Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Australian Life - the decline of the swagman

Perhaps Australia's best know song begins "Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong". The idea of the swagman was deeply embedded in Australian mythology. In very simple terms, the term swagman emerged during the 1850s Australian gold rushes and referred to an itinerant bush worker who walked from place to place looking for work. Or, in the case of prospectors, the next strike.

A swagman was not the same as the tramp, a much more derogatory word, although some were tramps and some were thieves. It was just a way of life, of travel between work when there were no cars or trains or, indeed, bicycles. No, bicycles is not a misprint. Once invented, they became a major form of transport in country Australia. Frederick McCubbin on the wallaby track

This 1896 painting by the Australian painter Frederick McCubbin is called simply On the Wallaby Track. It shows a family on the move. Dad is trying to boil the billy, while Mum sits exhausted.

The term on the Wallaby Track apparently first appeared in 1849. It appears to be based on the tracks that Wallabies created by hopping through the Australian bush moving towards food or water. It came to mean the track followed by people on the move.

From time to time, I have felt that it would be interesting to go onto the Wallaby Track, to see the country as swagmen once saw it. And, in case you wonder, I can walk long distances; I can survive in the bush to some degree, although I know that life might be unpleasant in cold or wet weather; I know how to build a camp, to create a proper fire, to boil a billy, to cook damper.

I would make some concessions to modernity. I would want to carry a camera and my writing logs. That means waterproofing, and probably requires a pack instead of the rolled-up blanket or swag.

Why don't I do it then? Well, apart from work issues, I'm not sure that it's possible anymore. Even forty years ago you could stop by a creek on the side of the road. light a fire and create a camp. You could tramp through the bush and create a camp there. Today, it's all rule bound. I would probably be arrested for breaking one law or another. Instead of just going, my trek I would require detailed investigation in advance, and that defeats the point.

Today, the term swagman has been replaced by tramp or homeless. I think that's a pity.              


Anonymous said...

Hi Jim

I remember as a boy in the late '50's regularly stopping near a gypsy encampment at Bringelly, on our way from Lithgow to Culburra for holidays. That was a stopover point because my older sister was a (the?) teacher at the little primary school there.

I also remember, back in Lithgow, my mother dealing politely with a tramp, who called a couple of times with his offer of any work for any payment. I remember my mother's insistence that he had fallen on hard times, but otherwise was "just the same as us". But she did make him work - if my memory is correct.

Also, I have several times read a very good story by Dick Francis about a tramp - or maybe it's more about our treatment of tramps. Horses were involved of course, but the lesson was wider.

Think I'll stop before I get all sillyfossical on you - but I'm intrigued by what may have bought this to mind.


Anonymous said...

Ha! I deleted a sentence, something like "He had all his posessions in a sugarbag".

Now I'm wondering - when's the last time you heard or read of a 'sugarbag'?


Jim Belshaw said...

I'm glad that you joined me on nostalgia road, kvd! A sugar bag. The F Dictionary says: "(Clothing, Personal Arts & Crafts / Textiles) Austral and NZ a small hessian bag occasionally still used, esp in rural areas, as a rough-and-ready measure for dry goods."

I don't think that I've seen a gypsy camp in Australia. I have always thought of them as strictly European. I wonder what Dick Francis story you are referring too? Was it one in Field of Thirteen?

Anonymous said...

The camp site at Bringelly was there for at least a couple of years as I recall.

'Bright White Star' - and yes, in 'Field of Thirteen'. And now I'll have to go read 'Song For Mona' again. Again.


Jim Belshaw said...

You distract me, kvd. Here is a story on Australian Gypsies - it includes links -

Anonymous said...

And here's another link:

Also, I do remember the long low American cars mentioned in your earlier link.

Sorry to distract.


Rod said...

Can I just say that for "Australiana" you've hit one of my greatest dislikes and one of my greatest pleasures at the same time. My incredibly strong dislike is the song Waltzing Matilda but the picture On the Wallaby Track is probably the "classic" Australian painting I love most...

Rummuser said...

Waltzing Matilda was a song that we learnt in school via some Australian missionaries who were teachers. They explained many of the words to us with great enthusiasm and that was the beginning of my fascination with Australia besides of course the cricketing prowess of the country.

Hobo is another word quite popular in the USA but nothing else captures the spirit of the Swagman.

Jim Belshaw said...

What a fascinating article, kvd. This comment line has given me a whole new post or posts.

Hi Rod. It is a great painting. With WM, why do you dislike it? I could never quite understand the fascination with the song. I remember many years ago being asked to sing it in a bar in Bangkok by a group of American servicemen! Now, of course, half those singing it don't know the meaning of some of the words!

Which brings me to your comment, Ramana. The song can't be all bad if it interested you in Australia!