Introducing leggings. You’ll never run out of inspiration.

A Swagman (also called a Swaggie) is an old New Zealand and Australian term describing an underclass of transient temporary workers, who travelled by foot from farm to farm carrying the traditional swag (waterproof bedroll). Also characteristic of swagman attire was a hat strung with corks to ward off flies.
Particularly during the Depression of the 1890s and the Great Depression of the 1930s, unemployed men travelled the rural areas of Australia on foot, their few meagre possessions rolled up and carried in their swag. Typically, they would seek work in farms and towns they travelled through, and in many cases the farmers, if no permanent work was available, would provide food and shelter in return for some menial task.
Another form of the swagman was the “pack horse bagman” who rode a horse and led one or two pack horses in his travels, typically in the Northern Territory. The pack horse bagman called in at stations where he would work shoeing horses, mustering, repairing bores etc.
Before motor transport became common, the Australian wool industry was heavily dependent on itinerant shearers who carried their swags from farm to farm (called properties or “stations” in Australia), but would not in general have taken kindly to being called “swagmen”. Outside of the shearing season their existence was frugal, and this possibly explains the tradition (of past years) of sheep stations in particular providing enough food to last until the next station even when no work was available.
A romanticised figure, the swagman is famously referred to in the song “Waltzing Matilda,” by Banjo Paterson, which tells of a swagman who turns to stealing a sheep from the local squatter. Yet the song wasn’t originally about swagmen: before Banjo Paterson rewrote the song, it was actually a traditional bush song.
Early accounts of swagmen are from the Australian gold rush days of the 1850s when the population increased dramatically. The economic depressions of the 1860s and 1890s saw an increase in these itinerant workers. During these periods it was seen as ‘mobilising the workforce’. At one point it was rumoured that a “Matilda Waltzers’ Union” had been formed to give representation to swagmen at the Federation of Australia in 1901.
During the early years of the 1900s the introduction of the pension and the dole reduced the numbers of swagmen to those who preferred the free lifestyle. During World War One many were called up for duty and fought at Gallipoli as ANZACs. The song And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda tells the story of a swagman who fought at Gallipoli.
The numbers of swagmen have declined over the 20th century but still rising in times of economic depression. Although some say they were still common in some areas up to the late 1970s, however today, it is rare to find the type of character that will take on the challenges of the lifestyle. There is little doubt that the humble swagman will remain a romantic icon of Australian history and folklore.
The swagman’s lifestyle would have been a challenging one. Often they would have been victims of circumstance who had found themselves homeless but there were certainly those who were ‘rovers’ by choice.
Their circumstances would have included a variety of backgrounds from; European and Asian migrants, indigenous people, and ranged from teenagers to the elderly. They would have sometimes been scoundrels on the run from police but we’d like to believe that most were characters that wandered the bush telling yarns of the places they’d been and things they’d done. It would have been hard to find a ‘swaggie’ without a tendency to exaggerate for effect. Other swagmen would have been loners who preferred to keep to themselves. Some would have been alcoholics.
Some periods would have made it common to see them in and around urban areas looking for work or a handout. The most common descriptions are from the period when the country was ‘riding on the sheep’s back’. At this time rovers were offered rations at police stations as an early form of the dole payment. They roamed the countryside finding work as sheep shearers or as farm hands. Not all were hard workers. There are reports of swagmen arriving at the homestead at sundown when it was too late to work, taking in a meal and disappearing before work started the next morning. For these antics they coined the name ‘sundowners’.
Most existed with few possessions as they were limited by what they could carry. Generally they had a swag (canvas bedroll), a tucker bag (bag for carrying food) and some cooking implements which may have included a billy can (tea pot or stewing pot). They carried flour for making damper and sometimes some meat for a stew. They traveled with fellow ‘swaggies’ for periods, walking where they had to go, hitch hiking or stowing aboard cargo trains to get around. They slept on the ground next to a campfire, in hollowed out trees or under bridges. It would have been a challenging lifestyle in any period of history, avoiding snakes, evading bushfires and getting lost.
It could be said truly for some: “Once a jolly swagman… Always a jolly swagman…”

The Swaggie
by Cary McAulay

acrylic on canvas
40cm x 50cm
original sold

All Products

australia, culture, genre, people, swaggie, sun

Cary has been painting professionally since 1986. Cary has won many Art Awards all over Australia, ranging from The Portland Art Prize, the Bendemeer Art Prize (twice), first in the Acrylic section at the Nanango Art Exhibition and the Woodford Art Prize(winner advanced artist section).
“With my art, I focus on the beauty of our environment and our effect we have upon the natural world.”

View Full Profile


  • Maryann3
    Maryann3over 4 years ago

    I had to look up “swaggie” – had never heard it.
    Interesting slice of life work. I like your sky in the distance.

  • Thanks Maryann….I will put a bit of a description up there about ‘Swaggies’ they are a much loved Aussie Icon. ;-)

    – Cary McAulay

    DARREN HANLONover 4 years ago

    Yeah learned me something too hehe , Great Painting skills

  • Thanks Darren. ;-)

    – Cary McAulay

  • Jenny Dean
    Jenny Deanover 4 years ago

    nice work Cary, as always :)

  • thanks Jenny…. gee your up early! ;-)))))))))))

    – Cary McAulay

  • Seth  Weaver
    Seth Weaverover 4 years ago

    A stunning work with rich colors and composition and a great personality all its own. Excellent, Cary.

  • Thanks Seth……. yes this one was snapped up by one of my collectors…. Bill wanted it as soon as he saw the original! He owns about 5 or so… wish there were more more Bill’s around! No pun intended! the art collector type of Bills NOT the ones you get in the mail!

    – Cary McAulay

  • Kay Cunningham
    Kay Cunninghamover 4 years ago

    Lovely work.

  • Thanks Kay – I am really glad you like this one! Ü

    – Cary McAulay

  • Roger Jewell
    Roger Jewellover 4 years ago

  • Thanks….. That’s quite an honour. Ü

    – Cary McAulay

  • Laurie Minor
    Laurie Minorover 4 years ago

    Wonderful image & thank you for the interesting background info!

  • thankx Laurie :)

    – Cary McAulay

  • dazzamataz
    dazzamatazover 3 years ago

    This is great it makes me want to know where this guy is going, Great work Cary

  • thanks again…hopefully he was going to a place where he was able to find work! it was a tough life for those ol’ timers!

    – Cary McAulay

  • photosbytony
    photosbytonyover 3 years ago

    Another favorite ! tony

  • Thanks for viewing my work and your words of encouragement! and for adding this painting to your favorites it means a lot to me… Ü

    – Cary McAulay

  • Albert
    Albertover 3 years ago


  • thanks Albert

    – Cary McAulay

desktop tablet-landscape content-width tablet-portrait workstream-4-across phone-landscape phone-portrait

10%off for joining

the Redbubble mailing list

Receive exclusive deals and awesome artist news and content right to your inbox. Free for your convenience.