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National Library of Australia

J. H. M. Abbott (1874–1953)

Author of Tommy Cornstalk

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John Henry (Macartney) Abbott (1874-1953), author, was born on 26 December 1874 at Haydonton, New South Wales, eldest son of (Sir) Joseph Palmer Abbott and his first wife Matilda Elizabeth, née Macartney. He was educated at The King's School, Parramatta, and attended classes at the University of Sydney before returning to the Hunter valley, where he was working as a jackeroo on a family property when his first contribution to the Bulletin was published in 1897.

In January 1900 Abbott left for the South African War as a corporal in the 1st Australian Horse; in May he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Royal Field Artillery, but was invalided back to Australia in October. Out of this experience came Tommy Cornstalk … (London, 1902), one of the earliest examples of Australian war literature. Its success induced Abbott to try his luck as a freelance writer in London. In the several years he remained there he wrote for the Daily Telegraph, the Spectator and other journals and published four books: Plain and Veldt … (1903), a selection of stories based on his Australian and South African experiences; two descriptive works, An Outlander in England (1905) and The South Seas, Melanesia (1908); and the semi-autobiographical Letters from Queer Street … (1908).

By 1909 Abbott was back in Australia working on a 'shocker' for A. C. Rowlandson, proprietor of the New South Wales Bookstall Co.; it was published in 1910 as The Sign of the Serpent. Thereafter he turned primarily to early New South Wales history, churning out over the next forty years hundreds of articles, series and serials, which were published in the Bulletin, the Lone Hand, Truth, the World's News and other Sydney journals. His novels such as The Governor's Man (1919), Ensign Calder (1922) and Sydney Cove (1923) introduced Governors Bligh, Phillip and Macquarie as characters, and presented a view of colonial society that reflected his pioneer and Establishment background. Among his other publications were four historical works, including The Story of William Dampier (1911) and Ben Hall (1934), and two based on his schoolboy experiences.

After his works had appeared as serials, Abbott sold the book rights, usually at low cost, to local publishers. Despite the volume of his writing, he was often in financial difficulties; bankrupted in 1923, he was left an annuity of £200 by his uncle W. E. Abbott in 1924 and was awarded a Commonwealth Literary Fund fellowship in 1942. Forced by ill health to stop writing in 1948, he died at Rydalmere Mental Hospital of vascular disease on 12 August 1953. He was buried in the Anglican section of Rookwood cemetery, survived by his wife Katherina, née Wallace, a journalist whom he had married in Sydney on 2 August 1926 according to Roman Catholic rites; as Rena Wallace she had published A Bush Girl's Songs (Sydney, 1905). Abbott's use of Macartney as a third name has caused him to be confused with his brother Macartney.

Tall and strong-featured, with 'a face like one of Cromwell's Ironsides', Abbott was 'slovenly colloquial' in speech and had a truculent, contrary side which revealed itself most clearly during his frequent bouts of drinking; a 'throwback to the days of the Rum Corps and Gallows Hill', he is well captured in David Low's Caricatures (Sydney, 1915). His historical writing reached a wide audience, but his most significant works are Tommy Cornstalk and Letters from Queer Street. The first, written 'from the point of view of the Australian ranks', presents a picture of the Australian soldier very much in accord with that eventually established by the Anzac legend. The second is a moving depiction of London poverty.
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