Biography Lesbia Harford
- Time Period1891 - 1927
Lesbia Harford, nee; Keogh was born in 1891. She was the eldest of four children and was born with defective heart valves which restricted her mobility and caused her to tire easily, a continual problem that was to amplify with age.
Raised firstly within the middle classes and then with the family bankruptcy and the consequential departure of her father who ran off to the West Australian goldfields, the fact that her mother entered paid work to make sure her children had an education ascribed Harford with a view of society based around both class struggle and feminism.
Her writing of poetry began in her adolescence and continued her work upon entering Melbourne University in 1915. She was one of the first women to study Law and stood apart from her fellow students not just because she was a woman or for her ill health, but for the fact that she was forced to work holidays and weekends to maintain her studies.
Initially she was attracted to free thought and socialism, so began attending lectures and joined a number of student political societies. As a strong believer in free love she entered into a number of relationships whilst sustaining a stern independent streak. The friendships she began at this time 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.
she also had a physical relationship with famous Italian-Australian communist writer Guido Barrachi. There was a third person she related to and who was to help her through many troubles he 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 started to attend meetings outside of the university and soon began to favour his brand of syndicalist direct action over Barrachi's party building.She joined the I.W.W. at its peak in 1915-6 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 threw herself into I.W.W. especially the fight against forced conscription and she spoke against it night after night until "her exhausted heart and throat landed her in hospital." She also recruited 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".
Once her studies were completed she decided to enter the clothing trade as a full time worker and activist, which considering her health was a monumental feat.
Although an important member of Melbourne I.W.W her poetry did not follow the actions of her activism, the partial reason for this was that she felt that poetry and fiction should not be consciously propagandised and secondly that because the majority of her work did not resemble the bush worker ballad or satirical feel of much that was published. So she instead submitted her work to local poetry journals such as Birth and succeeded in getting a small number of them published.
A number of her poems concerned her life and that of her fellow workers in the clothing trade, but rather than their political status or future, the subject matter would concentrate greatly on the emotions and relationships of those trapped in such industries. She occasionally 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 focused on everyday life, taking a grassroots approach she hoped to reach people through celebrating and portraying 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"
she moved to Sidney fighting for the release of twelve if her activist friends, it was here the she married Pat Harford, a working class artist from Redfern. Although she must have found something of worth in him, her family and many of her friends disliked him due to his taste for alcohol and tendency to violence. Ill health and the cost of keeping a husband was the reason Harford dropped out of the clothing industry and the activist work, she started work in a series of white collar jobs including teaching, research and clerical work.
The marriage didnt last long and she returned to Melbourne in 1921. There she restarted 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 completely dimmed with the withdrawal from activism. A full length novel, "The Irreplaceable Mystery", concerned with the daily life of a young working class woman whose life is immeasurable changed by the internment of her family during World War One. As with her other works this novel explored in detail the many dimensions of female working class life and provided no solutions or heroic figures. Most rebelliously her portrayal of its German characters as basically living the same lives as other ordinary people, redressed the racist beliefs of the war years. Although accessible and pacy in style, she could find no publishers 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.
Having for many years been sustained by force of will alone she began to find herself unable to complete the most basic of tasks, during her final years in Melbourne her health rapidly declined and she lived with her mother. She was regularly visited by Lush and managed to intermittently work until her eventual death in 1927.
Nettie Palmer later wrote of Harford, "Her life had always hung by a fine thread, which perhaps made her words seem all the more poignant, as if final."