[Editor: An article by Andrew Barton (“Banjo”) Paterson about his life.]
“Banjo” Paterson tells his own story. — 1.
In the days of the gold escorts.
Lambing Flat diggings.
What the teamster said.
By A. B. (“Banjo”) Paterson.
Some seventy years ago, two Scotsmen, John and Andrew Paterson were “squatting” at a station called Buckenbah, somewhere near the town of Obley, in the western district of New South Wales. This place was held on lease from the Crown at a few pence per acre and was worth no more. It was dingo-infested, unfenced country where the sheep had to be shepherded and the cattle, as the blackboys said, could go “longa bush” and wander afield until they got into somebody else’s meat cask or could be mustered and driven away by enterprising people who adopted this cheap method of stocking-up. In these surroundings, I, the immature verse-writer, son of Andrew Paterson, had my first taste of bush life.
My father was a lowland Scot, a son of a captain in the old East India Company’s service, though his family before him had for generations farmed their own properties in Lanarkshire. One of my father’s forbears was John Paterson, of Lochlyoch, who founded the breed of Clydesdale horses by importing a black Flemish stallion called Robin.
Robin was to the Clydesdale breed what Eclipse was to the thoroughbred, as may be seen in the Clydesdale stud book. There was also a further connection with horses in that my grandfather, going out to India to seek his fortune, joined up with John Company’s army, in which his original rank was that of a roughrider. He rode the rough horses so well that he afterwards obtained his commission; and it is something of a coincidence that in the Great War more than a hundred years afterwards I, his grandson, was given a command as major in a roughriding unit. This, and my early experiences as a small shepherd, may account for whatever of accuracy there may be in my versified descriptions of bush life and of horses.
An ancestor whose talents I, unfortunately, failed to inherit was William Paterson, who founded the Bank of England, He is described in the Encyclopaedia as a “Scotch adventurer,” and “adventurer” is right, for, not satisfied with starting the Bank of England on its primrose path, he aspired to follow the example of Clive and Hastings and found a sort of Scottish East India Company at Darien, on the Isthmus of Panama. Had his Bank of England luck stuck to him he might have been another Cecil Rhodes, for the Scotchmen poured their money into the venture, but the malaria and the mosquitoes beat him, and he returned to Scotland to face his countrymen who had lost their money. Instead of upbraiding him they subscribed £10,000 to put him on his feet again!
Of my father I saw little, for he was mostly away pioneering in Queensland. There he had a skirmish with blacks, during which his cousin, James Paterson, had his spectacles knocked off his nose by the tip of a boomerang, he tried to take sheep out to some new place, but was caught on flooded country between two rivers, and had to shear them on a sandhill; and finally he had to get out of Queensland — just another of the many pioneers who unsuccessfully threw dice with fate. I never knew the name of his place in Queensland, but I understand it adjoined Lammermuir, the station described in “Christison of Lammermuir,” probably the second best tale ever told of bush life; Jeannie Gunn’s “We of the Never Never” being the best.
However, to meet losses in Queensland, Buckenbah had to go, and we moved to Illalong, a station in the southern part of New South Wales. Here we were on a main road between Sydney and Melbourne, with the Lambing Flat diggings, now called Young, only a day’s ride away. It was an unlucky place — enough to break anyone’s heart — for the Free Selection Act had just been passed, and the selectors, droves of them, all seemed to pick on us, as there were creeks everywhere which solved for them the water problem.
But all these troubles meant nothing to me, a boy of six. There were swimming pools in the creek 10 feet deep and half a mile long, horses to ride, and the tides of life surged round us. The gold escort from Lambing Flat, too, came by twice a week, with a mounted trooper riding in front with his rifle at the ready and another armed trooper on the box with the coachman. I used to hope that the escort would be “stuck up” outside our place so that I might see something worth while, but what with the new settlers and the scores of bullock teams taking loading out to the back country, no bushranger stood half a chance of making a getaway unseen.
The roads were quite unmade, and when one track got so cut up that a waggon would sink down to its axles, the bullockies would try a new track. Thus the highway became a labyrinth of tracks, half a mile wide, with here and there an excavation where a waggon had been dug out, and when, as often happened a waggon got stuck in the bed of the creek they would hitch two teams of bullocks to it and then (as one of the bullockies said) either the waggon or the bed of the creek had to come.
I was not encouraged to go anywhere near the bullockies, who were supposed to be up to stratagems and spoils, especially in the way of stealing horses, but a lonely child will go anywhere for company, and I found that they travelled with their families, dogs, and sometimes even fowls. These latter gentry after fossicking about the camp for worms and grasshoppers, would hop up into the waggon as soon as the bullocks wore yoked, making for their crate where a little food awaited them. They hurried too!
I found that these teamsters were like Bracken’s hero — “not understood.” Hard as it may be to believe, they were really fond of their bullocks, and only took the whip to shirkers. One of them gave me a demonstration with a bullock-whip, cutting great furrows in the bark of a white gum tree. When I said that it was no wonder the bullocks pulled, he remarked, feelingly “Sonny, if I done that to them bullocks I’d want shooting. Every bullock knows his name, and when I speak to him he’s into the yoke. I’d look well knockin’ ’em about with a hundred miles to go and them not gettin’ a full feed once a week. Many a night I’ve dug up a panel of a squatter’s paddock and slipped ’em in, and I’ve been back there before daylight to slip ’em out and put the panel up agen. So long as they’ll stick to me I’ll stick to them.”
Which, somehow, recalls the story of the bullock driver who was asked to join up for the South African war and was told that he need not fight as he would be more useful driving bullocks.
“Not me!” he said. “I’d sooner fight. If there come any trouble, all you coves could run away, but I’d have to stop with the bullocks, and get caught!”
By this time I had learnt to ride and to get me away it was decided that I should ride four miles to school every day in Binalong, a two-pub town famous for the fact that the bushranger Gilbert was buried in the police paddock. Here I sat on a hard wooden form alongside some juvenile relatives of Gilbert.
Carlyle in his “Sartor Resartus” speaks of his hero, Diogenes Teudelsdrock, as being educated at the Academy of Hinterschlag (stern-whackers), and there was plenty of Hinterschlag at this little bush school in Binalong. The master, Moore by name, had to meet emergencies of one sort or another every day, and he met them like a Napoleon. Spare, gaunt, and Irish by descent, he ran to game-cocks and kangaroo dogs in his private moments. It was nothing unusual for his flock to go out with him in the long summer afternoons to watch a course after a kangaroo, and the elite of the school, the pound-keeper’s son and the blacksmith’s boy, would be allowed as a favour to stop after school and watch a “go-in” between two cocks without the steel spurs, as part of their training for more serious business.
One day the sergeant of police from Yass, in plain clothes, drove up to the door of the school in a natty little trap with a pair of ponies. We jumped to the conclusion that he had heard of this cockfighting business, and we expected (and hoped) to see the schoolmaster led away like Eugene Aram with gyves upon his wrist. While the sergeant was inside with the teacher we children swarmed all over his buggy, and there in a neat lattice-lined box under the seat we found a gamecock, clipped and looking for fight!
The gamecock was rather surprised to see us in charge of his caravan, but not nearly so astonished as we were to see HIM. It was our — or, at any rate, my — first introduction to the ways of the world and to those who go about in sheep’s clothing, but are inwardly ravening wolves.
The Sport of Kings.
Apart from his sporting proclivities, there was little fault to find with our teacher. Poor man, he was almost daily confronted by irate mothers, real rough sorts, whose children he had whipped, and who threatened to bring “the old man” down to deal with him if it ever happened again.
My first introduction to the racing business came about in this way. It was a New Year’s Day and a general holiday. My father was away, and the station roustabout having filled the water-barrel, cut the wood and fed the fowls, was free to go to the Bogolong races some eight mile, away. He suggested that I should go with him, and my mother agreed, though I would not have had a hundred-to-one chance of getting leave from my father. Picture us then, a youth of eighteen and a boy of eight setting out to take part in the sport of kings!
Bogolong (now called Bookham) was a township on the main southern road, and consisted of two “pubs,” half a mile apart, with nothing in between! When I asked the roustabout what had happened to the rest of the town, he said “This is all they is. One pub to ketch the coves coming from Yass and the other to ketch the coves from Jugiong.”
The track was about half a mile out of the town, unfenced, with no grandstand, and was mostly laid out through a gum and stringy-bark scrub. The racehorses were tied to saplings, as were hundreds of other horses ridden by wild men from the Murrumbidgee Mountains, who had all brought their dogs. There was a sprinkling of more civilised sportsmen from Yass and Jugiong, blackfellows and half-castes from everywhere, and a few out-and-outers who had ridden down from Lobb’s Hole, a place so steep that (as the horse-boy said) the horses wore all the hair off their tails sliding down the mountains. The days of racing in heats (i.e., running the horses three times against each other to see which was the best) had died out everywhere except in these outlandish places; but there was one heat race still on the programme. This was the Bogolong Town Plate of a mile, possibly the last heat race that was ever run anywhere.
I had ridden over on a pony with a child’s saddle, glancing at the pony to see that he was all right, I saw a Murrumbidgee mountaineer about seven feet high taking the saddle off my pony and putting it on a racehorse. Running over to him, I managed to gasp out “That’s my saddle.”
“Right-oh, son” he said “I won’t hurt it. It’s just the very thing the doctor ordered. It’s ketch weights, and this is the lightest saddle here so I took it before anybody else got it. This is Pardon,” he went on, “and after he wins this heat you come to me an I’ll stand you a bottle of ginger beer.”
A slight dispute.
In after years a man who speculated largely told me that he could put ten thousand pounds into a speculation without a tremor, but if he put a pound on a horse he could hardly hold his glasses steady enough to watch the race. Imagine then, the excitement with which I watched Pardon’s progress — watched him lying behind the leaders as they went out of sight behind the stringybark scrub; watched them come into sight again, with Pardon still lying third; and then the crowning moment as he drew away in the straight and won comfortably. Greater still, the delirious joy when he led the field all the way in the second heat, so that there was no need to run a third.
I had the ginger beer — bitter, luke-warm stuff with hops in it — but what did I care? My new friend assured me that Pardon could not have won without my saddle. It had made all the difference. Years afterwards, I worked the incident into a sort of ballad called “Pardon, the son of Reprieve.”
We had eight miles to go to get home, so we had to leave before things got really lively but before we departed two men had an argument about a bet and each made a run to pull a stirrup-iron out of his saddle.
My old friend the sergeant of police from Yass had no objection to a fight, but he drew the line at stirrup-irons! He and the mounted trooper handcuffed first one man and then the other with their arms round saplings, a performance which I had never seen before and have never seen since.
As we rode home through the shades of evening we passed by the door of Dacey’s selection; and old blind Geoffrey, a giant of an English agricultural labourer, who was living out his last few years as a pensioner on the bounty of Dacey, came out when he heard the horses.
“Who beat?” he asked.
Of course I had to pipe up that Pardon won the Town Plate with my saddle on him.
“Ar cares naught aboot that,” he said “Who beat — the Prodestans or the Carthlics?”
[Next Saturday, Mr. Paterson tells the story of his first meeting with Henry Lawson, and the reason which prompted him to adopt the pen-name of “The Banjo.” He recalls that his fee for writing “Clancy of the Overflow” was the munificent sum of 13/6.]
The Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney, NSW), Saturday 4 February 1939, page 21
Eugene Aram = an English murderer, who became more widely known by being made the subject of a ballad by Thomas Hood, “The Dream of Eugene Aram”, and a novel by Bulwer Lytton, Eugene Aram
gyve = a U-shaped piece of metal secured with a metal pin or bolt across the opening, usually used to shackle the leg of a prisoner or slave
ketch weight = [unknown]