Harley Matthews—The Spirit of Anzac

Name: Edward Mason
Date: 1916
Unit: 32nd Battalion, AIF
Location: France

Harley Matthews was a poet, journalist, playwright and wine maker who served at Gallipoli and was later imprisoned in Australia for sedition. But his most unusual role was surely that of an artist's model.

Matthews was on leave in London in 1916 after service at Gallipoli when he was spotted in the street by famous English sculptor, Jacob Epstein.

Epstein decided Matthews would be the perfect model for a bust he wanted to produce and talked him in to sitting for him.

The bust, Spirit of Anzac, which depicts the steel-helmeted head of a warrior, is in the Imperial War Museum in London.

Matthews later returned to Australia where he worked as a journalist and wrote plays and poems. He bought and ran Riverside Vineyard at Moorebank on the Georges River and had a constant stream of interesting visitors, including authors, journalists, artists and newspaper editors who enjoyed his company and his wine.

But his idyllic lifestyle came to an abrupt end during World War II when he was arrested out of the blue and imprisoned in a concentration camp for six months as a seditionist.

In an obituary published in the Daily Telegraph on 13 August 1968, Ronald Monson, a friend and frequent visitor to Matthews' home, wrote:

"No charge was ever laid against him. He was accused of being a member of the strongly nationalistic movement called 'Australia First' ".

The movement was alleged to have been plotting the assassination of the wartime Prime Minister, John Curtin.

"Whatever some of the ratbags in that movement were doing, Harley Matthews had nothing to do with any plots," Monson wrote

"He had no politics.

"The shock of Matthews' arrest (at 3am) caused his mother to collapse and she died of a heart attack.

"After the war, Mr Justice Clyne, sitting as a Royal Commissioner, found that Matthews had committed no offence and should never have been arrested.

"He was awarded £600 as compensation - a ludicrously inadequate sum, which the wronged man for long refused to accept, and only did so finally to close the whole sorry case."

Riverside was so neglected when Matthews was finally released that he was forced to sell the property but later bought another at Ingleburn.

Robert Campbell of Kingsford, NSW, recalls accompanying his father on visits to Matthews' home at Moorebank.

"My father was proud of his friendship with Harley Matthews," Mr Campbell said. "They had known each other for years and were friends in France in World War I. Dad would visit Harley at Moorebank and sometimes I would go along to see the great and kind man. This was in the 1930s when I was young," he added.

"Moorebank was sparsely populated in those days. The trip from Bondi where we lived out to Moorebank was something to be looked forward to with a certain amount of excitement," he added.

"Dad and Mr Matthews would talk and sip a little wine. I was filled up with grapes. Once a dear little old lady - Harley's mother - gave me a slice of apple pie.

"When World War II broke out, Dad and Harley saw less and less of each other. It ended completely when my father died in 1946," Mr Campbell said.

In his obituary, Monson also said:

"He loved bohemian company, and always had a throng of guests who came to his vineyard for a good talk and good wine."

"Among them were Norman Lindsay's sons Ray and Phil; Percy Lindsay, the painter; Lenny Lower, the great Australian humorist; Brian Penton, novelist and newspaper editor; Adam McCay, the brilliant old-time newspaperman and editor; H.C. McKay, Colin Wills, Harry Cox, Ray Connolly, Mervyn O'Hara, Bill Rodie, and other celebrated journalists; Norman Cotter, the solicitor, and Goya Henry, the aviator.

"He (Harley Matthews) loved Australia, particularly the countryside, and he wrote of it with deep feeling and an evocative imagery that was all his own.

"When age brought bodily affliction he bore it without complaint, and refused all efforts to get him out of his bachelor quarters and into hospital.

"A few friends came round to tend to his wants when he became bedridden just before the end, and he still enjoyed a flagon of wine with them - but he needed medical care and he refused to go to hospital.

"Ambulances that were sent to collect him were turned away, but only a few days before he died he was finally persuaded to enter hospital.

"If the treatment he received during World War II embittered him deeply - and I sometimes suspected that it did - he never let it get him down.

"The big occasion of his year was the feast his friends brought to his cottage every Anzac Day, which was also his birthday, and the day, too, on which he claimed magpies nesting in the eaves of his house finally drove their clamouring young from the nests that they were loath to leave.

"As loath as the grand old countryman poet was to leave the sunshine of his dilapidated homestead at Ingleburn."

The material for this article was supplied by Mr Robert Campbell of New South Wales

Last updated:

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DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) ( ), Harley Matthews—The Spirit of Anzac, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 23 July 2024, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/stories/australians-wartime/harley-matthews-spirit-anzac
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