Mulga Bill's Bicycle a Poem by AB 'Banjo' Paterson
Mulga Bill's Bicycle narrates the comical experience of a jaunty young man from the Australian Outback who buys a shiny new bicycle and boasts that he is such an outstanding horseman that he can ride this newfangled machine with ease. But, as the poem relates, he is in for the ride of his life.
The poem was written by Banjo Paterson, a famous Australian bush poet, best remembered as the author of Waltzing Matilda. It was first published in The Sydney Mail newspaper on 25 July 1896. It was an instant hit and one of Banjo Paterson's most popular works.
Mulga Bills Bicycle is a poem with verse of irregular lengths. It uses simple language and imagery to generate strong dramatic action and dialogue. The poem has a regular rhythm in rhyming couplets with 7 feet (14 beats in each line) which adds momentum and an air of humour to the story.
'Twas Mulga Bill, from Eaglehawk, that caught the cycling craze;
He turned away the good old horse that served him many days;
He dressed himself in cycling clothes, resplendent to be seen;
He hurried off to town and bought a shining new machine;
And as he wheeled it through the door, with air of lordly pride,
The grinning shop assistant said, "Excuse me, can you ride?"
"See here, young man," said Mulga Bill, "from Walgett to the sea,
From Conroy's Gap to Castlereagh, there's none can ride like me.
I'm good all round at everything, as everybody knows,
Although I'm not the one to talk - I hate a man that blows.
But riding is my special gift, my chiefest, sole delight;
Just ask a wild duck can it swim, a wildcat can it fight.
There's nothing clothed in hair or hide, or built of flesh or steel,
There's nothing walks or jumps, or runs, on axle, hoof, or wheel,
But what I'll sit, while hide will hold and girths and straps are tight:
I'll ride this here two-wheeled concern right straight away at sight."
'Twas Mulga Bill, from Eaglehawk, that sought his own abode,
That perched above the Dead Man's Creek, beside the mountain road.
He turned the cycle down the hill and mounted for the fray,
But ere he'd gone a dozen yards it bolted clean away.
It left the track, and through the trees, just like a silver streak,
It whistled down the awful slope towards the Dead Man's Creek.
It shaved a stump by half an inch, it dodged a big white-box:
The very wallaroos in fright went scrambling up the rocks,
The wombats hiding in their caves dug deeper underground,
As Mulga Bill, as white as chalk, sat tight to every bound.
It struck a stone and gave a spring that cleared a fallen tree,
It raced beside a precipice as close as close could be;
And then as Mulga Bill let out one last despairing shriek
It made a leap of twenty feet into the Dead Man's Creek.
'Twas Mulga Bill from Eaglehawk, that slowly swam ashore:
He said, "I've had some narrer shaves and lively rides before;
I've rode a wild bull round a yard to win a five-pound bet,
But this was the most awful ride that I've encountered yet.
I'll give that two-wheeled outlaw best; It's shaken all my nerve
To feel it whistle through the air and plunge and buck and swerve.
It's safe at rest in Dead Man's Creek, we'll leave it lying still;
A horse's back is good enough henceforth for Mulga Bill."
Amelia Wilcox recites Banjo Paterson's poem very well. (Note: This video incorrectly shows Mulga Bill on a penny-farthing).
Mulga –Mulga is the colloquial name for the acacia aneura tree which can vary in size from a small scrub to a tree as tall as 15 meters. It is found in the dry arid parts of the Australian Outback. The term "Mulga Bill" probably refers to a man named Bill who came from an area where mulga trees grew.
Eaglehawk – Determining the location Eaglehawk is problematic as there isn't irrefutable evidence of where it was. The most likely location is Eaglehawk Rock , 182 km north west of Sydney close to Lake Windermere and the Wolleme National Park. Mulga trees grow in this area. Another site is Eagle Rock in the present-day Royal National Park south of Sydney. (An Australian Wedge-tail Eagle is sometimes called an Eaglehawk). Heathcote Road (see Deadman's Creek below) also leads to this area. The area around Eagle Rock, however, doesn't appear to have ever been inhabited. Eaglehawk in Victoria has also been suggested as a possible location but given the setting of the poem is in New South Wales and that similar but less well-known names exist there, it is more likely that the reference is to a place in New South Wales. One final suggestion is that Banjo Patterson conjured up a fictitious name. This is unlikely because Banjo usually used real place names in his poems.
cycling craze – The 1890's, in particular the year 1896, saw one of the biggest bicycle crazes in history. Everyone wanted to own a bicycle.
Walgett – Walgett is area in New South Wales, Australia about 690 km north west of Sydney near the junction of the Barwon and Namoi rivers. Wool, wheat and cotton are grown there. It is close to Bourke.
Conroy's Gap – Is near the Hume Highway about 26km north-west of the small town of Yass near Jugiong in New South Wales. It is also the setting for another Banjo Paterson poem, Conroy's Gap. It was a popular wayside stop in the 1890s.
Castlereagh – Is a suburb of Sydney today, near Penrith. It is about 67km from central Sydney.
blows (man that blows) – to brag
Dead Man's Creek – This creek is located at Sandy Point, New South Wales. The present day Heathcote Road comes down a hill and crosses the creek here. Even today Heathcote Road leading up and over Deadman's Creek has steep grades and tight curves. Heathcote Road terminates near the Royal National Park where Eagle Rock is found.
white-box – Is a eucalyptus tree (Eucalyptus albens) which grows up to 25 meters has a fibrous pale grey bark and white flowers. The wood from this tree is very hard and durable and was once used for railroad sleepers.
wombats – The wombat is a burrowing marsupial of Australia.
In an ABC documentary broadcast in 1964, a 90 years old man named William Henry Lewis claimed that he had met Banjo Paterson many times and was the inspiration for the poem. Lewis insisted Banjo Paterson wrote the poem after hearing of Lewis's exploits trying to ride his new bicycle.
The young Bill Lewis bought his first bicycle because a severe drought had made it impossible for him to feed his horse. He was one of the first in the district to buy this newfangled machine called a "bicycle".
Banjo loved to spend time with the people of the Australian Outback. He always had a good ear for a bushman's yarn. The young Lewis was probably a larrikin (mischievous young person) who embellished the stories of his first experience on a bicycle which Banjo may have found hilarious and formed the basis for the poem Mulga Bill's Bicycle.
Note: The ABC documentary claimed Bill Lewis was 90 years old when the interview was conducted in 1964. Banjo wrote his poem in 1896. This would have made Bill about 22 year of age at the time. Other references claim Lewis was born in 1880. If so Lewis would have been only 16 years old. It is most likely that, if Bill is actually the person on whom the poem is based, the birth date of 1880 is wrong.
Why Illustrations Show Mulga Bill on Penny-farthing
Contrary to many illustrations, the bicycle that Mulga rode was not a penny-farthing. The penny-farthing with its large front wheel was already out of fashion at the time this poem was written. The latest bicycle craze was the "safety bicycle". In order to dramatize the visual effects of the poem, some publishers illustrated Mulga in outlandish bicycle riding attire on a penny-farthing. This is definitely not what Banjo Paterson had in mind when he wrote the poem.
What Type of Bicycle did Mulga Bill Ride?
The bicycle used by Mulga Bill was safety bicycle (the type you see today with two equal sized wheels). This type of bicycle was first introduced in 1876 as an alternative for the dangerous and cumbersome penny-farthing. It didn't catch on when it was first introduced because it was more expensive than the penny-farthing. However, once people realised that it was indeed safer and easier to use; everyone wanted one. It revolutionised cycling and made it a practical mode of transportation for the masses. In just a few years over 200,000 of these machines were sold in Australia. The safety bicycle was very popular with shearers and itinerant works, such as swagmen, who used it to travel from place to place in search of work (waltzing the matilda). It was a lot cheaper buy and maintain than a horse.
Why Did Mulga Have such a Hard Time Controlling his Bicycle?
The obvious reason Mulga Bill had so much difficulty riding his bike was that riding a bike is not the same as riding a horse. You need to know how to balance, steer and stop a bike, which is totally different from that on a horse.
Now, Mulga also didn't know how to stop a bike. There were no reins for him to pull back on like on a horse. Besides most bicycles at the time didn't even have hand operated brakes. They only had reverse-pedal brakes, that is, you pushed the pedals backward to stop the rear wheel. This didn't usually work too well, in which case you jumped off the bike to stop it.
So, it's no wonder that jaunty Mulga Bill was in for the ride of his life.
Waltzing Matilda — Australia's favorite song, is the story of a swagman in Outback Australia.
The Man from Snowy River — describes the story of the recapture of a valuable colt that was living with wild horses.
Clancy of The Overflow — is the story of a city dweller's yearning for the carefree life of an Outback Australian drover.