An interesting slant on Australia’s favourite folk song, and ‘almost national anthem’ has emerged thanks to the work of Dennis O’Keefe who spent 15 years researching the story.
The fundamentals seem to be that Banjo Patterson, who wrote the song, was ‘courting’ the daughter of the squatter who owned the land where the events took place and whilst aware, of the facts was unable to write of them openly. The courtship itself was less than proper for the times since whilst Banjo was doing his wooing, he was simultaneously engaged to the best friend of the object of his desire.
The song, written in 1894, refers obliquely to a shearers strike in New South Wales and Queensland during which violence often broke out between the squatters and the shearers.
By the way, in Australia a ‘squatter’ is someone who is legally settled on government land hoping to acquire full title to it. They are often extremely wealthy and powerful families! The shearer is essentially itinerant moving from station to station (farm to farm) wherever work exists for them.
In this case, the shearers were union led and it was one of the union leaders, a German immigrant named Samuel Hoffmeister who was the swagman. In the song, he was approached by the squatter and three troopers but committed suicide by jumping in the billabong (an ox-bow lake).
However the claim is that the song refers to an incident at Dagworth in which the strikers had somehow managed to burn down the shearing shed on the station owned by the Macpherson family. The next day the ‘squatter; Bob Macpherson accompanied by three troopers found the ‘swagman’ by a billabong and shot and killed him, either whilst trying to detain him, or in revenge for the arson attack.
The true events were never disclosed fully and the matter was hushed up. Samuel Hoffmeister’s was deemed to have committed suicide at a hurriedly concluded inquest.
Despite being both a solicitor and journalist, Patterson felt unable to write openly about the story because of his infatuation with Christina Macpherson, the squatters sister. As a further twist to the story, it would seem it was Christina who provided Banjo with the tune to the song having heard it played at a race meeting.
Whilst the truth about the swagman’s death was hushed up, the nascent scandal relating to the ‘affair’ between Christina and Banjo despite being well known in the area was ‘nipped in the bud’. It ended when Christina’s brother Bob, ran Banjo off the station. Christina was forbidden ever to see, speak or write to Banjo again. Her friend, Sarah Riley broke off the engagement and went to live in London. Neither woman ever married and neither spoke to the other again. Banjo Patterson however did marry, and had two children. He died in 1941 aged 76.