nineteenth century islargely explained as a desire of many artists and writers of the period, as
an escape from the conditions and pressures of society, and as a retreat
into an alternate reality.

This essay, will examine the works of Graham Davison, Henry Lawson, Banjo
Patterson, Tom Roberts, and many other writers and historians who have
contributed, and/or interpreted the Australian legend of the nineteenth

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In examining these figures, it will analyse and asses how their works were
a product of their society, and how they reflect a desire to escape their
current situation, and retreat into an alternate reality.

In doing this, this essay will make use of Banjo Patterson’s works to
illustrate how these illusions of the bush legend were nothing more than
the figment of the imagination of artists and writers attempting to create
a utopian environment, which in reality just didn’t exist.

Graham Davison in his text ‘the rise and fall of marvellous Melbourne’
alludes to the notion of reaction to the conditions of society when he
quotes “the rural dream was the reflex of the urban nightmare1”.

Graham Davison in this quote juxtaposes the notions of rural and urban
conditions, with that of the dream and nightmare situations to highlight
the deteriorating conditions of the city in comparison with the utopian
alternate reality to which many artists and writers have turned. This
assists in explaining how the conditions of the urban Melbourne and Sydney
life, culminated in the creation and development of the Australian legend,
based in the outback.

Davison extends on this point in another of his publications – Sydney and
the Bush2, when he argues that the “dream-like land of the west” emerged
in the 1880’s as a retreat, and rebellion against the conditions of the
city. Davison furthers his argument by making reference to the
Employee/employer disputes of the 1890’s, when he comments on the urban
conflicts of the same period.

He uses the reference of the Employee disputes as an example, and a symbol
of the deteriorating conditions faced in the city and presents it as a
strong reason why anyone would feel compelled to retreat, (the
worker/employer dispute will be discussed further on). Again Davison
contrasts the two notions of a utopian dream-like paradise with that of the
down graded hell-like city to emphasis further the impact one ‘location’
had on the development of the other.

Another figure who is well renounded for his contribution to the Australian
legend is artist Tom Roberts, who was made famous by his painting “sheering
the rams” in 1891.

This image is an example of a retreat from society’s conflicts into a
harmonious environment.

This image was created in 1890, during the depression period, which as was
mentioned, devastated the sheering industry.

95% of the picture is of the sheering shed, which indicates a self-
contained world, one in which is blocked off to the rest of society, and
hence the illusion of a prosperous world.

The other 5% of the picture is a small window which shows the country side
of Brocklesby Station, Corowa in East NSW3, where Roberts began painting
it. (It is worth mentioning that Roberts completed the painting in his
studio in Collins Street, Melbourne4, hence it is fair to say the picture
contains influential elements from both the city and the bush which
assisted in moulding the final product and is an example of city the bush
being developed from the city).

The importance of the idea of a self-contained world is the fact that
outside the shed, are major societal problems for example the economic
depression, the harshness of the Australian climate, the worker/employer
disputes, and the poverty, and unemployment faced in the city.

Both Richard White and Graham Davison support this notion in their
references to the conditions of the city life.

Davison argues that the 1890’s was a period of “terrible
disillusionment5″, especially for Melburnians. He quotes “Urban
experiences intensified by the economic crash might almost suffice
themselves to explain the value structure, if not the mythological setting
of the bush legend6″.

During the period Roberts was painting “Shearing the Rams”, there was a
depression which had devastated the sheering industry, as wool prices were
rapidly plummeting, there had been a major overstock of sheep.

As a result many sheep were considered to have become redundant, and thus,

This was a disastrous incident, as Australia at the time was supplying two-
thirds of the world’s fine wool, so hence; the depression crippled the
sheering industry.

The image doesn’t show this great strain in the industry, in fact it shows
a level of competition, and enjoyment, which makes the area inside the
shed, seems like a fading world (in relation to the rest of society).

When the reality of the context of the time period, and the elements which
influenced the picture is introduced, the harmonious world seems to be
detached from reality.

The picture in its own way depicts an industry which seems to be alive and
thriving, as people are still enjoying what they do, and even competing in
friendly competition to get the job done, although, this is not the case,
and just as Lawson’s the bush legend of this period (designed by artists
and writers) was a false Utopian environment, so is this.

Hence it is fair to say the picture depicts a world which is fading away.

The presence of the old man on the right-hand side gives an allusion to a
judge of the competition between the shearers, a manager, or an owner of
the barn.

This is an important detail, as during this period, there is an ongoing
conflict between employers and employees which led to many unions, strikes,
and rebellions (as will be discussed in further on in relation to Banjo
Patterson) against the higher, wealthier classes.

As again, this element depicts a reality which is false, as the harmonious
relationship between the shearers and the employee class was non-existent,
hence this picture demonstrates a retreat from the degrading conditions of
society, into a false, harmonious, utopian environment, which has become
the basis for the Australian legend.

All these elements combined demonstrate how Roberts’s picture is a prime
example of the utopian environment many artists and writers of the time
attempted to construct to escape the realities of society.

As a result of the deteriorating conditions of society, writers and artists
began to create this imaginary Australian, Utopian environment based in the
bush. Legend writer Banjo Patterson’s most famous poem Waltzing Matilda is
a profound example of the reality of the bush culture, and how it wasn’t a
Utopian environment, instead, it was a harsh, desolate area with its own
communital problems.

The poem talks of a man who had retreated to a pond with ‘jumbucks’ – an
Aboriginal term for sheep, and had been trailed by a patrol of squatters –
higher class of authorities, however the swagman, instead of being caught,
jumps into the pond, and drowns.

At first glance, and to many Australians, Waltzing Matilda exemplifies
qualities commonly shown by Australians such as a disregard for the
authorities. In his text, ‘The Australian Legend’, Russel Ward7 discusses
this trait, when he argues an ‘Aussies’ despise of officiousness and
authority, especially when it is embedded in military figures, and police.

However, the historical context reveals more than what the poem delivers
straight up.

Historian Rodger Clarke8 argues the poem was developed as a result of the
conflict between workers and their employers.

During this period unionisation had emerged in Australia, and the sheep-
shearers (employees) were fighting the employers for better wages and

Employer and writer John Monash9 supports this notion (Which was also the
case in the city with a strong distinction between the classes), when in a
letter written in 1891, he criticises the working class calling them “raw,
ignorant Irishmen, strong and muscular, intemperate, improvident, unclean
to look upon, and with not a thought beyond the day, and with the narrowest
possible horizon. In his work, the average man exercises no intelligence,
and takes and obeys the orders of the ganger (higher class employers) like
a horse obeys the reigns – blindly”.

This demonstrates a critical point of the attitude of the higher class
towards that of the workers, illustrating the reasoning behind the feud
between the two societal groups.

On the 1st of September 1894, four months prior to the development of the
Unions, shearers rebelled against the higher class, and set the Dagworth
woolshed station in central Queensland ablaze, cremating a hundred

During this incident three police troopers had pursued the rebelling party,
and in the chase, one of them, a man named Samuel Hoffmeister, a German man
who had been a union organiser11 had shot himself.

As was discussed prior, during this period, there was an economic
depression which virtually crippled the shearing industry, making sheep
(wool) a very valuable asset, hence, the seriousness of Hoffmeister’s

The 1894 Shearer’s Strike could not have escaped Patterson’s attention as
it was of national significance, but more importantly, Patterson was
actually at the Dagworth station in central Queensland when he was writing
Waltzing Matilda a year later in 189512
Banjo Patterson had used this incident and adapted it into a poem to
explain the relations (lack thereof) between the two classes of worker and
employer to explain the deteriorating conditions of society.

This poem depicts the bush conditions which is a much different argument to
that of Davison who claims it is the city life which drove people away.

While working as a lawyer in the city, a critical tool Patterson harnessed
to portray his perceptions of the Australian identity, was a magazine
titled ‘the bulletin’, which was used by many writers to explore ideas, and
argue debates.

A central debate of which was the reality of the bush life, a topic
Patterson was well aware of, as he was born in Orange, a small country

However, Patterson was constantly debating with a fellow writer, and
Australian icon, Henry Lawson, who subscribed to the notion of the
Australian utopian identity which was a major development of the period,
and who had a much narrower view of the bush lifestyle, although he had
visited North Queensland on a number of occasions, but was mainly brought
up in the city.

Patterson and Lawson frequently argued and contradicted each other about
the reality of the bush.

This brings up the issue of reality vs. the fiction of the nature of bush

Historian Richard White, in an article titled Bohemians and the Bush13,
discusses this notion, and argues that the writings of the bush were
misinformed as they were written from a city point of view – an escapist
ideology in which they created something to retreat into – a utopia which
did not exist.

He argues this point when he quotes “The bush simply provided a frame on
which to hang a set of preconceptions”.

White furthers this point when he refers to a collection of writers who had
decided that to get a true glimpse of what the country rural life was like.

Henry Lawson’s original expectations of the bush culture were summed up in
a piece of poetry he wrote in 1888 “further out may be the pleasant scenes
of which our poets boast14″.

However the reality of the bush context was a rude shock for Lawson who
writes that on the journey through Byrock, “They were soon depressed by the
soul-destroying sameness, relieved only by dreams of city pleasures and
delights, so they turned off the track to the Bogan River on reaching

This is a prime example of how the bush legend was very much just an
alternate reality in which writers and artists could escape – one in which
didn’t exist – it was a utopian environment created in the minds of

Patterson on the other hand very much illustrates the true conditions of
the rural outback, as in Waltzing Matilda; the historical context is
brought out, revealing a very grim reality.

Russel Ward, an influential historian who is regarded by Graham Davison as
the Australian Identities “most influential interpreter16” also
subscribes to the notion that the conditions of the bush were harsh, and
degrading, and he points strongly to the Australian geography as the most
important influence which shaped the life of the outback community17.

Ward also points to “economic factors and the effects of land
legislation18″ as other equally important factors which contributed to
the harshness of the Australian outback culture, proving (in his terms)
that the bush ideal as presented by many artists and writers, was nothing
more than the figment of their imagination, and used as a means to escape
the urban conditions.

Interestingly, the key ideological element which is at the heart of the
Australian identity – mateship – is derived from socialist values, and is
presented through two particular writers, Henry Lawson during the 1890’s.

As Graham Davison writes in Sydney and the bush19, Lawson, in 1891 was an
active member of a socialist circle, whose members were banded together to
help each other combat the deteriorating conditions of the city.

The secretary of this movement, which was to be known as the Australian
socialist league, was a man named E.J. Brady, who had disobeyed his
employer, and as such was dismissed, and now lived a life similar to

Graham Davison examines this notion when he refers to a piece of Lawson’s
poetry, which he believes precisely establishes his “urban situation”, and
so accurately describes “his legacy of loneliness”, as a result of the poor
societal conditions.

“They lie, the men who tell us for reasons of their own that want is here a
stranger, and that misery’s unknown; for where the nearest suburb and the
city proper meet, my window is still level with the faces of the street –
drifting past, drifting past, to the beat of weary feet, while I sorrow for
the owners of those faces in the street20″.

This was the sort of life many artists, writers, or just plain people
experienced in the cities of either Melbourne and/or Sydney.

Their engagement in this movement laid a basis for the ‘egalitarian’ and
‘collectivist’ elements of socialist values, which were also central to the
bush ethos, and as such, these ideals were transformed into the notion of

The idea of banding together to help each other combat hard times was and
is a central theme in the notion of mateship, and in this context, the
ideals were formed out of a desire to escape the pressures, and the
conditions faced in Australian society in 1890.

All these artists and writers in their own way have a desire to escape the
pressures, and conditions of reality in particular the, poverty, and class

These harsh realities had forced these artists and writers to create an
imaginary world, which had at its core the notions of, egalitarianism,
collectivism (which were used to create mateship), and healthy settings.

This utopian environment developed and created a national identity,
however, its creation was developed as a result of a desire to escape from
the harshness of society, and retreat into an alternate reality, free from

1 Graham Davison, 1978, ‘The suburbs’ in The rise and fall of Marvellous
Melbourne, Melbourne University press, Australia, page 251
2 Graham Davison, 1978, ‘Sydney and the Bush: an Urban context for the
Australian Legend’, in HIST 154: Australia through two centuries, resource
materials book 1, page 214
3 National Gallery of Victoria, 2000, ‘The Artists: Tom Roberts: Shearing
the Rams 1888-1890′, Artists footsteps, retrieved 14th/6/03 from
4 Ibid
5 Graham Davison, 1978, ‘Sydney and the Bush: an Urban context for the
Australian Legend’, in HIST 154: Australia through two centuries, resource
materials book 1, page 214
6 Ibid, page 215
7 Russel Ward, 1958, The Australian Legend, Oxford University press,
Melbourne, Australia page 180
8 Rodger Clarke, 2002, ‘The Writing of Waltzing Matilda’, Rodger Clarke’s
Waltzing Matilda retrieved 7/6/03 from
9 John Monash, 1981, ‘John Monash’s description of the Navvy, 1891’,
Labour History, volume 40, page 93
10 Rodger Clarke, 2002, ‘The Writing of Waltzing Matilda’, Rodger
Clarke’s Waltzing Matilda retrieved 7/6/03 from
11 Dennis O’Keeffe, 2002, ‘Who was the swagman?’, Waltzing Matilda story
– the legendary swagman retrieved 7/6/03 from
12 National Library of Australia, Origins (of Waltzing Matilda), Who’ll
come a Waltzing Matilda with me?, accessed 15/6/03 from
13 Richard White, 1981, ‘Bohemians and the Bush’, Inventing Australia, in
HIST 154 Australia through two centuries, resource materials book 1, page
14 Henry Lawson, ‘faces in the street’, Bulletin, 28th July 1888, in HIST
154: Australia through two centuries, resource materials book 1 page 211
15 Richard White, 1981, ‘Bohemians and the Bush’, Inventing Australia,
page 240
16 Graham Davison, 1978, ‘Sydney and the Bush: an Urban context for the
Australian Legend’, in HIST 154: Australia through two centuries, resource
materials book 1, page 209
17 Russel Ward, 1958, ‘A country practice’ The Australian legend, A
country practice in HIST 154: Australia through two centuries, resource
materials book 1, page 207
18 Ibid, page 205
19 Ibid, page 214
20 Ibid, page 211