A City Girl: In memory of Mary Ann Deveney (1852-1896)

(After Henry Lawson’s ‘A Bush Girl’)

By Anne Casey

She’s walking in the dark and rain,

as her mother had before.

Her skirts are dragging in the drain,

her feet are tired and sore.

In ruined shoes with broken dreams,

she bears the evening chill.

Her dress is ragged at the seams;

she’s nought to pay her lodging bill.


And so she dons an ersatz smile,

a swing about her hips,

stepping towards the yellow light

where swaying men will lick their lips

and lead her to the narrow way

where her mother went before⎯

that’s how she’d learnt to earn her pay

with hunger scratching at the door.


The last of seven to survive,

her father’d done the bolt.

The streets had taught her to contrive

a living scorned at with revolt

by hoity-toity passers-by

with bellies that obscured

their view of how the lowly ply,

resigned to miseries endured.


She’d tried her best at ‘honest’ work

in the big house on the hill—

serving girl to a shipping clerk,

but her master took his fill.

And when she found herself with child,

she was turfed out on the street⎯

her kind had always been reviled

and so she’d learned to cheat.


To feed this new-come little mouth

beneath a leaking roof,

she nabbed a sovereign from a toff

and hid it in her boot.

The coppers had her quickly nailed

and brought before the court.

In ‘Starvinghurst Gaol’, her baby ailed,

her tiny life cut short.


And so she goes in ruined shoes

unto her evening grind⎯

for hunger knows which ones to choose

and, in keeping with her kind,

she’ll sashay towards the yellow light

and maybe take her fill,

to warm against the chilly night

and stir her dreaming still.


This poem won the Henry Lawson Poetry Prize 2022.


Note: ‘Starvinghurst Gaol’ is the name given to Darlinghurst Gaol by Henry Lawson due to the poor food rations given to prisoners during his time served there. This poem is written after the style of bush poetry favoured by Lawson and is reminiscent of the verses heard around the public houses during the era of Newcastle Industrial School inmate, Mary Ann Deveney (1852-1896) who was also incarcerated in Darlinghurst Gaol and on whose life story this poem is based.