They might have been dispossessed, down on their luck
or disillusioned with life but out on the wallaby track they were kings of the
They were the swagmen of Australia, travelling,
tramping and taking their chances in a harsh land battered by a brutal climate
with capricious rural industries determining their futures.
Despite their romanticised backdrop – the magnificent
landscape of the Australian bush – the swagman’s image has nevertheless been
tarnished by being the subject of our national song, ‘Waltzing Matilda’, thanks
to Banjo Paterson, which portrays him as a thief (stealing a jumbuck) and a
coward (leaping to his death in a billabong to escape the law).
Which is rather a pity, because the vast majority of
Australian swagmen were neither thieves nor cowards. Nor were they lazy idlers,
as erroneous comparisons with the tramp of England or the hobo of America have
Instead, they were honest toilers tramping Australia
looking for work or survival handouts as fortunes fluctuated, hard times came
and went, and Australia became a proud nation.
Essentially, they were their own men (women did take to
the track sporadically but their numbers were few) and it was this intrinsic
independence that has characterised their romantic appeal. Who today wouldn’t
relish the freedom of the life they, at best, enjoyed or, at worst, endured?
And of course, not all did savour the existence. It
took a special breed to hump a bluey on the wallaby track year in, year out. It
is these swagmen who, in the main, are the subjects, the characters, of the
Now if Banjo Paterson skewed the image of the swagman
(which is not to denigrate the great poet; many of his lesser-known works
portrayed the swagman realistically and positively) then our greatest writer of
literature and verse, Henry Lawson, set it to rights.
Lawson had great affinity for swagmen – not
surprisingly since he carried his swag in a seminal part of his writing life. In
fact, he recorded that his greatest inspiration came while on the wallaby track.
So excerpts – mostly couplets – from his works precede
a number of the following stories. No-one captured the milieu of the swagman
like Henry Lawson.
These stories are fiction. Characters mentioned in the
stories, if real, are used fictitiously without any intent to describe actual
conduct. But similar adventures to those depicted would have befallen hundreds
of swagmen. I hope you enjoy the stories and that they evoke an admiration for a
glorious by-gone era that was uniquely Australian.
So it had come to this. Lost, alone, badly injured and,
he knew, about to sink into one of those depressive moods that had become more
and more frequent in recent months.
He sat disconsolately on a log beside his swag, not
moving a muscle for what must have been an hour or two. He’d started doodling in
the sandy soil beside the swag for a few minutes but it, like everything else,
all seemed so pointless. So he just sat and stared. And, as always at times like
this, he couldn’t stop his thoughts reverting to the better days.
Then, he had been the young blade who could do it all –
out-ride them, out-shear them, out-drink them. Which he had. And with his fame
as a rider, a shearer and a drinker had come the good things the best in the
bush deserve: the money, the good times, and the women. Always the women.
Oh sure, he had used them if bedding them with their
(mostly) eager consent was using them. And yes, he had fallen for a couple of
them but they had taken him down. About this he was bitter but it hadn’t
mattered. There was plenty more of the money, the good times and the women to
Deep down, he had also known that the good times
couldn’t last, that he would be old one day, so he had even been smart enough to
prepare for that. He had saved some money and put a down-payment on a property –
small, but he would expand it by buying neighbouring spreads in the years ahead,
just as he had seen successful selectors do.
Only he hadn’t reckoned on the worst drought of the
century and he had neither the accumulated funds nor the collateral with the
bank to survive. Of course, they didn’t need drovers or shearers, no matter how
good they were, when the drought had decimated the cattle and sheep numbers.
So he had drunk the last of his beer stocks, locked the
gate on his meagre acreage and gone on the wallaby. And why not? He had nothing
at all to lose.
For a while it was, as they say, a living. He carried
his swag and was still fit enough to tramp long distances to get to perhaps two
and three spreads in a day. Although the squatters and their foremen were doing
it hard, most of them kept up the tradition of looking after the swaggies by
giving them some menial work such as chopping wood and rewarding them with a
place to sleep if the weather was bad (shearers’ quarters usually) and some
rations from the kitchen.
It could have been worse, much worse, and he lived for
the day when the rains came and the good seasons returned and he could tramp
back to his spread, renegotiate with the bank and start again. But he knew it
would have to be soon: as time went by he began sinking into mild states of
depression. Always seem to be down on my luck, he habitually thought.
And then came the beating…
Violence never was and never would be part of the
swaggie code. They were, after all, something of a brotherhood. And alcohol –
the greatest catalyst the world has invented to engender violence – was usually
scarce due to lack of money. But swagmen were only human. There were few of
society’s checks and balances out in the bush and emotions could be raw.
So it was when he met up with Max O’Connor on the
wallaby track one late mid-summer afternoon, which was in fact New Year’s Eve
1899. He had been fortunate in securing two days’ work at old Jack Evans’
spread. Evans had wanted the area around the grand farmhouse tidied up because
guests were coming to ring in not just the New Year but the new millennium.
He had done a good job and old Jack was so pleased he
gave him two bottles of French champagne from his stocks for the party as a
reward. ‘Guess you don’t see much of that out on the wallaby, son,’ Jack had