterias at noon
Are silenced …

In such titles as 'The Victoria Markets Recollected in Tranquillity' and 'Upon a Row of Old Boots and Shoes in a Pawnbroker's Window' he mused—with flashes of humour—on the state of the nation, the demoralization and stagnation of the Depression, and the theme of city versus country.

Wilmot was prolific: many of his stories, essays and plays were unpublished, though four of his plays were produced. His critical work in All About Books and elsewhere was outstanding in a sorry period—he reviewed Xavier Herbert's Capricornia and Patrick White's Happy Valley enthusiastically and in 1938 noticed signs of 'an independent culture in Australia…growing and revealing itself secretly, unconsciously, unexpectedly'. A collection of his criticism is needed. His literary reputation has survived only precariously, but a major article in Meanjin (1982) by David Headon claimed him as 'the first Australian modernist' and demanded his reconsideration, especially as 'the most important forerunner of Australia's modernist movement in poetry'.

Apart from his deep knowledge of literature, Wilmot was many-sided, well informed on world and national affairs, knowledgeable about classical and popular music (he played the piano), a skilled carpenter as well as printer. He was sceptical and agnostic—not quite a rationalist: 'human affairs were seventy-five per cent humbug'. He had natural, good, though unpolished, manners, with a distaste for attitudinizing. His conversation was unassertive, marked by sardonic, chuckling wit. He was widely respected for 'generous devotion to unpopular causes and impersonal ends'. He was a quintessentially Melbourne man.

Survived by his wife and sons, Wilmot died suddenly of heart disease on 22 February 1942 at his home. His estate was sworn for probate at £2563. Serle selected an edition of his Poems (1944). The revealing, highly individual preface to Melbourne Odes had concluded: 'I have had my share of attention and appreciation, and, from a deep love of the craft I practise, have carefully avoided that frightful publicity which … debases everything it touches'.

Select Bibliography

  • V. Palmer, Frank Wilmot (Furnley Maurice) (Melb, 1942)
  • H. Anderson, Frank Wilmot (Furnley Maurice): A Bibliography and a Criticism (Melb, 1955)
  • F. T. Macartney, Furnley Maurice (Syd, 1955)
  • D. R. Walker, Dream and Disillusion (Canb, 1976)
  • Australian Quarterly, 15, June 1943, p 108
  • Meanjin Quarterly, 33, no 1 (1974), 41, no 4 (1982)
  • F. L. T. Wilmot papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Geoffrey Serle, 'Wilmot, Frank Leslie (1881–1942)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wilmot-frank-leslie-9129/text16103, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 29 November 2014.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

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