Christina Macpherson is an often overlooked character in the story of Waltzing Matilda. It was she, by playing her zither, that inspired Banjo Paterson to compose Waltzing Matilda. There would have been no Waltzing Matilda without her.
If not for her compelling first hand account, discovered only in 1991, her contribution to this song may well have gone unnoticed.
Christina Rutherford Macpherson was born on 19 June 1864 at Peechalba Station (near Wangaratta), Victoria, Australia. She was the ninth of eleven children born to Ewen Macpherson and his wife Margaret Brown Rutherford who had migrated to Australia from Scotland around 1854. Peechalba Station, a property of about 150,000 acres was jointly owned by the Macphersons and Rutherfords who had homesteads close to each other.
Encounter with Mad Dan Morgan
On 8 April 1865 the Macphersons were bailed up (held up) at their homestead at Peechalba Station by the notorious bushranger "Mad Dan Morgan". Morgan gathered the entire family in the homestead dining room and held them hostage at gunpoint. Alice Keenan, a nursemaid, was allowed to go and attend to a crying infant in the next room. This infant is believed to have been the 15 month old Christina. The nursemaid escaped through a window and alerted the Rutherfords who lived on the adjoining property.
The Rutherfords quickly notified the local police who quietly laid a trap for Morgan. The following morning as Morgan was leaving the homestead and before the police posse could spring into action he was shot in the back by a station-hand named John Quinlan who Alice had also warned the night before.
Morgan complained bitterly that it was a cowardly thing indeed to shoot a man in the back. An ironic comment coming from a notorious bushranger. He died of his wounds and is buried in the Wangaratta Cemetery.
Early Years - Growing up in Melbourne
Over the years the Macphersons had become a well-to-do family of squatters (landowners). They owned numerous properties in Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland. One of these was the quarter of a million acre Dagworth Station in Queensland where the story of Waltzing Matilda was written. Christina grew up in this large wealthy household with maids and servants in the upmarket suburbs of Melbourne. The males of the family attended to the many family properties and the females resided in Melbourne with their mother. Christina attended Elise Pfund's Ladies School also referred to as 'Oberwyl' in the Melbourne suburb of St Kilda. There she became friends with Sarah Riley who's family owned Vindex Station which was adjacent to the Macpherson property of Dagworth.
Hearing a Tune
In April 1894 Christina visited her recently married younger sister Margaret and her husband Stewart McArthur (later to become a Justice of the Supreme Court of Victoria) at their property at Meningoort. During her visit she attended the three day long Warnambool Races an yearly fixture of the area. While at the races she heard Warnambool Garrison Artillery Band frequently play a tune she found catchy. The tune in question was the Scottish song "Bonnie Wood O' Craigielea" which had been converted into 'The Craigielee March' by Godfrey Parker (aka Thomas Bulch). It was first played at the Warnambool Races on 24 April 1894. (So you might say it was a "top of the pops" tune of its time). Having a good ear for music Christina soon learned to play it on the piano.
Trip up to Dagworth Station
After the death of Christina's mother on 4 December 1894, her father, in early 1895, took his unmarried daughters Christina and her older sister Jane to visit Dagworth Station near Winton in far north Queensland.
There had been a major riot on the property in September 1994 when 16 disgruntled shearers set fire to the huge Dagworth Shearing Shed burning a hundred and forty three lambs penned inside. There was much outrage at both property damage and cruelty to the animals. The purported ringleader, a man named Samuel Hoffmeister is said to have committed suicide soon after at a billabong close by.
No doubt Ewen, at the first opportunity wanted to see the damage for himself and felt, after the death of his wife that it was a good time to visit.
The journey from the luxuries of Melbourne to Dagworth Station in outback Queensland was arduous. They travelled by train or by coastal ship and then by Cobb & Co coach to Winton. From there was still a two-day trip by horse to Dagworth 128 kilometres further inland.
The story gets a bit murky at about this time. The best interpretation is that Christina and her family visited Winton for a few days, prior to proceeding to Dagworth, where they bumped into Christina's old school friend, Sarah Riley. Sarah's brother Fredrick lived in Winton and owned a number of properties including the local Post Office Hotel and Vindex Station which adjoined Dagworth. Sarah was visiting her brother with her fiancée Banjo Paterson to whom she had been engaged for nearly eight years. The Macphersons invited Banjo and Sarah to visit them at their property at Dagworth.
Collaboration with Banjo Paterson
As part of an evening's entertainment Christina played the zither or autoharp she had brought with her. One of the tunes she played was the Craigielee March she had heard at Warnambool the year before. Banjo asked her what the tune was and she told him she didn't know. Banjo immediately started to put down some words to the music. Christina and Banjo worked though the score, Christina playing the tune on her autoharp and Banjo penning the words as they came to mind. The two spent many hours fine-tuning the lyrics to the music. The lyrics were based on titbits of information Banjo had collected during his stay. these included the story of a swagman who committed suicide by a waterhole, the theft of sheep by roaming swagman and the loneliness of their existence. The song was an instant hit. It spread by word of mouth though the district.
Was Banjo Paterson's Infatuated with Christina?
There is speculation that Banjo became infatuated with Christina. There is probably some truth in this. Christina was a very attractive and well-educated woman from a respectable and well to do family. Their collaboration may have indeed started innocently enough but as they interacted more and more it appears that Banjo developed an affection for her. This attraction, possibly mutual, may not have gone unnoticed by others. There is no evidence, however, to indicate that any sort of relationship took place. Banjo Paterson's engagement to Sarah Riley did, however, end soon after this time.
Ewen Macpherson returned to Melbourne with his daughters and died in 1896.
Christina never married. She lived the rest of her days in the more affluent suburbs of Melbourne. Christina's grand-niece Diana Baillieu recollects her grand-aunt's visits to their property at Meningoort. She remembers her aunt as a jovial lady who played the piano often.
Christina died in obscurity on March 27 1936 and was buried next to her father and other members of her family at the St Kilda Cemetery. She left her entire estate worth £3,624 (About half a million dollars in 2014 currency) to her younger sister.
Requiem to a Forgotten Soul
It was only in the late 1970's while the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) was making a documentary on Waltzing Matilda that her burial plot, without a tombstone, was rediscovered. Christina's grand-niece Diana Baillieu had a small marker placed on the spot where she was buried.
This small marker on a long forgotten grave-site is the only recognition, it seems, given to the woman who inspired the creation of Australia's most treasured song.
Until a letter and music sheet in Christina's personal handwriting was presented to the National Library of Australia, there was little direct evidence to validate Christina's contribution to this iconic song. These records clearly demonstrate that Christina played a vital part in the composition of Waltzing Matilda.
Here is an extract from an undated and unposted letter Christina wrote to Dr Thomas Wood, an examiner for the Associated Board of the Royal Schools and author of the book Cobbers published in 1934. The unposted letter was found amongst her belongings when she died. Because she refers to his book Cobbers, the letter was probably written sometime after 1934 and before her death in 1936. She may have intended it to "put the record straight" because of a lot of inaccurate assertions being made by Dr. Wood but she never posted it.
In reading your impressions about music in Australia I was interested to note that you had mentioned the song 'Waltzing Matilda', and thought it might interest you to hear how 'Banjo' Paterson came to write it. He was on a visit to Winton, North Queensland, and I was staying with my brothers about 80 miles from Winton. We went in to Winton for a week or so & one day I played (from ear) a tune which I had heard played by a band at the Races in Warnambool, a country town in the Western District of Victoria. Mr Patterson asked what it was—I could not tell him, & he then said he thought he could write some lines to it. He then and there wrote the first verse. We tried it and thought it went well, so he then wrote the other verses. I might add that in a short time everyone in the District was singing it. There are always numbers of men travelling about the country, some riding & some on foot & they are usually given rations at the various stations that they come to, but in Queensland the distances are so great that they help themselves without asking. On this occasion my brother & Mr. Paterson were out riding and they came to a waterhole (or billabong) & found the skin of a sheep which had been recently killed—all that had been left by a swagman and he made use of this incident—
When Mr Paterson returned to Sydney he wrote and asked me to send him the tune. I am no musician but did my best: & later on he told me he had sent it on to a musical friend of his who thought it would make a good bush song. It was included in the Student's Song Book and was frequently sung at the Community Singing—
I hope I have not bored you about this
(Miss) C.R. MacPherson
P.S. I presume that you know that 'Waltzing Matilda' means 'Carrying a Swag'—and that 'Jumbuck' is the natives' name for a sheep.
This music sheet in Christina's handwriting was presented to the National Library of Australia in 2008. Its existence first came to light in 1971 in a letter written by to J.R.Y. Bartlam to the Bulletin Magazine.
Hear the original version here.
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