Baldy Thompson [short story by Henry Lawson]

[Editor: This story by Henry Lawson was published in While the Billy Boils (1896).]

Baldy Thompson

Rough, squarish face, curly auburn wig, bushy grey eyebrows and moustache, and grizzly stubble — eyes that reminded one of Dampier the actor. He was a squatter of the old order — new chum, swagman, drover, shearer, super, pioneer, cocky, squatter, and finally bank victim. He had been through it all, and knew all about it.

He had been in Parliament, and wanted to go again; but the men mistrusted him as Thompson, M.P., though they swore by him as old Baldy Thompson the squatter. His hobby was politics, and his politics were badly boxed. When he wasn’t cursing the banks and government he cursed the country. He cursed the labour leaders at intervals, and seemed to think that he could run the Unions better than they could. Also, he seemed to think that he could run Parliament better than any Premier. He was generally voted a hard case, which term is mostly used in a kindly sense out back.

He was always grumbling about the country. If a shearer or rouseabout was good at argument, and a bit of a politician, he hadn’t to slave much at Thompson’s shed, for Baldy would argue with him all day and pay for it.

‘I can’t put on any more men,’ he’d say to travellers who were after ‘stragglers.’ ‘I can’t put on a lot of men to make big cheques when there’s no money in the bank to pay ’em — and I’ve got all I can do to get tucker for the family. I shore nothing but burrs and grass-seed last season, and it didn’t pay carriage. I’m just sending away a flock of sheep now, and I won’t make threepence a head on ’em. I had twenty thousand in the bank season before last, and now I can’t count on one. I’ll have to roll up my swag and go on the track myself next.’

‘All right, Baldy,’ they’d say, ‘git out your blooming swag and come along with us, old man; we’ll stick to you and see you through.’

‘I swear I’d show you round first,’ he’d reply. ‘Go up to the store and get what rations you want. You can camp in the huts to-night, and I’ll see you in the morning.’

But most likely he’d find his way over after tea, and sit on his heels in the cool outside the hut, and argue with the swagmen about Unionism and politics. And he’d argue all night if he met his match.

The track by Baldy Thompson’s was reckoned as a good tucker track, especially when a dissolution of Parliament was threatened. Then the guileless traveller would casually let Baldy know that he’d got his name on the electoral list, and show some interest in Baldy’s political opinions, and oppose them at first, and finally agree with them and see a lot in them — be led round to Baldy’s way of thinking, in fact; and ultimately depart, rejoicing, with a full nose-bag, and a quiet grin for his mate.

There are many camp-fire yarns about old Baldy Thompson.

One New Year the shearers — shearing stragglers — roused him in the dead of night and told him that the shed was on fire. He came out in his shirt and without his wig. He sacked them all there and then, but of course they went to work as usual next morning. There is something sad and pathetic about that old practical joke — as indeed there is with all bush jokes. There seems a quiet sort of sadness always running through out-back humour — whether alleged or otherwise.

There’s the usual yarn about a jackeroo mistaking Thompson for a brother rouser, and asking him whether old Baldy was about anywhere, and Baldy said:

‘Why, are you looking for a job?’

‘Yes, do you think I stand any show? What sort of a boss is Baldy?’

‘You’d tramp from here to Adelaide,’ said Baldy, ‘and north to the Gulf country, and would’nt find a worse. He’s the meanest squatter in Australia. The damned old crawler! I grafted like a nigger for him for over fifty years’ — Baldy was over sixty — ‘and now the old skunk won’t even pay me the last two cheques he owes me — says the bank has got everything he had — that’s an old cry of his, the damned old sneak; seems to expect me to go short to keep his wife and family and relations in comfort, and by God I’ve done it for the last thirty or forty years, and I might go on the track to-morrow worse off than the meanest old whaler that ever humped bluey. Don’t you have anything to do with Scabby Thompson, or you’ll be sorry for it. Better tramp to hell than take a job from him.’

‘Well, I think I’ll move on. Would I stand any show for some tucker?’

‘Him! He wouldn’t give a dog a crust, and like as not he’d get you run in for trespass if he caught you camping on the run. But come along to the store and I’ll give you enough tucker to carry you on.’

He patronised literature and arts, too, though in an awkward, furtive, way. We remember how we once turned up at the station hard up and short of tucker, and how we entertained Baldy with some of his own ideas as ours — having been posted beforehand by our mate — and how he told us to get some rations and camp in the hut and see him in the morning.

And we saw him in the morning, had another yarn with him, agreed and sympathised with him some more, were convinced on one or two questions which we had failed to see at first, cursed things in chorus with him, and casually mentioned that we expected soon to get some work on a political paper.

And at last he went inside and brought out a sovereign.

‘Wrap this in a piece of paper and put it in your pocket, and don’t lose it,’ he said.

But we learnt afterwards that the best way to get along with Baldy, and secure his good will, was to disagree with him on every possible point.

Henry Lawson, While the Billy Boils, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1896, pages 324-327

Editor’s notes:
cocky = (also spelt cockie) a farmer (the term was used to refer to poor bush farmers, from having land so poor that they were jokingly said to only be able to farm cockies, i.e. cockatoos, a type of bird; however, it was later used to refer to farmers in general)

graft = hard work

Dampier = Alfred Dampier (1843-1908), an English actor (also manager and playwright) who migrated to Australia in 1873, and was active in stage productions

hard up = lacking money, short of cash

humped bluey = travelled as a swagman, hit the road as a swagman (a “bluey” being a swagman’s rolled-up blanket or bundle)

M.P. = Member of Parliament

on the track = on the “wallaby track”; tramping the country roads as a swagman

out-back = remote rural areas; sparsely-inhabited back country; often given as one word and capitalized, “Outback”

rouseabout = an unskilled worker, especially used regarding someone working in a shearing shed

rouser = rouseabout, i.e. an unskilled worker, especially used regarding someone working in a shearing shed

run = a property on which stock are grazed, such as a “cattle run” or a “sheep run”

run in = arrested (normally used in the context of a minor offense)

squatter = in the context of Australian history, a squatter was originally someone who kept their livestock (mostly cattle and sheep) upon Crown land without permission to do so (thus illegally occupying land, or “squatting”); however, the practice became so widespread that eventually the authorities decided to formalise it by granting leases or licenses to occupy or use the land; and, with the growth of the Australian economy, many of the squatters became quite rich, and the term “squatter” came to refer to someone with a large amount of farm land (they were often regarded as rich and powerful)

station = a large rural holding for raising sheep or cattle; the term “property” is used for smaller holdings

swag = a swagman’s bundle, being a number of personal belongings rolled up in a blanket, and hung from the shoulder; also known as a “bluey”, “drum”, or “Matilda”

swagmen = plural of swagman: a roaming labourer who carries his personal belongings in a swag, or bundle, whilst traveling about in search of casual work (also known as a “swaggie”); especially used to refer to itinerant labourers traveling around the country areas of Australia in the late 1800s to early 1900s

tucker = food

whaler = a swagman who survives without working (may also refer to a whaling ship, or someone who works on a whaling ship)

Vernacular spelling in the original text:
’em (them)
git (git)

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