Clarence (Clarrie or Den) Michael James Stanislaus Dennis was born in Auburn, South Australia on September 7, 1876, to James Dennis and his second wife Catherine (Kate) Tobin.
For reasons that are unclear, though which are probably due to the boy’s and the mother’s ill-health and frailty, Dennis was looked after in his early years by his mother’s aunts who lived nearby. In 1883, James Dennis took up the lease on a hotel in Gladstone in South Australia’s mid-North and, a couple of years later, moved again, this time seven miles further north to the township of Laura, and the Beetaloo Hotel.
Dennis’s mother died in 1890 leaving his father with 3 sons and a hotel to look after. This was never going to work successfully so two of Kate’s unmarried sisters left their home in Mintaro (in the Clare Valley) and moved to Laura to help with the children’s upbringing.
For some time in his teens Dennis attended the Christian Brothers’ College in Adelaide but had returned to Laura by the age of 17. At that time he took a job as a clerk to a local solicitor, and it was during this period that he published his first poem, when 19, titled “The Singular Experiences of Six Sturdy Sportsmen” – which concerned the exploits of Dennis and a group of his mates when lost in the Beetaloo Hills just outside Laura.
The verse was published in the local Laura newspaper The Laura Standard. Some time later he worked on the staff of the Critic, an Adelaide weekly newspaper. By the age of 21 he was back in Laura working as a barman in his father’s hotel, and a year or so later left Laura for Broken Hill in New South Wales.
In the early 1900s he was back in Adelaide and back on the staff of the Critic, finally ending up as the journal’s editor. In 1905 he started a threepenny weekly newspaper with A.E. Martin called the Gadfly, which was to have a life-span of about three years.
About 18 months into that time, however, Dennis left the paper and Adelaide and headed to Melbourne. He kept himself employed (though not very well) as a freelance journalist in Melbourne, until he came under the influence of the artist Hal Waugh who took him off to a camp he had established in the Dandenong Ranges about 40 miles east of Melbourne at a place called Toolangi. Dennis was to remain here or in this vicinity for the bulk of the rest of his life.
Over the next five years Dennis published a series of poems in various publications (such as The Bulletin) which would later be collected in his first book, Backblock Ballads and Other Verses, published in 1913.
Although the book received favourable reviews, it did not sell very well and Dennis decided to try his luck in Sydney where he joined the staff of the union journal, The Call: The Ha’penny Daily. Again this sojourn did not last very long and he returned to Melbourne where he took up employment in the Public Service.
Scene from the Raymond Longford film “The Sentimental Bloke.”
It was shortly after he left Sydney that he wrote to Angus and Robertson, the Sydney-based publisher, with his ideas for a book entitled The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke, based on several of the pieces in his first book.
After a series of misunderstandings between Dennis and George Robertson of the publishers, the book was published in mid-October 1915. By 5 November 1915 the first edition of 2,480 copies (of which 2,166 were for sale) was sold out. A second edition of 5,000 copies in November also rapidly sold out, as did a third published on 3 December 1915.
After nine months the book had sold approximately 51,000 copies. Later this grew to 66,148 copies of the book sold in Australia and New Zealand alone and did not include the totals for any copies of the editions published in Britain, Canada or the USA.
The Bloke struck a nerve with Australian audiences and by September 1916 they had been dramatised for the stage, were performed in Sydney and Melbourne and were probably as popular as it was possible to be at that time.