Nineteenth-century Melbourne author Marcus Clarke’s most famous and enduring work is his powerful indictment of the brutality of the convict era, His Natural Life (later For the Term of His Natural Life).

While that work is dark and tragic, his prolific and varied writing was often satiric and witty. His output included plays and musicals for the theatre, short stories, journalism, and novels. Dogged by debt in Melbourne, his life might have taken a much different course.

Advertisement for a radio reading of For the term of His Natural Life on 3AW
Billboard advertising the reading of Marcus Clarke’s For the Term of His Natural life, on radio 3AW. Photo by G R Frankland, ca 1940; H92.401/195

He was born an only child in an affluent family in London in 1846 but lost his mother when he was 4. His father was a successful chancery lawyer and Marcus attended Cholmeley Grammar School. When he was 17 his father fell on hard times both fiscally and personally and was confined to an asylum, where he died shortly after.

Marcus had looked forward to a comfortable future in London but was suddenly without parents or financial means.

His cousin, Andrew Clarke, had succeeded Robert Hoddle as surveyor-general of Melbourne. He was a cultured man, helping to establish the first Melbourne museum, and choosing some of the initial works for the art gallery.

Andrew Clarke advised Marcus to pursue a future in the Antipodes. An uncle, James Langton Clarke, was a County Court judge at Ararat, and could provide some direction to a young man in a new land.

On his arrival in Melbourne Marcus Clarke commenced work at the Bank of Australasia but didn’t last long and soon he was working on sheep stations in the Wimmera near the town of Glenorchy. 1

At this time he had various stories published in magazines such as the Australian Monthly Magazine (later the Colonial Monthly). In 1867 he gave up rural life and returned to Melbourne. He had a regular satirical column, ‘The Peripatetic Philosopher’, published in newspapers, primarily in the Australasian.

Text from book page reads: 'Dear Public, Your obedient servant, the Peripatetic Philosopher, No. 2 Gaspipe, Cole's Wharf
The Peripatetic Philosopher by ‘Q’ [that is Marcus Clarke], 1869, p vi

Watercolour painting of shows sailing ships, steamship, boats at dock and horse drawn vehicles on wharf.
Cole’s Wharf, 1875. Watercolour by W F E Liardet; H28250/35. The ‘philosopher’ was purported to reside in Gas Pipe 2

His irreverence and sense of fun is demonstrated in his wonderful list of fictitious newspaper ‘reviews’ of a published collection of pieces from The Peripatetic Philosopher:

  • Sparkling with wit and unctuous with humour. (Standard)
  • Atheistical and infamous, a disgrace alike to printer, publisher, and writer. (Record)
  • An admirable book for the use of schools. (Daily News)
  • The sentiments inculcated by this degraded hound have gained for him the hatred of all honest men, and the detestation of all virtuous women. (Wesleyan Witness)
  • The name of the Peripatetic Philosopher will live when Milton, Shakespeare, and Ben Jonson are forgotten. (Nashville Mercury)
  • It is a matter of wonder to us – first, that nature created a being so conceitedly idiotic as to publish such a farrago of ill-natured lies; second, that any man in this free land of ours is fool enough to read it. (Leader)
  • We have a strong suspicion that the author of this delightful work holds a high position in the Established Church. (Bendigo Advertiser)
  • Positively indecent. . . We would put in every honest hand a whip to lash the rascal naked through the world. (Clunes Gazette)
  • We find it very convenient to wrap up butter. (Ohio Patriot) 2

The Peripatetic Philosopher was often flippant, replete with in-jokes and local references. Marcus Clarke though, still only 23 years old, was about to embark on a journey to a very dark part of Australian history. He convinced the proprietors of the Australian Journal to advance £50 to research convict records in Tasmania.

Australian Journal, March 1871, vol vi, issue 70, p. 361

Writing of his experiences several years later he recalled a journey to Port Arthur with three convicts amongst the company. For Clarke

brooding over stories of misery and crime, sitting beside the ironed convicts, and shivering at the chill breeze which whitened the angry waters of the bay, there was no beauty in those desolate cliffs, no cheering picturesqueness in that frowning shore. I saw Port Arthur for the first time beneath a leaden and sullen sky; and as we sailed inwards past the ruins of Point Puer, and beheld barring our passage to the prison the low grey hummocks of the Island of the Dead, I felt that there was a grim propriety in the melancholy of nature.3

Transportation to Tasmania had ended in 1853 but Port Arthur remained a gaol until 1877 and still housed some of the convicts from that earlier era. Marcus Clarke was escorted to meet one of the most notorious, a man he names as Mooney, who as a 13 year old boy had been transported for poaching. After committing sundry other crimes, Mooney was still incarcerated.

The criminal lunatics were of but two dispositions – they cowered and crawled like whipped fox-hounds to the feet of their keepers, or they raged howling blasphemous and hideous imprecations upon their gaolers….. The warder drew aside a peep-hole in the barred door, and I saw a grizzled, gaunt and half-naked old man coiled in a corner. The peculiar wild-beast smell which belongs to some forms of furious madness exhaled from the cell. The gibbering animal within turned and his malignant eyes met mine4 ….. For half a century the law allowed the vagabonds and criminals of England to be subjected to a lingering torment, to a hideous debasement, to a monstrous system of punishment futile for good and horribly powerful for evil; 5

Illustration depicts prisoners rushing past prison guards in an effort to escape.
‘The Mutineers’ First Rush’, Australian Journal, 1 July 1870, vol v, issue 62, p 611

His research journey led to his great convict novel, His Natural Life (later For the Term of His Natural Life), first serialised in the Australian Journal (illustration above) just a few months after his visit to Tasmania. It was a substantial but rewarding commitment for the reader, installments being published monthly for over 2 years. 6

In the style of many nineteenth-century serials, each installment ended with a cliffhanger, and the story rambled through some unlikely coincidences. The serial was melodramatic, ranging widely through colonial history from the notorious convict prisons to the Ballarat goldfields, the Eureka Stockade and Lola Montez. And there was a happy ending: Rufus Dawes returned to England to reclaim his identity as Richard Devine, and the hateful Captain Frere was murdered by convicts. 7

Marcus Clarke made considerable revisions and the story was published as a novel in 1874. This was tighter, darker, and bleaker than the serial – compelling, savage and utterly readable. It was well received and widely published. The London Graphic found:

both pathos and power are present so the book in no small measure – the story of the escape of the six convicts from Port Arthur, and what became of them – positively makes the flesh creep with its ghastly horribleness – and we recommend all readers to make acquaintance with it without delay.8

Clarke’s biographer, Brian Elliott, wrote:

A novel in the grand tradition, it places him with Charles Reade, Victor Hugo and Dostoevsky among the great nineteenth-century visionaries who found in the problems of crime and punishment a new insight, especially relevant in the convict-founded Australian colonies, into the foundations of human worth.9

It is a remarkable work of such a young writer.

Left: Illustration of a condemned man in the dock, Australian Journal, 1 April 1870, vol v, issue 59, p 431; Right: ‘The Fate of the “Hydapses”‘, Australian Journal, vol v, issue 60, p 491

His prolific and varied literary endeavours weren’t enough to keep the creditors from his door and in 1870 he joined our Library as secretary to the trustees. Profligate with money and with a wife and 6 children to support, Marcus Clarke and debt were old friends. As he blithely acknowledged: ‘I have been in debt for many years and shall probably be in debt for many years more.’ (The Age, 1 January 1874).

He progressed to sub-librarian at the Melbourne Public Library 10 in 1874, but the trustees requested his resignation due to his insolvency (as per Civil Service Regulations). After the resignation was submitted, the trustees revoked their demand. As Edmund La Touche Armstrong pointed out:

Sir Redmond Barry and his fellow Trustees, and, indeed, most people who knew him, were very merciful to Marcus Clarke. Faults that would have gone far to ruin another man were overlooked in him. Genius has an imperialism of its own, and save perhaps by his creditors, Marcus Clarke was generally regarded as Legibus solutus (not subject to laws). 11

Armstrong described Clarke’s career in librarianship in less than glowing terms.

The visible records of his ten years’ work in the library are some badly kept minute books, and a worse than badly kept catalogue of bibliographical works that were his special charge. Neither Marcus Clarke’s temperament nor training rendered him suitable for the real work of a Librarian. The difficulties of scientific cataloguing and classification were not such as he cared to master… It is doubtful if there was in his vocabulary such a word as duty, and his conception of the work of a Librarian was a strange one. 12

Thomas, E. (1853). Argus Office / E. T. H5394 . THe first home of the Yorick Club was in the room above the archway.
Thomas, E. (1853). Argus Office / E. T. H5394 . The first home of the Yorick Club was in the room above the archway, located near the current Westin Hotel and Regent Theatre opposite the Athenaeum Theatre.

He was a foundation member of the Yorick Club, a haunt for bohemian writers, and was always ready to escape some of the more tedious of his duties to carouse with his friends. Poet George Gordon McCrae recounted that the lions guarding the entrance to the Library were used by Marcus Clarke to indicate his availability:

… into the mouth of this lion…. Marcus used to commit his unfinished cigar, before being manacled to the desk at his office. The lion smoking the cigar became a signal to his friends that Marcus was within. 13

Black and white photo of the exterior of the Melbourne Public Library in 1873
Melbourne views : Public Library. Photo by D McDonald; H18045. Note the lions guarding the forecourt. For more on the Library lions see our research guide.

Perhaps the note below, written to his friend J J Shillinglaw, reflects Marcus Clarke’s antipathy to some aspects of the librarian’s toil.

Papers of Marcus Clarke, 1783-1898, Manuscripts Collection; MS 8222. The phrase Hot Coppers apparently refers to a drinker’s dry throat.14

In 1880, he held high hopes of becoming the new Chief Librarian. The appointment became a test of strength between Trustee President Redmond Barry and Premier Graham Berry. Barry died in November 1880 and Berry appointed Thomas Bride. It appears neither man seriously considered Marcus Clarke for the role.

At the time Clarke was embroiled in several controversies. He was engaged in a public battle over religion after Anglican Bishop Moorhouse responded to Clarke’s article, ‘Civilisation Without Delusion’, in the Victorian Review. 15

The Victorian Review refused to publish Clarke’s further critique of Bishop Moorhouse’s response so he published in the Melbourne Review. The proprietors of that journal, spooked by the tumult around Clarke’s articles, then withdrew the issue from circulation.

It is unlikely the Library trustees would have been happy to see news headlines such as ‘Father and Son or Mr Marcus Clarke Versus the Right Rev. the Lord Bishop of Melbourne‘ or ‘Who Taught Mr Marcus Clarke His Atheism’? or Theological Duel in Melbourne.

He was also involved in the adaptation of the British political satire, The Happy Land, which skewered local politicians. The Premier Graham Berry, the man who would decide on the next Chief Librarian, banned the play from being performed. 16

Politicians depicted acting in The Happy Land
‘The Suppressed Play: the Dress Rehearsal’, The Australasian Sketcher with Pen and Pencil, 31 January 1880, p185. This Illustration depicts Premier Graham Berry, Major William Collard Smith (Minister for Mines and Public Instruction) and John Woods (Minister for Railways and Roads) as performers in The Happy Land.

Marcus Clarke’s ongoing solvency issues re-emerged when he found himself in court over unpaid debts. The judge found against him, and he was declared bankrupt.

All this pressure, and a wayward lifestyle began to take effect and sadly Marcus Clarke became ill and died quite suddenly in 1881. He was only 35.

His friends rallied to support his bereaved family. Shortly after his death a fund raising thespian football match was played, with combatants in full costume. In 1884 a Marcus Clarke Memorial Volume, containing a collection of his writing, was published.

Marcus Clarke’s life was perhaps best summed up by Hugh McCrae who wrote that he was:

… a most irresponsible friend… a kind of hop-o’-my-thumb, or adult fairy. A little man, he could magically lose himself whenever he wished, then reappear like a sparkle of light, passing between shadow and shine on a holiday morning. His companions loved him and he deserved their love. 17

Costume football match played by the theatrical community to raise money for Marcus Clarke's widow
The Dramatic Costume Football Match; IAN01/08/94/3

Further Reading

There are a number of excellent articles in the La Trobe Journal:

The Library also holds a range of items about the Yorick Club including The Yorick Club : its Origin and Development, May, 1868, to December, 1910 which is digitised

Our Library holds many editions of (For the Term of) His Natural Life. There are also digitised editions available. The original version serialised in the Australian Journal (March 1870 to June 1872) can be viewed online by registered Victorian State Library members.


  1. Glenorchy was the inspiration for the fictionalised ‘Bullock Town’
  2. Clarke, M, 1869, The Peripatetic Philosopher, George Robertson, Melbourne, Vic, pp vii-viii
  3. Port ArthurThe Argus 12 July 1873: 1
  4. Clarke names this man Mooney, the name he gives an old convict in His Natural Life in the grim chapter “The Longest Straw”
  5. Port Arthur The Argus 26 July 1873: 1 (Supplement).
  6. The serial and the novel drew on real events. See Robson, L L,1963, The Historical Basis of For the Term of His Natural Life, Australian Literary Studies, vol 1, no 2, accessed 21 December 2023
  7. A similar fate met the real John Price who had been a much hated commandant of Norfolk Island and was murdered by a work gang of convicts at Williamstown in 1857.
  8. ‘New novels,’ Graphic, 6 November 1875
  9. Elliott, B, 2006, ‘Clarke, Marcus Andrew (1846–1881)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, accessed 21 December 2022
  10. Now State Library Victoria
  11. Armstrong, E L T, 1906, The Book of the Public Library, Museums, and National Gallery of Victoria : 1856-1906, Trustees of the Public Library, Museums, and National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Vic, pp 119-120. Armstrong, who went on to be our longest serving Chief Librarian (1896-1925), joined the Library a few months after Clarke’s death but worked with many who knew Clarke well.
  12. As above
  13. McCrae, H, 1935, My Father, and My Father’s Friends, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, NSW, p 47
  14. Burt, Sandra, 2001, ‘Library Profile Marcus Clarke at the Public Library,’ La Trobe Journal, State Library of Victoria Foundation, Melbourne, Vic, No 67, p 57, accessed 22 December 2022
  15. Clarke, M., 1880, Civilization Without Delusion : With a Preface, Melbourne: F.F. Bailliere. Clarke published both his articles and the Bishop’s response after the Melbourne Review withdrew issues containing his response.
  16. For a detailed account of this controversy see Kelly, Veronica, 1983, ‘The Banning of Marcus Clarke’s ‘The Happy Land’: Stage, Press and Parliament‘, Australasian Drama Studies vol 2, issue 1, p 71-111
  17. McCrae, H, 1935, My Father, and My Father’s Friends, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, NSW, p 47

This article has 5 comments

  1. Margaret Rees-Jones

    Fascinating paper; my great grandmother was a Clarke from Northern Ireland. The family spread, one was a doctor in the Royal Navy, travelling to China. Another 2nd Governor of West Australia (had been in the W. Indies), Andrew (surveyor general in Melbourne), James (judge in Ararat) and Marcus. My English grandmother wrote a comprehensive memoir of her childhood- especially N.Ireland, my mother stayed with the family in N.I. in 1937, I visited in 1960 and again quite recently. It’s a familiar family story – landed gentry/upper middle class where members travelled for adventure, for professional or financial reasons.

  2. This read was wonderful! thank you for sharing That period in our history is truly heartbreaking, on many levels.

  3. I seldom click on articles and even less often read them to the end. However, Andrew’s piece was beautifully penned, offering a profound insight into a tragically short-lived yet captivating individual.

  4. Thank you Andrew, this was such a great read! I had no idea there was such a connection between the Library and Marcus Clarke. Love his entreaty to friends to come rescue him from the desk, and the inspired use of statues for messages.

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