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Australian poet, Robert Adamson (1943-2022), was in a boys’ home and reform school as a child.

Robert Adamson grew up in Neutral Bay, Sydney, and often struggled in school due to undiagnosed dyslexia. He came to the attention of the authorities at the age of twelve after stealing a Magnificent Riflebird from Taronga Park Zoo. 

I was charged with stealing a bird-of-paradise, plus some lovebirds – budgerigars – and some canaries. And, so, I went to Children’s Court…I ended up in Gosford Boys’ Home Mt Penang Training School for Boys (ABC Education).

He subsequently stole a copier machine from the school so he could print and distribute a newsletter, and was held at the Albion Street Boys’ Shelter, then sentenced to Mount Penang Training School for Boys, a reform school. 

The assembly ground of Mount Penang was surrounded by long weatherboard huts, which were dormitories with wire grid windows. Behind them another road led to the lawns and gardens in front of the officers’ houses. Here in the mornings you’d find boys washing cars, mowing the lawns, or weeding the gardens along the drives. Inside the houses houseboys would be making the beds of their keepers or doing the breakfast washing up…The inmates here were all between ten and eighteen years of age, juvenile offenders and wards of the state (Adamson, 39).

From then, Adamson was in boys’ homes and prisons off and on for ten years. He says that what kept him going, especially when he was in solitary confinement, were memories of his nighttime visits to Taronga Park zoo and the visits to his grandfather, a commercial fisherman, on the Hawkesbury; his grandfather would teach the boy how to make fishing nets and how to “read the river“. 

While serving time in prison for theft, and inspired by the music of singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, Adamson became interested in poetry. A Jesuit priest gave him a poetry book by Gerald Manly Hopkins and Adamson was particularly influenced by Hopkins’ poems about birds.

Shortly after being released from prison, Adamson wandered into an art gallery where he became friends with prominent Australian artist Brett Whiteley.

He invited me to go around to his studio and read poems while he was painting. So, I used to do that. That went on for a long time. We became very close friends. The same with the poets. Like with David Malouf and Jim Tulip and the other poets… Then I joined the Poetry Society of Australia. Not too long after that, maybe eight months later, I became the president of the Poetry Society.

Adamson became editor of the Poetry Society of Australia’s magazine and taught creative writing classes. He later worked as a poetry editor for other publications and established several small publishing companies.

Robert Adamson has published several award-winning poetry collections. His autobiography, Inside Out, was published in March 2004 and he is the inaugural Chair in Poetry at the Centre for New Writing at the University of Technology Sydney. 

Robert Adamson died on 16 December 2022. The Minister for the Arts, Tony Burke, described him as “one of Australia’s greatest poets and publishers.”


Adamson, Robert. Wards of the State. An Autobiographical Novella. Angus & Roberston, 1992.

Burke, Tony. “Statement on death of Robert Adamson.” Media Release, The Hon Tony Burke MP.

“Metropolitan Boys’ Shelter (1911 – 1983).” Find & Connect, 2021. 

“Mount Penang Training School for Boys (1946 – 1987).” Find & Connect, 2021. 

“Robert Adamson.” Robert Adamson Dot Com. 

Tilley, Tom. “Interviews With 10 Australian Authors, Ch 4: Poetry with Robert Adamson.”  ABC Education, 12 Oct 2021.  

Image available here.