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Arthur Henry Adams (1872–1936)

by B. G. Andrews and Ann-Mari Jordens

This article was published:

Arthur Adams, by Swiss Studio, c.1898

Arthur Adams, by Swiss Studio, c.1898

National Library of Australia, 22418180

Arthur Henry Adams (1872-1936), journalist and author, was born on 6 June 1872 at Lawrence, New Zealand, son of Charles William Adams (1840-1918), surveyor, crown lands commissioner and astronomer, and his wife Eleanor Sarah, née Gillon. He was educated at Wellington College, and in Dunedin at Otago Boys' High School and the University of Otago (B.A., N.Z., 1894). Against his father's wishes, he abandoned law to become a journalist on the Wellington Evening Post, edited by his uncle E. T. Gillon. In 1898 he moved to Sydney, showed his Maori opera, Tapu, to J. C. Williamson, and was engaged as literary secretary at £200 a year. A condition was that any dramatic writing he completed should become the property of Williamson, who successfully staged an adaptation of Tapu, with music by Alfred Hill, throughout Australia in 1904.

In 1900 Adams left to cover the Boxer rebellion in China for the Sydney Morning Herald and several New Zealand newspapers. He returned in February 1901 suffering from enteric fever; recovering, he completed a lecture tour of New Zealand and then spent three years as a freelance journalist in England, where he published his first novel, Tussock Land (London, 1904). By August 1905 he had returned to Wellington and the Evening Post; briefly associate editor of the New Zealand Times, he joined the Sydney Bulletin in October 1906 and replaced A. G. Stephens as editor of its 'Red Page'. In 1909 he succeeded (Sir) Frank Fox as editor of the Lone Hand, became editor of the Sydney Sun in 1911 and returned several years later to the Bulletin.

A widely experienced journalist, Adams was most significant as a literary critic and creative writer. Although inferior to Stephens as a critic, he vigorously championed Australian dramatists, whose works he believed were callously rejected by local theatrical entrepreneurs. His own dramatic efforts began with experiments with Maori music and English romantic history but his forte was urban social comedy, in which he attempted 'to deal dramatically with Australian conditions viewed from an Australian standpoint by the creation of characters essentially Australian. They do not deal with the Bush … the Australian town-dweller is as typically and as distinctively national as the extinct bushranger'. His most successful play, Mrs. Pretty and the Premier, was produced by Melbourne Repertory Theatre in 1914 and in London in 1916; with The Wasters, produced in Adelaide in 1910 and revived in Sydney in 1973, it was included in his Three Plays for the Australian Stage (Sydney, 1914), which show the influence of Ibsen, Shaw, Wilde and Pinero.

Adams's verse ranged from the lyrical elegance and sentimentality of Maoriland: and Other Verses (Sydney, 1899) to the epigrammatic force of London Streets (London, 1906), a poetic 'guide book' in which his gift for the striking image is displayed. Widely known as a poet before 1914, he announced in the preface to his Collected Verses … (Melbourne, 1913) that he was leaving 'the pleasant, twisting by-paths of poetry for the dustier, though more … direct, highway of prose'. His best novel is The Australians (London, 1920), a fascinating glimpse of pre-war Sydney in which he presents, in lucid, simple prose, contemporary views on Englishmen, politicians, art, war and the Australian character. His other novels, sometimes published under the pseudonyms 'James James' and 'Henry James James', include Galahad Jones (London, 1910), its protagonist a middle-aged bank clerk with the spirit of knight-errant, and some gay, frivolous and episodic romances. His last, A Man's Life (London, 1929), like his first, is strongly autobiographical and explores themes prevalent in his writing: the tension between romantic idealism and sexual drive; the subjugation of women in marriage and society; the deadening of creativity and idealism by everyday pressures.

'Tall, thin, good-looking in a dark, sallow way', Adams was well known in literary and artistic circles in Sydney. A devoted family man, he had married Lilian Grace Paton at Neutral Bay on 30 September 1908; they settled in one of the first houses on Cremorne Point. Survived by his wife, a son and two daughters, he died of septicaemia and pneumonia in the Royal North Shore Hospital on 4 March 1936, and was cremated with Anglican rites. His estate was sworn for probate at £435.

Select Bibliography

  • G. H. Scholefield (ed), A Dictionary of New Zealand Biography (Well, 1940)
  • R. Lindsay, Model Wife (Syd, 1967)
  • L. Rees, The Making of Australian Drama (Syd, 1973)
  • Meanjin, 4 (1945)
  • Bulletin, 22 Oct 1908, 1 Oct 1914, 11 Mar 1936, 15 Mar 1950
  • Sun (Sydney), 4 Mar 1936
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 5, 7 Mar 1936
  • 9, 27 Aug 1973
  • Age (Melbourne), 23 Feb 1952
  • Adams scrap-book (State Library of New South Wales).

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

B. G. Andrews and Ann-Mari Jordens, 'Adams, Arthur Henry (1872–1936)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 15 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (Melbourne University Press), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Arthur Adams, by Swiss Studio, c.1898

Arthur Adams, by Swiss Studio, c.1898

National Library of Australia, 22418180

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • James, James
  • James, Henry James

6 June, 1872
Lawrence, Otago, New Zealand


4 March, 1936 (aged 63)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

blood poisoning

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.