Winton, Queensland and ‘Banjo’ Paterson’s ‘Waltzing Matilda’.
Located 849 km west of Rockhampton, nearly 1400 km north west Brisbane and 186 m above sea level, Winton is the centre of an important cattle and sheep raising region (although the annual rainfall of 410 mm makes it prone to drought) and, since early settlement, has been a vital transportation point.
Winton, originally known as Pelican Waterhole, owes its existence to the abortive Burke and Wills expedition and the subsequent expeditions which scoured central Queensland looking for the missing explorers. During the early 1860s a number of explorers including Frederick Walker, John McKinley and William Landsborough all passed through the area. It was as a result of their reports that the area was first settled in the mid 1860s although there is no formal record of land leases until 1873.
In 1875 Robert Allen arrived in the area and became the postmaster at Pelican Waterhole. The following year the waterhole flooded and he was forced to move to higher ground. It is said that he got tired of writing the long ‘Pelican Waterhole’ on letters and so he renamed the town after the suburb in Bournemouth, England where he was born. The town of Winton was duly gazetted in 1879.
Undoubtedly Winton’s greatest claim to fame is its association with Andrew Barton (‘Banjo’) Paterson (1864-1941) and particularly with the writing, and first performance of, ‘Waltzing Matilda’.
No one knows exactly what prompted Paterson to write his tale of the swaggie who, rather than surrender to the police, decided to commit suicide by jumping into a billabong. However the blurry pieces of the puzzle are intriguing.
On 4 September 1894 the ‘Brisbane Courier’ reported: ‘Information has been received at Winton that a man named Hoffmeister, a prominent unionist, was found dead about two miles from Kynuna. The local impression is that he was one of the attacking mob at Dagworth and was wounded there. There were seven unionists with Hoffmeister when he died. These assert that he committed suicide.’
It is now widely believed that this story was the inspiration for the song, although the Winton town history (published in 1975) offers a more romantic version.
Paterson was staying at Dagworth Station (the ruins are located approximately 100 km north west of Winton and can be visited after permission is obtained from the North Australian Pastoral Company on (07) 4657 3957) in 1895 when Christina Macpherson played the tune ‘Craiglea’ for the guests. Paterson liked the tune and inquired about the words. Macpherson explained that she did not know of any words. This was enough to inspire Paterson.
The lyrics which he wrote were an intermingling of a series of events which occurred while he was staying at Dagworth Station. During his stay Paterson saw a sheep which appeared to have died but on closer examination it had been killed, presumably by a swagman, and portions of it carefully removed to give the impression of natural death. This was possibly the inspiration for ‘the crime’.
A second strand to the story focusses on Combo Waterhole. This waterhole on Belfast Station 145 km north west of Winton (it was opened for some years but damage by excessive numbers of visitors saw its closure in September 1989) is clearly the setting for the poem. It is argued that Paterson used the setting after he had been told the story of Hoffmeister at Combo Waterhole by Robert Macpherson. There has been some suggestion that the story Paterson heard was not about Hoffmeister but about an unknown swagman and a stockman named Harry Wood. Wood had beaten an Aboriginal boy named Charlie to death and the Winton police, while trying to locate him, happened upon the swagman sitting by the billabong.
It is also claimed that the expression ‘Waltzing Matilda’ was first mentioned to Paterson at Dagworth Station by a jackeroo named Jack Carter.
In a letter to ‘The Australian’ in 1995, at the time of the centenary celebrations of ‘Waltzing Matilda’, Dr Ross Fitzgerald, Associate Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University in Queensland, stated quite categorically: ‘The song was written by Banjo Paterson in January 1895 just 14 weeks after an armed battle at Dagworth woolshed in September 1894 between striking shearers and the station owners, the Macphersons. In the ‘Battle of Dagworth’ 140 lambs were burnt to death, while one of the sixteen striking insurrectionists, Samuel ‘French’ Hoffmeister died, supposedly by committing suicide, beside a billabong near Macpherson’s Dagworth Station.
‘Banjo visited the homestead shortly after the battle. While the site of old Dagworth Station where Banjo stayed is now a heap of rubble, thants to Richard Magoffin’s brilliant detective work Samuel Hoffmeister’s grave at Kynuna Station, on the southern side of the Diamantina River, has been discovered, and a stone cairn placed beside the billabong. The three policemen involved have been revealed to be Senior Constables Austin Cafferty (number 420), Michael Daly, (89), and Robert Dyer (175).
‘It is clear that Miss Christina Macpherson, who had heard the Scottish tune Craigilee played by a band at the annual Steeplechase race meeting at Warrnambool Victoria in April 1884, met Paterson when he visited her brother, Bob Macpherson, at Dagworth. There being no piano at the homestead, the tune that Christina had memorised she played to him on an autoharp, which is like a zither. To this tune, as Magoffin and Clement Semmler demonstrate, Banjo added the words to the song ‘Waltzing Matilda’, just 14 weeks after the Battle at Dagworth Station.
‘It is important to note that in the original verses the swagman was camped in, not by, the billabong and that there were three policemen, not – as one theory has it – one fictitious trooper ‘number 123’….Contrary to the sanitised version of the so-called ‘jolly swagman’, which did not exist in Paterson’s original version, ‘Waltzing Matilda’ is actually a powerful political allegory based on the 1894 Shearers’ Strike.’
Professor Ross Fitzgerald 0419 661869
Whatever the real origins of the events and the images, Paterson wrote the song and it received its first public performance at the North Gregory Hotel in Winton. The current hotel is the fourth North Gregory (the other three either burned down or were destroyed) but it is still on the location of the original pub. From photographs the original North Gregory was a modest building with little more than bark walls and a corrugated iron roof.
The swagman has been immortalised, albeit in fibreglass, beside the swimming pool over the road from the Waltzing Matilda Centre. Appropriately he sits near a very healthy looking coolibah tree. However the more impressive display is at the centre where the entire billabong scene is recreated.
Completed in 1998 at a cost of $3.1 million the Waltzing Matilda Centre combined Winton’s existing Qantilda Museum with an impressive range of new attractions many constructed around the story of the swagman as told in ‘Banjo’ Paterson’s ‘Waltzing Matilda’. There is a Billabong Courtyard in which lifesize characters (ie the troopers and the swaggie) and caught in action under a full-size coolabah tree. The centre also is home to the Outback Regional Art Gallery which concentrates on both historic and contemporary images of Australian outback and rural life.
The Home of the Legend component of the Centre has a number of famous Australians singing and talking while visitors watch holograms of the past. Also part of the Waltzing Matilda Centre is Qantilda Pioneer Place. This is a typical collection of memorabilia of the area including displays of old machinery, a recreation of Christina Macpherson playing ‘Craiglea’ and an extensive display of Qantas material. There are over 5000 items in the collection which includes a special Aboriginal section and a good reading room.
The Centre is open all year from 9.00 a.m. to 5.00 p.m. and, on weekends and public holidays, from 9.00 a.m. to 3.00 p.m., tel: (07) 4657 1466 or check out: http://www.matildacentre.com.au/. There is also a gift shop and a restaurant. Entry to the entire complex is $20.00 for adults, $10 for school children, concession is $17.50, and $49.00 for families.
The Newcastle Herald, January 13, 2015