The “Sundownder” [poem, 20 March 1871]

[Editor: A poem published in the Portland Guardian and Normanby General Advertiser, 20 March 1871.]

The “Sundownder.”

Those of the floating population of Australia who roam about the country ostensibly seeking work, but in reality begging, and who make it a point to reach stations, farms, etc., in the evening, that they may enjoy the hospitalities thereof, without risk of being set to work, are from this circumstance called “Sundowners,” and are said, from the uncertainty and aimlessness of their journeys, to be “on the Wallaby Track.”

My old cowhide boots are all patchy and worn,
My trousers are ragged, my jumper is torn,
My billycock hat is an object forlorn,
My hair is unkempt, and my beard is unshorn.
And why is it so? In this fair land of gold,
Whose green-swelling bosom holds riches untold,
Why should I ever suffer from hunger or cold?
And why don’t I grow rich as I know I grow old?
I’ll tell you! Because, with my swag on my back,
I keep roaming about on the Wallaby track.

When first I arrived here, fifteen years ago,
My feelings were manly, my heart all aglow;
But now Hope’s bright flame in my heart has burnt low,
For I’ve no one to care for, and nowhere to go.
As I sit by my fire, in the cold morning air,
And break my night’s fast with a swagman’s rude fare,
I think of the riches of which I’ve no share —
I think of Life’s joys that to me are so rare;
Then, with “billy” in hand, and my swag on my back,
I wander away on the Wallaby track.

Like the white yeasty froth on the ocean-wave comb,
On the waters of life I am merely the foam,
As useless as it through the country I roam,
Without one single spot I can think of as home.
I know that by some folks this land is called free,
But in all of Australia, broad though it be,
There’s not one ingleside where a seat’s kept for me,
Not one face that grows brighter my presence to see,
When weary and sad, with my swag on my back,
I come trudging along on the Wallaby track.

They call me “Sundowner;” but what’s in a name?
Unless there’s attached to it some honest fame;
’Tis little I care now, for Life’s weary game
Has crushed my ambition and weakened my frame.
What matters it now, that in youth I could gaze
On the future made joyous by Hope’s golden rays?
Since nought’s left but regret for my past erring ways,
No prospect ahead but to finish my days,
With the sky overhead and the earth at my back,
In some out-of-way spot on the Wallaby track.

O young men who come out to this fair southern clime,
Draw a moral from this and be warned in time —
If you’re fast in your youth you’ll be old in your prime —
If you cling to the worldly you’ll lose the sublime —
If your evenings are passed in some flash Music Hall —
If you go to the demi-monde fancy dress ball —
If you drink, and play billiards, and gamble, you’ll fall
Into debt — into crime — you’ll be shoved to the wall —
And “last scene of all,” with your swag at your back,
Die a mendicant’s death on the Wallaby track.

Australian Journal, I. A. T.

Portland Guardian and Normanby General Advertiser (Portland, Vic.), 20 March 1871, p. 4

Another version of this poem, with a number of minor variations, under the title of “The Wallaby Track”, was published in the Portland Guardian (Portland, Vic.), 22 June 1877, p. 1 of the “Supplement to the Portland Guardian”.

Editor’s notes:
billy = a metal pot or tin (usually with a wire or steel handle), used for boiling water over a camp fire (also known as a “billy can”)

billycock = (also spelt “billy-cock”) a rounded hard-topped hat with a small brim, classically black and made of wool felt; said to have been called a billycock, or billy-cock, after William Coke, who designed it (although some evidence now suggests that it may have been designed by Edward Coke), hence it is also known as a “Coke”; commonly known in England as a “Bowler”, after the hat-makers William and John Bowler of London (another theory is that it was named after a hat-maker named Beaulieu, with the name corrupting to “Bowler”); in the USA it is known as a “Derby”, possibly relating to the fashion of wearing hats at the Kentucky Derby
See: 1) Beverly Chico, Hats and Headwear Around the World: A Cultural Encyclopedia, Santa Barbara (California): ABC-CLIO, 2013, pages 61-63 (accessed 14 March 2014)
2) “Bowler hat”, Wikipedia (accessed 14 March 2014)
3) “Is it a Bowler, or a Derby?”, (accessed 14 March 2014)
4) “How the bowler hat got its name”, Look and Learn, 23 February 2011 (accessed 14 March 2014)
5) Maureen Katemopoulos, “The History of the Derby Hat”, eHow (accessed 14 March 2014)
6) “The Bowler”, Christys Hats (Christys’, London) (accessed 14 March 2014)

demi-monde = (French) “so-so society” (literally “half-world”) a class of people on the fringe of respectable society or a circle of people living in their own world as an isolated part of society; women considered to be of dubious morality, particularly women supported by wealthy lovers; prostitutes or relating to prostitution (also spelt “demimonde”)

flash = showy, vulgar; fashionable or showy, but in a way that shows a lack of taste

ingleside = fireside

mendicant = beggar; characteristic of or relating to begging (may also refer to a religious person, such as a monks, who historically did not own personal property, or who live on alms)

nought = (an alternative spelling of “naught”) nothing; zero; failure, without result; lost, ruined (older meanings are: ruined, useless, worthless; morally bad, wicked)

rude = primitive, raw, or rough, or in an unfinished state or natural condition (not to be confused with the modern usage of “rude” as someone being discourteous or ill-mannered)

sundowner = a swagman, or tramp, who walked from station to station, ostensibly to look for work, but with no intention of doing any, who would deliberately time his arrival at a farm or stations late enough in the evening, or at sundown, so that they could ask for food and lodging, but with little to no risk of being asked to perform some work in exchange

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”

wallaby track = to be on the wallaby track was to tramp the country roads as a swagman; in The Old Bush Songs (1905), Banjo Paterson says that the term relates to “A nomad following the track of the wallaby, i.e., loafing aimlessly”

[Editor: Inserted a comma after “manly” and after “care now”.]

Speak Your Mind