The Drover’s Wife


The archetypal Bushman celebrated by the Bulletin, and writers such as Lawson, Paterson, Miles Franklin, Joseph Furphy, and a host of others, was, of course male. Women are frequently absent, or at best are marginal figures, in ballads and stories of bush life which deal with the nomadic life of the swagmen looking for work, of drovers driving their cattle across hundreds or thousands of miles of sparsely settled country, of incidents which take place in the shearing shed, the pub or the bush camp. When they do appear, it is often in the role of the wife who is left behind while her husband goes off working, and it is this aspect of women’s lives in the bush which Lawson focuses on in his famous tale “The Drover’s Wife”.

While undertaking his surveys my great-grandfather, George Chale Watson met some of the indomitable women who pioneered outback Queensland. Mrs Bignell is just one of these.

“From Cunnamulla I proceeded further east and affected the survey of Noorama and Widgeegoara Creek where stations had been formed by Mr Edward Brown, the Messrs Howie and Mr John Bignell, the latter in Widgeegoara Creek. He was married to the eldest Miss Williams of Coongoola, one of the first white women who entered the Warrego District and certainly one of the bravest. Some years previous to 1874, when just married and residing on the Upper Bulloo at Tintinchilla station, of which her husband was the manager, upon one occasion a blackfellow stealthily crept into the dwelling and was in the act of tomahawking here when she flew out the opposite door, which fortunately happened to be open, and reached within sight of the stockyard, where Mr Bignell and his men were working. The pursuer, unable to catch her, ran off to roam about until the native police terminated his career.

Upon reaching Mr. Bignell’s station on the Widgeegoara I found Mrs Bignell upholding the traditions of pioneering, for she was living in an improvised shelter of a few sheets of corrugated iron. However, she found means, even in those primitive conditions to extend the traditional hospitality of Coongoola.


The whole of the Widgeegoara and Noorama country was like a luxuriant wheat field, covered with Mitchell grass. The Widgeegoara and Noorama creeks are actually billabongs which run out of the Warrego on to an immense southern plain which runs along the boundary of Queensland and New South Wales, extending from the Condemine waters to Grey’s Range on the west of the Bulloo River. It is only in a very high flood like that of 1874 that the Warrego overflows into the Widgeegoara and Noorama so that until dams were made and wells sunk the waterholes would remain for years unfilled. A few hundred yards of the canal cut out of the Warrego into the head of the Widgeegoara billabong would obviate this serious drawback. In fact the billabongs which break away from the Warrego, Paroo and Bulloo might be utilised by the extension of canals to irrigate the immense Southern plain referred to.”

Source: G. C. Watson Building the Commonwealth

Abandoned Mangalore


Setting out from Charleville and proceeding down the river in the year 1874, the traveller at a distance of forty miles reached Dillalah, then under the management of Mr. Frederick Walter. Being upon the main road, and no accommodation near it, proved a rendezvous, where, amongst other travellers, the squatter and the drover preponderated. Opposite to Dillalah stood the abandoned station of Managalore, where much capital had been expended in buildings and yards, and it was then in the market for disposal.

The growth of Mitchell grass illustrates the tangible value of the Warrego River country whilst the mulga ridges which comprise the backcountry are grassed with what is known as the Mulga grass, beside which rich herbage abounds so that the Warrego district is not inaccurately described as the garden of Queensland. In any case, it is one of the most valuable sections.

About seven miles below Dillalah was the station of Murweh, where a few years previously the owner was murdered by a notorious blackfellow named Dillalah Jommy, who pushed his head first into the waterhole, which had very steep banks, as he was drawing a bucket of water. Jommy had his hands stained with several murders, and, only a few weeks before my entrance on the Warrego had waylaid a boy riding his pony on the outskirts of Cunnamulla, exercising a diabolical cunning by breaking his skull so that it would appear he had been kicked in the head by his horse after being thrown.

The next station down the Warrego was Claverton, formed by Messrs Bigge, of Mount Brisbane, and Geary. A large amount of capital was invested in the formation of the station which carried both sheep and cattle. The reputation which this station held in the district for hospitality was indeed well merited.

Local Inhabitants

m_bilby.jpgG. C. Watson noted, when he surveyed the Langlo that the country had been abandoned and that he found only two settlers – Pettiford and Bucknall. But clearly, the land was not really abandoned at all. Apart from the native aboriginal population it was home to a graceful little bandicoot called the Bilby.

(An extract from Tim Flannery’s excellent book, Australia’s Vanishing Mammals, RD Press, 1990)

This graceful bandicoot is quite variable in size and, depending on sex, habitat and age can weigh anything between 800 and 250 grams. It has a head and body length of 290-550 mm, with the tail adding an extra 200-290 mm.

The bilby has long, silky, blue-grey fur with white on the underside, although seasonal molts may change the coat length and the colour to a fawn-grey. Its ears are long, largely naked and rabbit-like, and it has an elongated muzzle, the last 20 mm of which are flesh-coloured and naked.

In some specimens there is a faint indication of bars across the thigh fur. The tail is first grey near its base, and then black, and ends in a sharply defined white tip. A horny spur protrudes beyond the hairs at the extreme tip and there is a crest on the upper surface of the tail. As the bilby moves with its cantering gait it often carries its tail like a stiff banner. When the animal is cantering the hind legs move together and the front legs alternatively. It usually has white feet and may have blackish tips on the claws.

The bilby has strong forelimbs and claws and it uses these to good advantage when digging for food and when burrowing. Although most bandicoots do not make burrows, bilbies dig burrows with a relatively steep spiral to a depth of up to 1.8 metres and length of three metres. The entrance is often next to a termite mound or some shrubs, and is left open. However, when it is at home, the bilby blocks the entrance with soil which extends for some distance into the burrow.

Bilbies are basically omnivorous. They eat insects and their larvae, seeds, bulbs, fruit, fungi and, in captivity, meat and small vertebrates.

Some burrows studied appear to be grouped, suggesting that the animals may live in colonies. However, investigations and reports from Aborigines show that pairs of animals and their latest offspring may inhabit each group of burrows. Home ranges may be temporary in location and shift in response to food availability. Bilbies studied in the Northern Territory were found to stay within 100 metres of their burrows, although they used and visited a number of burrows.

The sudden and widespread contraction of the bilby’s range may be attributed to the effects of rabbit and livestock grazing, foxes and cats and a change in the fire regime implemented by Aborigines.

The Never Never

Never Never Land is a real place. My great grandfather, George Chale Watson, spent seven years surveying the Never Never.

The name was first recorded, in the late 19th century, describing the uninhabited regions of Australia – then called just ‘The Never-Never’. The more remote outback regions of the Northern Territory and Queensland are still known by that name. This is as much a state of mind and a folk-memory that recalls the pre-settlement outback life with fondness as it is a precise geographical location.



By hut, homestead and shearing shed,
By railroad, coach and track-
By lonely graves where rest the dead,
Up-Country and Out-Back:
To where beneath the clustered stars
The dreamy plains expand-
My home lies wide a thousand miles
In Never-Never Land.
It lies beyond the farming belt,
Wide wastes of scrub and plain,
A blazing desert in the drought,
A lake-land after rain;
To the skyline sweeps the waving grass,
Or whirls the scorching sand-
A phantom land, a mystic realm!
The Never-Never Land.
Where lone Mount Desolation lies
Mounts Dreadful and Despair-
‘Tis lost beneath the rainless skies
In hopeless deserts there;
It spreads nor-west by No-Man’s Land
Where clouds are seldom seen
To where the cattle stations lie
Three hundred miles between.
The drovers of the Great Stock Routes
The strange Gulf country Know
Where, travelling from the southern droughts,
The big lean bullocks go;
And camped by night where plains lie wide,
Like some old ocean’s bed,
The watchmen in the starlight ride
Round fifteen hundred head.
Lest in the city I forget
True mateship after all,
My water-bag and billy yet
Are hanging on the wall;
And I, to save my soul again,
Would tramp to sunsets grand
With sad-eyed mates across the plain
In Never-Never Land.
by Henry Lawson

“Soon after the weather moderated we took our departure from Bucknall’s Station and crossed over to Middle Creek, the country held by a stalwart pioneer, Mr A.E. Bullmore, whose head station, Oakwood, was on the Ward River. Mr Bullmore accompanied me during my survey of Middle Creek whereon he had an out cattle station, a sign of civilisation that was welcome, for since leaving Bucknall’s we had only seen the out sheep stations near the head of Middle Creek. In those days fifty, sixty, and seventy miles intervened between the outposts of civilisation – if such it could be called – where a solitary shepherd or stockman endure their periods of isolation in a round of existence that can hardly be called life.

In the approach of the rainy seasons in those parts the experiences of the traveller and residents are very unwelcome as regards flies, sandflies, and mosquitoes that the only successful remedy found being that of smoke of cowdung. The flies will eat the eyes out of a horse’s head and when a dish of mutton chops are placed on the table the chops become invisible through the swarms of flies thereon: so that the unwary bushman, who fails to protect his eyes with a veil finds himself suffering from bung blight which often times develops into sandy blight and severe ophthalmic diseases. Sand bites will run horses fifty miles off a station and scatter them all over the country.

On one night our camp was overwhelmingly beset with mosquitoes, which bit through blankets and every other coverage except our boots. The country not being stocked there was no cow dung mosquito fuel available, and the atmosphere being calm the mosquitoes were the masters of the situation. At breakfast next morning I reminded my assistants that if John Wesley were present he would suggest that before eating those who had indulged in profanity at the mosquitoes should wash their mouths, in which one of them unhesitatingly replied, “I would like to have seen John Wesley encamped here last night without cow dung.”

Settlement in the Western districts in the year I commenced my surveys being so far apart the country was very wild: immense camps of blackfellows roamed at large; they had committed and were still committing some foul murders of unprotected settlers and travellers so that as a precaution our survey party was necessarily well armed. I expended about fifteen pounds in revolvers, guns and ammunitions, which, happily we never had the occasion to use. The sight of our weapons displayed on our saddles had the deterrent effect desired. Nevertheless the blackfellows had his rights; as we had taken their country without any commensurate recompense and our lawless whites had wreaked violence and outrage upon them, in some cases with wholesale iniquity. Not infrequently, when mobs of blacks were driven in by the dry weather to fall back upon their tribal waterholes for sustenance in fishing the pastoral occupants of the country would tell the police that the blacks were assembling for violence. The native police, who delighted in taking life would disperse them with unmitigated violence.”

Mr Bucknell’s Station

Taking a departure from Charleville in the first week of 1874 I commenced my survey by traversing the Langlo River from its junction with the Ward River, already surveyed by Mr. F.T. Gregory, who had also surveyed the Warrego River. It was accordingly, from his marked trees on the last mentioned river that I had to take my starting point to continue the surveys westward.


Upon reaching the Langro I was surprised at its apparently barren conditions, the grass was so scarce that our horse could only graze around the waterholes. I nevertheless pushed on with the surveys, making progress at the rate of ten miles a day, for which I was to receive one pound per mile. All, however, is not gold that glitters as travelling and map drawing occupied a serious expenditure of time, during which, while my men were not earning money, their wages were accumulating.

My survey of the Langlo proved a revelation to me. When I commenced the country was well-nigh bare of grass in some places like a road. The plains which bordered the river were comparatively devoid of vegetation, with patches of herbage and dry grass. Water, however, was abundant, the river being a succession of waterholes, some of them miles in length and very deep. From the main channel, billabongs extended, in some places spreading out over the dead level country, which characterises the Western districts. The river ran only in times of rain, whereby the waterholes were maintained.

I had completed the survey of the river and reached Mr Bucknall’s station, which after a succession of ominous clouds which had threatened for a week, with the attendant scorching heat, the weather broke in a terrific thunderstorm just as we were enjoying our slumbers and the rain came down in torrents. The local rain gauges registered 14in which fell between 10 p.m and daylight on the following morning, raising a flood which spread over the plains like a sea. As an accompaniment of heavy rain, the country got so soft that for some days horses could not travel. The wet weather continued for a week, culminating in successive heavy rains until the floods rose to an unprecedented height. We had reached the comfortable shelter of Mr Bucknell’s station, situated on the banks of the Langro, with a billabong in the rear. Here the waters rose so rapidly that we were compelled to make our exit and encamp on a low ridge across the billabong, whence we witnessed the homestead deluged through the rise of the river, reaching four feet above the floor.



As we returned from the survey of the Langlo, we were positively amazed at the luxuriant growth of grass during our three weeks absence. We found the plains transformed into a verdant stretch resembling a wheat field. The country had been previously occupied and abandoned so that I only found two settlers – namely Messrs Pettiford and Bucknall.

Waltz With Matilda

Once a jolly swagman camped by a Billabong
Under the shade of a Coolabah tree
And he sang as he watched and waited till his billy boiled
“Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?”

Down come a jumbuck to drink at the water hole
Up jumped a swagman and grabbed him in glee
And he sang as he stowed him away in his tucker bag
“You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me.”

Up rode the Squatter a riding his thoroughbred
Up rode the Trooper–one, two, three
“Where’s that jumbuck you’ve got in your tucker bag?”
“You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me.”

But the swagman he up and jumped in the water hole
Drowning himself by the Coolabah tree,
And his ghost may be heard as it sings in the Billabong,
“Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?

–from “Waltzing Matilda” by Andrew Barton “Banjo” Paterson, 1895.

“Advance Australia Fair” was proclaimed as Australia’s national anthem, replacing “God Save the Queen,” on 19 April 1984. If you ask an average Australian to sing the national anthem chances are that they will recite only the opening lines. However, if you ask an average Australian to sing “Waltzing Matilda” it is almost certain that they will sing about the swagman [1] who stole a jumbuck [2] and fled from the troopers [3] with some flourish.

“Waltzing Matilda,” Australia’s unofficial anthem, is known and loved all over the world and, arguably stands alongside” The Star-Spangled Banner” or ” La Marseillaise” as a song capable of arousing deep national pride. The strains of “Waltzing Matilda” consistently bring a tear to the eyes of Australians far from home, Australians who, like the late Peter Allen, still like to call Australia home.

Where did the song originate? Why do Australians find “Waltzing Matilda” so unutterably poignant? What do the words mean? Why are Australians moved by the escapades of a petty criminal?

‘Waltzing Matilda’ is credited to Andrew Barton (Banjo) Paterson (1864 -1941). Banjo Paterson was a lawyer by profession and lived and worked in Sydney Australia. Although Paterson was a city slicker who hailed from the urban fringes of Australia, he was, like so many of his ilk, enchanted by the Australian bush and outback. Paterson is purported to have been travelling with his fiancée in central Queensland, about 1,500 km north of Sydney when he wrote the song. The couple are said to have spent a few weeks at Dagworth Station, a vast outback station near Winton in Queensland. It was at Dagworth that Paterson is said to have met Christina MacPherson, whose brother managed the station at the time. One yarn [4] suggests that it was Christina who inspired Banjo with a whimsical, dreamy rendition of the tune ‘Craigeelee’, a score which provided the basis for ‘Waltzing Matilda’

The expression ‘waltzing matilda’ is believed to have German origins. Handolf, near Adelaide was just one of the many German settlements that sprang up in Australia once free immigrants began to arrive and German expressions quickly made their way into the vocabulary. It is almost certain that the title of Paterson’s ballad came from the expression Auf die Waltz gehen, that means to take to the road. The term harks back to the Middle Ages when apprentices were required by their master to visit other masters before their release could be secured. Later a ‘matilda’ was given to female camp followers who accompanied soldiers during the Thirty Year War in Europe and was common place during World War One.In the context of the song ‘Waltzing Matilda’ the ‘matilda’ was a pack that swagmen carried, filled with things tho keep them warm at night. To waltz with matilda literally meant to travel, to dance from place to place in search of work, with one’s belongings wrapped in a grey blanket. [5]

Paterson, like most Australians who lived in the cities, was fascinated by stories of the hostile, arid outback. Deaths in the outback were well publicized. Deaths on the track were a common occurrence and it is likely that the fate of travelers would have been a subject of conversation of an evening while Paterson was at Dagworth. Stories of those that perished would have been told along the bush telegraph, shared over dinner, acting as a cautionary tale for the foolhardy. For example, one story that drifted down the bush telegraph told of the fate of Seymour Hamilton, a nineteen-year-old, two years out from England. He left Tinga Tinagans for Coongie but never arrived. Subsequent searches found his packsaddle and swag. He was believed to have died of thirst and, when his bones were finally found, they had been scattered and gnawed by dingoes.

Another formative influence on Paterson may have been the story of an incident that actually occurred at Dagworth. an incident on the property that must have become known to him during his stay. On 1 September 1894, a mere four months earlier, shearers had set the Dagworth woolshed ablaze, cremating a hundred sheep. MacPherson and three police troopers had pursued the shearers. [6]

It is almost certain that Banjo Paterson threaded together events such as these when he conjured up “Waltzing Matilda”. But why has the story endured? How has “Waltzing Matilda” made its way into the Australian psyche?

Modern Australians may live predominantly in urban zones but this does not lessen the call of the outback, the lure of the bush, or lessen their need to hear yarns of pioneering ancestors who left Old England’s shore, picked up lumps of gold [7] and went on to build a nation on the back of the sheep. Australian stories and art that have endured are invariably set in the bush and involve the triumph of the underdog.

The setting of “Waltzing Matilda” is enough to fuel a deep yearning within Australians to escape from the concrete cities of the urban fringes. To travel the outback, with my swag all on my shoulder, to witness the stark beauty and isolation of this most ancient of lands, to lie beneath the Southern Cross, to smell the unique perfume of the eucalypt, is a dream, a quest that sends thousands of wanderers towards the red centre each year, in search of just such a place. To lie while the billy [8] boils, to dream by a billabong [9], under the shade of a Coolabah tree is akin to finding the eternal Garden of Eden.

Moreover, “Waltzing Matilda” builds support for the underdog and creates a hero out of a gutsy, destitute man. The hapless swagman in this story was one of thousands of unemployed men who tramped around the Australian bush during the mid nineteen eighties, usually coming to sheep stations at sunset to ask for supper and a bed, when it was too late to work. (Sometimes called a Sundowner because they arrived at sundown when it was too late to be expected to work.)

We can only speculate, but it is more than likely that, having been refused supper or a bed, the swagman of “Waltzing Matilda” fame, camped for the night by a billabong, under the shade of a Coolabah tree [10] meditating upon where his next meal was to come from. The squatter and troopers, who swooped down upon this swaggie, demanding that he give up the jumbuck, represent despised wealth and authority. It is no coincidence that the Squatter is riding a thoroughbred horse and that he brings not one, but three troopers to help retrieve his stock. The swagman’s defiance touches a deep anti-authoritarian archetype that springs from the days of the Eureka Stockade, The First Fleet, the Rum Corps and the personal history of those early convicts who were transported to Australia for petty crimes.

The early Australian settlement was confined within the curves of the Blue Mountains and as the settlement grew, free settlers arrived explorers sought new land for grazing. People ‘squatted’ on patches of land, grazed their animals, grew their crops and built their houses and fences. In good quality grazing country squatters claimed vast areas and became wealthy. The term ‘squattocracy’, a term blended from the word ‘squatter’ came to be associated with ‘aristocracy’. The police worked with them to maintain law and order and to protect their holdings. Consequently, squatters were an object of resentment.

The pastoralist/squatter’s reluctance to mete out food, his need to protect his flock is understandable given the swarms of penniless, badly clothed men wandering discontentedly from hut to hut and station to station, but the crime of the swagman in this story seems petty! A hungry, destitute man, down on his luck, steals one sheep on a sheep station with a flock of thousands. This is hardly a hanging offence, any more than stealing a loaf of bread warranted transportation.

Apart from the anti-authoritarian overtones there is no doubt that “Waltzing Matilda” romanticizes the larrikin quality of the jolly swaggie, jumping with glee. Who can resist this rascal’s charm? A character, unique, fiercely independent, the swagman is not to be patronized. It is his free spirit that sends him to a watery death and haunts Australians as his ghost may be heard, singing in the Billabong. The swagman, like Joan of Arc, never dies. They cut out Joan’s heart and thought that this was the end of her but she lives on. Similarly the ghostly figure of the unnamed Swagman has eternal life, representing a freedom of movement and thought that many Australians now take for granted.

At day’s end, “Waltzing Matilda” is poignant because of the combination of characteristics that sum up so much of Australian spirit and life. “Waltzing Matilda” reminds us of our ancestral history, defines nationhood and fills Australians with a sense of pride that the country was built by people who had been deemed dregs, but who were courageous and innovative and built something from nothing. The ghost of the swagman may be found in the faces of the pioneers who settled the Never Never; in the eyes of the hardened shearing unionist who paved the way for Unionism in Australia; within the defiance of the Anzac storming the beaches of Gallipoli; in the stride of the Bondi life-saver and in the face of the determined protestor thumbing his nose at government officials and bureaucracy.

Australians will never fully accept “Advance Australia Fair” as their national anthem because it is the song of a city-based intellectual, full of stilted language that paints Australians as something they are not. Australians will always respond to “Waltzing Matilda” because “Waltzing Matilda” has moved from being a bush ballad to a creation myth, a yarn told in a language now almost as unfamiliar as Latin, a glorious romantic tale that helps to identify and separate Australia and Australians from every other country, every other people on the globe.

[1] A gentleman of the road, an itinerant roaming country roads, a drifter, a tramp, a hobo. Carried his few belongings slung in a cloth, which was called by a wide variety of names, including ‘swag’, ‘shiralee’ and ‘bluey’.

[2] A sheep: aboriginal word meaning white cloud.

[3] A cavalry soldier, or perhaps a mounted militia-man or policeman.

[4] an Australian story.

[5] From the Web site: About Waltzing Matilda, Senani Ponnamperuma, 1996, 1997.

[6] From the Web site: About Waltzing Matilda, Senani Ponnamperuma, 1996, 1997.

[7] This is in reference to the Gold Rush which saw an influx of gold seekers to towns like Ballarat.

[8] A can or small kettle used to boil water for tea.

[9] Billabong: a waterhole near a river.

[10] A kind of eucalyptus tree.