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Finding the real Matilda

3 August 2013 1,698 views No Comment

One sultry summer evening in 1895, near Winton in western Queensland, Andrew Barton ‘Banjo’ Paterson heard Christina Macpherson, the 21-year-old sister of station owner Bob Macpherson, play the Scottish ballad, ‘Thou Bonnie Wood of Craigielee’ on a zither.

It was a moment of serendipity that led to the penning of what many regard as our unofficial national anthem.

Entranced by the tune – which Christina had heard at the Warrnambool races in Victoria – and possibly by the young lady herself, Paterson decided to write his own words for it – based on tales about a striking shearer who either had drowned while trying to avoid capture or who had committed suicide.
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A writer with a remarkable capacity for understanding and interpreting the bush, especially to city readers, Paterson , a suburban solicitor from Sydney – had been fascinated by Bob Macpherson’’s stories about the 1891 and especially the 1894 shearers’ strikes, which had led to extremely bad blood between the Queensland squatters and the striking shearers.

In 1894 western Queensland was almost in a state of civil war with the colonial government using mounted and regular infantry and militia against the armed union shearers. The Queensland Government had also passed draconian anti-unionist, anti- striking legislation supposedly intended to keep and preserve the peace.

As it happens, Banjo Paterson was on the very spot 14 weeks later where a fierce armed battle had taken place, at Macpherson’s Dagworth Station. During the ‘Battle of Dagworth’, 140 lambs, all ready to be shorn, were burnt to death when the shearing shed at Dagworth Station was set on fire by a group of armed union shearers.

Shortly after this, one of the striking shearers, Samuel (‘Frenchy’) Hoffmeister, died, allegedly by committing suicide, beside a nearby billabong or waterhole.

A possible reason for Hoffmeister’s so-called suicide was that he was consumed with guilt that he and his militant unionist comrades had crossed the line by burning the lambs to death.

There was however, another explanation for Hoffmeister’s death.

Apparently Bob Macpherson told Paterson a different tale of a squatter and troopers tracking a swagman who had just stolen and then killed a sheep. Attempting to escape by jumping into the water, the swagman was pulled down by his heavy clothes and boots and drowned.

Significantly, both versions of Hoffmeister’s death include the fact that, after he had been retrieved from the water, Hoffmeister’s union ticket was one of the few possessions found on his body.

All of this was fascinating material for Paterson who, while staying at Dagworth and frequenting other stations, had picked up some local slang. This included the phrase ‘Waltzing Matilda’ – for carrying a swag of belongings.

While at Dagworth Station, Paterson added lyrics to the Scottish tune, ‘Craigielee’ that Christina Macpherson had performed.

Intriguingly, as Australian singer and songwriter, Dennis O’Keeffe, wrote late last year, while they were collaborating on our country’s favourite song there might well have been some sort of flirtation between Paterson and Christina Macpherson.

At some level, it can be argued that this frisson between the two found its way into the earlier version of ‘Waltzing Matilda’, which was first publicly performed at the North Gregory Hotel in Winton on 6 April 1895.

This could explain why Paterson’s 8-year engagement to Sarah Riley (who had accompanied him to Dagworth) ended soon after he left the station, and why after after marrying Alice Walker of Tenterfield, New South Wales, in April 1903, Paterson was thereafter loathe to talk about what is arguably our country’s favourite song.

Putting aside questions concerning Paterson’s personal relationships, it seems to me clear that ‘Waltzing Matilda’ was to a considerable extent based on the firing of the Dagworth woolshed and the death of the striking unionist ‘Frenchy’ Hoffmeister.

The indisputable reality is that, along with other militant trade unionists, Hoffmeister actively participated both in armed confrontation with the local squatter, Bob Macpherson, and the death by fire of 140 of his lambs.

However O’Keeffe’s controversial suggestion that Bob Macpherson, Dagworth’s owner, may have murdered Hoffmeister seems to be pure speculation. While his recent book ‘Waltzing Matilda’, is fascinating indeed, so far I have seen no unambiguous evidence that would support such a claim or supposition.

It is however important to understand that it was the defeat of the 1891 and 1894 shearers’ strikes that led to an abandonment of direct action by radical unionists and other members of the industrial and rural working class in favour of concentrating on increasing parliamentary representation by the labour movement under the leadership of the Labor Party in Queensland.

This stress on parliamentary representation was so successful in Queensland that in 1899 – from December 1 to December 7, under the premiership of Anderson Dawson from the dual electorate of Charters Towers – Queensland had the first Labor government in the world.

Sadly, after then being elected the first Labor Senator for Queensland in 1901 and becoming Minister for Defence in Australia’s first federal Labor Government in April 1904 – under Chilean-born Prime Minister Chris Watson, Dawson died from the effects of alcoholism. His death was lonely and tragic and he had that in common with the subject of Paterson’s haunting song.

Professor Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 36 books, including, ‘Seven Days to Remember: The World’s First Labor Government.’

‘The Daily Telegraph’ (Sydney), August 3, 2013 pp 38-39