Banjo Paterson’s Australia

Then Governor General Peter Cosgrove and wife Lynne Cosgrove unveil the Banjo Paterson statue to officially open the new Waltzing Matilda Centre in Winton in 2018. Photos: Derek Barry

A month ago, the Sydney Morning Herald commemorated the 80th anniversary of the death of Andrew Barton Paterson by reprinting his obituary. Paterson, the Herald said, was a prolific writer of light topical verse and his ballads of the bush had enormous popularity. In his lifetime he was perhaps most famous for his rivalry with fellow Australian author Henry Lawson. While Lawson had an unhappy alcoholic life he was accorded a state funeral when he died in Sydney in 1922 aged 55. Paterson, by contrast, was far more content and successful in life, but was buried quietly after he died on February 4, 1941 aged 77. The raging war and the recent fall of Singapore concentrated minds on other matters when Paterson died but it also showed a long decline from creative success, a decline which only his death arrested. He remains one of the best known Australians in history..

While I’ve known of the evocatively named Banjo seemingly all my life, I’ve had a keener interest since I came to North West Queensland. In 2017 I visited Combo Waterhole, which inspired Waltzing Matilda and then attended the reopening of Winton’s Waltzing Matilda Centre a year later. The Winton building features a prominent statue of Paterson, familiar from his appearance on the $10 note, and is the town was where Paterson’s most famous song was first recorded. He wrote two other classics, Clancy of the Overflow and The Man from Snowy River and he was involved in looking after horses in the Australian Middle East campaign in World War I. As Grantlea Kieza’s Banjo (2018) wrote, Paterson lived an epic life.

Paterson loved horses, as testified by his war service. The SMH obituary makes a telling observation. Lawson almost always wrote as one who travelled on foot while Paterson wrote “as one who saw plain and bush from the back of a galloping horse”. He learned to ride horses on the family’s stations, and he received early schooling at a bush school and from a governess engaged by his family. Even his famous moniker is horse related. Paterson did not play the banjo or was much musical inclined. The Banjo a family racehorse and it was as The Banjo he first came to public attention.

Andrew Barton Paterson (known to the family as Barty) was born on February 17, 1864 in the heart of the New South Wales bush to two fairly prosperous and well-connected Scottish families the Patersons and Bartons. Australia’s first prime minister Edmund Barton was a distant relative. Paterson’s birthplace was Narrambla near Orange and his first five years were spent at Buckinbah closer to Wellington at Yeoval, where the Banjo Paterson museum now lies. Along with two younger sisters he had the run of 35,000 hectares on three adjoining properties. Its dangers and excitements – animals, droughts, floods, bushrangers, adventures, injuries and death – formed the core of his later writings. His Aboriginal nurse Fanny was a constant presence giving Paterson a respectful attitude to Indigenous people but in his writings their suffering was unimportant compared to the majesty of the land.

When wool prices tumbled in the 1860s the family had to sell Buckinbah and they moved to Illilong near Yass where Paterson attended Binalong public school. He attended his first horse race at Bogolong (now Bookham) aged eight. A rider borrowed Barty’s saddle and the youngster was thrilled as the rider won the race on a horse called Pardon. Paterson later used the name for his poem Old Pardon the Son of Reprieve. Barty inherited his storytelling from his mother and she encouraged his learning in the classics and in the country. Aged 10 he was sent to Sydney to his grandmother for a big city education at Sydney Grammar.

Paterson was sporting inclined and he excelled at cricket and tennis.He loved to visit home on holidays where he broke in wild horses. Though he failed to matriculate into Sydney University, through family connections he got a job at the legal firm of Herbert Salwey as an articled clerk. Aged 18 in 1882 he was earning money and enjoyed reading a weekly magazine The Sydney Mail which serialised a book by Thomas Alexander Browne writing as Rolf Boldrewood. Robbery Under Arms was the first local outlaw tale which following the real life exploits of Ned Kelly and the fiction of Marcus Clarke’s His Natural Life, opened a craving for Australian experiences. Two years earlier editor Jules Francois Archibald published a bold new weekly magazine called The Bulletin, which quickly became known as the Bushman’s Bible. The Bulletin struck a chord as a nationalist Australian voice when the continent was still six colonies who all preferred to deal with London rather than each other.

Paterson liked the Bulletin’s anti-imperialist message and was abhorred when Sydney sent 750 troops to the Sudan to avenge the death of General Gordon. He sent his poem about to the Bulletin signed as The Mahdi (Gordon’s enemy in Khartoum) which was published along with Archibald’s editorial that sending troops was a “fearful mistake”. Paterson sent in a long political tract under his own name which was rejected and then fearful of another rejection, another poem signed as The Banjo after “his father’s so-called racehorse”. The published poem was a forgettable boyish piece about Irish home rule but the name stuck for the rest of his life.

Archibald liked Paterson’s rough but humorous style and encouraged him to send in material about the bush which he would publish at seven shillings and sixpence a poem. An early poem in the 1886 Christmas edition was The Mykora Elopement which established his gift for alliterative rhythm, “By the winding Wollondilly where the weeping willows weep”. In 1887 the commissions kept coming but he needed the lawyer job to pay the bills. That year another writer struggling to make ends meet but without influential friends – a 20-year-old house painter named Henry Lawson – sent the Bulletin his first piece about the hostility to Queen Victoria’s jubilee. His A Song of the Republic delighted the Irish Catholic Archibald who told Lawson “you have good grit”. Lawson as the underdog and Paterson as the adventurer provided the creative fuel to the Bulletin for the next 20 years and their spirited debate about the merits of Australian bush life enthralled its readers.

In 1889 Paterson wrote his first great poem Clancy of the Overflow. The poem began as a demand letter to a drover to which the drover’s mate replied the drover had disappeared up to Queensland and “we don’t know where he are”. Banjo was entranced by the fractured grammar and the idea of a man roaming wild unconcerned by office life. The poem was immediately feted as the epitome of the drover or stockman as a free spirit.

Late that year Paterson visited the high Kosciusszko country and met a hill dweller who would provide the inspiration for The Man From Snowy River which appeared in the Bulletin in April 1890. With his movement in the station Paterson was creating a myth of Australian impressionism though it wasn’t immediately famous. It wasn’t until Angus and Robertson published it in book form in 1895 it became a household name. As was The Banjo. By then Paterson had visited Dagworth Station near Winton and listened to fiance Sarah Riley’s friend Christine Macpherson pluck out the catchy Scottish song “Bonnie Wood O’ Craigielea”. He and Macpherson collaborated on new words based on the shearers’ strike in Queensland and a suicidal swagman. While it led to the break-up of Paterson’s relationship, the collaboration produced the instant classic Waltzing Matilda, which became Australia’s unofficial national anthem,

By the end of the decade Paterson was outed as The Banjo whose works Melbourne’s Table Talk said “were the most valuable contribution to purely Australian literature”. Australia’s favourite poet was hungry for new adventures and when the Boer War broke out in 1899 the Sydney Morning Herald hired him as war correspondent. Unlike Sudan, Paterson approved the NSW contingent but was sympathetic to Boer concerns. He reported on action at Colesberg and Arundel and saw the taking of a Boer homestead as he began to see how the war was unwinnable.

A friend of Paterson from the Bulletin days also came to the same conclusion and launched his own total war on the Boers. Harry “Breaker” Morant, a former short-lived husband of Daisy Bates,was a charming conman and Queensland drifter who created his own legend as a horse breaker, and who also published poetry in The Bulletin. Paterson met him at a hunt and they struck up a friendship chatting till 3am before Morant typically asked for money. In South Africa he was a lieutenant with the Bushfeldt Carbineers and operated a shoot to kill policy with his men in revenge for the death of his commanding officer. At his court martial Morant told prosecutors he was operating under Rule 303 for the Lee Enfield .303 rifle they carried. Morant wasn’t the only murderer, but had to hang for speaking about the unspoken shoot-to-kill policy. Paterson never met him in South Africa but he had enough of war and shipped back home.

After travels to China, England and New Hebrides and a brief fling with fellow writer Miles Franklin, Paterson finally settled down aged 40 and married in 1903 to Alice Walker. They had known each other eight years and were both part of the Scottish squattocracy. The wedding was reported in detail in the Evening News which was unsurprising as he was now editor. The News was a lurid, racy publication to which Paterson added accuracy and colour. He continued to publish books and poetry but they were less successful that his 19th century work.

By the time of the First World War Paterson was 50 and seeking a new challenge. He was unable to get a war correspondent job with the Herald but travelled with the horses to Europe as an honorary vet. From Colombo he broke the story of the Australian captain who sank the German ship Emden. When the troops landed in Egypt he went to England and to get to the front in France. He visited Lady Dudley’s field hospital then near Boulogne but could not get employed as a journalist. He sailed home and re-enlisted in September 1915 taking two years off his age on the form. Putting his horse experience to good use he was made a lieutenant in the Household Cavalry, the 2nd Remount Unit.

Paterson was based in Cairo dealing with 50,000 horses and 10,000 mules. Promoted to captain, he and his men broke in the wildest horses in a daily and dangerous rodeo show. He never got to see the frontline but stayed in Palestine for 12 months after the war. He was reunited with wife Alice who signed on as a nurse at the Ismailia Red Cross hospital. At the end of his assignment he was sickened as 2000 Waler horses were shot dead, unable to return to Australia due to strict quarantine rules.

Unlike the horses, Paterson returned home just as his third collection of poetry, Saltbush Bill JP, was published. He got a job as a reporter for The Sportsman which he enjoyed thoroughly for eight years, especially reporting on the racing. Lawson died in 1922 but Paterson was possibly the only person in Sydney not to attend the funeral. They were not enemies. Paterson had even represented Lawson in legal troubles, and he later regretted calling Lawson “the melancholy poet with a graveyard of his own.”

Paterson lived on and remained a major social presence in Sydney for the best part of two decades. His voice was heard on the new medium of radio and a portrait of him won the new Archibald prize, bequeathed by Paterson’s old publisher. Australia was dragged into another war in 1939 and this time it was Paterson’s son Hugh who fought, as a rat of Tobruk. Hugh survived but never saw his father again. The Banjo passed from life into legend on February 5, 1941. As the Herald said in its obituary Paterson and his old friend Lawson “imparted to the literature of their country a note which marked the beginning of a new period.”


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