History Detective

$10 Note Banjo Patterson and Waltzing Matilda Case 19

Episode Summary

This episode looks at the man who features on the $10 note, Banjo Patterson and the story behind his famous ballad Waltzing Matilda.

Episode Notes

This is the fascinating tale of the inspiration behind Australia's unofficial national anthem Waltzing Matilda.

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Episode Transcription

Hi, this is Kelly Chase and you are listening to History Detective, a podcast where I delve into the past to uncover the mysteries of history and this is series 3 All Cashed Up where I explore the historical people and places that have made it onto the Australian money. 

As we move toward a cashless society and physical money is being slowly phased out of everyday use, I wanted to pause and take a look at who are the faces who have had the honour of making it onto our money. Today we will look at the man of the $10 note. A man with a musical instrument for a name and, who among other things, is famed for writing the unofficial Australian anthem. None other than Banjo Patterson.


Banjo was not his real name. He was born Andrew Barton Patterson. When he began writing for The Bulletin as a journalist, he stated to use the penname “Banjo”. And he adopted that name, because his family owned a racehorse that was called “The Banjo”. 


Banjo, the man not the horse, was born in 1864, which is interesting because out of the 9 faces that appear on the Australian currency 5 of them were born in the 1860s, I guess the money makers must have had a thing for this period in Australian History.


The first time I remember hearing about Banjo Patterson, was a children’s book we had in the 1980s of his poem Mulga Bill’s Bicycle, then there was the classic 1982 The Man from Snowy River movie, that was based on his poem of the same name. I still vividly remember the scene where Jim rides his horse down a seemingly vertical mountainside. 

In his lifetime, Banjo Patterson was a journalist, a poet, novelist, a war correspondent for the Boer War and then in the First World War, when he was in his 50s, he served as an Ambulance Driver, an army vet and eventually as a captain. In his younger years he was also a bit of a sportsman playing tennis and rowing and because of his horsemanship he was an excellent polo player. 


But what I would like to zoom in in today, is that famed song, the surprisingly morbid ballad about a sheep stealing wonderer that somehow speaks the heart of the Aussie battler in us all. 


The poem, Waltzing Matilda was first written in 1895. But to be honest, it was a bit of a slow burn. Three years later, the newspapers would still have articles that explained the Aussie slang used. “The swagman or tramp of Australia is an independent individual. His home is on the plain beside a waterhole or billabong. He is indifferent to the higher influences of civilization. He carries his swag and waltzes Matilda (as he terms his water-bag) with… ease and grace.” The Adelaide Observer somewhat unhelpfully explained that “Waltzing Matilda” means the same thing as “Humping Bluey”. Goodness? I am not sure that clarifies anything for me. Anyway, by 1901, the year of Federation, a Rockhampton newspaper reported, “A bush poem entitled "Waltzing Matilda" is all the rage here just now.” 


If you are not familiar with the song Waltzing Matilda, here is a little summary. It is the story of a tramp, making a cup of tea on an outdoor fire by a waterhole. A sheep comes for a drink and so he takes the opportunity to steal the sheep. The farmer and mounted police arrive and so, he jumps into the waterhole to escape, but instead drowns. His ghost then haunts the waterhole.


However, the song is reported to have a much deeper inspiration. You see in the early 1890s there was a lot of trouble between the sheep shearers and the pastoralists- or farm owners. In 1890 in a story about the sheep shearer’s union, a newspaper reported that the inventions of new technology threatened the jobs of skilled shearers.  “But now.. [with] the aid of machinery anyone with only the slightest, practice, can remove the wool from the

sheep's back.” These tensions came to a head in 1894 at a place called Dagworth in Western Queensland. According to the Truth newspaper, one woolshed was burned down and unionists fired shots at another woolshed whereby the owners “replied to the shots”. I am assuming that they replied to the shooting with bullets of their own. The newspaper appears to be very anti-unionist and reports of a shearer’s death as follows, “[The] Next morning the body of a man named Hoffmeister, a prominent Union agitator, was found about two miles from Kyruna. Hoffmeister was quite dead when found.” Quite dead. A magisterial inquiry into the death found that Samuel Hoffmeister, originally a Dutch South African, did indeed take his own life by shooting himself with his Martini Sport’s Rifle. Other unionists who were present at the woolshed attack testified to say that “‘Frenchy,’ as he was called, was decidedly ‘queer,’ [or] ‘balmy,’” Balmy is an old Australian slang for eccentric. They also said that that evening ‘Frenchy’ had screwed up a letter and thrown it in the fire before mumbling something and walking off into the night. That was the last they saw of him.

There is also another story from the Dagworth area that is said to inspire the poem. Five years earlier in 1890, there was another horse-riding swagman called Burke, who was quite well known to police. One day a station owner found Burke’s horse near a waterhole, but Burke was nowhere to be found. 6 months later, when the water levels dropped, they found Burke’s body, his foot was caught in the roots of a Coolabah tree and he had drowned.

Our poet, Banjo Paterson came to stay at the Dagworth station a few months after the Union troubles and the death of Hoffmeister. So, Banjo seems to have taken a bit of artistic licence and pieced together two of these local stories and crafted them into the ballad of Waltzing Matilda. One last observation, can I just say that I love the fact that the unofficial anthem of Australia was inspired by a place called Dagworth. I wonder just how much a dag is worth?

This Kelly Chase, on the Case.

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Next time on History Detective, I will flip and reverse the $10 note and learn the story of Dame Mary Gilmore, teacher, poet and social reformer.

See you next time.