Every group of people has a unique culture. The group can be either large or small; it can comprise of a family or a nation. Each is unique, even when numerous family cultures accumulate to a national culture.
Some nations can trace their culture back thousands of years. There are some that can only look back a couple of hundred years. Australia is in a unique position having two cultures: one that is over 50,000 years old while the other has just recently passed 200. It is the latter that is dominant, through weight of numbers and an attempted systematic eradication of the former, that has, thankfully, survived those ravages.
The ancient culture is that of the Aborigines of which I am not a part; therefore, of which I cannot speak on behalf of. The latter is of British, Irish and European, to which I belong, and am on more comfortable ground.
Australia’s settlement comprised of two major waves of migration. The first was the Aborigines who came here 50,000 years ago. They lived unmolested until the second wave by Europeans who arrived a little over 200 years ago. These Europeans were the British who promptly claimed the land ‘Terra Nullius’: empty land.
How the British colonised Australia differed as to how they colonised America. That colonisation had been underwritten by London merchants and financiers by royal decree. These entrepreneurs contracted, bonded, and indentured folk to what they termed ‘the new world’. Even the Pilgrim Fathers who arrived on Plymouth Rock were under contract to those back in London looking for returns upon their investment.
The New World colonists sought ways to exploit the country so they could pay back what they owed and then become free to pursue their own interests. Much to the surprise of the London financiers the Pilgrims proved industrious and spendthrift, soon repaying what they owed. The financiers, and others, realised that money could be made in the Americas and encouraged further colonisation. These free folk saw their manifest destiny in the land before them, and decided to take it by fair means or foul.
After losing the American Revolutionary War the British Parliament studied its errors of allowing a free and industrious people to populate its colony, of allowing them to meet and organise, and of giving recognition to the American native people—the Indians. With Australia it wasn’t going to repeat these mistakes.
As Australia was decreed an empty land Parliament felt free to do what it wanted how it wanted with it. The country needed to be populated and convicts supervised by the military were the perfect solution: the convicts didn’t have any rights while the military were sworn to obedience to the Crown. As for the Aborigines they didn’t count, as they weren’t recognised under British Law.
The officers and their men, who arrived with the first fleet in 1788 weren’t the cream of the service—they were those that could be done without, and being such were transported along with their convict charges to the new penal settlement. The fledgling colony survived and became a repository of British and Irish prisoners accompanied by an increasing number of warder-soldiers.
The military men realised numerous opportunities to supplement their government salary in this far away land. With their higher pay, the officers set themselves up as merchants and traders, importing rum and other goods against War Office regulations. Despite the breaches of military protocols, the War Office, and Parliament, were willing to look the other way as Australia was being settled reasonably enough by their undesirables.
John Macarthur, who is credited with founding Australia’s wool industry, knew there was money to made with a bit of unscrupulous speculation. He volunteered to go to the colony and was given a captaincy before he left with his wife for New South Wales. Upon leaving he wrote to his mother that this would give him, ‘…every reasonable expectation of reaping the most material gain.’
With the realisation that the authorities back in England were looking the other way the Terra Australis officers set themselves up as farmers, taking the best land available, exploiting the free labour of the convicts being kept at the Crown’s expense.
The officers and other venturers realised that there was a huge amount of land available, and if the colony should succeed and townships were established it would grow in value. In addition, to supply the towns farms and grazing land would be needed nearby. To ensure their prosperity they granted themselves land on the English system of ‘fee simple tenure’, to hold it for themselves, their heirs, or their assigns, free of any rent or payment. The officers took the best land for themselves and became, what was later termed, squatters.
The officers also controlled the government store (the colony’s only market) and even in times of plenty they purchased their own grain to the exclusion of other ‘free’ farmers. They became so efficient and corrupt that by 1800 they were the leading graziers, possessing most of the valuable livestock and land in the colony.
By stealth and design, Britain’s class structure was repeated in the new land with the squatters of Australia replacing the squires of England.
In 1828 the colonial government introduced the Masters and Servants Act. Its purpose was ‘…the better regulations of servants, labourers and work people.’ This law required obedience and loyalty to the employer with infringements punishable by law. The Act was brought in due to the convict women, at the Female Factory in Parramatta, rebelling agains having their tea and sugar rations withdrawn. Why the women rebelled was never recorded but it is worth noting that the women were used for ‘comfort’ by the officers and gentry residing in a colony where female companionship was scarce.
With the Act the government was ruthless in its application. One hour’s absence without permission by a free servant could mean either prison or the treadmill. By 1840 whoever left their employment without permission could be hunted down under the Bushranger Act. With the infant city of Melbourne facing a labour shortage, between 1835 and 1845 over 20% of prison inmates had been convicted under the Master and Servants Act. The convictions ranged from leaving a place of employment without permission to being found in a hotel.
In 1843 Australia was in a depression with the nascent middle and working class being hardest hit. Many of the folk convicted of crimes, including convictions under the Master and Servants Act, were sent to work on rich squatters’ lands or within the colonies factories. Convicts were to be punished, not reformed, and most found themselves upon release with neither accommodation nor employment. Forced to live by their wits or by crime many found themselves back inside prison and again working for the rich at government expense to make the privileged minority richer.
The squatters in 1844 formed the Squatters Association of New South Wales, and the Pastoral Society of Australia Felix in Melbourne, formalising themselves as a political groups. They did so in response to the government wanting to limit their expansion.
Driven by greed, the squatters saw the land as a resource purely for their exploitation and caused major damage to the native fauna and flora by over-cropping, over-grazing, and recklessly clearing any vegetation that wasn’t deemed productive. Any aborigines that were in their way were driven away with stock whips and bullets.
The divide between the ‘squattocracy’ and the ordinary folk became greater. The early Australian novelist, Joseph Furphy, was to record a comment by one of the rural elite: ‘For there is no such thing as a democratic gentleman; the adjective and and noun are hyphenated by a drawn sword.’
For the ordinary folk, even where there was work it was often dangerous. In the 1860s, approximately 20 men fell down minings shafts and were killed each year. The Chief Inspector of Mines for Victoria in 1874 reported, ‘…one in 300 miners were killed underground that year.’ Between 1875 and 1906 ten Bendigo miners died from lung disease for every one that died by accident.
By the 1890s, with the depression biting alongside the accompanying drop in living standards the middle and working class realised their precarious position against the entrenched authorities and upper class. The knowledge of how their lives depended on the whims of others led disparate groups of ex-convicts, poor landowners, common soldiers, and free-men to form the Mutual Protection Society to look after the interests of, and the protection of, workers. Though not revolutionary the formation of such partnerships reflected the extent of class division.
It was during the 1800s that Bushrangers roamed the open lands between cities and towns. These men were released convicts to the unemployed to adventurers, to would be revolutionaries. Most of them were unscrupulous and dangerous.
How bushrangers were viewed depended on a person’s class. The rural poor had little to worry about as they had little to steal. Many of the poor saw the bushrangers as some form of hero, who robbed from the rich and the authorities—the embodiments of those who (legally) stole from them.
Sectarianism was rife, with many of the police abusing their authority towards the Irish Catholic, and otherwise poor, farmers. At various times individual policemen became so corrupt that the authorities could no longer turn a blind-eye to their doings. One such policeman was involved with the arrest of Jack Doolan and another, later, with the arrest of Ned Kelly’s mother.
One popular song of the time was ‘The Wild Colonial Boy’. For the folk who eked out a living in the bush the verses resonated with their plight, and their animosity towards their oppressors:
There was a wild colonial boy Jack Doolan was his name,
Of poor but honest parents he was born in Castlemaine.
He was his father’s only hope, his mother’s pride and joy,
And dearly did the parents love the wild colonial boy.
Then, come all my hearties, we’ll range the mountain side;
Together we will plunder, together we will ride.
We’ll scour along the valleys and gallop o’er the plains,
We scorn to live in slavery bowed down with iron chains.
In ‘sixty-one this daring youth commenced his wild career;
With a heart that knew no danger, no foeman did he fear;
He stuck up the Beechworth mail coach and robbed Judge MacEvoy,
Who trembled and gave up his gold to the wild colonial boy.
He bade the judge good morning, and told him to beware,
That he’d never rob a hearty chap who acted on the square;
And never to rob a mother of her son and only joy,
Or else you may turn outlaw like the wild colonial boy.
He’d rob the largest squatters, their stock he would destroy
A terror to Australia was the wild colonial boy.
So fearful and resentful were the authorities of the sentiment contained in the song that singing it could bring down a charge of insurrection. The embodiment of oppression in the song is Judge MacEvoy who has to hand over his gold, to whom Jack Doolan’s courteous cynicism is pointed.
‘The Wild Colonial Boy’ wasn’t the only popular song that spoke of injustice—added to the authority’s woes was ’The Streets of Forbes’. This song was about the bushranger, Ben Hall. Ben went of record, saying:
“I’m not a criminal. I’ve been driven to this life. Pottinger arrested me on Forbes racecourse last year and I was held for a month in gaol, an innocent man. While I was away me wife ran away – with a policeman. Well, with a cove who used to be in the police force. Then I was arrested for the mail coach robbery and held another month before I was let out on bail. When I came home, I found my house burned down and cattle perished of thirst, left locked in yards. Pottinger has threatened and bullied everybody in this district just because he can’t catch Gardiner. Next thing I knew is that the troopers fired at me 3 weeks ago for robbing Pinnacle police station, when I had nothing to do with that little joke. Trooper Hollister has skited that he’ll shoot me on sight. Can you wonder I’m wild? By Gawd, Mr Norton, it’s your mob have driven me to it and, I tell you straight, you’ll never take me alive!”
The Ballad of Ben Hall
Come all Australian sons to me: a hero has been slain,
And cowardly butchered in his sleep upon the Lachlan plain.
Oh, do not stay your seemly grief but let a teardrop fall,
Oh, so many hearts will always mourn the fate of bold Ben Hall.
No brand of Cain ever stamped his brow, no widow’s curse did fall.
When times were bad the squatters dread the name of Ben Hall.
He never robbed a needy chap, his records best will show,
He was staunch and loyal to his friends and manly to the foe.
Oh, and savagely they murdered him, those cowardly blue-coat imps,
Who were set on to where he slept by informing peeler’s pimps.
Every since the good old days of Turpin and Duval,
The people’s friends were outlaws too and so was bold Ben Hall
He and his fellow outlaws killed 2 policemen, stole over 20 racehorses, and robbed 21 towns. Betrayed by one of his own men, Hall was shot him 30 times in the back by the police who afterward paraded his body through the streets of Forbes:
The Streets of Forbes
Come all of you Lachlan men and a sorrowful tale I’ll tell,
The story of a decent man who through misfortune fell,
His name it was Ben Hall, a man of high renown,
Who was hunted from his station, and was like a dog shot down.
Three years he roamed the roads, and he showed the traps some fun,
One thousand pounds was on his head, with Gilbert and John Dunn.
Ben parted from his comrades, the outlaws did agree,
To give away bushranging and to cross the briny sea.
Ben went to Goobang Creek, and that was his downfall
For riddled like a sieve was the valiant Ben Hall,
‘Twas early in the morning upon the fifth of May
That the seven police surrounded him as fast asleep they lay.
Bill Dargin he was chosen to shoot the outlaw dead,
The troopers then fired madly and they filled him full of lead,
They rolled him in his blanket and strapped him to his prad,
And they led him through the streets of Forbes, to show the prize they had.
In these bush ballads the protagonists are to be admired, perhaps to be emulated for they robbed the rich and ‘not some hearty chap who acted on the square.’
One of Ben Hall’s gang was Jack Gilbert, also known as ‘Happy Jack’. Despite the passing of years public sympathy for the bushrangers remained strong as can be seen in ‘Banjo’ Paterson’s poem, ‘How Gilbert Died’, published in The Bulletin, June 2nd 1894.
There’s never a stone at the sleeper’s head,
There’s never a fence beside,
And the wandering stock of the grave may tread
Unnoticed and denied,
But the smallest child on the Watershed
Can tell you how Gilbert died.
Paterson describes how the troopers failed to catch him and then used Aboriginal trackers in their pursuit. However, it wasn’t until he was betrayed by a family member that they had their man.
But they went to death when they entered there,
In the hut at the Stockman’s Ford,
For their grandsire’s words were as false as fair —
They were doomed to the hangman’s cord.
He had sold them both to the black police
For the sake of the big reward.
One week after the death of Ben Hall at Forbes Jack Gilbert met a similar end near Binalong, aged 23, with approximately 630 hold-ups to his credit.
But Gilbert walked from the open door
In a confident style and rash;
He heard at his side the rifles roar,
And he heard the bullets crash.
But he laughed as he lifted his pistol-hand,
And he fired at the rifle flash.
Then out of the shadows the troopers aimed
At his voice and the pistol sound,
With the rifle flashed the darkness flamed,
He staggered and spun around,
And they riddled his body with rifle balls
As it lay on the blood-soaked ground.
The authorities had great problems apprehending bushrangers and it wasn’t just because they could disappear into the bush. Many of the outlaws had the country folks’ sympathies and they actively hid them. In 1865 the Felons Apprehension Act (NSW) was introduced, allowing outlawed bushrangers to be shot rather than brought to trial.
One of Australia’s greatest folk heroes, according to the Australian government website is also it’s most famous/infamous bushranger, Ned Kelly. When his mother was jailed in Beechworth, on the word of Constable Fitzpatrick who was later dismissed from the police force for being a ‘…liar and larrikin’, instead of breaking her out as he originally planned he wrote the Jerilderie Letter to the authorities. In part is said:
“…to give those people who are suffering innocence, justice and liberty. If not I will be compelled to show some colonial stratagems which will open the eyes of not only the Victoria Police and inhabitants but also the whole British army…”
Kelly was a bushranger but he also pleaded for justice and and an end of discrimination toward the poor Irish settlers.
Ned and his men hoped for an armed uprising throughout the colony, to overthrow the government and set up a republic. The spark for this would be derailing and ambush of the police train at Glenrowan.
The Kelly gang took the hotel at Glenrowan and had a wild party with 60 hostages, as the authorities later called them. Ned, according the official account, released the local school teacher to visit his sick wife. Why Ned would ‘release’ a hostage when he was about to ambush a police train is hard to imagine, except that perhaps the teacher was just another sympathetic reveller who said it was time to go home and see to his wife. The teacher, upon his release, rushed to the police to inform on Kelly and lay claim to the reward on Kelly’s head.
When the police arrived at the Glenrowan Hotel Ned wasn’t there, but hearing shots being fired—instead of disappearing into the bush—he came back to fight his and his gangs’ way out.
Popular legend has it that after he was shot down, the first policeman who came up to him asked, ‘Why? Why did you come back?
Kelly’s response was, ‘A man would have to be dingo to run out on his mates at a time like this.’
After being tried in Melbourne and found guilty of murder Ned Kelly was hanged.
Oppression and discrimination wasn’t new to the Irish, nor was it to numerous other settlers. In Victoria’s goldfields the battle of the Eureka Stockade was fought in 1854.
The discovery of gold brought hope to many of the poor forced to work for pittances in the cities and towns. The goldfields beckoned and they left for them in their thousands. The cities factories saw their cheap labour leave, as did the rich squatters. In frustration, with their profits suffering, the industrialists and squatters brought their grievances to the authorities.
Not all the miners would strike it rich, in fact very few did. They all needed to buy mining equipment and many of them invested what few savings they had in such as they pursued their dream. Without any other income outside of what they panned out of the rivers or dug out of the ground the authorities saw their chance—digging for gold required a government issued licence. The police were ordered to arrest any miner without one.
The miners, forced to buy mining licences at exorbitant prices, had had enough and took up arms. It was the closest Australia came to a revolutionary war. The rebellion was crushed but it did bring about changes for the miners. How the ordinary folk still felt about British authority over forty years later is shown in this verse of ‘Flag of the Southern Cross’ by Henry Lawson:
‘Beg not of England the right to preserve ourselves,
Fling out the flag of the Southern Cross,
We are the servants best able to serve ourselves,
Fling out the flag of the Southern Cross.
What are our hearts for, and what are our hands for?
What are we nourished in these Southern lands for?
Fling out the flag of the Southern Cross.’
Australia was going through a boom time in the 1880s when Ned Kelly was bushranging and Henry Lawson was highlighting a proportion of the public’s sentiment about England. There was foreign capital pouring in; however it was benefitting very few. Even for those who were benefitting the good times weren’t going to last.
When the boom busted both town and country folk were to feel the pain.
By the 1890s the foreign investors—predominantly British— became concerned over their financial returns that didn’t match their expectations. They looked elsewhere for greener fields. The gradual withdrawal of foreign capital quickly turned into a mass exodus leading to a major recession.
The rich employers were quick to see the writing on the wall and began to form their own organisations—the Pastoralist’s Union and the Employer’s Union being two of them. These organisations were formed so that the brunt of the recession would be borne by the workers: their primary aim was to limit, or do away with, the workers ability to organise. In July 1890 the Chairman of the Steamship Owner’s Association went on to say, ‘All the owners throughout Australia have signed a bond to stand by one another…never before has such an opportunity to test the relative strength of labour and capital arisen.’
In August 1890 the Mercantile Marine Officer’s Association directed it’s members to give 24 hours notice to their employers, the Steamship Owner’s Association of Victoria, after negotiations had broken down over longstanding pay and conditions claims. Word quickly spread and industrial action was taken by seamen, wharf labourers, and the gas stockers. Coal miners from Newcastle, Broken Hill, and even New Zealand were locked out after refusing to dig coal for non-union operated vessels. By September 1890 over 28,000 workers were on strike.
The dispute was far more complex than just being about pay and conditions. Underlying it was an employer conspiracy to render trade unions ineffective. This conspiracy was led by Alfred Lamb, who served as Vice President of the NSW Employer’s Union and was a member of the New South Wales Legislative Assembly. He was also an owner of one of the four major wool export firms.
In 1889 A. B. (Banjo) Paterson, writing as a solicitor in Sydney, put out a pamphlet titled, “Australia for the Australians. A political pamphlet, Shewing [sic] the necessity for land reform, combined with protection.” In the pamphlet he stated:
‘It is often alleged by people, especially the “upper” classes, that our labouring population are great deal too well off. “They are getting too independent altogether, these fellows with their eight hours and their holidays: the colony will never go ahead until we get cheap reliable labour.” This idea is founded on a hideous ignorance of the most simple rules of political economy. Cheap labour means degradation of the community, and no country has ever been prosperous or happy by reason of labour being cheap; but the exact contrary has always been the case. High wages have everywhere and always meant prosperity, and low wages have meant bad times.’
These industrial disputes marked another turning point in social relations within Australia. Prior to 1890 the police had been used to break up strikes, to harass unionists, and to support employers. Now the government brought in the army, siding clearly with the wealthy industrialists and pastoralists against the workers— troops were used extensively in Sydney, Melbourne, Newcastle and various other ports.
In Melbourne ‘The Argus’ newspaper called the Mercantile Marine Officer’s Association strike as, ‘…an unarmed insurrection of class against class.’ The authorities rallied behind law and order issues while they panic mongered what criminals might do in the darkened streets during the gas workers strike.
Within Victoria, with a growing fear of a class war erupting, those who sympathised with the workers began to shy away and look toward a law and order solution. This was what the employers hoped for. The supposed desire for order allowed politicians like Henry Parkes and Alfred Deakin to deploy troops against the strikers.
In Melbourne it was announced that a public meeting was going to held on the 31st of August, 1890, in support of the maritime strikers. The Victorian government made its intention and partisanship clear by mounting machine-gun nests behind Parliament House. Despite the possibility of being shot by their fellow countrymen the greatest crowd to date came together—between 50-100,000 people, in a city of 400,000 assembled at Flinders Park.
The previous day, Colonel Tom Price had assembled 200 armed troopers and issued his notorious instructions:
‘I do not think our aid will be required but if it is let there be no half measures with what you do. You will be supplied with 40 rounds of ammunition and leaden bullets and if the order is given to fire, don’t let me see one rifle pointed up in the air. Fire low and lay them out.’
Not a shot was fired. Price later claimed he was only citing government regulations, which did require troops to fire low. However, Price and the authorities clearly demonstrated their capacity for partisan violence. Price was indeed an ideal choice for repressive government. His father was John Giles Price, the sadistic Norfolk Island prison commandant who was killed by a crowd of convicts at Williamstown in 1857
Despite the solidarity and public support the strike was unsuccessful.
In 1891 the Australian Shearers Strike began in Queensland. It became a bitter and violent dispute for both sides. With government resources and support the wealthy pastoralists were able to hold out while the shearers ran out of food and money. The strikers were forced to return to work under unfavourable terms. This strike is credited as being a factor to the formation of the Australian Labor Party, and the Australian Socialists League. It also inspired Henry Lawson to reflect upon, and write about, what he saw and experienced at Barcaldine.
In 1891 he produced ‘Freedom On The Wallaby’:
“Australia’s a big country
An’ Freedom’s humping bluey,
An’ Freedom’s on the wallaby
Oh! don’t you hear ‘er cooey?
She’s just begun to boomerang,
She’ll knock the tyrants silly,
She’s goin’ to light another fire
And boil another billy.
“Our fathers toiled for bitter bread
While loafers thrived beside ’em,
But food to eat and clothes to wear,
Their native land denied ’em.
An’ so they left their native land
In spite of their devotion,
An’ so they came, or if they stole,
Were sent across the ocean.
“Then Freedom couldn’t stand the glare
O’ Royalty’s regalia,
She left the loafers where they were,
An’ came out to Australia.
But now across the mighty main
The chains have come ter bind her –
She little thought to see again
The wrongs she left behind her.
“Our parents toil’d to make a home
Hard grubbin ’twas an’ clearin’
They wasn’t crowded much with lords
When they was pioneering.
But now that we have made the land
A garden full of promise,
Old Greed must crook ‘is dirty hand
And come ter take it from us.
So we must fly a rebel flag,
As others did before us,
And we must sing a rebel song
And join in rebel chorus.
We’ll make the tyrants feel the sting
O’ those that they would throttle;
They needn’t say the fault is ours
If blood should stain the wattle!”
On the 15th of July 1891 Frederick Brentall M.P. Read the last two stanzas in the Queensland Legislative Council as a vote of thanks to the armed police who broke up the strike at Barcaldine. There were calls for Lawson to be arrested on the charge of sedition.
The legislators no longer saw only strikers as their enemies. It was now time to make an example of a well known writer so as to keep the others docile and in line.
Fearing for his freedom Lawson left Queensland, taking up residence in Sydney, New South Wales. He was able to do so as Queensland and New South Wales were separate colonies.
Further south, sixteen small Melbourne banks and building societies collapsed in 1891. The recession was hitting hard and as jobs disappeared a corresponding pool of desperate poor emerged. Women made up approximately 30% of the workforce but they were on very low wages, unable to support a family. In Sydney, hundreds of boys aged 8-14 years worked from 5am to 7pm in brickyards; each carrying six or seven tons of clay a day. Life in the cities was hard and uncompromising.
Even for those who had possessions to fall from the grace of providence only needed a small misstep. It was on the women that the burden was heaviest. The Bulletin published, ‘The Man Who Was Away’, ‘Banjo’ Paterson’s description of one lady’s plight.
The first two stanza’s are:
The widow sought the lawyer’s room with children three in tow,
She told the lawyer man her tale in tones of deepest woe.
Said she, “My husband took to drink for pains in his inside,
And never drew a sober breath from then until he died.
“He never drew a sober breath, he died without a will,
And I must sell the bit of land the children’s mouths to fill.
There’s some is grown and gone away, but some is children yet,
And times is very bad indeed —a livin’s hard to get.
The townsmen who couldn’t find work had little choice other than to turn to crime, sign onto a ship and go to sea; look for work abroad, or take to the bush as itinerant workers while waltzing their Matildas.
At Dagworth Station in Queensland, in 1894, Andrew Barton Paterson sat with pen in hand thinking about how he was going to express what had recently happened. Three years previously the Queensland shearers strike had been bitter and prolonged. In the end the shearers had lost and had been forced to return to work.
The shearers at Dagworth had recently followed suit and struck. The police were brought in to break them up. Guns were fired by both sides with one shearer being shot. The shed at Dagworth was set ablaze killing dozens of sheep. Two days later another shearer was found dead near Dagworth Station, his mortal would almost certainly received in the previous exchange with the police.
The police then set out to capture Samuel Hoffmeister, one of the men who they claimed had fired shots at them and who they considered partially responsible for the trouble at Dagworth.
Trying to elude the police Hoffmeister took refuge at the Combo waterhole. It did him little good. He died of a gunshot wound, a pistol being found near his body. The Coronial Inquiry’s verdict was Hoffmeister’s death was suicide. This made many suspicious of the police involved as Hoffmeister, according to those who knew him, had never previously owned a pistol.
Like many others at Dagworth, Samuel Hoffmeister had gone bush looking for work. If he’d had family ‘Banjo’ Paterson didn’t know about them. It’s not even clear how well, if at all, ‘Banjo’ knew Samuel. However, Samuel’s plight and desperation were things Paterson could identify with, as could the shearers at Dagworth.
‘Banjo’ reminisced and put his thoughts onto paper:
By A.B. Paterson
Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong
Under the shade of a Coolibah tree,
And he sang as he watched and waited till his billy boiled:
“Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me?”
Waltzing Matilda, waltzing Matilda
You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me
And he sang as he watched and waited till his billy boiled:
“You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me.”
Down came a jumbuck to drink at that billabong.
Up jumped the swagman and grabbed him with glee.
And he sang as he shoved that jumbuck in his tucker bag:
“You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me.”
Up rode the squatter, mounted on his thoroughbred.
Down came the troopers, one, two, and three.
“Whose is that jumbuck you’ve got in your tucker bag?
You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me.”
But the swagman he ups and he jumps in the water hole
Drowning himself by the Coolabah tree
And his ghost can be heard as it sings in the billabong
Who’ll come a waltzing Matilda with me
It is clear with whom Paterson’s sympathies lay. The opening verse is a romanticised view of the swagman’s life, one that the city folk would have liked to believe. The squatter, mounted on an expensive horse has the authorities to support him in apprehending a man whose only crime was taking something to eat—something (a sheep) that the rich squatter could easily afford to lose. Yet, for wanting to survive the swagman is to be punished. With only his freedom left to lose the swagman keeps it by taking his own life. The corollary of the events at Dagworth Station are unmistakable.
Waltzing Matilda was in accord with the sentiments of many Australians and it grew in popularity. In 1903 Billy Tea used it for advertising their product; however, they sanitised the final verse. This is the one that most people know.
Up jumped the swagman and sprang into the billabong.
“You’ll never take me alive!” said he
And his ghost may be heard as you pass by that billabong:
“Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me?”
Waltzing Matilda is Australia’s unofficial national anthem. Most people would know more of the song than the official anthem, ‘Advance Australia Fair’.
The national anthem espouses all the patriotic sentiments required yet it is the struggle of the poor against oppression that appeals most to the Australian psyche.
To become the unofficial national anthem Waltzing Matilda wasn’t just for the country folk but for those in the city also. For the majority of city dwellers life wasn’t easy.
Many city dwellers had romantic notions of life in the bush, partially fuelled by poets and the notion that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. In the bush the air and water were clean, the sun shone, and there was adventure to be had.
Life in the city, particularly for those employed on factory floor, was hard and relatively short. The depression of the 1890s put power in the hands of the employers who weren’t afraid of turning those hands into fists.
As the depression and desperation grew jobless crowds gathered regularly at Queen’s Wharf in Melbourne and at Circular Quay in Sydney. Melbourne wives and mothers marched to Parliament pleading for work for their husbands and sons, as well as for themselves. Victoria had more women and children working in factories than New South Wales and the depression increased their number while worsening their conditions.
‘Banjo’ Paterson described life for the urban poor in his pamphlet ‘Australia for the Australians’.
‘Let those who do not see the necessity for any change or questioning of the present arrangement of affairs take a night walk round the power quarters of any of our large colonial cities, and they will see such things as they will never forget. They will see vice and sin and misery in full development. They will see poor people herding in wretched little shanties, the tiny stuffy rooms family reeking like ovens with the heat of our tropical summer…To the frightful discomfort was added the serous danger of disease from the filthy surroundings and the unhealthy atmosphere.’
The men who had work had to hold onto it tenaciously. Should they cause trouble they would be replaced, mattering little if they were either on the shop floor or in an office. The class divide was growing and there wasn’t a middle class, in the modern sense. There were office workers whose jobs weren’t dangerous but were tedious, long and monotonous. In 1889 Banjo Paterson captured their drudgery and how they saw their lives with these stanzas from ‘Clancy Of The Overflow’.
‘I am sitting in dingy little office, where a stingy
Ray of sunlight struggles feebly down between the houses tall,
And the foetid air and gritty of the duty , dirty its
Through the open window floating, spreads it founds over all.’
And in place of lowing cattle, I can hear the fiendish rattle
Of the tramways and the buses making hurry down the street,
And the language uninviting of the gutter children fighting,
Comes fitfully and faintly through the ceaseless tramp of feet.
And the hurrying people daunt me, and their pallid faces haunt me
As they shoulder one another in their rush and nervous haste,
With their eager eyes and greedy, and their stunted forms and weedy,
For townsfolk have no time to grow, they have no time to waste.
The growing disparity between rich and poor led to an increasing crime rate with bands of larrikins preying on nearly anybody who came their way. To survive in the streets you had to belong to a ‘push’, where gains, losses, safety, and danger were shared.
In chapter three of ’Banjo’ Paterson’s story, ‘An Outback Marriage’, the larrikin is well described.
“What do you say,” he drawled, “if we go and have a look at a dancing saloon — one of these larrikin dancing saloons?”
“I’d like it, awfully,” said one Englishman.
“Most interesting, “said another. “I’ve heard such a lot about the Australian larrikin. What the call a basher in England, isn’t it? Eh, what? Sort of rough that lays for you with a pal and robs you, eh?”
The Bo’sun rang for cigars and liqueurs, and then answered the question. “Pretty much the basher,” he said, “but with a lot more science and dog-cunning about him. They go in gangs, and if you hit one of the gang, all the rest will ‘deal with you’, as they call it. If they have to wait a year to get you, they’ll wait, and get you alone some night or other and set on you. They jump on a man if they get him down, too. Oh, they’re regular beauties.’
The larrikins realised that singularly they couldn’t survive. To touch one was to touch all; to protect themselves they protected each other. The larrikins became a ‘class’ with it’s own set of rules and social norms.
A poem, often attributed to Henry Lawson, gives a glimpse of life for those to whom life was to be lived by guile and crime. There isn’t a definitive version of ‘The Bastard From The Bush’, as like Homer’s “Iliad” it was spoken by many swaggie bards with their own embellishments; however, the sentiment of the piece was kept true.
As the night was slowly falling over city, town and bush,
From a slum in Bludgers Alley came the Captain of the Push,
And his whistle loud and piercing roused the echoes of the Rocks,
And a dozen ghouls came slouching round the corners of the blocks.
The image of city life these pieces invoke isn’t endearing, yet for most of the city folk they were fairly accurate. The worker, in his dingy office, hearing the gutter children fighting knew that on his employer’s whim he could soon be abiding in Bludgers Alley. Those in offices, the nascent middle class, rarely looked up but they did look down, and what they saw was there they could be.
For many Australians the class system of England was being repeated—the squires were pastoralists with the earls as industrialists. For the working folk, the realisation of their predicament and their shared difficulties were some of the elements that led up to Federation in 1901. It was becoming time to be independent and to break away from the divisions inherited from England.
To be free from Britain wasn’t just fuelled by resentment of the home-grown upper class. Australians were being used to fight Britain’s colonial wars. In some cases the wars, such as the Zulu War and the Sudan War were engineered to bolster British business interests. No matter how the authorities clothed their war rationale underneath it always looked shabby. In regards to the Sudan War, when an Australian contingent left Sydney in 1885, “The Bulletin” published ‘Banjo’ Paterson’s, ‘El Mahdi to the Australian Troops’. The last two stanzas capture the growing resentment to Britain’s imperialism and Australia’s complicity.
And fair Australia, freest of the free,
Is up in arms against a freeman’s fight;
And with her mother joined to crush the right—
Has left her threatened treasures o’er the sea,
Hs left her land of liberty and law
To flesh her maiden sword in this unholy war.
Enough! God never blessed such enterprise —
England’s degenerate Generals yet shall rue
Brave Gordon sacrificed, when soon they view
The children of a thousand deserts rise
To drive them forth like sand before the gale —
God and Prophet! Freedom will prevail.
Australians also involved themselves in the Boer War, perhaps the most contentious of Britain’s colonial conflicts, as at its core it was all about controlling the gold and diamond mines of South Africa. Australians saw themselves as bound to England through heritage and blood but the sense of being part of an independent nation was coming to the fore. Once again, ‘Banjo’ Paterson dipped his pen in ink and put to paper ‘Our Own Flag’, in 1900.
They mustered us up with a royal din,
In wearisome weeks of drought.
Ere ever the half of the crops were in,
Or the half of the sheds cut out.
’Twas down with saddle and spurs and whip
The swagman dropped his swag.
And we hurried us off to an outbound ship
To fight for the English flag.
The English flag — it is ours in sooth
We stand by it wrong or right
But deep in our hearts the honest truth
We fought for the sake of a fight.
And the English flag may flutter and wave
Where World-wide Oceans toss,
But the flag the Australian dies to save
Is the flag of the Southern Cross.
If ever they want us to stand the brunt
Of a hard-fought, grim campaign,
We will carry our own flag up to the front
When we go to wars again.
Unfortunately, the political change that Federation brought wasn’t the panacea that many hoped for. The fanciful fruits of Federation withered for those who’d hoped so much from them. Even the newly formed national government discovered that Britain still saw Australia as a servant state. So little regard did the British Parliament have for its Australian counterpart that when Field Marshall Lord Horatio Kitchener court-martialled and executed two Australian soldiers during the Boer War the Australian Parliament only discovered it through the newspapers after the executions were carried out.
Working life for the poor remained mired in the past. In 1902 Australian employers and the government still used the Masters and Servants Act as it included the forfeit of wages if either the written or unwritten contract for work was unfulfilled. The notion of an unwritten contract suited the employers. In the class ridden society that Australia had become the word of an educated and established employer carried the day with the authorities against the word of an often itinerant and illiterate worker.
The authorities also realised they were fighting against the collective spirit of those they oppressed. To ensure the wanted individual remained isolated there were also penalties of up to 10 pounds—a substantial sum in its day— for anyone who harboured, concealed or re-employed a worker who had deserted or absconded or absented himself from his duty implied in a contract.
Despite Britain’s attitude to Australia along with the Australian government and employers to the workers, more and more people began to see themselves distinct and independent from the mother country.
The sense of bourgeoning nationhood was growing within all classes of Australians. Many still saw their ancestral roots in Britain but their home was now surely and securely south of the equator. A young girl of 19 was able to eloquently express this in the first two stanzas of the poem she wrote 1904:
The love of field and coppice,
Of green and shaded lanes,
Of ordered woods and gardens
Is running in your veins,
Strong love of grey-blue distance
Brown streams of soft dim skies
I know but cannot share it,
My love is otherwise
I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of rugged mountain ranges,
Of drought and flooding rains.
I love her far horizons,
I love her jewel-sea,
Her beauty and her terror –
The wide brown land for me.
The early 1900s were difficult times for most people. The recession of the 1890s had hit them hard, forcing wages down due to an overabundance of labour. Life was hand to mouth for those who could hold onto their jobs and for those without work there wasn’t any social safety net, except for the hard-pressed friendly societies put together by the unions and a few philanthropists. Even then, the friendly societies focused on men with families.
If you were a young man without a family you were, basically, on your own. You could try being a Bottle-O or a Rabbit-O or, failing those, you belonged to a push, where you and your cobbers made do however you could. Education for the poor, be they urban or rural, was scanty. A city dweller grew street smart while the bloke in the bush learned to cadge where he could.
The larrikins of Melbourne and Sydney haunted the streets, begging from and cajoling passers-by. Each push had its own patch, or heavily defended area.
As the country and its people progressed in different directions so did their language. English was overwhelmingly prominent but how it was spoken by one social class from another had diverged.
Historically, the majority of the white population came from British prisons and from the English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh poor. They brought their own idioms and idiosyncrasies of language that began to coalesce into ‘Australian’.
On April’s Fools Day, 1909, The Bulletin, a news and current affairs magazine, published a poem that was going to change the Australian literary and social culture for ever. The first three stanzas of it are:
A Spring Song
The world ‘as got me snouted jist a treat;
Crool Forchin’s dirty left ‘as smote me soul;
An’ all them joys o’ life I ‘eld so sweet
Is up the pole.
For, as the poit sez, me ‘eart ‘as got
The pip wiv yearning’ fer—I dunno wot.
And Bill, a larrikin of the Little Lonsdale Street push, was introduced to the world.
I’m crook; me name is Mud; Ive done me dash;
Me flamin’ spirit’s got the flamin’ ‘ump!
I’m longing’ to let loose on somethin’ rash…
Aw, I’m a chump!
I know it; but this blimed ole Springtime craze
Fair outs me, on these dilly, silly days.
The young green leaves is shootin’ on the trees,
The air is like a long, cool swig o’ beer,
The bonzer smell o’ flow’rs is on the breeze,
An’ ‘ere’s me, ‘ere,
Just moochin’ round like some pore, barmy coot,
Of ‘ope, an’ joy, an’ forchin destichoot.
If the grammarians loathed it the public loved it. The Bulletin published all but two of the chapters of ‘Songs Of A Sentimental Bloke’. All of them, including the two chapters that weren’t serialised, were published in ‘The Sentimental Bloke’, released in 1915.
C.J Dennis had created not only one of Australia’s immortal characters but also a publishing phenomenon: over 60,000 copies in nine editions were released in its first year. By 1920 it reached its 20th edition.
So accurately did ‘The Sentimental Bloke’ capture the mood of the new Australia that in it’s first year 2.2% of the population owned a copy—an extraordinary achievement considering the literacy level, and expense of a book, at the time. It was turned into a popular film in 1918 and Bill, the Little Lonsdale Street larrikin became the quintessential Australian.
The cultural impact and longevity of ‘The Sentimental Bloke’ cannot be understated. In 1961, nearly half a century after it’s initial publication, a copy of the first edition was released. It sold well. The number of copies, from all the editions, numbered over 200,000.
The appeal of ‘The Sentimental Bloke’ as Henry Lawson who wrote the forward put it is: ‘How many men, in how many different parts of the world—and of how many different languages—have had the same feeling—the longing for something better—to be something better?
What Dennis did was give the poor people a voice. It was written in the vernacular of its time and through the eloquence of his poetry gave Bill’s language legitimacy. Dennis was also wise enough to include a glossary of terms at the back for the lexicographers, pedants, and those who wanted a greater affinity with Bill, and his trials of ‘ope, an’ joy, an’ forchin destichoot.’
C.J. Dennis brought the language of the street and countryside into the home. He showed the poor, uneducated larrikin shared the same hopes, fears, and aspirations as the reader. Bill, who became known as the Bloke, had all the admirable qualities: honesty, integrity, loyalty, and fidelity. ‘Crool forchin’ placed him where he was, just as it placed others socially and economically above him.
Bill’s people looked out for and cared for each other. His rung on the ladder of life was low and he knew he was powerless to being stepped upon. Dennis purposely puts Bill into situations where his powerlessness can be clearly seen, and how double standards can be applied in reference to class.
First Dennis portrays the double standards in the chapter. ‘The Play’ where Bill has taken his girl, Doreen, to see Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’:
Wot’s in a name? Wot’s in a string of words?
They scraps in ole Verona wiv the’r swords,
An’ never give a bloke a stray dog’s chance,
An’ that’s Romance.
But when they deals it out wit bricks an’ boots
In Little Lon., they’re low, degraded broots.
When it comes to class, and the powerlessness that the poor feel, Bill sees Doreen talking to a businessman whom he thinks will steal her away from him:
I took a derry on this stror ‘at coot,
First time I seen ‘im dodgin’ round Doreen.
‘Im! Wim ‘is giddy tie an’ Yankee soot,
Forever yappin’ like a torc-machine
About “The Hoffis” where ‘e ‘ad a grip…
The way ‘e smiled at ‘er give me the pip!
Like many of the poor, Bill knew that too often what had been either won or earned through the sweat of the brow could be taken away by the stroke of a pen.
Yet, in the laws of the streets there is restitution:
Stashed ‘I’m! I owns I met ‘im on the quiet,
An’ worded ‘im about a small affair;
An’ when ‘e won’t put up ‘is ‘ands to fight—
(‘E sez, “Fer public brawls ‘e didn’t care”)—
I lays ‘I’m ‘cross me knee, the mother’s joy,
An’ smacks ‘im ‘earty, like a naughty boy.
The distinction of class that had been prevalent and growing in Australia since 1788 was doing well when the first poem of ‘Songs Of A Sentimental Bloke’s first published in 1909. For the next five years Australians, through Dennis’ verse, began to realise that they had more in common with each other than they initially perceived.
The full realisation of what they shared wasn’t realised until after two shots were fired in Sarajevo starting the First World War.
When the call to arms came and the leader of the opposition, Andrew Fisher, declared, ‘… that should the worst happen, after everything has been done that honour will permit, Australians will stand beside the mother country to help defend her to our last man and our last shilling.’ Australians heard him and weren’t shy about enlisting, initially.
For many of the volunteers the war was the grand adventure, the opportunity to see the world, and to have a steady pay packet. It wasn’t just the poor who joined. ‘Banjo’ Paterson served with the 2nd Remounts of the Australian Imperial Forces in Egypt.
C. J. Dennis didn’t serve overseas but by 1916 he was employed by the Navy Office and became secretary to the Attorney General. He also published ‘The Moods of Ginger Mick’, which sold an unprecedented run of 39,324 copies.
Ginger Mick, a Rabbit-O, is a mate of Bill’s from ‘The Sentimental Bloke’ and it is Bill that ‘intrujuices’ him. Dennis dedicated this book to ‘the boys who took the count’.
By 1916 the glory of war had well and truly dimmed as Australians heard about the debacle at Gallipoli and the carnage at the Western Front. Many ordinary Australians were questioning whether they should stand beside the mother country to help defend her to our last man when she was already sending so many of them in their droves to their graves.
The question also arose of whose war was it anyway? In ‘Ginger Mick’ Ginger expresses it this way to Bill:
Jist then a motor car goes glidin’ by
Wiv two fat toffs be’ ind two fat cigars.
Mick twigs ‘em frum the corner uv ‘is eye.
“I ‘ope,” ‘e sez, “the ‘Uns don’t git my cars.
Me di’mons, too, don’t let me sleep a wink…
Ar, ‘Struth! I’d fight fer that sort—I don’t think.”
Then Mick gits up an’ starts another fag.
“Ar, well,” ‘e sez, “it’s no affair uv mine,
If I don’t work they’d pinch me on the vag;
But I’m not keen to fight so toffs kin dine
On pickled olives…Blarst the flamin’ war!
I ain’t got nothin’ worth the fighting for.
Despite his misgivings about the war Mick does join up. C. J. Dennis, though Bill, gives us the reason why he did.
‘E wus a man uv vierlence, wus Mick.
Coarse wiv ‘is speech an’ in ‘is manner low,
Slick wiv ‘is ‘ands, an’ ‘andy wiv a brick
When bricks wus needed to defeat a foe.
An’ now ‘e’s gone an’ muzzled to the war,
An’ some blokes ‘as the nerve to arst “Wot for?”
Wot for? Gawstruth! ‘E wus no patriot
That sits an’ brays advice in days uv strife;
‘E never flapped no flags nor sich like rot;
‘E never sang “Gawsave” in all ‘is life.
‘E wus disposed be them that make sich noise;
But now—O strike!—‘e’s “one uv our brave boys”
To don a uniform gave respectability, a place in society, and a particularly honourable place in a time of war. For the Rabbit-Os, the Bottle-Os and everyone else who society shunned the uniform meant respectability, and a place where all men were equal.
A bloke called Ginger Mick ‘as found ‘is game—
Found ‘is game an’ found ’is brothers, ‘oo wus strangers in ‘is sight,
Till they shed their silly clobber an’ put on the duds for fight.
The war, due to a common enemy, brought the disparate strata of Australian society together.
Charles Shaw, a lesser Australian poet put it this way in his poem, “The Recruit”.
I must go and leave these ways I know –
These dusks and dawns, and colour in the trees,
And the slow yarns, and wood-smoke hanging low,
And glowing stars, and cattle at their ease
And all the dear, small things of which I am a part –
I do not go for any prideful cause
That Europe might defend.
But only that the sun-swept Austral land
Might still lie warm within the Austral hand;
And that young boys, who speak the tongue I know,
Might laugh in years ahead where sunsets glow;
While softly, softly in the leaves of the kurrajongs,
The night wind croons its tiny summer songs.
‘Banjo Paterson expressed the flourishing sense unity and nationhood in ‘We Are All Australians Now”
Australia takes her pen in hand
To write a line to you,
To let you fellows understand
How proud we are of you.
From shearing shed and cattle run,
From Broome to Hobson’s Bay,
Each native-born Australian son
Stands straighter up today.
The man who used to “hump his drum”,
On far-out Queensland runs
Is fighting side by side with some
Tasmanian farmer’s sons.
The fisher-boys dropped sail and oar
To grimly stand the test,
Along that storm-swept Turkish shore,
With miners from the west.
The old state jealousies of yore
Are dead as Pharaoh’s sow,
We’re not State children any more —
We’re all Australians now!
Our six-starred flag that used to fly
Half-shyly to the breeze,
Unknown where older nations ply
Their trade on foreign seas,
Flies out to meet the morning blue
With Vict’ry at the prow;
For that’s the flag the Sydney flew,
The wide seas know it now!
The mettle that a race can show
Is proved with shot and steel,
And now we know what nations know
And feel what nations feel.
The honoured graves beneath the crest
Of Gaba Tepe hill
May hold our bravest and our best,
But we have brave men still.
With all our petty quarrels done,
We have, through what you boys have done,
A history of our own.
Our old world diff’rences are dead,
Like weeds beneath the plough,
For English, Scotch, and Irish-bred,
They’re all Australians now!
So now we’ll toast the Third Brigade
That led Australia’s van,
For never shall their glory fade
In minds Australian.
Fight on, fight on, unflinchingly,
Till right and justice reign.
Fight on, fight on, till Victory
Shall send you home again.
And with Australia’s flag shall fly
A spray of wattle-bough
To symbolise our unity —
We’re all Australians now.
The spirit of patriotism and nationhood runs strongly throughout Paterson’s poem. It is the rallying call of an nation grown truly independent through the shedding of its blood. The separatism of class is also quelled as ‘we are all Australians now’, and Paterson wasn’t the only person who voiced this. C. J. Dennis did too in ‘Ginger Mick’, when Ginger is badly wounded in the throat:
When ‘e comes to, the light wus gettin’ dim,
The ground wus cold an’ sodden underneath,
Someone is lyin’ ‘longside uv ‘im.
Groanin’ wiv pain, ‘e turns, an’ sees it’s Keith—
Keith, wiv is rifle cocked, an’ starin’ ‘ard
Ahead. An’ now ‘e sez “Ow is it, pard?’
“ ‘Ere, Kid,” ‘e sez, “you sneak around that ‘ill.
I’m down an’ out; an’ you kin tell the boys;”
Keith don’t reply to ‘im but jist lies still,
An’ signs to Ginger not to make a noise.
“ ‘Ere, you!” sez Mick, “I ain’t the man to funk—
I won’t feel ‘ome-sick. Imshee! Do a bunk!”
Keith bites ‘is lips; ‘e never turns ‘is ‘ead.
“Wot in the ‘ell;” sez Mick, “ ‘ere, wot’s yer game?”
“I’m an Australian,” that wus all ‘e said,
An’ pride took ‘old o’ Mick to ‘ear that name—
A noo, glad pride that ain’t the pride o’ class—
An’ Mick’s contempt, to took the count at lars’!
Mick’s contempt for those of ’stror ‘ats’ might have gone down for the count, as it probably did for all the men who served together; however that wasn’t the case regarding those in command.
The diggers quickly realised that the upper echelons thought very little of them, and of their lives. British command was held in particular contempt as they upheld the class structure that many Australians wanted to do without.
Australian soldiers often refused to salute British officers. British command wanted to punish them as they saw this bad for discipline. It was the Australian General, John Monash, who put the British in their place when it came to the diggers at the front: ‘ … the Australian soldier doesn’t give lip service, nor obsequious homage to superiors, nor servile observance of forms and customs…the Australian army is proof that individualism is the best and not the worst foundation upon which to build up collective discipline.’
The diggers were plagued by incompetent commanders issuing asinine orders, and they knew they had to bear the brunt of it, stoically. Their resolve and courage to get the job done didn’t stop them from expressing how they felt about the oxymoron of military intelligence.
Leslie George Rub was 23 when he enlisted in 1915. He fought at Ypres and then at the disastrous battle at Bullencourt. It was Bullencourt that engendered the greatest distrust and contempt of British commanders by the ANZACs.
In Autumn 1917 Leslie fought at the 3rd battle of Ypres. He with his men captured Westhoek Ridge, where the German strongholds were held by machine-gunners. Les and his mates where shelled and shrapnel ripped into his kidneys. He died the following day. Either on the Christmas of 1915 or 1916 he penned the following poem, capturing how the diggers felt about the men commanding them.
Christmas Day On the Somme
Leslie George Rub
’Twas Christmas Day on the Somme
The men stood on parade,
The snow laid six feet on the ground
Twas twenty in the shade.
Up spoke the Captain ‘gallant man’,
“Just hear what I’ve to say,
You may not have remembered that
Today is Christmas Day.”
“The General has expressed a wish
This day may be observed,
Today you will only work eight hours
A rest that’s well deserved.
I hope you’ll keep yourselves quite clean
And smart and spruce and nice,
The stream is frozen hard
But a pick will break the ice.”
“All men will get two biscuits each,
I’m sure you’re tired of bread,
I’m sorry there’s no turkey
But there’s Bully Beef instead.
The puddings plum have not arrived
But they are on their way,
I’ll guarantee they’ll be in time
To eat next Christmas Day.”
Your parcel’s would have been on time
But I regret to say
The vessel which conveyed them was
Torpedoed on the way.
The Quartermaster’s got your rum
But you may get some yet,
Each man will be presented with
A Woodbine cigarette.”
“The Huns have caught us in the rear
And painted France all red,
Pray do not let trouble you,
Tomorrow you’ll be dead.
Now ere you go I wish you all
This season of good cheer,
A very happy Christmas and
A prosperous New Year.”
The war had caused great suffering at home and abroad. Within Australia, letters informing families of the death of a loved one steadily came in after the bloody battles of Gallipoli and the Western Front. As the wounded, maimed, disfigured, and mentally scarred came home the censors couldn’t stop them from telling their stories and the flow of new recruits changed from a torrent to a trickle.
By September 1918, the diggers at the front had had enough of suffering terrible losses. Battalions that should have mustered nearly 1000 men were lucky to have a few hundred. When ordered back to battle the men of the 59th Battalion mutinied, this was followed by the 1st Battalion.
When the 19th, 21st, 25th, 37th, 42nd, 54th, and 60th, Battalions were to be disbanded to reinforce others all but the 60th refused to do so. The actions weren’t considered mutinous by the diggers. As far as they were concerned they were on strike. They hadn’t been conscripted and they’d volunteered to do a job. The diggers had had enough of being pushed around unfairly.
General John Monash, understanding his men, tried the ‘strikers’ with desertion instead of mutiny (that would have incurred the death penalty). With the end of hostilities in sight he didn’t enforce any sentences meted out.
In those final stages of the war C. J. Dennis put pen to paper once more and wrote ‘Digger Smith’.
Smith (a mate of Ginger Mick who died at Gallipoli) returns home but not unscathed.
Now ‘arf uv me’s back ‘ome, an’ ‘arf they nailed.
An’ Mick…Ar, well, Fritz took me down a peg.”
‘E waves ‘is leg.
“It ain’t too bad,” ‘e sez, with ‘is ole smile;
“But when I starts to dig it cramps me style.”
Like many of his fellow veterans Digger considers himself lucky.
“I’ve thought a lot,” said Digger Smith—
“Out there I thought a lot.
I thought uv death, an’ all the rest,
An’ uv me mates, good mates gone West;
An’ it ain’t much I’ve got;
But things get movin’ in me ‘ead
When I look over there,” ‘e said.
‘E’s got me beat, ‘as little Smith.
I knoo ‘I’m years ago:
I knoo ‘im as a reel tough boy
‘Oo roughed it up with ‘oly joy;
But now, well, I dunno,
An’ when I ask Mar Flood she sighs—
An’ sez ‘e’s got the Anzac eyes.
Those who returned shared a bond that no-one who hadn’t served at the front could understand. The men would be quiet when mixing with others, knowing that their experiences could never be shared, nor fully understood. Dennis was able to recognise and give them their melancholy voice:
“Why do they do it? I dunno,”
Sez Digger Smith. “Yeh got me beat.
Some uv the yarns yeh ‘ear is true,
An’ some is rather umptydoo,
An’ some is—indiscreet.
But them that don’t get to the crowd,
Them is the ones would make you proud.”
With Digger Smith an’ other blokes
‘Oo ‘ave returned it’s much the same:
They’ll talk uv wot they’ve seen and done
When they’ve been out to ‘ave their fun;
But no word uv the game.
On fights an’ all the tale uv blood
Their talk, as they remark, is dud.
It’s so with soldiers, I ‘ave ‘eard,
All times. They things they ‘ave done,
War-mad, with blood before their eyes,
An’ their ears wild fightin’ cries,
They ever after shun.
P’r’aps they forget; or find it well
Not to recall too much uv ‘Ell.
The diggers who made it back knew they weren’t the same men who’d left. They’d volunteered with the the enthusiasm and robustness of youth only to have the war had take that, and more, away from them. How would those back home react when they returned was a plaguing question. Digger Smith summarises what many of them thought.
“I’ve seen enough uv pain,” ‘e said,
“An’ cursin’, killin’ ‘ordes.
I ain’t the man to smooge with God
To get to ‘Eaven on the nod,
Or ‘owl ‘ymns for rewards.
But this believin’? Why—Oh, ’Streuth!
This never ’it me in me youth.
“They talk uv love ‘twixt men,” said ‘e.
“That sounds dead crook to you.
But lately I ‘ave come to see.”…
“‘Old on,” I said; “it seems to me
There’s love uv women too.
An’ you?” ‘E turns away ‘is ‘ead.
“I’m only ‘arf a man,” ‘e said.
“I’ve seen so much uv death,’ said ‘e,
“Me mind is in a whirl.
I’ve ‘ad so many thoughts of late,”…
Said I, “Now, tell me, tell me straight,
Own up; ain’t there a girl?”
Said ‘e, “I’ve done the best I can.
Wot does she want with ‘arf a man?”
Those who had seen the ‘cursin’, killing ‘ordes’ came back to a different Australia. Sectarianism, fuelled by the conscription debate, was as strong, if not stronger, than when they’d left. Catholics (generally, opposed to conscription) were called ‘un Australian’ as it was claimed they owed their allegiance to the Pope; women had taken on many jobs previously denied to them, profiteers had done well out of the war, and Australia owed Britain millions of pounds for having its sons defending and dying for her.
Many of the diggers realised upon their return that their war was in fact a rich man’s war, one in which they had fought, died, and became maimed for. The distinction of class had evaporated in the battlefield but not back at home.
While the diggers were away the production and export of wool, iron, and steel grew dramatically paradoxically with civilian unemployment growing to 6% and per capita income decreasing by 16%. The troops disembarking returned to their families being worse off than they were before the war began, while the landed gentry, manufacturers, and businessmen had prospered at their expense.
In ‘Digger Smith’, C. J. Dennis put voice to the discontent and frustrations of the returned servicemen.
“You coots at ‘ome ‘as small ideer
Uv wot we think an’ feel.
We done our bit an’ seen it thro’
An’ all that we are askin’ you
Is jist a fair, square deal.
We want this land we battled for
To settle up—an’ somethin’ more.
We want the land we battled for
To be a land worth while.
We’re sick uv greed, an’ ‘ate, an’ strife,
An’ all the mess that’s made uv life”…
In fact so many were ‘sick uv greed, an’ ate, an’ strife’ that the government was concerned that the diggers at home would become disruptive and subversive influences—they had, after all, become exposed to foreign ideas and ways of life.
Despite the government’s misgivings about their boys returning home the soldiers had had enough of ‘ ‘ate and strife’ and merely looked forward to returning a, if possible, quiet life.
“Beauty,” sez Digger, sudden like,
“An’ love, an’ kindness;
The chance to live a clean, straight life,
A dinkum deal for kids ‘an wife;
A man needs nothin’ less…
Maybe they’ll get it when I go
To push up daisies. I dunno.”
The words of Digger Smith ring as true today as they did nearly 100 years ago. The average Aussie hasn’t dreamt of empires, or making it to the top of the ladder irrespective of who they’ve had to step on. That doesn’t mean that Australians aren’t ambitious—they are but they’re expected to have humility about it.
In 2015 the federal opposition tried to make political mileage out of the new Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull. Turnbull had been a corporate lawyer who invested in technology companies that did well. He became a very rich man. When he was attacked in Parliament about this he admitted, ‘Yes, I am a rich man. Everyone knows that…I have been lucky…there are taxi-drivers who work harder than I do…’
Instead of deflecting the attack or grandstanding the Prime Minister admitted that ‘crool forchin’ had been favourable to him; whereas, to others who are working hard it has not. It is difficult to imagine within America, with it’s dog eat dog business culture, of either a senior politician or businessman admitting that luck played a significant role in the creation of their wealth.
In Australia, if you’re a tall poppy, no-one is going to cut you down as you’re not waving about trying to catch all the sunlight.
The history of Australia has been the history of inequality. It began with the convicts and their soldier/warders, to the squatters and pastoralists, to the land speculators and investors, to the foreign capital that quickly invested and just as quickly divested. It is a history of oppression and sectarianism, of the common folk trying to band together to have a ‘fair go’ at life, and of trying to create a society that was free of the class structure that so many saw as the cause of misery in their countries of birth.
In a country so large, with so many resources, with opportunities for all, many tried to understand why there was so much poverty throughout the cities, towns, and country. Ginger Mick identified the cause as the ‘toffs b’ind two fat cigars’, as did many others. The toffs had the support of the authorities for if Mick didn’t work ‘they’d pinch me on the vag’—vagrancy laws.
The Victorian vagrancy laws were introduced in 1852 and had over 100 offences including having no visible means of support, begging, consorting, and occupying public places at night without a lawful excuse. What the legislators overlooked, or purposely chose to ignore was the poor, the aged, the unemployed, along with juveniles and prostitutes who were most likely to be arrested for vagrancy.
These laws continued well into the 20th century as the Police Offences Acts 1957, Part II, Section 70, Subsections (i), (ii) and (iii) state that any policeman may arrest without warrant any person he suspects of having no lawful means of support, and any person so arrested who fails to prove to the court that he has sufficient lawful means of support is liable to 12 months gaol. That the arrested person owns property is not taken into account, the assumption being that in the absence of visible lawful income, the defendant must live on crime. Until the laws were repealed in 1977, in the State of Victoria, you were guilty until proven innocent.
The working folk had not only to contend with the Masters and Servants Act but also the vagrancy acts. A person either had to work, and have money in their pockets, or face gaol. It is little wonder that many saw the authorities working hand-in-hand with those who were exploiting their labour. Indeed, it must have seemed similar to the early convicts being used as free labour for the squatters and officers.
The folk songs and poetry of Australia reflect the struggle of the poor for :
‘The chance to live a clean, straight life,
A dinkum deal for kids an’ wife…’
This commonality became ingrained into the national psyche. It became apparent with the desire for breaking away from the old world with its entrenched class-orientated social structure. The Great War was a turning point for uniforms stripped distinctions.
Our old world diff’rences are dead,
Like weeds beneath the plough,
For English, Scotch, and Irish-bred,
They’re all Australians now!
A bloke called Ginger Mick ‘as found ‘is game—
Found ‘is game an’ found ’is brothers, ‘oo wus strangers in ‘is sight,
Till they shed their silly clobber an’ put on the duds for fight.
“Wot in the ‘ell;” sez Mick, “ ‘ere, wot’s yer game?”
“I’m an Australian,” that wus all ‘e said,
An’ pride took ‘old o’ Mick to ‘ear that name—
A noo, glad pride that ain’t the pride o’ class—
An’ Mick’s contempt, to took the count at lars’!
One hundred years later there is still pride in Australia’s cultural heritage of the fair go, of the ANZAC tradition, and of success with humility; however, the struggle continues as Australia’s class divisions are as prevalent today as they were then: they are merely more well disguised.
In a country that has survived the Global Financial Crises better than most, that has over a decade of continued growth, the real wages of the workers has decreased as has their working conditions. More and more full-time jobs are disappearing, being replaced with part-time and casual work creating an underclass of working poor. Alternatively, there are contract positions where the individual is faced up against a corporation that dictates terms.
For women, despite supposedly being equal their ordinary full-time earnings were 18% lower than mens in 2014. Meanwhile the ‘toffs’ are doing particularly well with the top 20 senior executives pay 150 times greater than the average weekly earnings, while the next twenty have only 75 times greater, according to the Australia Institute.
Australians still want ‘a dinkum deal for kids an’ wife’ and surveys of community opinion show that Australians support a wide range of income supports and services for the less well-to-do and are willing to pay the necessary taxes, with an increase in taxation of high income earners.
The top 20% of people have more than five times the income of the lowest 20%, with the richest 7 individuals holding more wealth than 1.73 million households of the lowest 20%.
Yet, it is the high income earners and politicians from the two major political parties who espouse less taxation with corresponding cuts in social services. It is little wonder that the majority of Australians view the wealthy and politicians disrespectfully when they’re seen working in collusion against the wishes of ordinary folk.
The struggle for the ‘fair go’ in the street, in art, and in the written word continues ‘…maybe they’ll get it when I go to push up daisies, I dunno.’