A swagman (also called a swaggie, sundowner or tussocker) is an old Australian and New Zealand term describing an underclass of transient temporary workers, who travelled by foot from farm to farm carrying the traditional swag (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.
In the early 1800s, the term swag was used by British thieves to describe any amount of stolen goods. One definition given in Francis Grose's 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue is "any booty you have lately obtained,.... To carry the swag is to be the bearer of the stolen goods to a place of safety." James Hardy Vaux, a convict in Australia, used the term for similar purposes in his memoirs written in 1812 and published in 1819. By the 1830s, the term in Australia had transferred from meaning goods acquired by a thief to the possessions and daily necessaries carried by a bushman. The compound swagman and colloquial variation swaggie first appeared in the 1850s during the Australian gold rushes, alongside less common terms such as bundleman. New Zealanders adopted the term in the 1880s, where swagmen were also known as swaggers. Swagger also originated in Australia, but became obsolete there by the 1890s.
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. Some were especially noted for their hospitality, such as Canowie Station in South Australia which around 1903 provided over 2,000 sundowners each year with their customary two meals and a bed.
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. Swagmen remain a romantic icon of Australian history and folklore.
Swags are still heavily used, particularly in Australia, by overlanders. There are still a large number of manufacturers actively making both standard and custom-design swags.
Swagmen were often victims of circumstance who had found themselves homeless. Others were rovers by choice, or else they were on the run from police (bushrangers). Many were European or Asian migrants seeking fortune on the goldfields. One such swagman was Welshman Joseph Jenkins, who travelled throughout Victoria between 1869 and 1894, documenting his experiences in daily diary entries and through poetry. Swagmen ranged in age from teenagers to the elderly. Socialist leader John A. Lee's time as a swagman while a teenager informed his political writing, and also featured directly in some of his other books. Novelist Donald Stuart also began his life as a swagman at age 14. Several of his novels follow the lives of swagmen and aborigines in the Kimbereley and Pilbara regions of Western Australia. Many swagmen interacted with aborigines along their travels; bushwear designer R.M. Williams spent his latter teen years as a swagman travelling across the Nullarbor Plain, picking up bushcraft and survival skills from local aboriginal tribes such as cutting mulga, tracking kangaroos and finding water.
At times they would have been seen in and around urban areas looking for work or a handout. Most eyewitness descriptions of swagmen were written during 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. Some swagmen known as sundowners would arrive at homesteads or stations at sundown when it was too late to work, taking in a meal and disappearing before work started the next morning. The New Zealand equivalent of a sundowner was known as a tussocker.
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.
In Henry Lawson's short story The Romance of the Swag, he describes in detail how to make a dinky-die Aussie swag. Lawson states,"Travelling with the swag in Australia is variously and picteresguely described as "humping bluey", "walking Matilda", "humping Matilda", "humping your drum", "being on the wallaby", "jabbing trotters", and "tea and sugar burglaring"..
Swagmen 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.
In the 19th century, Australian bush poetry grew in popularity alongside an emerging sense of Australian nationalism. The swagman was venerated in poetry and literature as symbolic of Australian nationalistic and egalitarian ideals. Popular poems about swagmen include Henry Lawson's Out Back (1893) and Shaw Neilson's The Sundowner (1908). In 1902, Barbara Baynton wrote a collection of short stories titled Bush Studies. The final story, The Chosen Vessel, gave an account of a woman alone in a bush dwelling, where she is preyed upon and eventually raped and murdered by a passing swagman. This was in stark contrast to traditional bush lore, where swagmen are depicted in distinctly romantic terms. Swagmen were also prominent in the works of those associated with the Jindyworobak Movement, including poet Roland Robinson, who was a swagman for much of his life before World War II.
Coinciding with trends in 19th-century Australian literature, swagmen were popular subjects of contemporary painters and illustrators. Drawings of swagmen, itinerant bush workers, rural nomads and other men "on the wallaby" were prevalent in newspapers and picturesque atlases. ST Gill and James Alfred Turner popularized the open-air life of the swagman. By the 1880s, swagmen featured in the works of Tom Roberts, Walter Withers, Arthur Streeton, Frederick McCubbin, and other artists associated with the Melbourne-based Heidelberg School, which is customarily held to be the first distinctly Australian movement in Western art and the "golden age of national idealism" in Australian painting.
Swagmen and other characters of the bush were popular subjects of the silent film era of Australian cinema. Raymond Longford's 1914 The Swagman's Story starred Lottie Lyell. 1936's The Flying Doctor was directed by Miles Mander and starred Charles Farrell as a swagman travelling through the Blue Mountains towards Sydney. Swagmen have been the subject of numerous books including the 1955 novel The Shiralee by D'Arcy Niland, which was made into a 1957 film, starring Peter Finch (who himself lived as a swagman during early adulthood), and a 1987 TV mini-series, starring Bryan Brown. Norman Kaye played the role of a swagman in the 1976 bushranger film Mad Dog Morgan. Arthur Upfield wrote a number of novels about swagmen including Death of a Swagman (1942), The Bushman Who Came Back (1957) and Madman's Bend (1963). In the 1981 film adaptation of Ethel Pedley's 1899 children's book Dot and the Kangaroo, a magical swagman helps Dot find Mother Kangaroo's lost joey.
The Scottish singer-songwriter Alistair Hulett wrote a song about the 'swaggies' called "The Swaggies Have All Waltzed Matilda Away" (mp3 download from the Artist's website), which appeared on his album The Cold Grey Light Of Dawn.
List of swagman bush ballads
- "Australia's on the Wallaby"
- "Four Little Johnny Cakes"
- "Humping Old Bluey"
- "My Old Black Billy"
- "The Old Bark Hut"
- "The Ramble-eer"
- "The Reedy Lagoon"
- "Snake Gully Swagger"
- "Waltzing Matilda"
- "With My Swag on My Shoulder"
- Nixon, Allan M. The Swagmen: Survivors of the Great Depression. Five Mile Press, 1987. ISBN 0-86788-135-6.
- Perkins, Leslie Howard. From a Swagman's Diary. Aussie Outback Publishing, 2008. ISBN 0-646-49111-3.
- Wignell, Edel. A Bluey of Swaggies. Edward Arnold, 1985. ISBN 0-7131-8110-9.
- Wignell, Edel. Swagmen and Sundowners: Carrying the Swag. Elsevier, 1996. ISBN 0-7295-0416-6.