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Francis William Adams (1862–1893)

by S. Murray-Smith

This article was published:

Francis William Lauderdale Adams (1862-1893), poet, novelist, commentator and radical, was born on 27 September 1862 in Malta, son of Andrew Leith Adams, army surgeon and later professor in the natural sciences at Dublin and Cork, and his wife Bertha Jane, née Grundy, who became a well-known novelist; his grandfather, Francis Adams, was a Scottish physician who achieved distinction as a classical scholar. After some years in Canada and Ireland, from about 8 Adams attended a number of schools in the English Midlands, and then was for three years at St Augustine's, Blackheath. In 1876 he was enrolled at Shrewsbury School (the 'Glastonbury' of his novel, A Child of the Age) under the surname Leith-Adams. Leaving in 1879 he went to Paris to study French with a view to entering the diplomatic service. There he spent some two years and drafted his first novel. In 1881, having abandoned his intention of entering the foreign service, he unsuccessfully attempted admission to the Indian and the English civil services. He then left home and became an assistant master at Ventnor College, with an increased determination to make writing his life's work. He had been tubercular from childhood and illness forced him to resign in 1884. He continued writing in a Ventnor boarding house where he met Helen Elizabeth Uttley, six years his senior; he married her in London in July. On medical advice he took ship to Melbourne, where he arrived in November. Adams appears to have had few family ties in England, for his father, whom he revered, had died in 1882, and he detested his mother's social and sexual morals.

Finding his journalistic work provided only a lean stint, Adams tried tutoring on up-country stations. At this time his health was deteriorating and he suffered his first haemorrhage; a second followed in Sydney early in 1886, after his wife had joined him. They moved to Brisbane where in June a son, Leith, was born; in July Helen died of rheumatic fever and the after-effects of childbirth; in November the infant died. In 1887 Adams moved to Sydney, voyaged to China and Japan from June until August, and then returned to Brisbane, where he spent the remainder of his time in Australia. In that year he married an Australian, Edith Goldstone, a former actress and a nurse. Later, as Mrs Frank Dean, she long survived Adams and led a spirited life in London literary and artistic circles. She once achieved the distinction of being characterized by George Bernard Shaw as a 'vulgar liar and rapscallion'.

To Adams, who believed that 'England's soul' had 'shrunk to a skeleton', life in Australia seems to have appealed from the day of his arrival: 'The people in Australia breathes free … This is a true republic, the truest, as I take it, in the world'. Australia acted as a spur both to Adams's literary endeavours (though chronic impoverishment was no doubt sufficient motive) and to his radical sentiments; Adams had already, in a perhaps characteristically impulsive way, joined Hyndman's Social Democratic Federation at a meeting in Hyde Park, after hearing an address by his friend Frank Harris.

In Brisbane Adams worked both for the Brisbane Courier (he was a great admirer of Thomas McIlwraith, and some of his Brisbane Courier leaders were called by Spencer Browne 'wonderful evidences of scholarly English and sustained energy') and, more agreeably, for William Lane's new Boomerang. At this time he also began to contribute to the Bulletin: in Fred J. Broomfield's words, 'absolutely with endless vigour and infinite variety-sketches, poems, descriptive articles, criticism, et hoc'.

Already recognized as a journalist and publicist of resource, Adams was also becoming known as a poet and as an acute social observer (he was perhaps the first visitor to Australia to pose his questions, and to answer them, in what later generations would recognize as reasonably sophisticated sociological terms). He had already published Leicester: An Autobiography (London, 1885), an autobiographical novel reissued in revised form in 1894 as A Child of the Age, and intended to be the first of a series to make him 'as big as Balzac'. Australian Essays was published in Melbourne in 1886, and his Poetical Works in Brisbane in 1887. The work for which he achieved most contemporary fame, his bitter anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist collection of poems, Songs of the Army of the Night, appeared in Sydney in 1888, and later ran to several London editions, the last in 1910. Adams's later important books (he also wrote some potboilers) are The Australians (London, 1893), The New Egypt (London, 1893) and Essays in Modernity (London, 1899). In The Australians Adams develops with power and originality his contrast of the culture of the well-watered littoral with that of the dry inland, and draws out his well-known picture of the bushman as the 'one powerful and unique national type yet produced in Australia'.

In 1888-89 Adams worked incessantly at his writing, much of it hack work designed to earn him and his wife their fares to England, and at political organizing on behalf of the Queensland Labor movement. In 1890, 'mind-sick of Australia', they travelled to England, Adams having an accident on the way which incapacitated him for some time; during this period their funds completely disappeared and the pair temporarily parted. The situation improved in 1891, when Adams established contact with the Fortnightly Review, for which he wrote a remarkable series of articles on Australian society. The end of this year, however, saw a new breakdown in health, barely alleviated by spells in the Riviera and in Egypt. News of the death of his younger brother in Queensland deeply depressed him and, after heroic struggles to write, he suffered further haemorrhages. For years he had carried a revolver for such an eventuality; on 4 September 1893 at Margate he called to his wife for it, placed the barrel in his mouth and killed himself. His wife, asked by the coroner if she could have prevented his act, replied that she would have considered herself a 'contemptible coward' had she done so. His death was said to have created a sensation in the West End.

The hatred that Adams expressed for the English upper class of his day, their hypocrisies and their iniquities, seems to have been transmuted in the colonies into something of an admiration for representatives, at least, of the Australian ruling class. But he did not admire the institutions of this class (his obloquies on colonial education are, for example, splendid examples of unsanctified wrath), nor did he desert his working-class interests, as his poems testify. Indeed Francis Adams considered his friend William Lane's methods 'demure', though he did not yield to Lane's blandishments to become the 'Laureate of Austral Liberty' on the banks of the Parana. 'I don't propose to cross my strain of lice with the gauchos', Adams told Lane, adding to Sydney Jephcott that, while the demagogue was of the heart of democracy, 'to be a demagogue you must have only one eye'.

Adams was a fervid disciple of Matthew Arnold (with whom he corresponded) in the quest for Hellenic perfection and in the battle against the philistine, though he did not always find it easy to reconcile the search for the best in art with his passionate sense of literature as a revolutionary weapon. He is significant in England as a minor prophet of revolt within the culture of the nineties. In Australia Adams is more important. He was the only active intellectual there who brought something of 'modernity', of sophisticated European modes, to the discussion of Australian problems; Henry Kellow has called him 'the first Australian missionary' of the 'aesthetic gospel'. In his associations not only with Arnold, Frank Harris, Henry Salt, Bernard Shaw and W. M. Rossetti, but also with William Lane and other Australian radicals, Adams provides a solitary example of cross-cultural influence, although he did not have much success in his attempts to get his Australian friends to take up Greek poetry in the original as a 'sovereign catalyst'.

Above all, perhaps, the memory left by Francis Adams is one of a singularly attractive person both physically and spiritually, angry in his hatred for traditional cruelty and injustice, sometimes masterful and over-sensitive to criticism, but overwhelmingly humane and generous in himself; unflawed by some of the obsessions of the Australian 'left' and almost alone in pleading for justice for the Chinese and the Pacific islander. Fred Broomfield, who was instrumental in arranging the publication of Songs of the Army of the Night, talks of the 'tall, slender man-boy' who 'told unpleasant truths in all sorts of company with the careless insouciance of a child, but in sweet accents and with graceful deference'. Nor was Adams's influence insignificant. Bernard O'Dowd wrote that Adams was the only writer 'to whom I feel, putting aside my debt of the spirit to Walt Whitman, any directly and consciously owed debt' (Whitman himself spoke approvingly of the humanity of Adams's poetry). Vance Palmer held that 'very few visitors to this country have had such a lasting influence'. Admittedly, to modern taste much of Adams's poetry, particularly his more literary verse, is execrable. Yet W. M. Rossetti was right when he wrote in 1894 that in perspective Songs of the Army of the Night 'will be found to have dwarfed many of the pleasant proprieties and well accepted sleeknesses of our days and hours'; a revival of interest in Adams's social essays on Australian topics has been noticeable in recent years. In both political and literary depth of sensibility he was far ahead of the Australia of his day, but his contribution here was important and his maturity gives him a special interest to later generations.

Select Bibliography

  • R. S. Browne, A Journalist's Memories (Brisb, 1927)
  • H. S. Salt, Company I Have Kept (Lond, 1930)
  • H. A. Kellow, Queensland Poets (Lond, 1930)
  • C. Turnbull, ‘These Tears of Fire: The Story of Francis Adams’, in C. Turnbull, Australian Lives (Melb, 1965), pp 97-125
  • ‘Gavah the Blacksmith’ (B. O'Dowd), ‘Francis Adams. The Trumpeter of the Army of Night’, Tocsin, 23 June 1898
  • V. Palmer et al, ‘Life and Death of Francis Adams’, Southerly, vol 15, no 2, 1954, pp 102-07
  • Bulletin, 16 Sept 1893
  • Edmund Morris Miller papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Palmer papers (National Library of Australia).

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Citation details

S. Murray-Smith, 'Adams, Francis William (1862–1893)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 20 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (Melbourne University Press), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Leith-Adams, Francis William

27 September, 1862


4 September, 1893 (aged 30)
Margate, Kent, England

Cause of Death


Cultural Heritage

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