The nineteenth-century English-born Australian poet Adam Lindsay Gordon
(1833 – 1870)
, is scarcely read now, and if he is remembered at all, it is not for his poetry. The best of Gordon’s verse rises very little above his over-quoted quatrain:

Life is mostly froth and bubble,
Two things stand like stone.
Kindness in another’s trouble,
Courage in your own.

Gordon’s main interest was horse-racing, not poetry, and it shows.

Drawing of Australian poet Adam Lindsay Gordon riding in a steeplechase. Drawing by Eugene Montagu Scott about 1865 in the collection of the State Library of Victoria.

Gordon’s biographer says that in his youth he caused his father ‘anxiety’. The strength of this euphemism may be judged by what he did about it, which was to boot his son out at the age of twenty on a one-way trip to the colony of South Australia with a letter of introduction to the governor and a bit of advice: join the police force. For the next few years he received ‘financial assistance’ from his father, that is, regular remittances on the condition that he stayed away.

For a while Gordon ran a livery stable behind one of Ballarat’s large hotels, conveniently placed, for he was a great drinker. We live in Ballarat and we also have enjoyed a glass or two at Craig’s, so I suppose we may be said to have a connection with Adam Lindsay Gordon.

I can claim an even closer connection. My third great grandfather Gordon Mainwaring (1817 – 1872), like Adam Lindsay Gordon banished to the colonies and living on remittances sent from home, knew him in Adelaide. Both Gordons joined the colonial police, and both drank to excess.  An 1891 newspaper article claimed Gordon Mainwaring was “on very friendly terms” with Adam Lindsay Gordon “who was also with the police force”.

The ‘with’ in this formula is rather a stretch. Gazetted as a constable on 23 August 1852, Mainwaring lasted only six weeks. On 14 October he was absent from the barracks without leave and returned drunk; he was dismissed.

Gordon Mainwaring, though not Adam Lindsay Gordon, also had a military career, rather less than glorious, rising to the rank of corporal in No. 2 Company of the 1st Battalion, Royal South Australian Volunteer militia.

In 1854, at the time of the Crimean war and the Russian Scare, Mainwaring spoke at a meeting in Walkerville urging men to join the militia, bending the truth in a worthy cause:

Mr. Mainwaring said he had been a soldier for twenty years, and was the first man who drilled the police in this colony. He had served for ten years in India ; he trusted he might say with credit. He had now settled at Walkerville, and purchased a house for £700. He respected the villagers as his friends and neighbours, and would not only volunteer, but gladly teach them their exercise either as artillerymen or infantry, being equally au fait at both. But it must be understood that he would take no additional pay for such extra services. (Cheers.)

Within a year this sketch of himself had become a little tarnished, when he was found in contempt of court, for having “been confined for drunken and disorderly conduct, but liberated on bail, [he] did not appear to his recognizances when called on to answer for his misconduct.”

Adam Lindsay Gordon, unhappy and half-mad, shot himself on Brighton beach Melbourne in 1870, 150 years ago today. Our Gordon, Gordon Mainwaring, married, bought a small farm and had seven children. He lasted until 1872.

The grave and column memorial of Adam Lindsay Gordon, poet, located at the Brighton (Victoria) General Cemetery. Image from the State Library of South Australia.
Photograph of Gordon Mainwaring from “Whitmore Hall : from 1066 to Waltzing Matilda” by Christine Cavenagh-Mainwaring. Adelaide Peacock Publications, 2013. page 103.


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