Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Mowbray, Philip Henry Mitchell (Phil) (1845–1903)

by G. P. Walsh

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

Philip Henry Mitchell (Phil) Mowbray (c.1845-1903), swagman, writer and eccentric, was born at Tullibody, 'under the Ochil Hills', in Clackmannanshire, Scotland, son of James Mowbray, distiller, and his wife Mary, née Rodger. Phil was educated in Edinburgh, for a year at Stirling Academy, and at schools at Coldstream, Berwickshire, and on Jersey in the Channel Islands. Though 'meant for a meenister' or 'doctor', at 16 he entered the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, England. After graduating he served with the Royal Artillery in India, with Sir Charles Napier's force in Abyssinia in 1868 and next year at Gibraltar.

Leaving the artillery, apparently under a cloud, according to his own account, Mowbray spent 1870-71 in the United States of America, as a schoolmaster, draftsman and Mississippi riverboat deckhand and in 1872 came to Australia as a remittance man. Carrying his swag, he worked as a miner, drover, horse-breaker, shearers' cook, surveyor, schoolmaster, night watchman and cherry picker—all the time 'corresponding with any newspapers that wanted copy and many that did not'. After hearing of an old Scots shepherd who was a fount of helpful information, he adopted the pseudonym 'Scotty the Wrinkler' and contributed stories—and paragraphs for its 'Aboriginalities' page—to the Bulletin (Sydney). At his camp, 'The Hollow Log', on the Murrumbidgee River, near Narrandera, New South Wales, he was a generous host to itinerant workers, tramps and 'ne'er-do-weels'.

Scotty also wrote The Swag: The Unofficial Flute of the Sundowners and Other Colonial Vagrants; With Which is Enfurcated the Bush Marconi and the Whaler's Telegraph (Melbourne, 1900). This oddity contained a letter, signed 'Phil Mowbray, Whaler Journalist', to Lord Hopetoun welcoming him as governor-general on behalf of swagmen—'those who carry their all on their backs to the doors of employers'—but pointing out that they had not been invited to the events in connection with the inauguration of the Commonwealth. It also solicited Hopetoun's patronage for swagmen, as 'We, the proletariat, consider that we are as powerful and intelligent a political factor . . . as many more prominent organisations'.

In May 1902 Mowbray wrote to J. M. Creed, an expert on the care and treatment of inebriates, telling him that 'unless you get some of my sort to let you know how, and why, and where they drink', all initiatives on the drink problem were doomed. He told Creed he was also an expert on rabbits, cooking, education, 'Murrumbidgee Whaling', soldiering and the unemployed!

Moubray (as his name was sometimes spelt) was unmarried, but 'dearly loved the lassies'. Nuggety, balding, with a full beard and somewhat distracted expression, he was a kindly cynic who abhorred cant and humbug. Well educated, he did not wear his learning lightly, but as a raconteur he had few equals in the outback. Whatever he was hiding from no one ever knew, but once when complimented on his retentive memory he replied: 'It's my curse, I wish I could forget everything'. Friend to every battler on the gypsy road, he had two great loves: the free life of the bush and animals. His love of animals hastened his end: he caught hydatids from his dog and died after an operation for cystitis on 2 November 1903 in Narrandera hospital. He was buried in the local Presbyterian cemetery. Henry Lawson's poem, 'The Passing of Scotty', appeared in the Bulletin a week later.

Select Bibliography

  • J. M. Creed, My Recollections of Australia and Elsewhere 1842-1914 (Lond, 1916)
  • G. Walsh, The Bush and the Never Never (Rockhampton, Qld, 2004)
  • Town and Country Journal, 16 Dec 1898, p 44
  • A.A.A.: All About Australians, Dec 1904, p 10
  • Bulletin, 27 June 1891, p 23, 25 July 1891, p 23, 21 Nov 1891, p 18, 5 Nov 1903, p 30, 12 Nov 1903, p 17, 26 Nov 1903, p 15, 7 Nov 1956, p 13
  • Australian Worker, 12 Jan 1927, p 13.

Citation details

G. P. Walsh, 'Mowbray, Philip Henry Mitchell (Phil) (1845–1903)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mowbray-philip-henry-mitchell-phil-13116/text23733, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 25 June 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2019

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Moubray, Philip
  • Scotty the Wrinkler
Birth

1845
Tullibody, Clackmannanshire, Scotland

Death

2 November 1903
Narrandera, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence
Occupation