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Dancing with sheep; shear madness?

Dancing with sheep; shear madness?

What almost caused a civil war in Queensland, Australia?  What two famous creations emerged from what was one of Australia’s earliest and most important industrial disputes?  The answer to the first question is the 1891 Queensland Shearers’ Strike, while what resulted from that strike was the Australian Labour Party and Australia’s unofficial national anthem.  

That ‘anthem’ is the classic ballad, ‘Waltzing Matilda’, so sprawl on one of Sheepland’s Handcrafted Long Fur Sheepskin Rugs and hum along as our tale unfolds.  The words to the song were written by an erstwhile lawyer turned writer named ‘Banjo’ (Andrew Barton) Paterson, 1864 to 1941.  He was inspired to indite the lyrics when visiting the Dagworth Station, a vast sheep farm, in Queensland in 1895.   There he met Christina Macpherson, the station owner’s daughter, and it was she who composed the song’s tune, adapting it from a Scottish song, ‘Bonnie Wood O’ Craigielea’.  It was while in a coach to Dagworth with Christina’s brother, Bob, that they saw a swagman walking along the road.  Bob explained that when German settlers started to arrive in Australia in 1838, they introduced the phrase ‘to waltz the matilda’, which meant to learn a trade while travelling (the nineteenth century peripatetic equivalent of work experience) with your possessions wrapped in a blanket on your back.  The bundle of possessions was termed a swag, hence an itinerant worker was a swagman or tramp (looking for work).   A Matilda was a woman who followed a German soldier into battle and kept him warm at night (ahem) and thence a matilda became synonymous with an army overcoat or blanket.

Times were difficult for shearers in nineteenth century Australia and the strike arose because the Shearers’ Union, which had tens of thousands of members by 1890, stipulated that union members could not work with non-union labour and an attempt was made to reduce the union’s power.  Eventually the strike broke as the preceding summer had been unseasonably wet and the autumn strike was badly timed for the winter shearing. Desperate, starving swagmen stole sheep to eat and thus the second verse of Waltzing Matilda runs:

Along came a jumbuck to drink at the billabong,

Up jumped the swagman and grabbed him with glee,

And he sang as he stowed that jumbuck in his tucker bag.

You’ll come a-waltzing, Matilda, with me.

A jumbuck is a male sheep and when the state troopers (mounted militia) chased the thief he committed suicide by drowning in the billabong (which may not have been possible but for the unusually wet weather, as ‘billabong’ is Aboriginal for ‘little or no water’; the poor bloke struck out all round).

Banjo Paterson also heard about the strike at the Macphersons’ Dagworth station, where the shearers were demanding better pay from the squatters, (rich landowners, not desperate souls becalmed in the outback while searching for the euphemism) and had set fire to the shearing sheds, killing 140 lambs. 

The racism towards non-union members (often foreign workers) and the hardship experienced by the shearers contributed to the founding of the Australian Labour Party.

Released On 12th Sep 2018

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