The following letter to ‘The Age’ newspaper, in 1949, was written by a certain Mr L.P. Hutchinson, a resident of the Melbourne suburb of Hawksburn. In his correspondence, Mr Hutchinson refers to a previous article which appeared in the Literary Supplement regarding John Shaw Neilson.

Mr Hutchinson talks about his relationship with Mr Nielson during the 1920’s when they worked at the coal mine at Yallourn. However, it was not as a coal miner that John Shaw Neilson ‘made his name.’ In time he became one of Australia’s foremost poets …

“Think of Australian poets and the names Henry Lawson, C. J. Dennis and Banjo Paterson come to mind. Few recognise the name John Shaw Neilson, another skilled poet of their era…. He had quite an extensive range of styles and a whimsy that was lacking in most Australian poets….There was no doubt that he should have greater recognition.” ‘The Canberra Times’ September 20th 1986 Page: 4.
Some readers of this website may recall a poem entitled: ‘Old Granny Sullivan’ which was published in the Victorian Education Department’s Fifth Book (usually the green covered textbook); and was a basic reader for primary school students in the 1940’s and the 1950’s.

How many students, sitting at their wooden desks in a classroom at Yallourn State School 4085, could have imagined that the poem, about Mrs Sullivan, had been written by a former labourer at the Yallourn camp?

The history of Yallourn is dotted with notable men and women; and John Shaw Nielson fits that ‘bill’ perfectly as he is regarded as one of Australia’s foremost poets; and was once described as…

“…as the finest lyrist that Australia has produced.” ‘The Argus’ (May 13th 1942 Page: 3)…

The footnotes and readers guide, which accompany this story, endeavour to assist readers to appreciate:
• The creative talents of John Shaw Nielson.
• The hardships experienced by the workers in the Open Cut coal mine in those early days of the settlement of Yallourn.

"A.F." (Balwyn), who wrote the article on John Shaw Neilson ("The Age" Literary Supplement, 19/3), has apparently been charged by "W.T.S." (1/4) with "Indulging in flights of imagination" concerning the description he gave of the Australian poet — his personal appearance and "the roughness of his hands." "A.F." refers to the period of Neilson's almost intolerable hardship as a casual labourer. About the year 192x*(see below)-25 I had almost daily contact with John Shaw Neilson.

He came to work at the old open-cut at the brown coal mine, which was then controlled by the Mines department, and subsequently was transferred to the S.E.C. when it commenced operations in the new cut at Yallourn.

As the whole of the overburden was removed by miners having no mechanical equipment and the open-cut coal was worked from the face by blasting and placed in trucks by shovel, and by hand in large lumps, it follows that the great poet did really labourer's work for almost 18 months on that job. I met and talked with him daily; he lived in a tin hut at the township and batched and did all his own work, whilst writing at the same time. He was of a retiring disposition - L. P. HUTCHINSON. HAWKSBURN

*Note: In the original extract the date is indecipherable but may possibly be: 1921.

1. John Shaw Neilson was born in Penola, South Australia in 1872. He was one of six children born to John and Margaret (nee: McKinnon) Neilson

2. John Neilson (senior), who had emigrated from Scotland, was known in the Penola district as a ‘bush poet’; and he seems to have been a very strong influence on his son’s love of poetry. All texts agree that John Shaw Neilson received only a rudimentary education but relished reading; and, in later years, he described himself as ‘mostly’ self-taught.

3. Sometime around 1880, the Neilson family left South Australia and settled in Victoria near Minimay (Shire of West Wimmera). Times were demanding for the John and Margaret Nielson; and throughout their lives they constantly battled to make ‘ends meet’. As Nancy Keesing (an authority on Australian poetry) wrote in 1978 … “Poverty curtailed Neilson lives….”

4. The family left Minimay and settled at Nhill in 1889; and it was at about that juncture that John Shaw Neilson started out on his journey(s) to find meaningful work …
“…Shaw Neilson spent much of his life in tents, in navvy camps and in cheap boarding houses while working at casual jobs all over Victoria (and in parts of New South Wales) to an estimated total of 200 jobs in thirty years” ADB Vol: 10: 1986

5. In his chapter entitled: ‘The Navvy with a Pension’, John Shaw Neilson referred to himself as a ‘navvy.’ It is a word of a bygone era and is seldom heard today. It is defined as …
“…a labourer employed in the excavation and construction of a road, railway, or canal.”
The word is a contraction of the word ‘navigator’; and seems to have arisen in the early 19th century via the work done by men in building the system(s) of inland canals and railway lines throughout England.

6. Throughout his life, John Shaw Neilson travelled far and wide looking for work. Some of the northern Victorian towns in which he worked (often with his father) included: Ellerslie, Warracknabeal, Birchip, Swan Hill, Mildura, Chinkapook and Merbein. He ‘tried his hand’ at many different occupations along the way…
“He worked in harvesting, cattle driving, fencing, picking fruit, clearing, making roads, shearing sheep, working in quarries, and cutting wood. He often suffered painful injuries and walked hundreds of miles to places where he had heard there was work.” from (author unknown)

7. In or about 1919, John Shaw Neilson turned his attention towards Gippsland in the hope of finding gainful employment. In his autobiography, he mentions the towns of Warragul, Mirboo, Boolarra, Trafalgar, Leongatha, Heyfield and, as written in the above newspaper extract, Yallourn. He was a rover; and, like most itinerant workers, was never in one place for very long.

8. Of all the things that one learns in reading about John Shaw Neilson’s life, it is: How desperately poor he was; and how exacting and draining were the day to day trials upon his health (his eyesight particularly). Because of his humble existence and deprivation, Nancy Keesing described John as a ‘peasant poet.’

9. According to former Swan Hill journalist Steven Stevens…
“During these years he wrote constantly even though his eyes deteriorated from the constant exposure to the Mallee dirt. He also suffered from nervous depression and once spent five weeks in the Swan Hill Hospital recovering…”

10. John Shaw Neilson arrived at Yallourn in 1921. It is hard to get a ‘fix’ on the exact date but it seems to have been in November. As many readers of this website will be aware, the Victorian Government established the State Electricity Commission in 1919; so when John arrived at Yallourn, the construction of the power station, on the banks of Latrobe River, was in full swing…
“After New Year I went out to Yallourn and got on a pipe trench gang. We were put off in seven days. I don’t know exactly why. Such sudden changes were very common in Yallourn.” Page: 110.

11. Further on in his story, John writes about the finding work in the Open Cut at Yallourn…
“I was rather lucky. I got on at the Brown Coal Open Cut across the river. I worked there six months altogether. On March 8th this year I had a little piece of verse in the Bulletin. It was called ‘Maude Fane Departs’…” Page: 111.

12. In his chapter (entitled: ‘The Worst Seven Years’), John describes the onerous nature of the work along the Latrobe River. His words are a sharp reminder of the extreme hardship faced by the men who worked at Yallourn in the early 1920’s. It seems that the back-breaking and exhausting work took a huge toll on John Shaw Nielsen’s health and happiness as he wrote the following about his working in Yallourn…
“I went back to Yallourn and worked for about six weeks. I was working in sump hole. I was up to my knees in mud and every second night we had night shift. I got that tired that I could not get up in the mornings and I was frightened of rheumatics so I decided to sling the job in.” Page: 114.

13. John returned to Yallourn on at least one occasion; and, in March 1923, he wrote briefly about the Maltese men who made up about 50% of the work force at the Open Cut.
Note: See a story, on this website, regarding the valued and lasting contribution that the Maltese migrants made to the SECV and community life in the Latrobe Valley.

14. In his autobiography, John Shaw Neilson stated that 3000 men were employed on the SECV project along the Latrobe River; and he also referred to the illegal gambling and the numerous sly grog shops that existed in and around the river-side camps.

15. On page: 120, John recounted the police raids which were quite common in those days at the Yallourn camps. The following excerpt is taken from the ‘Traralgon Record’ and was written at about the same time that John Shaw Neilson lived in Yallourn…
“RAID AT YALLOURN -A hut at the Electricity Commission's works at Yallourn was raided on Tuesday morning by Senior Detective McCann who was accompanied with plain clothes Constable Cavanagh and two other officers. They were reinforced by a number of the Gippsland police. Ten men were arrested and charged with illegal betting, keeping a sly grog establishment, and a common gaming house. The arrested men, who were allowed out on bail will appear at the Morwell Petty Sessions on 17th April.” ‘Traralgon Recorder’ March 30th 1923 Page:2.

16. It is believed that John Shaw Neilson wrote more than 600 poems; and among his best known works are ‘Ballads and Lyrical Poems’ (1923) and ‘New Poems’ (1927). In 1934, another volume of his poems entitled ‘Collected Poems’ was published. Several essayists believe that the John’s life as a rambler, in the wilderness of the Australian bush, often sparked his imagination and inspired him to write freely about his inner feelings and experiences…
“…’Though the bush tormented his family with droughts, floods, plagues, and fires, Neilson was fascinated with its beauty, wildlife, and freedom” from (author unknown)

17. The last collection of his verse ‘Beauty Imposes’ was published in 1938; and quite a few of his poems were set to music between 1925 and 1954.

18. Despite a lengthy search (and contacting numerous people with an interest in the poems of John Shaw Neilson), it seems that he may not have penned a poem about his experiences along the banks of the Latrobe River at Yallourn.

19. In about 1928, he found permanent work with the Country Roads Board and he lived in Footscray during those years. With his failing health and poor eyesight, writing became extremely challenging; and it said that he wrote very little verse in the 1930’s.

20. From about 1932 onwards, he lived in Gordon Street Footscray. Sadly, following extended illness, John Shaw Neilson passed away in May 1942. One reference said that he had died of a heart attack.

21. John Shaw Neilson was buried at the Footscray Cemetery. Four years after his death the Footscray City Council took action to ensure that his name of would live on…
“In 1946 a bronze sculpture of the poet was commissioned for the opening of the Footscray Children’s Library in Buckley Street and is now on display at Footscray Library.”
Note: In 1964 the Nhill and District Historical Society erected a memorial to John Shaw Neilson.

22. The grave(s) of John Shaw’s sisters can be found in the Swan Hill Cemetery; and the inscription on the grave marker states…
“In Memory of Margaret Stuart Neilson 26th June 1873-July 1903 and Jessie McFarlane Nielson 4th September 1975-September 1907- Daughters of John and Margaret Nielson - Sister of John Shaw Nielson.”

23. There is much more to John Shaw Neilson’s life; and some readers may like to use the reading list below to glean more information about this truly great Australian poet. He was a wordsmith to rank with the best…

“The late Professor Brereton, after meeting Neilson, remarked privately: “It seems incredible that such a hard hand should have written such delicate poetry.” Robert Guy Howarth’ ‘Sydney Morning Herald’ May 1942. Page: 7.

24. In conclusion, while John Shaw Neilson’s stints at Yallourn were brief, his experiences along the Latrobe River, particularly at the Open Cut coal mine, add another absorbing chapter to the history of the formative years of the township of Yallourn.

• ‘The Autobiography of John Shaw Neilson-With an introduction by Nancy Keesing’ (ISBN 0642 991170-National Library of Australia Publications (1978).
• J. Devaney: ‘Shaw Neilson’ (Sydney-1944).
• H. Anderson and L. J. Blake: ‘John Shaw Neilson’ (Adelaide-1972).
• Helen Hewson: ‘John Shaw Neilson: A Life in Letters’ (2001).
• Judith Wright (Editor): ‘Witnesses of Spring: Unpublished Poems by Shaw Neilson’ (1970).

• My appreciation is expressed to Perry Middlemiss for his assistance in writing this story for the Virtual Yallourn website.
• Sincere thanks to Bryan McKenzie (ex-Swan Hill Genealogical & Historical Society) for his advice on researching John Shaw Neilson’s times in and around Swan Hill.
• ‘Thank you’ to Bet Jenvey, the Research Officer for the S.H.G & H.S, for the information about the burial sites of John Shaw Neilson’s sisters ( Margaret and Jessie) .
• ‘Thank you’ to the staff at the Rosebud Public Library and the City of Footscray Public Library for their help in obtaining various reference materials related to John Shaw Neilson.

The above story is part of an on-going project regarding the history of Yallourn. The story was researched and written by Roger Spaull and presented and posted by Julie George for the Virtual Yallourn website in November 2017.

The above article from ‘The Age’ newspaper has been faithfully reproduced. The only amendments to the original copy are the font style, font size and spacing, so as to enhance the article for purposes of posting on the Virtual Yallourn website.