Australian Folklore Network
Australian Folklore Research Unit
Curtin University of Technology
FROM THE CONVENOR
NATIONAL AUSTRALIAN FOLKLORE CONFERENCE 2008
FEATURE ARTICLE– ‘The Creation of Waltzing Matilda’
Our first issue for 2008 brings news of the upcoming folklore conference as well as news of publications and a range of folklore activities and initiatives in Australia and abroad.
Continuing the tradition of publishing research articles on Australian folklore, we are very happy to feature Dennis O’Keeffe’s research on the origins of ‘Waltzing Matilda’. This work throws significant new light on the circumstances of the song’s composition and subsequent transmission and is an important contribution to the ongoing discussions on Australia’s unofficial national anthem. Dennis will also be presenting this research at the National Australian Folklore Conference at Easter.
Readers will also be aware of the recent death of one of our affiliates, pioneer Australian folklorist Ron Edwards, who passed away in early January. A brief appreciation of Ron’s legacy is included here, though fuller assessments of his work will no doubt appear in the future.
Ron Edwards made major contributions to the collection, research and publication of our folksong, folktale and craft traditions. As if that were not more than enough, he was also a noted illustrator of his own books as well as those of others, his distinctive style complementing the words and music with which they were matched
It is difficult to single out any one of Ron’s many works, but his Australian Folksong Index will continue to be the major research guide in the field. His works on the bush yarn are also an invaluable and almost unique documentation of what people actually said and of how they said it at a particular time and place. Any of Ron’s many published works, large or small, will repay careful reading.
In addition to his own writings, Ron was the most significant editor and publisher of Australian folklore that we have had. He published the work of other folklorists through the Folklore Occasional Papers series. He also founded and edited the periodicals Northern Folk, later National Folk, and the Australian Folklore Society Journal, published like most of Ron’s work through the famous Ram's Skull since 1984. All of these initiatives contain irreplaceably valuable fieldwork and research materials that would mostly not have been preserved without Ron’s efforts.
Ron’s passing is the latest sad loss from that generation of Australian folklorists who pioneered the serious collection and study of our folk traditions. He, like them, will be greatly missed by all those who try to follow in their footsteps.
An annual conference facilitated by the Australian Folklore Network, the National Library of Australia, the National Folk Festival and the Centre for Advanced Studies in Australia, Asia and the Pacific, Curtin University.
National Library of Australia. 9-5pm Thursday March 20
Building on the success of the last three Australian National Folklore Conferences, the Australian Folklore Network, the National Library of Australia and the National Folk Festival will again host a one-day conference immediately before the National Folk Festival.
This year’s speakers and topics are:
Gwenda Beed Davey and June Factor
Childhood, Tradition and Change
Cultural Threads: tradition and transition in Australian children's string figures.
Crossing the line: The need for a permanent home for Australian Railway History and Folklore.
Sing Us Anotheree, Dirty as Buggery
'Dog's Eye': The Language and Culture of the Pie
The Creation of Waltzing Matilda: Australia’s unofficial national anthem and international Australian icon.
Roast Pork the Jack Lang: Rhyming Slang in Australian Folk Speech
Two National Folk Festivals: Some Significant Differences, Some Significant Similarities, Some Significant Opportunities?
The conference also contains a number of related events and opportunities, including a lunchtime concert of children’s traditions produced by Rob and Olya Willis as well as the availability of new publications and recordings.
As in previous years the National Library of Australia will host the event, from 9am-5pm Thursday March 20.
The conference is free to attend and you can pre-register by email to firstname.lastname@example.org
Wednesday 19 March, 6pm, National Library of Australia
ON BOTH SIDES OF THE MICROPHONE
Peggy Seeger's knowledge and expertise of folklore began at home. She is singer and activist, Pete Seeger's half-sister; her mother, Ruth Crawford, was a composer and piano teacher; her father, Charles Seeger, was an ethnomusicologist and music administrator; her first life partner was the English songwriter Ewan MacColl, who wrote ‘First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’ for her and to whom she bore three children and with whom she recorded extensively, as collector and performer. She is known for her excellent renditions of Anglo-American folksongs and for her activist songwriting, especially in the fields of feminism and environmentalism. She spends a good portion of her year singing and lecturing throughout the United States, with one yearly tour of Great Britain and occasional tours of Australia. Peggy will also be performing at the National Folk Festival.
Gold coin donation. Bookings: (02) 6262 1271
For online information about folklore studies in New Zealand, subscribe or unsubscribe via the World Wide Web at http://lists.vuw.ac.nz/mailman/listinfo/nzfolklore
or, via email, send a message with subject or body 'help' to
Visit Warren Fahey's Australian Folklore Unit quarterly newsletter. The Newsletter includes news on new books, folklore research projects, site news, forthcoming concerts and events plus four newly recorded songs. Simply click the following: http://warrenfahey.com/newsletters.htm
Norah Wren at Ipswich Library trained Senior members of the community in the production of a "wiki" on which they were encouraged to provide their own stories. The web address is www.rememberwhen.pbwiki.com
Brian Dunnet and Mark Gregory are looking for expressions of interest” in drafting a website on Australian railway folklore and history to further develop existing initiatives such as “The Australian Railway Story –told through the eyes of songwriters, poets musicians and the odd storyteller” at http://railwaystory.com/
Mark Gregory has published his study of Australian union songs available at:
http://unionsong.com/union_songs.html or send a postal order for AUD $20.00 with details of name and address to:
PO Box 298
The Morning Star in UK has published a review of Mark Gregory’s thesis "Sixty Years of Australian Union Songs" by Karl Dallas at
Over the last one hundred years many people have alluded to Banjo Paterson’s love affair with Christina Macpherson at the time ‘Waltzing Matilda’ was written. But this was not the only factor in the creation of Australia’s unofficial national anthem, which was also a product of violent conflict during the 1894 shearers’ strike.
‘Waltzing Matilda’ has two clearly defined parts, a chorus and verses, equally encompassing two very different stories and emotions. Both parts of the song were a carefree response by Andrew Barton (Banjo) Paterson to much deeper, more complicated events surrounding his life at the time of writing.
The chorus is undoubtedly, quite simply, a love song, inspired by Paterson’s love affair with Christina Macpherson. Unfortunately for Banjo, his fiancée of eight years, Sarah Riley, Christina’s friend, was present in the house at the same time. This affair ended in humiliation and embarrassment for all involved, leading Paterson to distance himself from the writing of ‘Waltzing Matilda’, and anything connecting him to the song or to events at Dagworth station where the song was written.
The verses are drawn from specific events that occurred during the 1894 shearers’ strike. In fact, without a series of volatile and turbulent events occurring during that particular strike, ‘Waltzing Matilda’ would never have been written. This series of events culminated in the alleged suicide of Samuel Hoffmeister (the swagman) beside the four–mile billabong near Kynuna. But, did Hoffmeister shoot himself or was his death one of the biggest cover-ups in Australian history?
The original version of ‘Waltzing Matilda’ was written by Banjo Paterson to a tune played to him by Christina Macpherson in January 1895 at Dagworth station in Western Queensland. The tune Christina played was ‘The Craigielee March’ which was a variant of the Scottish song ‘Thou Bonnie Wood of Craigie-lea’.
The original air was re-arranged into ‘march time’ for the military bands of the day by Thomas Bulch (originally Bulshey) an Englishman, born in Shildon, Durham in 1860. His band was called ‘Bulch’s Model Band’ until about 1900, when he handed it over to the city of Ballarat. Regrettably, Bulch received little credit for his involvement in our national song. Even more regrettable was the treatment he received during World War One, when he opened his music shop in Sydney Road, Brunswick. The locals referred to it as ‘The German’s Music Shop’ and vandalised his store because he displayed and sold band music, mostly printed in Leipzig, Germany, before the war began. Two of his sons fought at Gallipoli for Australia, one being killed in France shortly before the shop was destroyed.
Christina Macpherson heard the tune played at the ‘Warrnambool Grand Annual Steeple Race’ meeting in April 1894. The official band for the day was the ‘Warrnambool Garrison Artillery Band’. ‘The Craigielee March’ was the designated march tune, printed on the official band-card for the race meeting.
The tune was popular in the local area and stayed in the repertoire of the Warrnambool Band for many years. The band often played on:
…a clear expanse of sand at the mouth of the Merri River … Public picnic parties are periodically organised on the weekly half-holiday – Thursday afternoon – and on these occasions hundreds of the residents and their families may be seen listening to the strains of the band and participating in the pleasures incidental to such enjoyable outdoor gatherings.
This explains what John Manifold referred to when he wrote that ‘older Warrnambool residents said that Banjo Paterson picked up the tune for Waltzing Matilda from the beach in Warrnambool’. This popularity in the Warrnambool area is further evident with the discovery in the Warrnambool Historical Society of a very old, beautifully hand-written complete score of ‘Thou Bonnie Wood of Craigie-lea’.
After the death of Christina’s mother during December of 1894, her father Ewan, wanting his family to be together for Christmas, took Christina and her sister Jean to Dagworth station in north-west Queensland. Christina’s brothers owned and ran Dagworth station, which only weeks before had assumed national significance when striking union shearers burned the shearing shed to the ground during a violent gun battle. The family was met at Winton by Bob Macpherson who was to accompany them to Dagworth, still a two-day trip away by horse and buggy. During the stop-over in Winton, Christina met an old school friend, Sarah Riley. Staying at Winton as a guest of the Rileys was Sarah’s fiancée of approximately eight years, a young Sydney solicitor, A.B. Paterson, who was soon to have his first book of poems published. Paterson and Sarah were invited to visit at Dagworth.
As on most outback stations, evenings were spent reading newspapers, playing cards or sitting on the veranda, chatting in the cool evening air. During one of these social evenings the young and attractive Christina Macpherson played on a zither (auto-harp) what she could remember of the tune ‘The Craigielee March’ she had heard at the Warrnambool race meeting only months earlier.
Whilst it has been said that Christina’s playing of the old Scottish song ‘awoke the Scot in Paterson’ prompting him to write ‘Waltzing Matilda’, he also took a liking to the young and attractive Christina Macpherson.
The first references to a relationship between Banjo and Christina appeared in The Story of Waltzing Matilda, published in 1944. Sydney May refers to ‘sad memories’: ‘Winton had sad memories of Paterson and he avoided discussing his stay in the district as much as he could…’ However, Clement Semmler was much closer to the mark in The Banjo of the Bush, when referring to ‘Waltzing Matilda’ he writes:
Vince Kelly has recalled that Paterson had a greater affection for this ballad than most of his others; others have mentioned that Winton and Dagworth had ‘sad memories for Paterson’. The reason, then, is surely simple. He did not marry Sarah Riley; he was a most handsome and eligible young man as we know, and my guess is that John Manifold is not wide of the mark when he suggests that a quarrel with Sarah over Christina Macpherson or vice versa, could have explained most of his reluctance to discuss the Dagworth days; the memory of it was better locked away, like ‘Waltzing Matilda’…
After a two-hour performance on the history of ‘Waltzing Matilda’ at the Port Fairy Folk Festival in May 1995, I was confronted by Sarah Riley’s grand-nephew. With trembling hands he grabbed me by the shoulders and pushed me back against the wall and said ‘The concert was fantastic! I sat through the whole two hours, but you said one thing wrong’. Bewildered, I inquired as to what that might have been, and he replied, ‘You said that Banjo Paterson broke off his engagement with Sarah Riley after they were at Dagworth station.’ to which I replied, ‘That’s right, he did break his engagement off with Sarah’. With my shoulders still pinned against the wall the man in front of me looked convincingly into my eyes and said, ‘Oh no, he did not break the engagement off; Sarah broke the engagement off with him!’ After telling me it was a long-held family secret, he gave me his business card and disappeared into the crowd.
At the time I was in regular contact with Richard Magoffin, who was regarded by many as the leading authority on the history of ‘Waltzing Matilda’. I related the story of Sarah Riley to him; he promptly dismissed it altogether telling me ‘not to get involved with the parlour talk’. My impression was that Richard, being such a staunch and loyal Paterson supporter, would not like to uncover or suggest anything which might tarnish Banjo’s reputation.
It was apparent to me this so called ‘parlour talk’warranted investigation.
I visited Christina Macpherson’s grand-niece, Dianna Baillieu, then eighty years of age, an extremely distinguished and eloquent woman. Although Dianna resided in a Toorak mansion, her matter of fact, no-nonsense way of talking was indicative of a woman from the land. Her son Ted, the current leader of the Victorian Liberal Party, commented on his mother’s early days on the land in Western Victoria, ‘resilience, a lot of self-sustenance, to this day she won’t turn the heater on. She’s a penny saver.’
Dianna knew her great-aunt Christina extremely well. There was no doubt in her mind as to what happened at Dagworth station in January 1895. She referred to Banjo’s ‘caddish behaviour’, and the Macpherson brothers telling him ‘never to darken their doorstep again’. You see, it really wasn’t ‘the done thing’ to talk about those sorts of affairs in her day, but the truth couldn’t hurt anyone now and besides, with all the confusion about the writing of the song, Dianna was adamant that people should know what really happened.
After Dianna’s mother was widowed in the First World War she returned from England and went to live at Mennigort in the western district of Victoria. Christina lived in Avoca Street, South Yarra and was ‘pretty hard up, but not penniless by any means’. Before Christina died in 1936, she ‘used to frequently get on the Camperdown train and about once a month come up to Camperdown and be met in the jinker’.
Christina and Dianna developed a unique relationship, Dianna as an only child on a large property which had inherited ‘stacks of ghastly racing debts’ and Christina a lonely great-aunt visiting from the city. Dianna recalled:
…so Aunt Chris used to come up. I loved her she was good fun, she got a bit vague in the later years of her life, she used to sort of forget where she put her umbrella and things like that. I knew Aunt Chris very well, and an Aunt that comes up and plays the piano, and who is quite a jolly lady, is a great pleasure to a single child, as I was.
Dianna explained how, like most young children, she got bored with family history. Dagworth and ‘Waltzing Matilda’ were just one of those family things that used to get chatted about, around the table. ‘It was just part of the family history; the broken romance with Sarah and the fact that it was over him making passes at Chris’.
Although no letters between Christina and Banjo have been unearthed, Dianna was quite sure there was ‘correspondence between Aunt Chris and Paterson after the “bust up”, when the brothers told him to “get lost”! They didn’t want to see him again because he was a “cad” and a “rotter” and all of that!’The belief that Banjo and Christina wrote to each other was also supported by Dianna’s relative ‘old Leslie Mcpherson’, who is reported to have said:
We understand there was correspondence between them after he was chucked out. But it’s still sad because she was mad about him, he must have been an attractive sort of bloke.
Dianna went on to say she honestly believed Christina never got over her affection for Banjo and what happened at Dagworth station. He was the only real love of her life. Christina never married afterwards and as Dianna said:
…it was very much a class society and a very small social society, where everybody knew each other, even though there was great distances, gossip would go around. It simply wasn’t the thing to break off engagements and it certainly wasn’t the done thing to get off with your fiancée’s best friend. Things were serious then, that these days you wouldn’t blink an eyelid at.
After speaking to Dianna, I decided to contact Sarah Riley’s grand-nephew. Ironically he had also recently spoken with Dianna. Although he was prepared to speak freely about what had happened, I could sense he felt uncomfortable about revealing secrets which for so long had remained within the family. He overwhelmingly agreed with what Dianna had to say about Paterson and went on to say that his great-aunt Vivienne Riley (who had met Christiana Macpherson) was adamant that Sarah had broken off her engagement with Paterson, not vice versa. He then revealed that it was part of the Riley family’s oral history that when Paterson wrote ‘an incident occurred at Dagworth which I prefer not to remember’, he was referring to Sarah breaking off their engagement.
Sarah Ann Riley was born in 1863, the second daughter of James Riley, of Geelong. Sarah came from a very distinguished background, a family regarded highly in social circles. Banjo was a solicitor and in partnership with John Street, Sarah’s cousin. Paterson’s engagement, and this partnership, took him into the network of friendships destined to make legal history in New South Wales. However, Banjo’s grandmother, who referred to him as ‘Bartie’, often wondered whether he may have been out of his depth and she wrote, ‘Bartie’s fiancée Sara Riley has been staying with us, and does credit to his taste, she is an exceptionally nice girl, well connected and educated. I sometimes wonder that she should not have looked higher…’
Banjo had been engaged to the thirty-two-year-old Sarah Riley for eight years. Maybe this suggests he was never going to marry her. Maybe the secure lifestyle, partnership in a famous legal firm and idea of marrying into a distinguished family was wearing thin for the now famous poet on the threshold of publishing his first book.
If his love for Sarah was fading, it certainly wasn’t the case in 1891 when he wrote ‘As Long As Your Eyes are Blue’, a love which Sarah surely returned:
Oh, I love you, sweet, for your locks of brown,
And the blush on your cheek that lies –
But I love you most for the kindly heart,
That I see in your sweet blue eyes –
For the eyes are signs of the soul within,
Of the heart that is leal and true,
And mine own sweetheart, I shall love you still,
Just as long as your eyes are blue.
The extent of the affair between Banjo Paterson and Christina Macpherson is something no-one will ever know. What we can be sure of is, whatever happened was enough for Sarah to dump her famous fiancée. The humiliation and shame of the affair forced her to leave Australia for London to wear her ‘sackcloth and ashes’. Like Christina, Sarah remained broken-hearted and never married.
So; what has this to do with the song?
The phrase ‘Waltzing Matilda’ is derived from two German words. ‘Waltzing’, comes from the term ‘auf der walz’ meaning ‘to go on the walz’ or ‘on the tramp’. The expression refers to the custom where apprentices in various trades or crafts travelled around the country, or outside Germany gaining experience and new techniques for their trade. Upon the completion of their allotted time being ‘auf der walz,’ apprentices could return to their village as qualified tradesmen.
‘Matilda’ is from Teutonic origin, meaning ‘Mighty Battle Maiden’. During the sixteenth century, thirty-year European war, ‘Matilda’ was the name given to the females who followed the soldiers (camp followers) ‘keeping them warm’ at night. So the word was then transferred to the grey army coats the soldiers wore or carried with them, thus ‘Matilda’ was the name given to the ‘swag’ or ‘blanket’ that was carried, usually over the shoulder, to keep itinerant workers (swagmen) warm at night.
So in Australia the term ‘Waltzing Matilda’ basically means ‘to go walkabout looking for a job, with whatever keeps you warm at night’.
The original lyrics Banjo wrote for the chorus of his song were:
Who”ll come a Waltzing Matilda my darling,
Who’ll come a Waltzing Matilda with me.
Waltzing Matilda, leading a water-bag,
Who’ll come a Waltzing Matilda with me.
However, now that we understand the meaning of the phrase ‘Waltzing Matilda’ it is now clear what he was referring to when he wrote the song.
Who’ll come ‘walkabout and keep me warm at night’ my darling,
Who’ll come ‘walkabout and keep me warm at night’ with me.
‘walkabout and keep me warm at night’, leading a water-bag,
Who’ll come ‘walkabout and keep me warm at night’ with me.
Undoubtedly a romantic call from the heart – a love song, and Banjo knew exactly what he was referring to when he wrote ‘Waltzing Matilda’. This is further explained from his own original hand-written manuscript, where in the last line of the first verse he wrote:
Who’ll come a-roving Australia with me.
‘Roving Australia’ was then firmly scratched out and replaced with ‘Waltzing Matilda’. Anyone who tries singing the song with ‘Roving Australia’ replacing ‘Waltzing Matilda’ will recognise just how beautifully the phrase ‘Waltzing Matilda’ suits the song. Regardless, this leaves little doubt about what Banjo was trying to express to Christina Macpherson:
Who’ll come a-roving Australia my darling,
Who’ll come a-roving Australia with me.
a-roving Australia, leading a water-bag,
Who’ll come a-roving Australia with me.
Alas, Banjo was never to go a-roving Australia with Christina, but he did write her a song.
The verses of ‘Waltzing Matilda’ were created from a completely different set of events. The swagman ‘camped in the billabong’immortalised in Paterson’s folk song wasunion shearer Samuel Hoffmeister, whose body was found beside the four-mile billabong on 2 September 1894. On the previous night, Hoffmeister and a gang of union shearers attacked and burnt down the Dagworth shearing shed in a violent gun battle with more than forty shots being fired. Paterson himself said that ‘The shearers staged a strike by way of expressing themselves, and Macpherson’s woolshed at Dagworth was burnt down and a man picked up dead’. Hoffmeister, thought to be of German origin, had the nickname of ‘Frenchy’, and was probably from the Alsace-Lorraine region in France, which was taken over in the early 1870s by Germany. There is even a possibility that, like many other French/Germans, Hoffmeister had left Europe to escape the conflict and was, in a sense, ‘auf der walz’ in Australia.
The now famous squatter ‘mounted on his thoroughbred’ was Robert (Bob) Macpherson, the owner of Dagworth station, who had intended to commence shearing with non-union labor, provoking the unionists to burn his shearing shed to the ground. Banjo Paterson arrived at Dagworth station just a few months later and wrote ‘Waltzing Matilda’, giving both the swagman and the squatter their permanent place in Australian history.
Whilst the burning down of the shed and the death of Hoffmeister were incidents which prompted Paterson to write ‘Waltzing Matilda’, he did not simply stumble on an isolated incident on a remote little billabong in western Queensland.
Banjo Paterson was living in Sydney during 1894 and like many other people in capital cities along the east coast of Australia would have thought the shearers’ strike in the back-country was verging on civil war. Thousands of shearers went on strike and formed large strike camps at rail heads and river ports throughout western New South Wales and western Queensland. During the weeks preceding the incident at Dagworth station, Sydney newspapers were awash with headlines of violence and arson occurring daily in the back country. The strike reached boiling point when events like the burning of the Paddle Steamer Rodney, the shooting of union shearer Billy McLean, burning of the Dagworth shearing shed and the death of unionist Samuel Hoffmeister, amongst numerous other violent occurrences, attracted national attention in city newspapers. It is difficult in our modern world of ‘processed’ communications to understand just how imaginations and emotions throughout the colonies were so stirred by this series of local events. The union shearers were resolved to gain better conditions and a foothold in parliament, whilst the pastoralists (squatters) were determined to maintain profits in the face of falling overseas wool prices and prolonged drought.
Several days before the Dagworth shed was torched, a series of events took place in western New South Wales, which when analysed, give a comprehensive account of the escalating nature of the conflict and the utter determination of the union shearers to uphold their position. These examples of people and events portray the level of violence that idealists within the working movement were prepared to carry out. There can be no doubt, when Banjo Paterson arrived at Dagworth station during January of 1895, the volatile events of the 1894 shearers’ strike were still firmly in his mind.
The first of these events to make headlines in the Sydney Morning Herald was the burning of the Paddle Steamer Rodney on the Darling River on 26 August 1894, the only act of ‘inland piracy’ recorded in Australia’s history. Paddle steamers were used to ferry non-unionists to the shearing sheds. Troops (police) were also ferried to areas of conflict via the river systems. When the Rodney embarked from Echuca with its cargo of fifty non-unionists under police protection, union shearers lined the banks of the Murray River and heckled the ‘scab’ shearers. Almost daily, reports came from Swan Hill, Mildura and Wentworth, as striking shearers hindered the Rodney’s progress along the Murray River and into the Darling, with its human cargo of non-unionists for the sheds. The ultimate destination of the Rodney was Tolarno station on the Darling river above Pooncarrie, where more than four hundred striking shearers had gathered, blocking all access to the station. This potentially explosive situation escalated when reports came through from Mennindee of a boat load of special Sydney police being transported down the Darling from the north to arrest the unionists at Tolarno at the same time as the Rodney was approaching Tolarno from the south.
Knowing that anyone convicted of burning a paddle steamer would be facing a jail term of between three and thirteen years, the unionists moved quickly to intercept the Rodney before the boat load of police arrived from the north.
Joe Cummings, along with other leading unionists, called the four hundred men to assemble. After a short speech by Joe, every man in the strike camp swore a secret oath never to reveal what was about to happen. History now tells us that every man kept his word. Pieces of paper were drawn from an empty kerosene tin by each striker in the camp. Six of the tickets would bear a note stating that the drawer was to meet after nightfall at a place indicated on the ticket. All other unionists not selected, including Robert Cameron, were to leave the district as quickly as possible. Those selected were not to speak to anyone, for risk of being identified. They were to go down-river, where at a certain bend, they would find a steel cable. They were to tie it across the river at an oblique angle just below the water-line. When the bow of the Rodney hit the submerged cable, it would quickly slew into the side of the river, be doused with kerosene and set on fire.
Upon hearing that the unionists had strung several miles of fencing wire in an attempt to snag the Rodney, the owners of Tolarno station sent their son on horseback down along the banks of the Darling to warn Captain Dickson. Dickson pulled the Rodney into a billabong, tying up with four guards posted and full steam up. He planned to wait overnight and continue early next morning in conditions offering greater safety.
At about four o’clock next morning, a small group of union men paddled out to the Rodney and climbed aboard. They had muffled the oars of the small rowing boat, raddled their faces and turned their clothing inside-out, covering their hair and faces with mud so were absolutely unrecognisable. After a fight, they allowed the crew to leave the boat and row to safety. The scabs were left marooned on an island in the middle of the river. The unionists then proceeded to pour kerosene over the decks and in the hold of the Rodney and burnt it to the water line before it slowly sank into the shallows.
While the Rodney was burning, shearers from nearby Polia Station gathered on the bank and gave three cheers for the arsonists. One shearer annexed an accordionand played, ‘After the Ball is Over’. Ironically, this was the official waltz tune played at the Warrnambool races the same day Christina heard ‘The Craigielee March’.
The burning of the steamer was followed by an outcry against lawlessness. Pastoralists talked of hanging the fire-bugs for piracy; at least one metropolitan newspaper advised the squatters to take up weapons. The New South Wales Government offered a reward for information that would lead to the conviction of the ringleaders. Property owners and ships’ captains armed themselves.
On the same day, further up the Darling River at Grassmere station near Wilcannia, shearing was about to commence with non-union labor. Because of the burning of the Rodney earlier in the morning police were on hand to protect the free labourers. A group of union shearers went to interview the non-unionists. The first two men to enter the shed were Billy McLean and John Murphy. Without a word of warning, both men were shot and seriously wounded. McLean and Murphy were arrested, charged with ‘unlawful assembly’ and sentenced to three years imprisonment in Goulburn jail. During the trial, the non-unionist who shot them (Baker) was commended for his action by Justice Stephen. He was given seventy pounds and awarded a medal ‘The Abbot Cross’ by the President of the Pastoralists Association. Before McLean finished his sentence he developed tuberculosis from the bullet wound in his lung. He was released from jail and died a few weeks later. He is buried at Tower Hill cemetery in south-west Victoria.
With the eyes of the nation already focused on the violent confrontation between the landowners and the unionists in the back country, further tension mounted when only a week after the burning of the Rodney the following headline appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on Tuesday 4 September 1894:
SERIOUS AFFRAY IN QUEENSLAND
ATTACK ON WOOLSHED
FORTY SHOTS FIRED
DEATH OF A UNIONIST
Affairs in the West have taken a serious turn. So serious, in fact, as to justify the statement recently made in the House by the Colonial Secretary that the strike had developed into an insurrection. At 8 o’clock on Sunday night Mr. Tozer, the Colonial Secretary, received a telegram from Winton stating that Dagworth shed had been burnt down by about 16 armed men, and that 40 shots had been fired…
This incident would eventually thrust Bob Macpherson (the squatter) and Samuel Hoffmeister (the swagman) onto the national stage. Who would have known back then, that these two men would be in the national psyche over one hundred years later?
Bob Macpherson intended to commence shearing on 15 August under the 1894 agreement, but not one unionist signed, so he decided to shear with non-union labour. Bob had employed armed guards to protect his shed for five weeks before it was burnt to the ground. Six sheds had already been destroyed in the district, the last at Manuka station only four days earlier. Those owners had also intended to shear with non-union labour.
On the night of 2 September, Bob Macpherson, with twenty men, guarded the shed. At about 12.30 a.m., under cover of darkness, the unionists crept to within fifty yards of the shed and opened fire. Macpherson and his men returned fire. During the gun battle one of the attacking unionists called out, ‘Hold your hands up you bastards or die’. More than forty shots were fired. Within minutes, the shed was alight. When the shed was beyond saving, the unionists retreated to their horses, and followed the Diamantina river-bed back to camp. The shearing shed was completely destroyed, including one hundred and forty lambs penned inside for shearing to commence.
At first light Macpherson and Constable Daly attempted to track the raiders. Although the rain was sufficient to obliterate all tracks, they were able to ascertain that the unionists had traveled upstream towards Kynuna. They had left several property gates open. Macpherson and Daly then rode twenty miles into Kynuna to enlist the aid of Constables Austin Cafferty and Robert Dyer who were stationed there. Some interesting news awaited them – union shearer Samuel Hoffmeister had committed suicide by the waterhole four miles from Kynuna.
So, Bob Macpherson (the squatter) and three policemen rode out to the billabong to inspect the body of Samuel Hoffmeister (the swagman). Within days an inquest was conducted into the death of Hoffmeister which resulted in a verdict of suicide.
According to Constable Daly:
He [Hoffmeister] had a Martini sporting rifle with him and 68 rounds of ammunition. The rifle appeared to be recently used. He also had 29 exploded rifle cartridges, a revolver and 21 cartridges. I found a similar exploded cartridge case at the place where the men were firing on the shed... Hoffmeister was a unionist shearer and had his union tickets on his body which was found in a unionist camp.
Although evidence clearly implicated Hoffmeister and the other men in the union camp with the burning of the Dagworth shed, none of the other unionists were charged with any offences. Considering the criminal nature of the gun fight and arson, this is very surprising. Only days before, the cabinet in Queensland approved a one thousand pound reward for anyone with information which would convict persons involved with burning down a shearing shed. During the same period many unionists were sent to jail for far less serious crimes, including Jim (Shearblade) Martin who was sentenced to 15 years hard labour for his involvement in burning down the Ayrshire Downs woolshed on 3 July.
Even more puzzling is the evidence given to Magistrate Ernest Eglinton by the unionists in the camp with Hoffmeister, who had been shot through the back of his throat. There were a number of substantial and important contradictions in the evidence and a much more searching inquiry was required before any finding as to the cause of death of the deceased could be arrived at. There was confusion over who owned the revolver and the position of the revolver. Confusion about where Hoffmeister had supposedly slept the night before. Police Constable Austin Cafferty stated he had found fresh blood on the body, but it is difficult to imagine why there would be fresh blood, given the time it would have taken for Constable Cafferty to have ridden out from Kynuna with the other police and Bob Macpherson. Also, there was no known motive for Hoffmeister to commit suicide. Trevor Monti, a barrister commenting on the case in 2007, states:
It is patently obvious that very little inquiry was conducted by Senior Constable Cafferty into the death of Hoffmeister and nor was he cross-examined, as it is highly likely that he was Counsel assisting the coroner. It is patently clear that the death of the deceased did not occur by accident. In my opinion there were far too many unexplained events surrounding the death of the deceased to enable any finding at all to be made by the Coroner, let alone a specific finding of suicide.
So if Hoffmeister (the swagman) didn’t shoot himself, then the question must be asked – Who did and why? Was Hoffmeister shot by the squatter or one of the three policemen?
There is strong evidence to suggest that an organised gang, known as the Tierney/Hoffmeister gang, was roaming the country, setting fire to shearing sheds. Hoffmeister’s death would have been a blow to the union’s chances of winning the strike, leaving only Tierney to lead the fire gang. But his death would certainly have been a major plus for the pastoralists, who were under extreme pressure to end the strike. Summer was approaching and the sheep were heavy with wool. Some members of the Pastoralists’ Union were losing their determination and caving into the Shearers’ Union. Gripped with fear, some property owners burnt their own shearing sheds, suggesting the unionists were causing more trouble, swaying public opinion and forcing the Government to send more troops. Station owners then claimed insurance on their burnt out sheds.
Hoffmeister had no known motive to kill himself, a fact reported in the Sydney Morning Herald on 12 September. However, as explained, Bob Macpherson (the squatter) and the police certainly had the strongest motive of all – to break the strike.
Is it possible that in the middle of remote western Queensland a deal was done? Did the unionists possibly gain their freedom by agreeing to make up a story about Hoffmeister’s death? This would explain why the other unionists in the camp were not arrested and sent to jail. Was the death of our now famous swagman a cover up by the Queensland police?
To further strengthen this theory, a few days later on 1 October 1894, the other leader of the fire gang, Tierney, was brought before the bench in Winton for being one of the leaders of the raiding party at Dagworth. He was charged with arson and intent to murder. Police had gathered evidence against Tierney and his voice had been recognised at Dagworth by Macpherson. Surprisingly, he was discharged when police decided not to offer any evidence, and rather mysteriously Bob Macpherson claimed he was now unable to recognize Tierney’s voice.
Interestingly enough, the burning of Dagworth was to be the last serious incident of the 1894 shearer’s strike. The strike fizzled out and the unionists gradually went back to work.
This is the world in which Banjo Paterson found himself. He had been in Sydney reading about events in the back country, a violent social/political war which had lasted for months. Even his good friend Henry Lawson was directly involved, editing the news coming from the strike camps in the interior for The Worker. There was even a suggestion that Lawson himself had been involved in the organised plot to burn the Paddle Steamer Rodney.
Paterson could not have escaped being affected by the public unfolding of conflict between the land owners and the workers in outback Australia.
Then he finds himself at Dagworth station, where the shearing shed was burnt down in a violent gun battle, one hundred and forty sheep were burnt to death, a swagman was found dead by a billabong by the squatter and three policemen, and a possible cover up of the swagman’s death by verdict of suicide.
There and then, he writes a song about a dead sheep, a swagman, a squatter, three policemen and an unexplained suicide. Surely it is not too much to think Paterson, the poet, solicitor and social commentator, used these events to write the verses of ‘Waltzing Matilda’. It’s absurd to think anything else.
And at Dagworth station, amidst this turmoil of one of Australia’s most volatile socio-political confrontations, Banjo Paterson fell in love with the young and attractive Christina Macpherson, a woman he could not have. She played for him a ‘catchy provocative whimsical tune’, arousing his creative senses.
And … Australia’s unofficial national anthem was conceived. ‘Waltzing Matilda’!
And his ghost may be heard.
Sydney May, The Story of Waltzing Matilda, Smith & Paterson Pty Ltd, Brisbane, 1944, p. 14.
Letter from Greg Brown to Dennis O’Keeffe, 8 Dec. 1998. Greg Brown is the great-great-great-grandson of Thomas Bulch. It was his great-grandfather who was killed in France during WW1. (Author’s collection).
Mike Cummings, (son of Joseph Cummings), Letter to Dennis O’Keeffe, 6 August 1995. (Author’s collection) Joseph Cummings was the father of Thelma Williams, the first wife of R.M. Williams AO CMG (Australia’s most famous boot maker). He was a gun shearer, neither smoked nor drank, loved writing poetry, possessed an excellent singing voice, was a very good athlete and fought in both the Boer War and World War I.
The Hon. Clyde R. Cameron, AO, Letter to Dennis O’Keeffe, 25 May, 1995. (Author’s collection) Robert Cameron was the father of the Hon. Clyde R. Cameron AO. Not being selected as one of the six to burn the Rodney was his lifelong regret. His commitment as a unionist was justified in later years when each of his four sons held office in the AWU, the union he had joined in 1887.