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Great Australians: Andrew Barton Paterson


banjoAB Paterson, circa 1910

 by Malcolm R Hughes

Andrew Barton Paterson was born in 1864 property near Orange, New South Wales. His father was a Scot and his mother was Australian born.  To appreciate the following story, the reader needs to undergo time warp back to the era of Paterson’s life span. During his life the country of Australia took on a new look in growth of towns, development of new towns, technology and population increases. (Albeit that progress was slow compared to changes made in today’s world!)

Shortly before Andrew was born, NSW was ravaged by floods, caused by La Nina from 1860 through 1862. This switched to an El Nino event in 1864 — creating drought through to 1866. These events coming one on top of the other caused exceptional hardship. These rural conditions naturally led to financial failure, eventually causing the Paterson family to have to leave Orange.

I’ll come to the point below about AB “Banjo” Paterson becoming a poet, but already you can see that his ties to the land might lead to his appreciation for masculine bravery as seen in his most famous poem, The Man from Snowy River. Here is a passage that particularly stirs me:

He sent the flint stones flying, but the pony kept his feet,

He cleared the fallen timber in his stride,

And the man from Snowy River never shifted in his seat

It was grand to see that mountain horseman ride.

Through the stringy barks and saplings,

On the rough and broken ground,

Down the hillside at a racing pace he went;

And he never drew the bridle till he landed safe and sound,

At the bottom of that terrible descent.

Early in Andrew’s life, towns were small, having possibly a public house, a general store with postal and banking agency and stabling facility for exchanging horse teams of Cobb and Co. coaches. Rural towns were sparse and connected, not with roads as we know, but two wheel ruts made by wagons, carts and coaches.

In Australia, at the time of Andrew’s childhood, transport and work still revolved around the horse and horse-drawn equipment. Transport was by saddle horse, transport of wool, wheat and other commodities was by horse or bullock drawn carts or wagons — and at times by camel. Farm machinery was of course powered by horses or oxen. Mail, delivered by horseback, came at irregular times.

The railway New South Wales had come to suburbia in December 1854, and to rural areas and the interior from 1860-1885. Telephone was in use from the 1870s. Electricity came to Tamworth about 1880.  It is from this scene in time that Andrew Barton Paterson started on an extremely interesting, varied career and life.

Andrew was brought up in the “bush” and was 7 when the family moved to the Yass area, close to the main route between Sydney and Melbourne, known to us as the Hume Highway. The traffic of bullock teams, hauling loads from farms, Cobb & Co. coaches delivering passengers, and drover’s pushing sheep and cattle to market towns, was a different experience from his quieter younger days in the Orange District.

From this vantage point, Andrew came into contact with horsemen at picnic race meetings, polo matches, and expert horse handlers from the Murrumbidgee and Snowy Mountains areas. This experience comes through continually in his poems and writing.

At the age of 10 he attended Sydney Grammar School and matriculated at age 16. Following this schooling he was able to enter the equivalent of an apprenticeship as an articles clerk with a law firm and was admitted as a solicitor in August 1886. Thereafter he gained a partnership in a Sydney law firm.

His father, Andrew Bogle Paterson had been composing poems and some got printed in the Bulletin. This must have influenced the younger Paterson as he began writing under the pen name of “The Banjo.” His first poem was El Mahdi to the Australian Troops appeared in the Bulletin.

My interpretation is that this poem appears to be a protest to the sending of troops of the NSW Contingent to aid the Imperialism of Britain in the Sudan 1885– a wrong cause.

To keep the puppet Khedive on the throne,

To strike a blow for tyranny and wrong,

To crush the weak and aid the oppressing strong!

To force the payment of the Hebrew loan,

Squeezing the tax like blood from out the stone?

This was a remarkable time for literature in Australia. Writers such E. J. Brady, Victor Daley,

Henry Lawson, Frank Mahony, Banjo Paterson and Harry “The Breaker” Morant were all active in this short time frame.

A horse, named “The Banjo” lived at the family owned station. So that was the name chosen by Andrew to conceal his identity, at least initially.

The ballads of “The Banjo,” such as Clancy of the Overflow, The Geebung Polo Club, The Man From Ironbark, How the Favourite Beat Us and Saltbush Bill were published as a collection by Angus and Robertson in 1895. This collection was titled The Man From Snowy River and Other Verses.


19th Century Pioneer Houses (Timber slab style) Photo credit: Australian Timber Slab Buildings

The first edition sold out in weeks and over a few months 7000 copies were sold, with 13,000 over two years. The book was also a roaring success in England, where Paterson was compared to Rudyard Kipling. With this publishing success, at age 29, his true identity was released.

The composition of Waltzing Matilda, Australia’s well known folk song, was written while Paterson was on holidays, staying at Dagworth station near Winton in Queensland.

Banjo travelled the Northern Territory writing of his experiences. He was very nationalistic in his ideals, often putting into verse his fear of allowing Asians to immigrate to be used as cheap labour. Inferring that the harsh environment of the N.T. with its monsoons and heat, would be an ideal setting for Asian settlement and their fast breeding, Paterson would these days be branded “a racist.” You may enjoy hearing about the Australia-for-Australians theme of his day.

Just before the turn of the century, the Boer War broke out in South Africa. Andrew set sail on behalf of both The Sydney Morning Herald and The Melbourne Age as their war correspondent. From the site of each battle over a period of 9 months he sent back vivid stories of the actions. His writings so impressed news sources in the UK that Reuters recruited his services.

Prior to 1900, roads in NSW were not funded by any particular level of government, instead receiving bit piece funding here and there and the collection of tolls. As usage by the motorcar increased, the condition of the road deteriorated, and no one wanted to pay to upgrade them. After World War I when the motor vehicle became more popular, hard road surfacing became a major project.

This led to other benefits to the society of which Andrew Paterson was a member. In 1924 a government body was finally set up to organise the building and maintenance of main roads.In 1900 he sailed to China as correspondent, to cover “the Boxer rebellion”, again, for the Sydney Morning Herald, but it was over before he arrived. Moving on, he sailed to England where he met up with a friend from the Bulletin days and also spent time as a guest with Rudyard Kipling.In 1902 Andrew returned to Sydney and published another collection, Rio Grande’s Last Race, and Other Verses, then gave up his legal practise. (I doubt that Paterson would not have had much input into his legal practise at any time.)


In the following year Banjo took up the position of editor to the Sydney Evening News.  He then married Alice Walker from Tenterfield station. They moved at Woollahra, producing daughter Grace in 1904 and son Hugh in 1906.

He resigned as editor in 1908 and took over a property of 40,000 acres (16,188 ha) at Coodra Vale near Wee Jasper. Paterson continued writing but the pastoral business was unsuccessful so he attempted wheat farming for a short time at Grenfell.

Andrew sailed for Britain when World War I was declared, hoping to be employed as a war correspondent in France.  However this opportunity was not offered, so he drove an ambulance attached to the Australian Voluntary Hospital. He returned home in 1915. As an honorary veterinarian he made three sea voyages to Africa, China and Egypt as guardian of a cargo of horses!Later in 1915 he was commissioned in the Australian Imperial Force and promoted to captain, to serve in the Middle East. He did well and was promoted again, to major, commanding the Australian Remount Squadron until he returned home in 1919. He had been wounded in 1916.

Once back in Australia he returned to his passion, writing, for the Sydney Mail and Smith’s Weekly, and in 1922 became editor to a horseracing journal. In 1923, most of Banjo Paterson’s poems were compiled into one  package: Collected Verses. In 1930 he gave up active journalism to leisurely do creative writings. During this period he also provided talks of his travels and experiences via the Australian Broadcasting Commission.

In 1933 he wrote a book of children’s poems, named, The Animals That Noah Forgot, then went on to write Happy Dispatches in 1934, describing his meetings with famous people.

In 1939 Andrew Barton Paterson was appointed Companion of the British Empire. After a short illness, and a very full life, he passed away in February 1941 at the age of 77 years.

The list of Paterson’s poems is too long to print here. For those interested there are 65 poems at Wallis and Matilda. (See “the Poems” in left-hand column.)

I credit the Australian Dictionary of Biography, Australian Poetry Library, and Wallis & Matilda for much of the history I relied on in this article.

— Mal Hughes’ first experience with Banjo Paterson’s poetry was in his 7th class at primary school in 1957 when the Headmaster read the poem The Man From Ironbark.  (The town of Ironbark is on the Warrego Highway, near the junction of the Brisbane Valley Highway, Queensland.)

Photo credit:  clatterymachinery.files.wordpress.com




      • Eric Bogle has done it well again.
        I hope that any younger people watching this video take note of the disgusting conditions that the troops had to put up with, and forget the pomp and “glory?”. If they are ever told that they must serve for Her Majesty, I hope that they tell the politicians to “get stuffed”. “We will defend Australia on Australian soil only”.

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