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William Gay (1865–1897)

by Joseph Jones

This article was published:

William Gay (1865-1897), writer, was born on 2 May 1865 at Bridge of Weir, Renfrewshire, Scotland, eldest child of William Gay and his wife Jane née Tagg. His father, an engraver for textile printing machinery, was apparently fond of his son but the two were far apart in their religious beliefs and so mutually uncongenial that young William twice ran away from home to London. He briefly studied Greek and English literature at the University of Glasgow and nursed an ambition to become a professor of philosophy, especially in the Hegelian tradition, but, tubercular before the age of 20, he went to sea for his health. After arriving in April 1885 at Port Chalmers, New Zealand, he worked for two years on intercolonial steamers as an assistant purser, until forced into convalescence.

Gay arrived in Melbourne in May 1888. Befriended by Dr Charles Strong of the Australian Church, he became a steady contributor to Strong's publication Our Good Words (later the Australian Herald). Professor E. E. Morris, whom Gay had met in 1886, engaged him to write chapters on New Zealand for Cassell's picturesque Australasia. For a few months he was resident master at Scotch College, but had to resign in April 1889. In June he went to Sandhurst (Bendigo), attempted a tutoring post in Melbourne and spent some time in Deniliquin, New South Wales, before returning to Bendigo in August 1893. He spent the rest of his life mainly confined to bed, living in a cottage hospital kept by the Misses Sampson. For a short time he was engaged to one of the sisters, Mary Elizabeth.

Gay was able to make a little money by his pen, but was mostly supported by friends. For the Australian Herald and its predecessor he wrote a serial story, numerous poems, and critical articles on such subjects as 'Marcus Aurelius', 'Miracles' and 'Modern spiritualism'. In 1892 the paper carried his three-part critique of Whitman which with revisions and additions became the 1893 pamphlet, Walt Whitman, the poet of democracy. Two years later he produced, for a meeting in Brisbane of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science, Walt Whitman: his relation to science and philosophy. These two booklets, taken together, form a substantial, well-balanced treatment of the American poet. In them we see Gay's first love, philosophy, blended with the interest in, and practice of, poetry. He achieved minor fame with his three slight volumes of poems published between 1894 and 1896; a collection of his verse was published in Melbourne in 1911.

Within the limits of his frail health and meagre means, Gay was an ardent proponent of Federation. In 1895, with Mary Sampson, he edited The Commonwealth & the Empire, a compilation of statements he had solicited from leading colonial and Imperial writers and statesmen on the subject of Australasian Federation. Alfred Deakin, with whom Gay corresponded from 1895, described Gay's famous sonnet on Federation (first published in 1896) as 'the strongest and shapeliest poem inspired by the movement since Brunton Stephens' Ode'.

Gay's optimism, as expressed in the poem 'Thanksgiving', made him thankful not only for 'birds and flowers,/For radiant suns, reviving showers', but also for 'the cheerful gale,/The curious frost, the dancing hail', and it would not be too much to say that his life experienced a full share of rough weather. The photo-portrait published in Sonnets (Bendigo, 1896), shows a slight, sensitive face with moustache and light beard, high forehead, serious eyes and lips. He died on 22 December 1897 and was buried in Bendigo cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • J. G. Oliphant (ed), Complete Poetical Works of William Gay (Melb, 1911)
  • R. Ingamells, William Gay, Australian Man of Letters (1865-1897) (Melb, 1952)
  • J. A. La Nauze, Alfred Deakin (Melb, 1965)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 13 Feb 1932
  • Alfred Deakin papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Gay papers (University of Queensland Library Qld).

Citation details

Joseph Jones, 'Gay, William (1865–1897)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 18 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


2 May, 1865
Bridge of Weir, Renfrewshire, Scotland


22 December, 1897 (aged 32)
Victoria, Australia

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