Saltbush Bill [poem by Banjo Paterson]

[Editor: This poem by “Banjo” Paterson was published in The Man from Snowy River and Other Verses, 1895; previously published in The Bulletin, 15 December 1894.]

Saltbush Bill

Now is the law of the Overland that all in the West obey —
A man must cover with travelling sheep a six-mile stage a day;
But this is the law which the drovers make, right easily understood,
They travel their stage where the grass is bad, but they camp where the grass is good;
They camp, and they ravage the squatter’s grass till never a blade remains.
Then they drift away as the white clouds drift on the edge of the saltbush plains:
From camp to camp and from run to run they battle it hand to hand
For a blade of grass and the right to pass on the track of the Overland.
For this is the law of the Great Stock Routes, ’tis written in white and black —
The man that goes with a travelling mob must keep to a half-mile track;
And the drovers keep to a half-mile track on the runs where the grass is dead,
But they spread their sheep on a well-grassed run till they go with a two-mile spread.
So the squatters hurry the drovers on from dawn till the fall of night,
And the squatters’ dogs and the drovers’ dogs get mixed in a deadly fight.
Yet the squatters’ men, thought they haunt the mob, are willing the peace to keep,
For the drovers learn how to use their hands when they go with the travelling sheep;
But this is the tale of a Jackaroo that came from a foreign strand,
And the fight that he fought with Saltbush Bill, the King of the Overland.

Now Saltbush Bill was a drover tough as ever the country knew,
He had fought his way on the Great Stock Routes from the sea to the Big Barcoo;
He could tell when he came to a friendly run that gave him a chance to spread,
And he knew where the hungry owners were that hurried his sheep ahead;
He was drifting down in the Eighty drought with a mob that could scarcely creep
(When the kangaroos by the thousand starve, it is rough on the travelling sheep),
And he camped one night at the crossing-place on the edge of the Wilga run;
‘We must manage a feed for them here,’ he said, ‘or half of the mob are done!’
So he spread them out when they left the camp wherever they liked to go,
Till he grew aware of a Jackaroo with a station-hand in tow.
They set to work on the straggling sheep, and with many a stockwhip crack
The forced them in where the grass was dead in the space of the half-mile track;
And William prayed that the hand of Fate might suddenly strike him blue
But he’d get some grass for his starving sheep in the teeth of that Jackaroo.
So he turned and cursed the Jackaroo; he cursed him, alive or dead,
From the soles of his great unwieldly feet to the crown of his ugly head,
With an extra curse on the moke he rode and the cur at his heels that ran,
Till the Jackaroo from his horse got down and went for the drover-man;
With the station-hand for his picker-up, though the sheep ran loose the while,
They battled it out on the saltbush plain in the regular prize-ring style.

Now, the new chum fought for his honour’s sake and the pride of the English race,
But the drover fought for his daily bread with a smile on his bearded face;
So he shifted ground, and he sparred for wind, and he made it a lengthy mill,
And from time to time as his scouts came in they whispered to Saltbush Bill —
‘We have spread the sheep with a two-mile spread, and the grass it is something grand;
‘You must stick to him, Bill, for another round for the pride of the Overland.’
The new chum made it a rushing fight, though never a blow got home,
Till the sun rode high in the cloudless sky and glared on the brick-red loam,
Till the sheep drew in to the shelter-trees and settled them down to rest;
Then the drover said he would fight no more, and gave his opponent best.
So the new chum rode to the homestead straight, and told them a story grand
Of the desperate fight that he fought that day with the King of the Overland;
And the tale went home to the Public Schools of the pluck of the English swell —
How the drover fought for his very life, but blood in the end must tell.
But the travelling sheep and the Wilga sheep were boxed on the Old Man Plain;
’Twas a full week’s work ere they drafted out and hunted them off again,
With a week’s good grass in their wretched hides, with a curse and a stockwhip crack,
They hunted them off on the road once more to starve on the half-mile track.
And Saltbush Bill, on the Overland, will many a time recite
How the best day’s work that he ever did was the day that he lost the fight.

Andrew Barton Paterson. The Man from Snowy River and Other Verses, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1896 [January 1896 reprinting of the October 1895 edition], pages 50-55

Previously published in: The Bulletin, 15 December 1894

Editor’s notes:
Big Barcoo = Cooper Creek (also known as Cooper’s Creek), a river in Queensland which is also known as the Barcoo River (from one of its tributaries)

boxed = separate mobs of sheep mixed together

brick-red loam = a reference to the red soil found in many inland areas of Australia

drovers = those who drive herds (of cattle, sheep, etc.) to markets, usually over long distances

homestead = the primary residence on a farming property

Jackaroo = in The Old Bush Songs, Banjo Paterson explains the term thus: “A “Jackaroo” is a young man who comes to a station to get experience. He occupies a position much like that of an apprentice on a ship, and has to work with the men, though supposed to be above them in social status. Hence these sneers at the Jackaroo.”; in modern times, the term refers to an apprentice station hand (female station hands are known as “Jillaroos”)

mill = fight; possibly an allusion to the arms of windmills, as an exaggerated comparison to arms flailing about in a fight

mob = in this context, a group (or mob) of sheep; generally “mob” refers to a large group of animals, commonly used when referring to cattle, horses, kangaroos, or sheep; also used to refer to a group of people, sometimes – although definitely not always – used in a negative or derogatory sense (possibly as an allusion to a group of dumb or wild animals), but also used in a positive sense (e.g. “they’re my mob”) especially amongst Aborigines

moke = an inferior horse (originally, it was a term for a donkey)

Overland = an overland stock route (of which there were several), used for the droving of cattle or sheep overland, especially through remote areas

picker-up = someone who picks up fleeces from the floor (the board) of the shearing shed, sweeps the board, dress any wounds on the sheep, and carries out various other duties; although, in this context, it is possibly a reference to a “second” (an assistant in a fight) who picks up a fighter when he is knocked down

prize-ring style = the style of boxing for a prize; in earlier days (such as in the 1800s), it was bare-knuckled boxing

Public Schools = in this context, a reference to the privately-run schools in England and, by inference, to the upper class that used them; in England privately-run schools are called public schools (as opposed to the old days when upper class children were tutored privately at home), whereas in Australia they are called private schools whilst government-run schools are known as public schools (schools for the general public); however, the use of the phrase “Public Schools” (in the English context) was widely used in Paterson’s day, and is even used by some people in Australia in modern times

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

saltbush = various drought-resistant plants used for grazing in arid, salty and alkaline areas

shifted ground = moved about, so as to change fighting position

sparred for wind = sparring (boxing by throwing lighter punches, not putting one’s full effort into the fight) so as to enable yourself to catch your wind (breath); in this context, so that the fight could be kept going for a long time

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)

[Editor: Correction made by using a single quotation mark at start of line “half of the mob are done!”, in line with other punctuation used in the poem; used a capital “F” for “Fate”, as in that context it is regarded as a proper noun and thus “Fate” is normally capitalized (e.g. Paterson capitalizes it in his poem “A Mountain Station”).]


  1. Upon reading, I did not understand that meaning of big Barcoo. It only got cleared when I checked the end notes and I just loved the way Banjo Paterson has called the cooper’s creek as Big Barcoo.

  2. Michael Paul Penklis says:

    I am trying to take up new challenges in life. I learned how to recite Mulga Bill’s Bicycle at the age of 7, from my dad Paul Penklis who passed away on 27th March 2020.

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