Happy Birthday – Advance Australia Fair and Waltzing Matilda


‘The Jolly Swagman’, Winton: sculptured by Daphne Mayo

19 April is the 36th anniversary of the adoption of Advance Australia Fair as our national anthem for the second time. 19 April 2018 began the four day event of the first Winton’s Way Out West Fest celebrating the rebirth of the Waltzing Matilda Centre and the 125th Waltzing Matilda Day. The contest of popularity between Australia’s national anthem and its national song appears likely to continue into the future.

Not so long ago, on 19 April 1984, Australia finally got a national anthem of our own, when Bob Hawke’s Labor government replaced the use of the British anthem, God Save the Queen with Advance Australia Fair.

Advance Australia Fair had first been adopted by the Whitlam government in 1974 after it was chosen by 51.4 per cent of Australians in a survey of 60,000, defeating Waltzing Matilda, chosen by 19.6 per cent of those polled.

But the decision did not stick. A change of government brought God Save the Queen back into use.

In May 1977, the Fraser Liberal government had the Australian Electoral Office conduct a poll, or plebiscite for the national anthem in conjunction with a referendum. Advance Australia Fair was the clear favourite with 43.3% of the vote, ahead of Waltzing Matilda with 28.3%, and God Save the Queen at 18.8%, and Song of Australia on 9.6%. Yet even that overwhelming vote did not see an Australian anthem restored until 19 April 1984.

Waltzing Matilda is Australia’s best-known bush-ballad, and has been described as the country’s unofficial anthem, or national song.

On 6 April 1895, Waltzing Matilda was performed publicly for the first time in the dining room of the original North Gregory Hotel, Winton. The current brick incarnation opened in 1955, after three previous versions burnt down.

north gregory hotel

Winton today is a flyspeck on the vast Mitchell Grass Downs, 1400 km north-west of Brisbane and almost two hours’ drive from Longreach. In 2012, Winton organised the inaugural Waltzing Matilda Day on 6 April, the anniversary of its first performance in 1895.

At the beginning of the 1890s, a long economic boom that had sustained four decades of rising prosperity ended abruptly. This precipitated a series of great strikes in which trade unions were defeated culminating in the violent 1894 shearers’ strike in north-west Queensland. Striking shearers armed themselves, woolsheds were burnt, men guarding property were fired on, and non-union workers were assaulted. Police and troops were sent in. Martial law was re-introduced in Winton.

In September 1894, on Dagworth Station, north-west of Winton, striking shearers fired their rifles and pistols in the air, setting fire to the woolshed. The owner of the homestead and three policemen gave chase to a man named Samuel Hoffmeister, also known as ‘Frenchy’. Rather than be captured, Hoffmeister shot and killed himself at the Combo Waterhole. It has been widely accepted that the lyrics of Waltzing Matilda are based the incident.


Combo waterhole, near Kyuna in western Queensland – archetype of ‘a billabong. under the shade of a coolabah tree’: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Combo_Waterhole-Alan_Hoggett.jpg

Poet, lawyer and journalist Andrew ‘Banjo’ Paterson started it all when he travelled up from Sydney in 1895 to meet his fiancée of six years, Sarah Riley, whose family owned property in the district. In Winton they ran into Christina Macpherson, an old school friend of Sarah’s, whose brothers owned nearby Dagworth Station. Christina’s father had convinced his daughters to travel to Winton after the death of their mother only weeks before.

The Paterson, Riley, MacPherson group travelled together from Winton to Dagworth.

Over the ensuing summer, a firm friendship grew between the group and Christina’s brothers, who had such a different life from Paterson.

As a squatter, Christina’s brother Bob MacPherson had most of the stories to tell. Paterson rode with him across the property, hearing tales of shearers’ strikes, union upheaval and the burning of shearing sheds just 8 months before on the very ground they travelled. There was even a gun battle between Bob’s station hands and 16 shearers resulting in the loss of life, lambs and public order. Shearers had set fire to buildings and public feeling against employer and employee had been high.

Bob told Paterson of how he had accompanied a Police Constable that same day of the gun battle to find the culprits. Instead, they found the body of shearer Samuel Hoffmeister, lying near a waterhole, killed from a self-inflicted bullet wound.

Evening was a good opportunity for the group to get together and amuse each other with their talents. One evening, Christina MacPherson played a march called ‘Craigielee’ that she had heard at the Warrnambool Races near her home in country Victoria the year before. Paterson was inspired to put words to it and penned the now famous words of Waltzing Matilda to amuse the group.

Days later, back at the Riley house in Winton, the group made their changes to the song, and decided to perform it publicly at the North Gregory Hotel on 6 April 1895.

The ballad of Waltzing Matilda was born.

Many details are contested but by the time Banjo left town he apparently was no longer engaged, and Christina and Sarah were not speaking. He barely spoke of the song again.


Frederick McCubbin (1889) Down on his Luck. held in Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth\

Waltzing Matilda tells of a swagman waiting for his billy to boil beside a billabong and singing to himself as he does so. A sheep strays into the scene and the swagman grabs it for his tucker. A squatter, presumably the sheep’s owner and three policemen descend on the hapless swagman, but rather than surrender he jumps into the billabong and drowns.

The song quickly became popular locally, and soldiers sang it in the Boer War, spreading it across state boundaries when they returned home. But it was as an advertising ploy for Billy Tea that embedded Waltzing Matilda in national mythology.

From the 1890s, the Billy Tea packet showed a swagman drinking his billy tea and conversing with a kangaroo carrying a swag and billy. In 1902, James Inglis and Co., who imported Billy Tea, acquired the lyrics but wanted them to be rejigged. The association in the Waltzing Matilda lyrics between the billy and death needed to be repositioned for a beverage marketed as a refreshing and uplifting brew.

The task of commercialism the song fell to Marie Cowan, the wife of Inglis’s manager. Cowan added the word ‘jolly’ to the opening line and injected ‘billy’ into the chorus, ensuring its repetition and its association with the product. She also capitalised the ‘B’ and added inverted commas:

And he sang as he watched and waited till his ‘Billy’ boiled,

You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me.

The sheet music provided with the tea acknowledged Paterson as author and Cowan as the arranger of the music. The song, the tea and the billy came together to firmly secure the popularity of all three.

Waltzing Matilda song book

The billy was democratic, used by men and women, rich and poor, black and white, workers and leisure-seekers, but it its association with the bushmen, and in particular the swagman, gave it national meaning. Like the swagman, the billy was dependable, resourceful, practical and egalitarian, even anti-authoritarian.

In the upsurge of national sentiment that marked the last two decades of the nineteenth century, artists and writers identified the bush as the real Australia and the bushman as the real Australian. It was in this context that the billy could stand for the nation.

In the stories and poems of Henry Lawson and ‘Banjo’ Paterson, in the art of the Heidelberg School, and in bush ballads and folk songs, somewhere there was nearly always a billy, an almost obligatory motif to establish the authenticity of the scene.

Henry Lawson’s first major collection in 1896 was called While the Billy Boils.

While the boiling billy was usually a call to yarn and chat, however in Henry Lawson’s 1891 ‘Freedom on the Wallaby’, it was a call to arms:

But Freedom’s on the wallaby

She’ll knock the tyrant’s silly

She’s going to light another fire

And boil another billy

We’ll make the tyrant’s feel the sting

Of those that they would throttle;

They needn’t say the fault is ours

If blood should stain the wattle

For Lawson, the billy stood for the rebellion of workers against the bosses and so it symbolised the push for democracy and republicanism that marked late-nineteenth century Australian bush nationalism. Lawson was giving these conversations ‘while the billy boiled’ credit for the very creation of Australia as a nation.

The Waltzing Matilda Centre was built in Winton in 1998 after celebrations to make the song’s centenary. After battling years of drought, the western Queensland town had its landmark Waltzing Matilda Centre gutted by fire in 2015, leaving the community devastated.

Waltzing Matilda Centre

In 2018, matilda resumed her waltz with the official reopening of the $22 million iconic Waltzing Matilda Centre with one of the biggest inland music and culture festivals ever held in Queensland. Winton’s Way Out West Fest attracted 8000 people to the tiny town, where the population is normally a tenth of that, with online news coverage of the opening seen by more than 70 million people and generating 4.5 million social media views. Governor General Sir Peter Cosgrove and Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszcuk were part of the star-studded weekend of festivities, along with The Living End, John Williamson, Jessica Mauboy, and many others.

Even though there may be an ongoing contest of popularity between our national song and our national anthem, they both reflect our national streak of independence.

For Henry Lawson, the ‘boiling billy’ was a call to arms, whereas for ‘Banjo’ Paterson the ‘billy’ represented the dependable, resourceful, practical and egalitarian, even anti-authoritarian nature of the Australian people.

It seems unimaginable today that Australia did not have its own national anthem until the 1980s. It will seem unimaginable to future generations that we delayed adopting our own head of state for so long after coming of age as a nation.

It will, likewise, take a second attempt to cut Australia’s final Constitutional link to the British monarchy, to reflect the full independence that Australians already feel in their hearts.

The question is not whether this will happen, but when.


1918 HMAT Boonah tragedy echoes in current cruise liner crises

The refusal to allow cruise liner Artania to dock in Fremantle echoes of the quarantining of HMAT Boonah in Fremantle for ‘Spanish flu’ in late 1918.

The troopship_SS Boonah

HMAT Boonah

The sagas of cruise liners and COVID-19 infections are occurring around the world. This is an issue of pressing interest for Australia. At the forefront of the minds of Australians is the recent quarantining of Diamond Princess cruise liner in Japan, the current Ruby Princess cruise liner infection debacle, the 100s of Australian’s trapped on cruise liners anchored off the North and South American coasts, and the direction of six foreign cruise liners along the NSW coast to leave Australian waters and return to their home ports. Just over one hundred years ago, HMAT Boonah arrived in Fremantle, WA, arrived with over 300 Australian soldiers infected with ‘Spanish flu’.

The 1918-1919 influenza pandemic, or ‘Spanish flu’ remains among the greatest natural disasters of recorded history. Emerging in Europe in the final months of the Great War, in little over a year the pandemic swept around the world, killing approximately 80 million people, at least four times more than the deaths caused by the First World War. Few families or communities escaped its effects and possibly 25–30 per cent of the world’s population was infected with influenza in 1918-1919.

While its exact origins are still debated, it’s understood that the “Spanish Flu” did not come from Spain. The name seems to have arisen as reporting about influenza cases in war-affected countries was censored. However, as Spain was neutral, frequent stories appeared about the deadly flu in Spain.

It’s unlikely that the Spanish Flu changed the outcome of World War I, because combatants on both sides of the battlefield were relatively equally affected. However, there is little doubt that the war profoundly influenced the course of the pandemic. Concentrating millions of troops created ideal circumstances for the development of more aggressive strains of the virus and its spread around the globe.

During 1919 the ‘Spanish Flu’ resulted in about a third of all Australians becoming infected and nearly 15,000 people being dead in under a year. These figures match the average annual death rate for the Australian Imperial Force throughout 1914–18. More than 5000 marriages were affected by the loss of a partner and over 5000 children lost one or both parents. In 1919, almost 40 per cent of Sydney’s population had influenza, more than 4000 people died, and in some parts of Sydney influenza deaths comprised up to 50 per cent of all deaths.

It wasn’t just the influenza pandemic victims who were affected. Across Australia, regulations intended to reduce the spread and impact of the pandemic caused profound disruption. The nation’s quarantine system held back ‘Spanish Flu’ for several months, meaning that a less deadly version came ashore in 1919. But it caused delay and resentment for the 180,000 soldiers, nurses and partners who returned home by sea that year.

The 1200 troops on-board HMAT Boonah was the last Australian troop ship to leave Fremantle, WA bound for the trenches of the Western Front in World War One. But it wasn’t the battlefields of Europe that claimed dozens of their young lives, instead meeting their fate with Spanish influenza in Perth’s southern suburbs.

As the last troop ship to leave Australia sailed towards Europe, the Armistice was signed on 11 November 1918. Three days the HMAT Boonah docked in Durban, South Africa to re-coal before heading back to Australia. Although the Aussie troops weren’t allowed to go to shore in Durban, they mingled with local men re-coaling the ship to buy ostrich feathers as souvenirs. This encounter proved a deadly mistake for dozens on-board infected by the ‘Spanish flu’.

As the disappointed soldiers sailed back across the Indian Ocean, they referred to themselves in the Boonah Buzzer, an on-board publication produced by the soldiers, as part of the ‘too blooming late brigade’. The Boonah Boomerang, or The Log of the Lucky Ship, another on-board publication, recorded that one man had already been lost at sea after becoming delirious and jumping overboard in the night. By the time the troopship reached the shores of Fremantle, Western Australia on 11 December 1918, more than 300 of the men on board were infected.

The HMAT Boonah wasn’t allowed to dock in Fremantle and initially the soldiers were refused permission to disembark and was left anchored in Gage Roads. The disease had not yet affected Western Australia, and the authorities were hesitant to allow the troops to disembark. The conditions aboard were very poor and overcrowded. The food was of very poor quality, the potatoes so bad that the doctors ordered them to be thrown overboard. It would have been heartbreaking for the Perth soldiers to come so close to home soil, to actually see the lights of Fremantle, and to know there family was waiting for them and they couldn’t leave the ship. The contingent of WA soldiers was on the verge of revolt.

Woodman's Point - today

Woodman Point Quarantine Station – today

After a few days anchored in Gage Roads, after much public outcry, approval was granted for 300 of the most unwell soldiers to be ferried to the nearby Woodman’s Point Quarantine Station. It took three days for the sick men to be off-loaded but the next problem was a lack of medical staff to tend to them.

With no medical staff to care for the soldiers, authorities desperately turned to a ship of military nurses on board SS Wyreema, also on its way back to Australia. The SS Wyreema from Sydney included a group of forty Australian army nursing sisters bound for Thessalonica (Salonika). The SS Wyreema turned around at Cape Town when Armistice was declared and arrived back at Fremantle on 10 December 1918.

The small station was soon overrun with sick troops, who were set up in tents outside. Meanwhile Woodman Point was becoming seriously over-crowded. Built to take 30 patients at most, it was now housing 600. Then people started dying.


Sister Rosa O’Kane

Sister Rosa O’Kane was selected as one of the 20 volunteers to tend the infected soldiers at the Woodman’s Point Quarantine Station Hospital. It was at the Quarantine Station that she contracted ‘Spanish flu’ and was the first of the hospital staff to die on 21 December 1918. Her death was deeply felt, and served as a tragic omen to her hard-pressed colleagues. Of the 20 nurses from the SS Wyreema who volunteered to care for the infected soldiers, 15 contracted the Flu, and four made the supreme sacrifice––Army staff nurses Rosa O’Kane, Doris Ridgway and Ada Thompson, and civilian nurse Hilda Williams. The tragedy also claimed the lives of 26 soldiers.

The HMAT Boonah was quarantined in Gage Roads for nine days. Cases of influenza continued to break out on the ‘Boonah’ and the number of men sent into quarantine rose to 381 and the death toll had already reached 8. The men still in quarantine aboard the ‘Boonah’ tried to make the best of things. However, the Boonah was an iron vessel and little shade was provided for the large contingent still on board. Some started fishing and caught a number of sharks and large fish some of which were deposited in the ship’s pool to keep them fresh.

The press soon took up the case of the men stuck on the ship. The WA government wanted to take the troops to Rottnest but the Commonwealth insisted they stay at sea until the ship had been clean of new infections for 24 hours. To be a clean ship, it had to be clean of infection for 24 hours. However, everyday fresh cases were discovered. The Returned Servicemen’s Association threatened that if the men weren’t brought to shore on Rottnest Island, they would go out in boats and take the men themselves. Then, all of a sudden, on 20 December 1918, because of the political furore that was taking place, the ship was declared clean. This was completely untrue because when the HMAT Boonah cleared Fremantle Harbour, but before it reached Port Adelaide, where the men disembarked, another 20 cases were discovered.

Torrens Isnald Quarantine Station_SLSA B-43143

Torrens Island Quarantine Station, Adelaide

Most of the dead were buried at Woodman Point, south of Perth. In the 1980s they were moved to Hollywood War Cemetery in Nedlands. However, the graves of nurses Rosa O’Kane and HG Williams still remain. In the century since, the surroundings are overgrown with bushland, but the graves are maintained by the Friends of Woodman Point Recreation Camp.


I’d like to consider myself a friend of Woodman Point. In January 2020, I spent a beautiful, windy, blue-skied Perth afternoon guided through the restored buildings and museum displays of Woodman Point Quarantine Station. Past president of the Friends of Woodman Point, Jenni Carder and her daughter also took me on a rare visit to the grave of Sister Rosa O’Kane. Few people know of this vital institution that served Australia well from the opening in 1886 until it finally closed in 1979. There are few commemorations to remember the devastating pandemic. However, the restoration of Woodman Point Quarantine Station serves as a reminder of Australian soldiers and nurses who died of ‘Spanish flu’.


Nine News image

In Perth, the combination of the city’s relative isolation and effective state border quarantine control ensured that ‘Spanish flu’ didn’t appear significantly there until June 1919. Perth experienced a spike in infections after crowds gathered to celebrate Peace Day on 19 July 1919.

It seems to be for a country surrounded by water, the management of nautical entry would have been better developed since the Boonah Tragedy of 1918.

Woodman's Point @ Isolation Hopital