A swagman (also called a swaggie, sundowner or tussocker) was a transient labourer who travelled by foot from farm to farm carrying his belongings in a swag (bedroll). The term originated in Australia in the 19th century and was later used in New Zealand.
Swagmen were particularly common in Australia during times of economic uncertainty, such as the 1890s and the Great Depression of the 1930s. Many unemployed men travelled the rural areas of Australia on foot, their few meagre possessions rolled up and carried in their swag. Their swag was frequently referred to as “Matilda”, hence Waltzing Matilda refers to walking with their swag. Typically, they would seek work in farms and towns they travelled through, and in many cases the farmers, if no permanent work was available, would provide food and shelter in return for some menial task.
The figure of the “jolly swagman”, represented most famously in Banjo Paterson’s bush poem “Waltzing Matilda”, became a folk hero in 19th-century Australia, and is still seen today as a symbol of anti-authoritarian values that Australians considered to be part of the national character.
John walked around Australia, image from Northern Star
Before motor transport became common, the Australian wool industry was heavily dependent on itinerant shearers who carried their swags from farm to farm (called properties or “stations” in Australia), but would not in general have taken kindly to being called “swagmen”. Outside of the shearing season their existence was frugal, and this possibly explains the tradition (of past years) of sheep stations in particular providing enough food to last until the next station even when no work was available. Some were especially noted for their hospitality, such as Canowie Station in South Australia which around 1903 provided over 2,000 sundowners each year with their customary two meals and a bed.
A romanticised figure, the swagman is famously referred to in the song “Waltzing Matilda”, by Banjo Paterson, which tells of a swagman who turns to stealing a sheep from the local squatter.
The economic depressions of the 1860s and 1890s saw an increase in these itinerant workers. During these periods it was seen as ‘mobilising the workforce’. At one point it was rumoured that a “Matilda Waltzers’ Union” had been formed to give representation to swagmen at the Federation of Australia in 1901.
During the early years of the 1900s, the introduction of the pension and the dole reduced the numbers of swagmen to those who preferred the free lifestyle. During World War One many were called up for duty and fought at Gallipoli as ANZACs. The song “And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda” tells the story of a swagman who fought at Gallipoli.
The numbers of swagmen have declined over the 20th century, but still rising in times of economic depression. Swagmen remain a romantic icon of Australian history and folklore.
Swags are still heavily used, particularly in Australia, by overlanders and campers. There are still a large number of manufacturers actively making both standard and custom-design swags.
I have scheduled these posts while I enjoy my sacred space
Pat a local retired history teacher shares these on Eboard