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Paterson, Andrew Barton (Banjo) (1864–1941)

by Clement Semmler

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Andrew Barton Paterson (1864-1941), by unknown photographer, c1890

Andrew Barton Paterson (1864-1941), by unknown photographer, c1890

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an22199070

Andrew Barton (Banjo) Paterson (1864-1941), poet, solicitor, journalist, war correspondent and soldier, was born on 17 February 1864 at Narrambla near Orange, New South Wales, eldest of seven children of Andrew Bogle Paterson (d.1889), grazier, and his native-born wife Rose Isabella, daughter of Robert Barton of Boree Nyrang station, near Orange. His father, a lowland Scot, had migrated to New South Wales about 1850, eventually taking up Buckinbah station at Obley in the Orange district.

Barty, as he was known to his family and friends, enjoyed a bush boyhood. When he was 7 the family moved to Illalong in the Yass district. Here, near the main route between Sydney and Melbourne, the exciting traffic of bullock teams, Cobb & Co. coaches, drovers with their mobs of stock, and gold escorts became familiar sights. At picnic race meetings and polo matches, he saw in action accomplished horsemen from the Murrumbidgee and Snowy Mountains country which generated his lifelong enthusiasm for horses and horsemanship and eventually the writing of his famous equestrian ballads.

After lessons in his early years from a governess, once he was able to ride a pony he attended the bush school at Binalong. In 1874 he was sent to Sydney Grammar School where in 1875 he shared the junior Knox prize with (Sir) George Rich, and matriculated aged 16. After failing a University of Sydney scholarship examination, Paterson served the customary articles of clerkship with Herbert Salwey and was admitted as a solicitor on 28 August 1886; for ten years from about 1889 he practised in partnership with John William Street.

As a young man Paterson joined enthusiastically in the Sydney social and sporting scene, and was much sought after for his companionship. Norman Lindsay in Bohemians of the Bulletin (1965) remembered him as a 'tall man with a finely built, muscular body, moving with the ease of perfectly co-ordinated reflexes. Black hair, dark eyes, a long, finely articulated nose, an ironic mouth, a dark pigmentation of the skin … His eyes, as eyes must be, were his most distinctive feature, slightly hooded, with a glance that looked beyond one as he talked'. Paterson was a keen tennis player and an accomplished oarsman, but his chief delight was horsemanship. He rode to hounds with the Sydney Hunt Club, became one of the colony's best polo players and as an amateur rider competed at Randwick and Rosehill.

During his schooldays in Sydney Paterson lived at Gladesville with his widowed grandmother Emily May Barton, sister of Sir John Darvall and a well-read woman who fostered his love of poetry. His father had had verses published in the Bulletin, soon after its foundation in 1880. Paterson began writing verses as a law student; his first poem, 'El Mahdi to the Australian Troops', was published in the Bulletin in February 1885. Adopting the pen name 'The Banjo' (taken from the name of a station racehorse owned by his family), he became one of that sodality of Bulletin writers and artists for which the 1890s are remarkable in Australian literature, forming friendships with E. J. Brady, Victor Daley, Frank Mahony, Harry 'The Breaker' Morant and others. He helped Henry Lawson to draw up contracts with publishers and indulged in a friendly rhyming battle with him in the Bulletin over the attractions or otherwise of bush life.

By 1895 such ballads as 'Clancy of the Overflow', 'The Geebung Polo Club', 'The Man from Ironbark', 'How the Favourite Beat Us' and 'Saltbush Bill' were so popular with readers that Angus & Robertson, published the collection, The Man From Snowy River, and Other Verses, in October. The title-poem had swept the colonies when it was first published in April 1890. The book had a remarkable reception: the first edition sold out in the week of publication and 7000 copies in a few months; its particular achievement was to establish the bushman in the national consciousness as a romantic and archetypal figure. The book was as much praised in England as in Australia: The Times compared Paterson with Rudyard Kipling who himself wrote to congratulate the publishers. Paterson's identity as 'The Banjo' was at last revealed and he became a national celebrity overnight.

While on holiday in Queensland late in 1895, Paterson stayed with friends at Dagworth station, near Winton. Here he wrote 'Waltzing Matilda' which was to become Australia's best-known folk song. In the next few years he travelled extensively through the Northern Territory and other areas, writing of his experiences in prose and verse for the Sydney Mail, the Pastoralists' Review, the Australian Town and Country Journal and the Lone Hand, as well as the Bulletin. In 1895 he had collaborated with Ernest Truman in the production of an operatic farce, Club Life, and in 1897 was an editor of the Antipodean, a literary magazine.

His most important journalistic opportunity came with the outbreak of the South African War when he was commissioned by the Sydney Morning Herald and the Melbourne Age as their war correspondent; he sailed for South Africa in October 1899. Attached to General French's column, for nine months Paterson was in the thick of the fighting and his graphic accounts of the key campaigns included the surrender of Bloemfontein (he was the first correspondent to ride into that town), the capture of Pretoria and the relief of Kimberley. The quality of his reporting attracted the notice of the English press and he was appointed as a correspondent also for the international news agency, Reuters, an honour which he especially cherished in his later years. He wrote twelve ballads from his war experiences, the best known of which are 'Johnny Boer' and 'With French to Kimberley'.

Paterson returned to Australia in September 1900 and sailed for China in July 1901 as a roving correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald. There he met G. E. ('Chinese') Morrison whose exploits he had always admired; his accounts of this meeting are among Paterson's best prose work. He went on to England where he met again his old friend of Bulletin days, the cartoonist Phil May, and spent some time as Kipling's guest at his Sussex home.

Back in Sydney in 1902, Paterson published another collection, Rio Grande's Last Race, and Other Verses, and in November decided to abandon his legal practice. Next year he was appointed editor of the Sydney Evening News. On 8 April 1903 he married Alice Emily, daughter of W. H. Walker of Tenterfield station. They settled at Woollahra where a daughter Grace was born in 1904 and a son Hugh in 1906. Paterson resigned his editorship in 1908. He had enjoyed his newspaper activities and had produced an edition of folk ballads, Old Bush Songs (1905), which he had researched for some years; he had also written a novel, An Outback Marriage (1906), which had first appeared as a serial in the Melbourne Leader in 1900. But the call of the country could not be resisted and he took over a property of 40,000 acres (16,188 ha), Coodra Vale, near Wee Jasper, where he wrote an unpublished treatise on racehorses and racing. The pastoral venture was not a financial success and Paterson briefly tried wheat-farming near Grenfell.

When World War I began, Paterson immediately sailed for England, hoping unsuccessfully to cover the fighting in Flanders as war correspondent. He drove an ambulance attached to the Australian Voluntary Hospital, Wimereux, France, before returning to Australia early in 1915. As honorary vet (with a certificate of competency) he made three voyages with horses to Africa, China and Egypt and on 18 October was commissioned in the 2nd Remount Unit, Australian Imperial Force.

Almost immediately promoted captain, he served in the Middle East. Wounded in April 1916, he rejoined his unit in July. He was ideally suited to his duties and, promoted major, commanded the Australian Remount Squadron from October until he returned to Australia in mid-1919. Angus & Robertson had published in 1917 a further collection of his poems, Saltbush Bill, J.P., and Other Verses, and a prose selection, Three Elephant Power, and Other Stories, heavily edited by A. W. Jose to whom Robertson confided: 'It is amazing that a prince of raconteurs like Banjo should be such a messer with the pen'.

After the war Paterson resumed journalism; he contributed to the Sydney Mail and Smith's Weekly and in 1922 became editor of a racing journal, the Sydney Sportsman—an appointment he found highly congenial. In 1923 most of his poems were assembled in Collected Verse, which has been reprinted many times. He retired from active journalism in 1930 to devote his leisure to creative writing. He was by now a celebrated and respected citizen of Sydney, most often seen at the Australian Club where he had long been a member and where his portrait now hangs. In following years he became a successful broadcaster with the Australian Broadcasting Commission on his travels and experiences. He also wrote his delightfully whimsical book of children's poems, The Animals Noah Forgot (1933). In Happy Dispatches (1934) he described his meetings with the famous, including (Sir) Winston Churchill, Kipling, Morrison, Lady Dudley and British army leaders. He published another novel, The Shearer's Colt (1936), and in 1939 wrote reminiscences for the Sydney Morning Herald. That year he was appointed C.B.E. He died, after a short illness, on 5 February 1941 and was cremated with Presbyterian forms. His wife and children survived him.

By the verdict of the Australian people, and by his own conduct and precept, Paterson was, in every sense, a great Australian. Ballad-writer, horseman, bushman, overlander, squatter—he helped to make the Australian legend. Yet, in his lifetime, he was a living part of that legend in that, with the rare touch of the genuine folk-poet, and in words that seemed as natural as breathing, he made a balladry of the scattered lives of back-country Australians and immortalized them. He left a legacy for future generations in his objective, if sometimes sardonic, appreciation of the outback: that great hinterland stretching down from the Queensland border through the western plains of New South Wales to the Snowy Mountains—so vast a country that the lonely rider was seen as 'a speck upon a waste of plain'. This was Paterson's land of contrasts: 'the plains are all awave with grass, the skies are deepest blue', but also the 'fiery dust-storm drifting and the mocking mirage shifting'; 'waving grass and forest trees on sunlit plains as wide as seas', but the 'drought fiend' too, and the cattle left lying 'with the crows to watch them dying'.

Although coming from a family of pioneer landholders who, by their industry had achieved some substance, Paterson wrote for all who were battling in the face of flood, drought and disaster. He saw life through the eyes of old Kiley who had to watch the country he had pioneered turned over to the mortgagees, of Saltbush Bill fighting a well-paid overseer for grass for his starving sheep, of Clancy of the Overflow riding contentedly through the smiling western plains:

While the stock are slowly stringing,
Clancy rides behind them singing,
For the drover's life has pleasures
that the townsfolk never know.

In such lines as these Paterson lifted the settled gloom from our literature of the bush.

On the night of Paterson's death, Vance Palmer broadcasted a tribute: 'He laid hold both of our affections and imaginations; he made himself a vital part of the country we all know and love, and it would not only have been a poorer country but one far less united in bonds of intimate feeling, if he had never lived and written'.

In 1983 his granddaughters published a two-volume complete edition of Paterson's works, including hitherto unpublished material. His portrait by John Longstaff won the 1935 Archibald prize and is in the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Select Bibliography

  • S. May, The Story of Waltzing Matilda (Brisb, 1944)
  • C. W. Semmler, The Banjo of the Bush (Melb, 1966), (ed), The World of ‘Banjo’ Paterson (Syd, 1967)
  • R. D. Magoffin, Fair Dinkum Matilda (Charters Towers, Qld, 1973)
  • A. W. Barker (ed), Dear Robertson (Syd, 1982)
  • R. Campbell and P. Harvie (compilers), A. B. (Banjo) Paterson: Complete Works 1885-1941 (Syd, 1983)
  • Australian Quarterly, June 1941
  • Meanjin Quarterly, 1964, no 4.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Clement Semmler, 'Paterson, Andrew Barton (Banjo) (1864–1941)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/paterson-andrew-barton-banjo-7972/text13883, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 23 July 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Andrew Barton Paterson (1864-1941), by unknown photographer, c1890

Andrew Barton Paterson (1864-1941), by unknown photographer, c1890

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an22199070

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Paterson, Banjo
Birth

17 February 1864
Narrambla, New South Wales, Australia

Death

5 February 1941

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence
Occupation