The lyrics to Waltzing Matilda was written by Banjo Paterson while visiting Dagworth Station, a huge sheep and cattle property (ranch) in Outback Queensland. The music was composed by Christina Macpherson who was holidaying with her family who owned the property at the time.
Banjo Paterson Visits Dagworth Station
In 1895 Banjo Paterson and his fiancée, Sarah Riley, visited the Dagworth Station in outback Queensland. This huge property, of over a quarter of a million acres, was owned by the family of Sarah's school friend, Christina Macpherson. Christina's brother, Bob, managed this vast property.
While riding in a coach to Dagworth they saw a swagman walking along the dusty road. Bob Macpherson turned to Banjo and said "that's what they call waltzing matilda".
During his stay at Dagworth, Bob Macpherson and Banjo frequently went for long rides around the station. One day they stopped at a billabong, the Combo Waterhole, where they found the remains of a recently slaughtered sheep. At this time there were thousands unemployed swagmen roaming the outback in search of work. Obviously one of these men had killed the sheep.
The Great Shearers Strike
Bob Macpherson also told Banjo about the Sheep Shearers' Strike of September 1894. This was a major revolt by the workers who sheared sheep. They were demanding better wages from the rich graziers known as squatters who owned these huge properties. This unrest also spilled over to Dagworth where a group of 16 shearers set fire to the Dagworth shearing shed killing over a hundred and forty lambs.
Macpherson and three policemen had given chase to one of them, a man named Samuel Hoffmeister, who was said to be responsible for starting the fire. They didn't catch Hoffmeister, but he was found dead a day later at the Four Mile Billabong near Kynun with a gunshot wound which appeared to be a case of suicide. In a radio interview in 1936 Banjo Paterson is quoted as saying "The shearers staged a strike by way of expressing themselves, and Macpherson's woolshed was burnt down and a man was picked up dead". There was also a story doing the rounds at that time about a police posse on the lookout for Harry Wood, a man accused of beating an Aboriginal boy to death. They didn't find Harry but they did come across a hapless swagman camped by a billabong (possibly the Como billabong) who took fright at the sight of the approaching police and jumped into the billabong and drowned.
Banjo Hears a Tune
While at the station Banjo frequently heard Christina play a tune on her zither (also called an autoharp). Banjo liked the "whimsicality and dreaminess" of the tune and thought it would be nice to set some words to it. The tune that Christina played on her zither that night was was the "Bonnie Wood O' Craigielea". It is a Scottish song that had been converted into a marching tune by Godfrey Parker 1894. Christina heard it being played by the Garrison Artillery Band while at the Warrnambool Races in 1894 and the catchy tune stuck in her mind.
Banjo, a lawyer by trade and a journalist by profession, was also an accomplished poet. Naturally he would have stored away a wealth of knowledge; stories and other titbits about life in the outback and the people who lived there. When the opportunity came he was quick to piece together a "case" - a story to produce a light-hearted ditty as part of an evening's entertainment. So it appears that Banjo linked up all these events to create the story line and the lyrics for the song. Christina played the tune on her zither and wrote the musical score.
In the same radio interview in 1936 Banjo goes on to say "Miss Macpherson used to play a little Scottish tune on a zither and I put words to it and called it 'Waltzing Matilda'."
First Recital of Waltzing Matilda
On a visit to Winton town, Banjo and Christina polished the song up using a piano in the parlour of the North Gregory Hotel in Winton. Soon after it was sung for the first time by Herbert Ramsay who lived at Oondooroo Station close by and was one of the best tenors in the district. Herbert sang the song either at Sarah's brother's house or the Post Office Hotel in Winton.
The song spread rapidly by word of mouth throughout the district and was an instant hit. On 25 September 1900 the Governor of Queensland, Lord Charles Lamington, visited Winton and Herbert Ramsey sang the song again at a banquet held in the governor's honour at the North Gregory Hotel.