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Lesbia Harford- The Rebel Girl

Provided by the Question Mark Collective as part of a forthcoming anthology on Australian Troublemakers to be published by Melbourne based Scam Publications.

Lesbia Keogh (later Harford) was born in 1891. The eldest of four she was afflicted with defective heart valves which restricted her mobility and caused her to tire easily, a chronic problem that was to increase with age. Raised initially in middle class conditions her position was to slide rapidly with a family bankruptcy and the subsequent departure of her father who ran off to the West Australian goldfields. These changed conditions and the fact that her mother entered paid work to ensure an education for her children can be credited with giving Harford a view of society based around both class struggle and feminism.

Harford began writing poetry in her adolescence and continued her work upon entering Melbourne University in 1915. One of the first women to study Law she stood outside her fellow students not just for her gender and ill health, but for the fact that she was forced to work holidays and weekends to maintain her studies. Attracted initially to free thought and socialism she began attending lectures and joined a number of student political societies. A strong believer in free love she also entered into a number of relationships whilst maintaining a fiercely independent streak.

Lesbia Harford began a number of friendships at this time that were to sustain her through the troubles of later life. One of these was Kate Lush with whom she was lovers for a short time. Another was famous Italian-Australian communist writer Guido Barrachi with whom she also had a physical relationship. A third was Percy Laidler, a left wing bookseller who was a member of the Victorian Socialist Party, the Industrial Workers of the World and a general mainstay of the Melbourne Left.

Through her friendship with Laidler she began to attend meetings outside of the university and soon came to favour his brand of syndicalist direct action over Barrachi's party building. Tired of academic armchair theorists she joined the I.W.W. and became a tireless worker. Barrachi described her in 1964 as a "Wobbly kind of girl. The idea of a strictly disciplined organisation did not appeal to her... (she was) very straightforward indeed. She would never concede anything that she did not thoroughly agree... very Irish-Australian, you know, very warm and romantic."

Harford joined the I.W.W. at its peak in 1915/6. The group's paper Direct Action was sold in every state and had achieved a circulation of 15,000. More importantly the I.W.W. was intimately involved in agitation throughout a number of industries and had taken a hard stance against conscription leading the fight for a "NO" vote in the upcoming referendum. Harford threw herself into the fight against forced conscription and spoke against it night after night until "her exhausted heart and throat landed her in hospital." She also drew a number of others into the organisation including her brother and famous cancer researcher Esmond Keogh. Barrachi was another she recruited with him later landing in prison for making statements "prejudicial to recruiting".

Given her background in factory work and belief in feminism Harford's choice of the I.W.W. was hardly surprising. Whilst the group joined the rest of the Left in its masculine orientation its lack of hierarchy and equal standing for all members gave women far larger opportunities than elsewhere. Additionally the group's commitment to direct action clearly appealed to Harford's experiences on the job. Having completed her studies she chose to enter the clothing trade as a full time worker and agitator, something that given her health, could not have been easy.

Although an important member of the Melbourne I.W.W., Harford's poetry did not appear in Direct Action. This was partially due to the fact that she felt that "poetry and fiction should not be consciously propagandised" and secondly because the majority of her work did not resemble the bush/worker ballad or satirical feel of much that was published. Instead she submitted her work to local poetry journals such as Birth and succeeded in getting a small number of them published.

Harford's poetry reveals a distinct earthiness in its creator. She avoided flowery words and statements and disliked the elitism of so many writers. Barrachi commented in 1941 that "She wanted to ditch the bourgeois world altogether... even in things like music there was the rejection of the old; she got quite hostile toward classical music. She'd only have a bar of music that would reach the people."

A number of her poems concerned her life and that of her fellow workers in the clothing trade, but the subject matter concentrated greatly on the emotions and relationships of those trapped in such industries rather than their political status or future. Occasionally she penned politically honed pieces such as "Suburban Dames", her attack on the wealthy female buyers of the products she created.

More often though her work focussed on everyday life in all its political and emotional dimensions. Taking a grassroots approach she hoped to reach people through celebrating and depicting life as it was really was. She remains one of the only Australian poets and one of the few anywhere to have written about menstruation and other intimate aspects of women's lives. Passion and its disappointments were often the focus of many works including "The Folk I Love".

In 1916 the I.W.W. was made illegal and twelve of the group's members were framed up on conspiracy charges and sentenced to long periods in prison. Harford joined efforts to get the men freed and in early 1918 moved up to Sydney to live with one of their wives. Whilst there she continued to work a full time job whilst corresponding with a number of the men and teaching one French.

She kept up a particularly long correspondence with Bob Bessant and upon his release in 1920 many expected the two to marry. Instead she chose to hook up with Pat Harford, a working class artist from Redfern. Although she must have found something worthy in him, her family and many of friends disliked him due to his taste for alcohol and propensity to violence. Ill health and the cost of keeping a husband saw Harford drop out of both the clothing industry and activism beginning work in a series of white collar jobs including teaching, research and clerical work.

The marriage did not last long and she returned to Melbourne in 1921. There she resumed her legal career and began to move away from poetry towards prose. During this time she completed a book that showed that her political sensitivities had not been dimmed with the withdrawal from activism. A full length novel, "The Irreplaceable Mystery", concerned the daily life of a young working class woman whose life is inextricably changed by the internment of her family during World War One. As with Harford's other work this novel intricately explored the many dimensions of female working class life and provided no pat solutions or heroic figures. Most subversively it portrayed its German characters as essentially living the same lives as other ordinary people and in doing so redressed the racist beliefs of the war years. Although written in an accessible, pacy style Harford could not find a publisher for the book since it was far too radical and urban for Australia's mainstream publishers and yet not explicitly political enough for the radicals.

During her final years in Melbourne Harford's health rapidly declined. Having for many years been sustained by force of will alone she began to find herself unable to complete the most basic of tasks. Living with her mother and regularly visited by Lush she managed to intermittently work until her eventual death in 1927. As Nettie Palmer later wrote "Her life had always hung by a fine thread, which perhaps made her words seem all the more poignant, as if final."

For many years after her death her work remained obscure despite her mother's efforts to get it published. Finally in 1941 long time friend Nettie Palmer had a collection of poetry published by Melbourne University. Conforming to the University's atmosphere she avoided including Harford's more radical political and sexual pieces and avoided referring to her politics in its introduction. Enraged, Barrachi delivered and had published a Sydney lecture entitled "The Rebel Girl". However he too misrepresented her politics by casting her as Marxist, an error he was to admit to later in life.

In 1964 Marjorie Pizer attempted to get another collection published, but was rejected by Angus and Robertson who felt Harford's work was inappropriate for publishing at that time. It was to be another 21 years before Pizer joined with historian Drusiila Modjeska in finally publishing the extensive collection. Two years later Harford's novel was discovered in a file of documents at the Australian National Library and released by a subsection of Penguin. By this time interest in Australian writing and radicalism was flourishing and as one of the first modern novels to deal with gender, class and sexuality Harford's lost work could hardly be ignored. In 1991 a play "Earthly Paradise" was based on her life and performed in Melbourne by the Playbox Company.


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Last modified: 14 August, 2001

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