When Australian poet and writer Henry Lawson died in Sydney in 1922, he was being cared for by Mrs Isabella Byers, who had been born in the Hawkesbury.
Henry Archibald Hertzberg Lawson was born in 1867 in Grenfell, son of Norwegian-born Niels Hertzberg 'Peter' Larsen, a miner, and his wife Louisa née Albury. After a difficult childhood, Henry went on to become one of Australia's literary personalities. With a gift for writing about bush life and the realities of an Australian existence, Lawson's career had many highs and lows. After gaining a reputation as a writer of short stories and verse, he married Bertha Marie Louise Bredt in 1896 and the couple had two children. After a tumultuous marriage they separated in 1903.
At times Henry's life spiralled out of control and he struggled with alcohol dependence for much of his life. In his later years, he was supported by a handful of friends, but mostly lived with his loyal friend, Mrs Isabella Byers in Abbotsford, herself a poet and a devoted admirer of Lawson's talent.
In 1922, Henry died while in Isabella's care and was given a state funeral, the first non-official one in NSW, and was buried at Waverley Cemetery. Isabella was classed as one of the chief mourners alongside various members of his family.
Isabella Ann Ward was born in 1848 on the Hawkesbury, daughter of James and Isabella. Both her parents died when she was a child and it was necessary for alternative accommodation be found for Isabella and her seven siblings. Isabella, with Helen and Laura two of her younger sisters, were placed under the guardianship of James Ascough and his wife, and stayed with them until Isabella was a young woman. Isabella's brother Joseph William Ward, was a well-known businessman and alderman on Windsor Municipal Council, He was elected Mayor in 1910. After the death of Mr and Mrs Ascough in the 1870s, Isabella moved to Sydney and lived with her sister Hannah. By the early 1880s, Isabella and Laura, had started a boarding house and a refreshment room business in the city, possibly where she met her husband.
In 1885 Isabella married Charles Byers, who was sixteen years younger. It was a double wedding with her sister Laura marrying John Nix on the same day. Isabella and Charles separated after four years of marriage, with Isabella then living independently. By 1896 she had set up the North Sydney Coffee Palace, a gathering place for artists, authors and actors. From a very young age, Isabella expressed herself in verse and this is possibly why she was drawn to caring for Lawson. Examples of her poetry still survives.
After devoting over twenty years of her life to the care of Henry Lawson, Isabella passed away in Willoughby in 1930, aged 82, at the home of her sister. At the time of her death, it was written that "it almost broke the dear old lady's heart when Lawson died so suddenly." Isabella said that she did, what she did, "gladly for his great work's sake. I am sorry I was not able to do more". Isabella was buried in the Northern Suburbs cemetery.