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…”
by Cary McAulay
acrylic on canvas
40cm x 50cm