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Thomas Henry Kendall (1839–1882)

by T. T. Reed

This article was published:

Thomas Henry Kendall (1839-1882), poet, was born on 18 April 1839 at Ulladulla, New South Wales, the twin son of Basil Kendall and his wife Melinda, née McNally. His father was the son of Thomas Kendall and had been a Chilean naval officer, flour factor, farmer and shepherd and died aged 43 while conducting a school at Grafton in 1852; his widow and children then moved to her father's home at Wollongong.

Henry received some schooling before he joined the whaler Waterwitch in September 1855. On his return in March 1857 he rented a house for his mother, twin brother and sisters at Newtown, in Sydney. In 1859 he contributed poems to the Month, whose editor, Joseph Moore, introduced him to other literary men including the solicitor, James Michael, who employed Kendall as a clerk at Grafton in 1861-63 and allowed him to use his extensive library. In August 1863 Kendall became a clerk in the Department of Lands with a salary of £150. In 1866 he transferred to the Colonial Secretary's Office with £200 a year. In 1859-69 Kendall won repute as a poet by regular contributions to newspapers and periodicals in Sydney and Melbourne and by the publication in 1862 of Poems and Songs. George Barton praised him for 'his distinctly Australian poetry' and Richard Horne compared him favourably with Wordsworth. In March 1868 he married Charlotte, 18-year-old daughter of John Yates Rutter.

Kendall was often in debt to friends and money-lenders through his sisters' extravagance and his brother's dishonesty. Fearing bankruptcy and dismissal he resigned from the civil service on 31 March 1869 and went to Melbourne where he was welcomed by members of the Yorick Club. In September George Robertson published his Leaves from Australian Forests; it was a financial failure despite favourable reviews. Unable to support his family on the meagre pay for poems and articles and lacking the flair and training for journalism, he was driven back to Sydney by poverty, ill health and drunkenness. Intervals of dogged literary effort alternated with lapses into melancholia. In December 1870 he was charged with forging and uttering a cheque; defended by William Bede Dalley, he was found not guilty on the ground of insanity. His wife had to return to her mother and Kendall became a derelict; in April-July 1873 he was in the Gladesville Hospital for the Insane. Later that year he was befriended by William and Joseph Fagan and lived with their family at Gosford until his health was restored. In 1875 the brothers gave him work in their timber business at Camden Haven.

In May 1876 Kendall's wife and children rejoined him and he slowly supplemented his income by writing topical and political skits for the Freeman's Journal, and occasionally for the Sydney Mail and Town and Country Journal. In 1879 he wrote the words for the cantata and the hymn of praise sung at the Sydney International Exhibition and also won the Sydney Morning Herald's prize of 100 guineas for a poem on the exhibition. In December 1880 he published Songs from the Mountains which was an outstanding success. His reputation re-established, he sought help from Henry Parkes who in April 1881 had him appointed inspector of forests for which he was admirably fitted by his knowledge of native timbers. Unfortunately he could not cope with the long rides to inspect reserves in all weathers. In June 1882 he collapsed at Wagga Wagga and was taken to William Fagan's house in Bourke Street, Surry Hills. Survived by his wife, three sons and two daughters, Kendall died of phthisis on 1 August 1882. He was buried in Waverley cemetery where in 1886 a monument was erected to his memory.

Kendall was once regarded as the finest poet Australia had produced and he remains a true poet whose clarity and sweetness have not been excelled in the narrow lyrical field he made his own. As Alfred Stephens wrote 'His gift of melodious writing makes his verses memorable'. He was of middle height, spare and thin, with a pale face, dark hair and blue-grey eyes. An excellent swimmer and horseman, he loved the Australian bush.

Select Bibliography

  • G. B. Barton (ed), The Poets and Prose Writers of New South Wales (Syd, 1866)
  • F. C. Kendall, Henry Kendall: His Later Years (Syd, 1938)
  • T. T. Reed, Henry Kendall: A Critical Appreciation (Adel, 1960)
  • Aust Documentary Facsimile Society, Foreshadowings, I. Burke ed (Syd, 1963)
  • T. T. Reed (ed), The Poetical Works of Henry Kendall (Adel, 1966)
  • G. G. McCrae, ‘Henry Kendall’, Australian Woman's Magazine, Jan, Feb 1883
  • D. Clarke, ‘New Light on Henry Kendall’, Australian Literary Studies, vol 2, no 3, June 1966, pp 211-13
  • T. T. Reed, The Life of Henry Kendall (D.Litt. thesis, University of Adelaide, 1954)
  • Henry Parkes letters (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Kendall papers (State Library of New South Wales, and National Library of Australia).

Additional Resources

Related Thematic Essay

Citation details

T. T. Reed, 'Kendall, Thomas Henry (1839–1882)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 17 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (Melbourne University Press), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

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