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Harley Matthews (1889–1968)

by J. T. Laird

This article was published:

Harley Matthews (1889-1968), by May Moore

Harley Matthews (1889-1968), by May Moore

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an3085134

Harley Matthews (1889-1968), writer, soldier and vigneron, was born on 27 April 1889 at St Leonards, Sydney, son of Henry Matthews, clerk, and his wife Edith, née Morgan, both born in New South Wales. Registered at birth as Harry Matthews, he grew up on his parents' vineyard at Fairfield and was educated at Sydney Boys' High School. After working as an articled clerk in 1906-14 he enlisted as a private in the 4th Battalion, Australian Imperial Force, on 13 September 1914. He took part in the landing at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915, was mentioned in dispatches and wounded early in August. After service in France, in August 1916 he was posted to the Australian Army Pay Corps at A.I.F. Headquarters, London; repatriated towards the end of 1917, he was discharged on 29 December.

Matthews next pursued a career in journalism, at first on the Sydney Sun, and from 1920 freelance writing in the United States of America. On his return in 1922 he briefly rejoined the Sun but soon afterwards, disillusioned by both the law and journalism, decided to become a wine-grower. He had married on 3 March 1920 Barbara Sarah Filder Goode at the Registrar General's Office, Sydney, and they bought 57 acres (23 ha), on the Georges River at Moorebank, which Matthews proceeded to clear and plant with characteristic energy and determination. Once established, his vineyard quickly became a popular venue for a large group of mostly Bohemian 'writers, artists, eccentrics and spare-time philosophers' (to use Kenneth Slessor's description) who frequented it in search of good talk and good wine.

In 1912-38 Matthews published in Sydney three books of verse and a volume of short stories. In his first volume of verse, Under the Open Sky (1912), Matthews is the 'simple chorister' of the Australian bush and the teller of romantic tales. It was published in London in 1916 under the same title but with mainly new content; amid the poems of Nature and fantasy were a sprinkling of war poems, notably the love-lyric, 'The Mirror'. Trio (1931) displayed qualities of vigour, drama, realism, and technical freedom previously lacking. His contribution to this volume was the Gallipoli narrative 'Two Brothers' (one of the other two poems being Slessor's 'Five Visions of Captain Cook'). 'Two Brothers' reappeared in Matthews's next volume Vintage (1938), a collection of four Gallipoli narratives and four lyrics, republished as Vintage of War in 1940. His volume of twenty short stories, Saints and Soldiers (1918), illustrating the typical traits and exploits of diggers during the war, is most successful when the tone is humorous.

His life changed radically during World War II. On 23 December 1940 he was granted a dissolution of marriage. Then, on 10 March 1942, by an ironic stroke of fate the patriotic Matthews was wrongfully arrested as a seditionist. The Gallipoli veteran, who in 1916 had served as model in London for Jacob Epstein's bronze head of the soldier epitomizing 'the spirit of Anzac' (now in the Imperial War Museum), found himself confined in an internment camp at the Anzac Rifle Range, Liverpool. He remained there without being charged or brought to trial, as a suspected member of the Australia First Movement, for six months. The 'grave blunder' made by military intelligence in detaining Matthews was not publicly acknowledged until 12 September 1945. The report of the Clyne royal commission into the Australia First Movement then found that Matthews 'was not a member' and was 'a loyal subject', and recommended that he be awarded £700 compensation.

From 1943 Matthews lived alone on a mixed farm at Ingleburn where he planted a small vineyard, entertained his many visitors, and continued to read and write poetry. His early poem, 'The Breaking of the Drought', was republished as a separate booklet in 1940, but no further volume appeared until Patriot's Progress (Adelaide, 1965). This collection of mainly lyrical pieces, written over many years, expresses the author's independent spirit, love of the Australian countryside, and scorn for conformists, town-dwellers, materialists, and seekers after 'gain or power'. The style is frequently reminiscent, as Slessor observes, of 'that other farmer-poet Robert Frost'.

Matthews's other publications were a selection of short stories, Wet Canteen (1939); We Are the People (1940), a three-act play on the theme of snobbery and class-distinction in Australia; and Pillar to Post (1944), a short-story anthology which he edited.

Matthews, described by Douglas Stewart as 'a small, dark, wiry man', died at the Repatriation Hospital, Concord, on 9 August 1968 and was cremated. He left no children.

Select Bibliography

  • B. Muirden, The Puzzled Patriots (Melb, 1968)
  • P. Hasluck, The Government and the People, 1942-1945, vol 2 (Canb, 1970)
  • K. Slessor, Bread and Wine (Syd, 1970)
  • D. Stewart, A Man of Sydney (Melb, 1977)
  • Smith's Weekly (Sydney), 22 Sept 1945
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 13 Aug 1968
  • Miles Franklin papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Kenneth Slessor papers (National Library of Australia)
  • copies of letters and other documents relating to internment (F940.950901, State Library of New South Wales)
  • holograph and typed copies of poems (MSS 1953, 1214, State Library of New South Wales).

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

J. T. Laird, 'Matthews, Harley (1889–1968)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 23 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Harley Matthews (1889-1968), by May Moore

Harley Matthews (1889-1968), by May Moore

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an3085134

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Matthews, Harry

27 April, 1889
St Leonards, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


9 August, 1968 (aged 79)
Concord, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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.

Military Service