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Rum Women and Song: Russel Ward (1953)

In 1951-52 Australians drank 20.4 gallons of beer per head, 1.8 gallons of wine, and .316 gallons of spirits. These official figures take no account of home-brewers. But reformers can draw comfort from two considerations. We used to drink a great deal more, and the quality of the liquor was, on the whole, a great deal worse. Nowadays, too, as the statistics show, our staple tipple is beer with an alcoholic content of about 5 or 6 per cent. It is well known that our Founding Fathers favoured rum containing anything from 50 to 99 per cent, of alcohol, and that this firewater once served as coin of the realm. Bligh and Macquarie smashed the Rum Corps and substituted a more conventional form of currency; but records show that rum long continued to circulate deeply, so to speak, in the internal economy.

Five or six years after Macquarie left the colony in 1821 a young emigrant landed in Sydney. On his first night ashore he went into a respectable tavern in Market Street, not far from where the State Theatre now stands. "Almost everybody," he found, was drinking rum from half-pint tankards; and only a few of the weaker sort "qualified it very slightly with water."

Writing in 1847, Alexander Marjoribanks, of Marjoribanks, presumably an impeccable witness, computed that the average annual consumption of alcohol per head in Australia was "ten times more than the average consumption of the same number of individuals in any other part of the globe." Though Marjoribanks lived here for about five years and based his estimate on official figures, we may suspect there was something wrong with his arithmetic. Still, the picture is im- pressive.

By his time, too, "the quantity of colonial ale brewed was immense," but people still drank more spirits than beer, especially in outback districts. One of the reasons was that old-fashioned beer, made without chemical preservatives, would not keep for more than a few days in the heat of the western plains, even if it survived the journey thither. Another reason is to be found in the peculiar nature of the bushman's life. In many important ways, 19th century bush workers may be likened to a species of dry-land sailors.

In the formative period of the 1830s and 1840s there were still twice as many men as women in Australia. On the western plains the disproportion was much greater. Wives and children often accompanied the squatters; but among the drovers, shearers, bullockies, shepherds and swagmen who worked for them, women were almost as scarce as they are in a tramp's fo'c's'le. Of necessity, the lucky few who were married left their wives at home in some bush township while they made their long overland voyages in search of casual work from the squatters.

The great English novelist, Anthony Trollope, spent some years in Australia during the 1870s. He declared that the bush-workers' way of life was "one of the strangest institutions ever known in a land." "The bulk of the labour," he wrote, "is performed by a nomad tribe, who wander in quest of their work, and are hired only for a time . . . and the squatter seldom knows whether the man he employs be married or single. They come and go, and are known by queer nicknames, or by no names at all. They probably have their wives elsewhere, and return to them for a season." Like deep-water seamen home from a voyage, these men tended to compensate for long periods of enforced sobriety by short bursts of Homeric dissipation. After a few months on the track with cattle, or of intensive work on outback shearing boards, they would "blue" their cheques in a few days at the nearest sly-grog shanty, or at a licensed house in a township.

This bush tradition of alternating "work and burst" took shape early in our history. After a visit to Bathurst in 1835, James Backhouse wrote: "It is common, with the men, many of whom have been prisoners, to engage themselves as sawyers, shepherds, etc., in distant places, and to come into the town, when they have earned a few pounds, for the sole purpose of spending it in drunkenness and debauchery. When their money is gone, they return again to their labour."

This custom is picturesquely recorded in the folk-songs of the bushmen, for the nomad tribe had its own songs just as the men who worked the windjammers had their sea-shanties. One of the earliest of these songs is printed in a little-known novel, "The Emigrant Family," which, from first-hand experience, describes Australian outback life during the great squatting rush of the 1830s. The anonymous author pictures a "shiveau" in a stockman's bark hut, somewhere not far from the present site of Canberra. It should be noted that "family men" and "countryman" were slang terms used to denote a thief:

There's never a chap--Bob, Arthur or Dan--
Lives half such a life as the countryman;
He scours the city, he sweeps the road;
Asses laden too heavy he helps to unload.
He spends all he gets, and gets all he can,
Does the rattlin' roarin' Family Man.

There's never a chap--Bob, Arthur or Dan
Half such a chap as a countryman;
If you've little or none you may share in his mess,
If you've got too much he'll help you to less;
He gets all he spends, and that's all he can,
Does the rattlin' roarin' Family Man.

"To these lyric stanzas," continues the author, "a rolling chorus was supplied by six or seven voices repeating the first couplet of each at its conclusion: a short interlude being supplied in the same manner after the chorus by deafening shouts: 'Good song, Dubbo!' 'Here, whet thee whistle, lad!' 'I'll back Mikkey for a strave against all Morrumbidgee.' "

In the 1830s most bush workers were still convicts or ex-convicts and so this is a thieves' song. There are no specifically Australian stage properties--none of the bunyips, or billabongs, or blueys that came to characterise our folk-ballads later in the cen- tury. Nevertheless, the spirit of Dubbo's song is ancestral to that of its native-born descendants. The same feeling of easy-come, easy-go generosity, the same assumption of solidarity and mateship--within the circle of the nomad tribe - and the same improvident enthusiasm for the consumption of ardent spirits, are basic to most of the later songs.

"The Rollicking Ramble-eer" is a good example:--

The earth rolls on through empty space, it's journey never done;
It's entered for a starry race throughout the kingdom-come.
And as I am a bit of earth, I follow it because--
And to prove I am a rolling stone and never gather moss.

For I am a ramble-eer, a rollicking ramble-eer,
I'm a roving rake of poverty, and son of a gun for beer.
I've done a bit of fossicking for tucker and for gold;
I've been a menial rouseabout and a rollicking shearer bold.
I've "shanked" across the Old Man Plain, after busting up a cheque,
And "whipped the cat" once more again, though I haven't met it yet.

I've done a bit of droving of cattle and of sheep,
And I've done a bit of moving with "Matilda" for a mate;
Of fencing I have done my share, wool-scouring, on the green,
Axeman, navvy. Old Nick can bear me out in what I haven't been.

I've worked the treadmill thresher, the scythe and reaping hook,
Been wood-and-water fetcher, for Mary Jane the cook;
I've done a few "cronk" things too, when I have struck a town,
There's few things I wouldn't do--but I never did "lambing down."

The ramble-eer's partiality for beer is one of the things that mark this as a comparatively late version. The singer also assumes that his audience is familiar with the formalised pattern of behaviour associated with "busting up a cheque"--a pattern that even to-day, travellers say, is observed with fitting ceremony in most of the country between Broome and Broken Hill.

Some observers think that citybred Australians still show traces of this pattern in their drinking habits. But few of us (fortunately, perhaps) are the men our great-grandfathers were ! The most devoted toper of Christmas, 1953, would probably baulk at the grog which once flowed down the throats of Carpentaria bushmen.

George Carrington, an Oxford man, who once humped his swag among them in the 1860s, wrote: "I stayed a little while once as barkeeper with a publican who used to manufacture his grog in the following manner: He would get up a gallon at a time of bad rum. This he used to put in a three-gallon keg with some tobacco, vitriol and a modicum of laudanum. The whole was filled up with water, shaken together, and allowed to stand. ... This was his whole stock in-trade, and he charged eighteen pence for a glass, or 'nobbler' of it, and men used to drink and relish it. The advantage of it was that it made them drunk very quickly, and thus no valu- able time was wasted."


From the Sydney Morning Herald Sat 12 Dec 1953 p. 9.


australian traditional songs . . . a selection by mark gregory