Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Henry Ebenezer Clay (1844–1896)

by Beverley Smith

This article was published:

Henry Ebenezer Clay (1844-1896), public servant and poet, was born in Cheshire, England, son of Charles Clay. The family migrated to Western Australia in the Swiftsure and arrived in January 1859. His father became the Wesleyan Methodist minister at York; at Northam he was ordained Anglican priest and later served at Geraldton, where he died in 1869. Henry had great affection for his stepmother Mary Catherine, who was a woman of culture. In spite of a crippling disability suffered from infancy Henry was able to earn his living and became a highly respected public servant. He was first employed as a clerk in the Department of Prisons at Rottnest and Geraldton; in 1871 he joined the Telegraph Department and on retirement in 1894 was chief clerk in Perth. He died at his home, Esperance Cottage, on 27 December 1896.

The significant aspect of Clay's verse was his use of colonial themes. Most of this verse, written between 1862 and 1873 when he was living in Northam and Geraldton, is included in his Two and Two, A Story of the Australian Forests, with Minor Poems of Colonial Interest (Perth, 1873). The title piece is a long narrative poem in which the theme of courtship is incidental to the account of a farmer's debts, a bush fire and life on the diggings. The gentleman farmer is depicted as a man of courage and initiative who values morality and culture above wealth. The labourer, loyal and hardworking, respects the master for his superior qualities. Successful pioneering, in Clay's view, depended on the harmony of this relationship while abandoned clearings, violence and theft were the outcome of its breakdown.

Clay's best work is to be found among the short poems in this volume: 'Fallen in the Woods', a dramatic account of a kangaroo hunt; 'Avenged', inspired by the spectacle of a ravaged sheep and a poisoned wild dog; 'Hobbled Out', a tribute to an old horse which had faithfully served the community as a conveyor of mail, of fabrics 'fresh from the ship' and of the travelling tailor and doctor. These poems and others give particular and accurate attention to detail and show that the author was intrigued and inspired by his new surroundings. Though derivative in style, the content of the verse was new and deeply felt. Clay also wrote about poverty in England and the hounded slave in America, poems which differ greatly in mood from the verse inspired by the heroic aspects of colonial life.

During his lifetime Clay acquired a reputation in the colony as a writer, especially for his religious verse, but his work in general was received without enthusiasm by the colonial press. His faults were more apparent than his early originality of purpose. Saddened by the response Clay remarked on 'the saucy badinage of amused spectators and the practical indifference of friends'. Increasingly he withdrew into himself and wrote from contemplation and reading. His old faith in the harmony of master and servant gave way to new uncertainty. In letters to the press he expressed his horror at the blight of selfishness that had fallen on earth's household and called on trade unions, temperance and other mutual aid societies to find a new road towards brotherhood among men. In 1889 his poems on this theme, published in Perth newspapers, attracted the attention of the liberal press in Geraldton, which called for reassessment of his literary achievement. Such a reassessment would place Clay among the minor colonial poets, but his contribution to the growth of national literature could not be denied. His proclamation song, Rouse Thee, Westralia, appeared in 1890; posthumously his Westralian Poems were published in Perth in 1907 and Poems, collected and edited by S. E. Brooking, were published in London in 1910.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Carson, ‘Henry Clay, a Western Australian Poet’, Early Days, vol 1, Oct 1938, pp 61-63
  • Inquirer, 24 Dec 1873
  • Victorian Express, 28 Sept 1889
  • West Australian, 28, 29 Dec 1896
  • Clay notebooks (State Library of Western Australia).

Citation details

Beverley Smith, 'Clay, Henry Ebenezer (1844–1896)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 23 June 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]


Cheshire, England


27 December, 1896 (aged ~ 52)
Western Australia, Australia

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.