Adam Lindsay Gordon, South Australian Poet

Adam Lindsay Gordon

Poet, policeman, landowner, MP, bushman, steeplechase jockey, speculator, mortgagee, businessman, journalist, horse trainer and breeder.

Adam Lindsay Gordon, by descent a Scottish laird, was born on Portuguese soil at Fayal in the Azores on 19 October 1833. In 1840 the family returned to England. His parents were Adam Durnham Gordon and Harriet Gordon. They would have liked to see their only son follow a military career. To achieve this he started his education at Cheltenham College in 1841, followed by the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich and the Royal Worcester Grammar School.

Gordon proved to be good at sport but resented discipline and showed little inclination to really excel in most subjects, except English, Latin and Greek. He was not conspicuous during his school life for industry or scholastic achievements. His name never appeared on any of the schools' honour records. Eventually he was packed off to Australia. On 7 August 1853 he boarded the Julia never to see England again. The ship arrived at Port Adelaide on 14 November and within two weeks Gordon had joined the Mounted Police and was posted to Penola, which was part of the Mount Gambier district.

His career in the Mounted Police was uneventful, making it possible for him to compose verses as he rode along. He resigned after two years, on 4 November 1855, but remained in the South East for some 14 years. During that time he became very friendly with Father Woods, John and George Riddoch and Billy Trainor, who he had previously arrested.

Gordon now started horse breading, horse riding and training steeplechasers. Now that he was self employed as a horse breaker he devoted much more time to reading and writing poetry. For the next six years he led an errant life, never staying anywhere for long.

Late in 1861 Gordon received a legacy of 7,000 from his mother's estate. She had died on 29 April 1859. Now instead of breaking and trading horses he had become a man of property. He moved to Mount Gambier and on 20 October 1862 the 29 year old Gordon was married to Margaret Park by the Rev. James Don at Port MacDonnell. He had first met his 17 year old wife at the Robe racecourse in 1861. Later in a letter to Riddoch he wrote, 'she has more pluck in her little finger than I have in my whole body. Through all the worries of our troubles she bore up with wonderful spirit, and always cheered me up and kept me on the straight'.

Maggie, as he called her, was a baker's daughter from Glasgow with little education but was an excellent horse rider. She neither understood, nor wanted to understand Gordon's writings. Even so, she was a stabilizing influence. They set up house at Robe and moved to Mount Gambier soon after to build a house at Yahl Paddock. While at Mount Gambier, Gordon became good friends with Charles Wells who worked at Mingbool. Charles named one of his children after him. During this time he was also involved with the rescue of the passengers of the Admella which had been wrecked at Port Macdonnell in 1859 and later wrote a poem about it.

While still having plenty of money Gordon lived the life of a country squire, gentleman jockey, business speculator and generous lender. In 1864 he bought Dingley Dell near Port Macdonnell. Here he finally found peace to write and had his first peace, The Feud published in the Border Watch.

His life entered a new phase when he was asked by the locals to stand for parliament. He agreed and in early in 1865 he and John Riddoch were both elected to represent the Mount Gambier region. Unfortunately he showed very little interest in his parliamentary career, and a succession of financial troubles sent him back to steeplechasing and keeping livery stables. He also took part in races at Adelaide, Melbourne and Ballarat.

When not racing he was writing and publishing poems. Soon he became completely tired and bored with politics and resigned his position on 20 November 1866. He now started one of his most disastrous investing ventures when he put his money in a sheep run in Western Australia. On 11 December he landed at Bunbury with some 5,000 sheep to stock the run. In March 1867 he was back in Adelaide, after most of his flock had died.

On 3 May that year his daughter Annie Lindsay Gordon was born at Robe. In June his first two volumes of poetry were published. They were Ashtaroth, a dramatic lyric, on 10 June and Sea Spray and Smoke Drift on 19 June. Both volumes were largely influenced by Byron and Swinburn. Now 33 years old and 14 years in Australia, Gordon was still busy writing, riding and desperately trying to provide for his family. Unfortunately his new books were not selling very well as they had been ignored by the reviewers. However, when the town of Caveton was laid out in 1866 he had one of its streets named after him.

Dingleydell 1924

Dingleydell 1932

In 1867 he moved to Ballarat and later to Melbourne. Disaster followed him again when his daughter died on 14 April while he himself was recuperating from a bad fall when horse riding. When in Melbourne he had some of his work published by Marcus Clark, the author of For the term of his Natural Life, who owned the Colonial Monthly. He had also some work published in The Australasian.

During the next two years Gordon tried to be recognised as the heir of his family's estate in England, hoping to be able to pay off his creditors and provide a secure financial future for his wife. But once again he missed out. On 23 June his third book, Bush Ballads and Galloping Rhymes was published. By now Gordon was so depressed with all his disappointments and failures that he went out with his rifle and shot himself on 24 June at Brighton Breach. He was buried at Brighton, Victoria.

Sadly for Gordon it was only after his death that his name and works began to grow. Both Marcus Clark and Henry Kendall had done much to save his writings. Gordon's death and its publicity it created, had a good deal to do with his posthumous celebrity. Soon drovers and boundary riders all over Australia recited his works. By the 1880s his work had become part of the Australian tradition and folklore. He became the first truly popular poet in Australian history, well before Patterson and C.J. Dennis.

When "Australian Ballads and Rhymes" was published in 1888 in England it included The Sick Stockrider and An Exile's Farewell. In its introduction it was stated that these poems deserved a place in any selection in the English language, 'a masterpiece, and a masterpiece that no poet whom we know of but Gordon could have written'.

Gordon was the only Australian to be included in the Oxford Standard Authors series and the only Australian to be given a bust in Westminster Abbey, on 11 May 1934. He has an obelisk at Mount Gambier and a monument in Melbourne. His wife Margaret married Peter Low, moved to Canniwigra Station near Bordertown, had seven children and died in 1919, aged 74.

Dingleydell 2014


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