Henry Kendall was born, one of twin boys, in Milton, on New South Wales’s south coast. His father was a missionary who died when Henry was two years old. He enjoyed minimal schooling and went away to sea with his uncle on a whaler at the age of fifteen, returning after two years to Sydney where he took a job as a shop assistant and later worked in a solicitor’s office. His mother encouraged him to write poetry as did the lawyer who employed him, allowing him the use of his extensive library.
In 1861 he moved to Grafton on New South Wales’s north coast and published his first volume of verse Poems and Songs the following year. In 1863 friends found him a job in the government’s Surveyor-General department which enabled him to support his mother and sisters. He later transferred to the Colonial Secretary’s department. In 1868 he married Charlotte Rutter, the daughter of a Sydney doctor who he had met after delivering a lecture at Sydney School of Arts. His mother moved in with them but this led to problems as the two women didn’t get on, largely because of his mother’s excessive drinking.
In 1869 he gave up his job and he and his wife moved to Melbourne where he published his second volume of poetry, Leaves from Australian Forests. He was re-employed by the government in the Statistical Office but hated the work and quit. His life then entered a downward spiral and he became impoverished and started to drink heavily. At one point he was prosecuted for presenting a forged cheque and was lucky to get off. The death of his daughter Araluen at the age of two in 1870, in part through malnutrition, caused both him and his wife great grief and led to further bouts of depression. She is immortalised in the beautiful poem Araluen he wrote in 1879. He was rescued by a friend who found him a job as a storekeeper in Camden Haven, New South Wales.
In 1880 he published a third and final volume of poetry, Songs from The Mountains, which was an outstanding success. The following year his old friend, the politician, Sir Henry Parkes, no mean poet himself, appointed him inspector of forests, a job which would have perfectly suited him but, unfortunately, it was of short tenure, as he contracted tuberculosis and died aged 43 in 1882. His widow survived him by 40 years, receiving a government pension.
Henry Kendall wrote many fine poems, mostly drawing his inspiration from the scenery of the bush and the country’s traditions. He was a poet of mountains and streams and had great empathy for Australia’s native inhabitants and their way of life, epitomised in such poems as The Last of his Tribe. He also wrote a moving tribute to one of Australia’s greatest poets who preceded him entitled In Memoriam - Adam Lindsay Gordon.