Cyril Duncan sings ‘Bullocky-O’, a song learnt from his father who was a 19th century bullock-driver in the Nerang District. Recorded by Warren Fahey, Hawthorne, Qld, 1973.
It is difficult to imagine how important the teamster trade was in early Australia. It was a service that spanned the earliest days of the colony, bullocks and horses came with the first fleet, through to the beginning of the twentieth century when the horse or bullock-drawn wagons gave way to motorised trucking vehicles.
The bullocks and horses, when yoked, were both called teams and the men who drove them were teamsters or carriers however bullock drivers preferred to identify themselves as bullockies.
Warren Fahey sings ‘The Carrier’s Song’
By all accounts they were determined and colourful characters. Folklore has them as a hard-working, rough bunch with a reputation for cursing. Poems, songs and yarns abound about their exploits.
The earliest teamsters travelled unbelievable miles on even more unbelievable roadways. Reports from early Sydney show the teams created havoc on our earliest streets. Carting everything from people to furniture, water to firewood, the teams travelled up and down Sydney town furrowing the roadways. The animal droppings were also a curse attracting hoards of buzzing flies. In dry times the dust scattered everywhere and with rain came bogged vehicles and deeper furrows. Some areas became almost permanent bogs, especially the corner of City Road and Parramatta Road at Broadway, which was colloquially known as The Black Hole of Calcutta.
As settlements developed inland and up and down the coast it was the work of teamsters to freight all manner of goods from personal property to commerce. Hundreds of miles were necessary and some journeys took months. In some regions the teamsters worked in relays travelling their own ‘turf’ allowing their associates to return home.
The majority of teamsters and bullockies were protective of their beasts and would come down on any man suspected of cruelty to his team. This didn’t stop the men screaming endless abuse at their teams for this was necessary to encourage the mighty animals to heave and continue through the very worst of conditions. The men also took great pride in their ability to drive the teams in the most effective ways – turning on a sixpence!
The actual wagon depended on the type of work the teamster was involved in. Long haul teams required large, heavy wagons while short run wagons, usually requiring more speed and carrying less wight were smaller. It really was a matter of ‘horses for courses’. Some of the wool and wheat wagons were gigantic and photographs show bales stacked dangerously high. Wagons did topple, wheels broke and sometimes the yokes collapsed. The teamster had to be adept at repairs on the road and it was common for them to stop and help their fellow teamsters.
Evenings were particularly convivial as several teams would tie-up in the same area, along the same road, and make a communal campfire. It was here that news of rough roads, bad customers and other business was discussed before they stretched out and yarned, made music or snoozed.
Dogs were vital to the carrier’s trade and there are reports of dogs leading teams when the driver had to make an emergency detour or was too ill to travel. This is not fiction. The dogs knew every turn of the trip and how they should lead the often reluctant beasts.
Over the years I have gathered some interesting accounts of teamsters at work and play and these provide a good insight into a fascinating part of our transport history.
Names of Wagons.
It was usual to name wagons and many were brightly painted. here are some common names.
Twig the Driver
Here is a detailed account of the nineteenth century bullock trade.
THE “BULLOCKY.” Sydney Morning Herald (4 June 1910)
The bullock-driver, with his long team and heavy load is a very harmonious feature in the Australian landscape. The ‘bullocky,” as he is universally called, is certainly an easy-going individual. But while he never appears to be in a hurry, his life is not the lazy one that some people may imagine. Seen on the road, walking with long, slow stride, and looking as if he had no cares at all in the world to worry him, it is not realised what work he has had before and after getting his load on. With the team moving lazily onward, his whip resting obliquely over his shoulder, it does apparently look as if he has nothing to do but to keep up a walking pace with his bullocks. But only apparently; it takes a good man to make his entire team pull together. His eyes have to be ceaselessly on them. This Is where a good dog is of great assistance. Commencing at the hindmost off-side bullock, the dog will make a bite at his heel, and then with lightning speed to that of the one in front, following up to the next along the line, and so on. He then wheels back, dodging dextrously in and out between the wheels, with only a bare inch or so to spare from being crushed to death. With lolling tongue he is evidently enjoying the whole proceedings. The bullocky is sometimes accompanied by a mate, who walks on the off side of the team, keeping the off-side bullocks up to their work He is known as an “off-slder,” a term that is also applied to the shearers’ cook’s assistant. A good dog, though, is as efficacious as an off-sider. He plays no small part, and a good cattle dog is as invaluable to a bullock-driver as a sheep dog is to a drover or a shepherd. The horse when hitched up behind the wagon very often takes It Into his head to pull back-possibly objecting to the slow steps he has to take, which means a broken bridle. To guard against this he is provided with a rope breeching. Here again the dog plays his part. When first starting the horse will probably not move at once the dog falls behind, and “heels” him on.
A good bullocky has perfect command over his team. To the uninitiated, watching the bullocky walking seemingly aimlessly along with whip In band, it seems simplicity itself to drive a team. Let another person try to stop them when once moving, or even try to start them. It will be found well nigh impossible. Anybody can drlve a horse; but it is not everybody who can drive bullocks. It is solely by the “holt” and the movement of the whip that they are handled. For instance, if the whip is held horizontally over the head it may mean to ease up; if held in the left hand, to move backward; if carried over the right shoulder to go straight ahead, and it dropped on the ground to stop, and so on. Each bullock keeps his eye on the whip. It is, therefore, the whip that controls the team. An exciting incident once happened where a left-handed man once tried to work a team of bullocks that had been trained by a right-handed man. The consequence was that the animals would do the direct opposite to what the “left-hander” required of them. Proceedings were abruptly ended by the team clearing out and four of the number breaking their necks.
Bullocks are very faithful creatures,and, unlike horses, will not sulk and stick a man up if there be the slightest chance of getting out of trouble. When the wagon is bogged some bullocks will go down on their knees, putting all their energy Into the yoke meanwhile. This is what Is known as “scratch pulling.” Each pair of bullocks are as evenly matched in strength as possible, so that they will pull truly, when no surplus pulling strength is lost. Two bullock drivers with their wagons generally travel together for the sake of company. Should one get into a fix the other is there to lend a helping hand. The bullocky Is not lacking in jealous prlde. It is common to his kind. Nothing jars him more than to insinuate that his team cannot pull a decent load. Nothing pleases him more than to have his team photographed. He takes great pride in the manner he puts on his load, and ties it up very neatly; hence the reason why the tarpaulin is not spread over, unless in case of wet weather. Still, although ho may envy his fellow-man’s load he will never see him stuck; but will render all assistance possible. During a very wet season some few years ago in that stretch of country between Cootamundra and Condobolín long before the railway went to Wyalong, there was a continuous line of loaded wool teams on the road for no less a period than three months. So soon as a break in the weather would accrue and the roads got fairly passable again another downpour would come. Thus the bullockies were stranded. Their trip is often beset with difficulties of a similar nature nowadays, although not for such lengthy periods.
A team is divided up as follows:—These two on either side of the pole are the “polers;” these immediately in front the “pinners” or “pointers;” the foremost pair the “leaders;” while the intervening ones are known as the “body” of the team. Some bullockies are faddists, and like to have their whole team uniform in colour. An “all black” team is sometimes met with, so also is an “all brindle,” while a “poley” team may be come across occasionally. The spade and the axe are two essential implements on the track – the former in case of bogging in a bore drain or in wet weather, while the latter has often to be brought into requisition when passing through timbered localities, when a tree will probably have to be chopped down to enable tile load to pass along. Again, when a wagon is loaded too wide, some of the gatepost may have to be lessened in height. The bullocky will always pull up for a friendly chat with a passing traveller. The bullocks, taking advantage of this temporary halt, will lie down, as they become very sore-footed. In dry times, of course, the uppermost thought is of his bullocks, and the first question put to a traveller is: “How is it off for grass on ahead?” Unlike the bullocky of the past, the bullocky of to-day has in most cases an area of farming land. When the shearing commences he leaves this and makes out for the sheds, and by the time the shearing season is over it is time for him to return to his home and cut his crop.
As the railways push their way farther out into the interior, so also must the bullocky make further out, and as the years roll on the stages will become shorter and shorter. What would be considered a long stage to-day would have been considered a mere “fleabite” in the past. Where it took months for wool to reach the metropolis it is now only a matter of days. Out on the Darling River the “bullocky” is an absent type. The bales, in place of being carried on teams, are sent direct from the shearing sheds – which are built along the banks of the river–down a slide and landed into a barge, having a holding capacity for a thousand bales or more.
Beyond the Darling, again camels perform the work, each camel carrying two bales. A bullocky’s average load is anything between 40 and 50 bales–in weight about seven tons. He contracts to deliver the whole clip to the railway at so much per ton, which varies according to the distance. He travels about 12 miles a day. Although horse teams and the encroaching railways are tending to drlve him from our midst, the bullocky will ever stand as a distinct Australian bush type.
In 1972 I recorded a retired teamster, Clarrie Peters, who told me of his great admiration for his horses. He told me how each driver had a specialised series of calls used to manoeuvre the teams.
“To go around a flat you’d have your nearside leader – you called him, no reins or anything like that. He’s strung out there. Two shafters 5,8,11,14, three a-breast. You’d sing out: “Gee up! And the horse would move – the more you called the more he’d bring ’em round.
“Come ‘ere, yeh, come ‘ere Boxer and he’d keep coming with the others following. If you wanted to go back the other way you’d yell out “Gee back Boxer and he’d start to push off. Those horses knew me as well as any man would.
Gee back Rattler,
Gee back Brown,
Holy Ghost I’ll knock you down,
Heave Bender, heave Buster
Stand up Roan,
You bloody swine,
I’ll make you groan.
Get to it and damn your eyes.
Now then Blutcher, shoulders up,
Hang to it like a strapping pup,
Pull ’til your muscles crack
Heave Bender, Buster, Stand up Roan.
God strike me bloody fat, come ‘ere Joe.
“Every horse knew its name and the same as men did.”
“Bullocks are clever, They’re as clever as what people are. If you’re too cruel to them you’ll do no good at all with them, but you’ve got to be boss.”
A bush song published in the Oakleigh Leader (North Brighton, Victoria) 27 April 1895
The Bullock Driver
A squatter who lived Bathurst way,
And owned magnificent stations,
Came down to Sydney town one day,
In the course of his peregrinations;
He fell in with a lady there,
Her beauty was highly delectable,
Her complexion was most lovely
And her family very respectable.
The parents soon gave their consent;
Determined no longer to tarry,
To church at St. James’s they went,
This handsome young couple to marry.
In Sydney they cut a great dash,
And often would go out a driving,
And as he had plenty of cash
To please her he always was striving.
His overseer kept writing down,
And hoped that he’d soon be returning,
And as he’d been some time in town
For the bush once again he was yearning:
“Now,” says he, “you can ride on the dray
That’s if you’re not proud, Mrs Potter.”
‘Why shouldn’t I be proud?” says she,
“For ain’t I the wife of a squatter ?”
Now bullock drivers, you all know,
Are queer specimens of humanity.
And from their mouths oaths often flow
In a stream of horrid profanity.
Now the master he says, “Come here, Dick.”
Up walks the uncouth bullock driver.
Says he,” I’ll give you the sack pretty quick
If my wife you offend with your quiver.
“Not a bad word must you say
On your way up to the station,
And if you gets stuck in a creek
Don’t swear, but use gentle persuasion.
I’ll give you five pounds,” then quoth he,
“If you use no expressions improper;
But if my wife once hears you swear,
Dash me if I give you a copper.”
Next day poor Dick started out.
And he talked to his team with gentility
The bullocks could not make it out,
They were stunned with such wondrous civility.
Not once did he bless Strawberry’s eyes, `
While the whip he kept constantly plying;
The bullocks, with wide open eyes,
To make it out all day were trying.
One day he had very bad luck,
The bullocks began to get lazy,
In a small muddy creek he got stuck.
And poor Dick went very near crazy.
Now loudly at them he does bawl.
But with it no oath intersperses;
The bullocks would not move at all,
For they missed his colonial curses.
Then Dick sat down a while for a spell,
Then began to appeal to their feelings;
He called every one an old cow,
While blows thick and fast he kept dealing;
Then he turned to the lady behind
Alas his request was unholy,”
I say, marm, would you be so kind
As to allow me to curse that ere poley?”
One of the most illuminating articles was written by Thomas J. Lonsdale who was the retired General Secretary of the Inland Transport Workers Union. He contributed a series of articles in the Brisbane Courier Mail, 11 Sept 1923. They are a fascinating mix of history and yarning.
Old “Two-ton Billy,” who was carrying out “back of beyond,” reckoned that the squatters should find bullocks for the carriers, and present them to them for nothing. Old Bill had a very wide opinion; it was likely to embrace anything, and “Slippery Jack” reckoned that Bill would probably want rosebuds for the bows on each bullock that he owned. An old carrier said to me yesterday in Queen-street (he had just,arrived from the West): “You don’t seem to put enough ‘gee’ into the yarns you are telling about us blokes. Why don’t you give them some of the rough stuff, instead of making carriers look as if they were the cream of the old Westerners? ‘Blimey Tommy, you are slipping. You never handled things with a pair of gloves in the old days. It usually came out hot, right like it was out of the door of the oven, and everybody knew then what bullockies thought, and did. According to you, in them ‘Courier’ stunts, we are regular swells busting with philosophy, and things like that. Those kind of ideas suit our kids, especially the female members, because they would not like anybody to think that ‘Dad’ dabbled in bullock fertilisers, and so there you are.” It was useless for me to point out that I was only giving the people an idea of the trials and tribulations, thee joys and the sorrows of bullockies, and that there was no necessity of me dragging in any extraneous matters.
SCRATCH PULLING WITH BULLOCKS.
I had another bullocky pull me up He said: “You are talking in the ‘Courier’ about scratch pulling with horses, but none, of you chaps ever trouble your head about the scratch pulling with bullocks that we used to have?” He said: “I remember the time that ‘Windy Billy” wanted to back six bullocks out of his team to pull 10 horses out of any horse team,” and, just as he reminded me. I remembered the incident. It was at Yantabulla, about 1897, and the match was arranged with a carrier, who used to be called “LongAndy.” The result was that “Windy Billy” won easily, because horse and bullock pull altogether in a different Way. “Bill’s” bullocks just stood there until “Andy’s” horses, in a quick, snapping way, tightened the chains, and then the bullocks started to strain up to it. The result was that the horses, after several attempts, could not take the kink out of a chain. They thought they were up against a dead pull, and very few horses like a dead pull. Thousands of horses will pull every time they are asked so long as there is a little give in the object they are pulling at, but if it is something that is actually immovable it is very hard to get a horse to come at it a third time. The bullocks are different. Nothing can make a horse pull if he makes up his mind that he has had enough. You can use any form of torture that you like, and unless you drive them to actual madness, it will turn out the same way.
BULLOCKS WILL COME AT IT.
But bullocks, yoked up, can be forced by the application of the whip or “jingler ” to come at it every time. When you see 13-pairs of bullocks with heads in and hindquarters out you can expect the load to shift or the chains to break. Not only is it the chain’s, but very often the yoke will split and release the bullocks. And each time that the bullocks are straightened up another pull is made, and, whilst hair and hide might fly, there is always the chance that the load will shift. There may be 10 tons of wool on the wagon, and it will probably take 12 or 15 tons of beef in the yokes to shift the lot. It must not be thought that the roads over which bullocks have to travel in most cases are the same as the city and suburban roads that have macadamised strips stretching out like a ribbon for miles. Mostly there is nothing that would be recognisable as a road were it not for the fact that there is a great cleared line seamed and scarred with wagon ruts in the Western country and out of the network of ruts the teamster will pick one set that leads out into long miles towards the destination that he is striving to reach.
PULLING ON HEAVY ROADS.
I have often heard men who do not understand complain about the way that bullockies, tear up a road, and particularly is this so in wet weather. A carrier may have arrived at a station during fine weather. He loads a fine weather load, that is to say, he puts as much wool on the wagon us his team is capable of pulling on a dry road. That means that probably he takes about 30 per cent more than can be shifted if the weather is moist, and in a lot of cases it is 50 per cent more than can be carried. It is not only the strength of the horses or bullocks that has to be taken into consideration, but the carrying capacity of the ground, and the strength of the chains. In wet weather a road may carry six tons pretty comfortably, but eight tons will cause the wagon to sink to the bed almost in places, and whilst the carrier may have plenty of strength, so far as horses or bullocks are concerned, he cannot pull himself out because the gear won’t stand the strain. I have seen 60 bullocks hooked on to a bogged wagon with the same result every time. Just as the 60 hides get their shoulder into it, and with the idea of pulling the wagon out or else pulling the lid off hell, there comes a twang, and the shout would go up, ‘Hold them.” The drawbar has broken, or the other chains have broken, or the yoke on Nobby and Rowdy has split and let them loose. Then the big prairie schooner must remain as she was until renewals are made.
EFFECT OF LURID LANGUAGE.
Lurid language seems to have more potency when a waggon is bogged than at other times, and bullocks seem to do more when the blue words are flying as thick, or thicker than the strokes of the greenhide bullock whip. I have seen men become too exhausted to use the bullock whip. Then a man has only had his tongue left to flog the bullocks with, and so finely sympathetic were the bullocks that they heaved the load out. The language was that strong in that case that if it was placed under One Tree Hill it would shift that mountain from its ordinary foundations. I cannot give any illustration or repeat such language here, because it would be impossible to get a can or other vessel of sufficient strength to hold it, and thus it has to go uncanned. I have seen a wagon bogged which could not be shifted by the bullocks, and probably 40 tons of beef would be hooked on at one time, and there would not be a move, but immediately a few sheaves of language were added to the strength of the bullocks away went the load.
NAMES OF BULLOCKS.
One of the things that strurk me was the names bestowed on bullocks – I mean the permanent names, and not the names bestowed temporarily when they are in a bog. I think the most popular name for a bullock is “Rowdy.” If there are 1000 bullockies in existence now there would be 1000 bullock’s called “Rowdy,” and it would be a strange horse team,that did not have a horse called “Nugget” in it In all Australian stories about bullockies the name of “Nobby” gets pride of place, but I venture to say that there is a very large percentage of “Rowdies” over “Nobbies.” Another name that seems to be a big favourite with the whip wielder is “Red.” That name can be found in every team from Westralia to the far North of Queensland, and it mystifies the uninitiated how it is that one red bullock out of, say 30 red bullocks knows that he is being called upon when the driver cries out “Come here Red,” but never- the-less the call is always responded to. There are, say, 30 bullocks in a team, and the driver may be back at the wagon, but immediately he sings out to the leader to start, away goes the team.
THE BULLOCKY’S DOG.
Another feature of a bullocky’s life is his dog. A bullocky without a dog would be like a traveller in the Sahara Desert without a water bottle. The dog is an essential part of a carrier’s equipment The dog is not kept as an ornament; he usually works as hard as any other animal in the team, and very often he works when the team is spelling, and when he is footsore as well. A good dog, in many cases, is more useful to the carrier than a man. Some dogs will do almost everything, excepting yoking up, but even in that direction they are of great help There are dogs, who can be relied upon to bring up every bullock as he is wanted, or as he takes his place in the team. If there are 500 bullocks on a camp, some carriers have dogs who will sort out of the 500 their bullocks, and not make one mistake. And if a carrier has spare bullocks following his team, the dog will keep them coming along all day without any bossing, and he will not unduly hasten them. He will let them get a feed as they go along and the carrier has no worry about them at all.
DOGS ON SENTRY GO.
I have seen dogs at a carriers’ camp in town acting on sentry duty, and they would keep strange horses or cattle away from the feed box of the carriers’ saddle horse. That trick is something that puzzles most people. To some people a carrier may seem cruel to his dog, but that is not so in every case. There are times when a carrier has to appear cruel to got the best results from the dog. He has to be boss, as it were, and patting dogs on the head does not usually have the best results. I saw an amusing thing one day in Charleville. There are a number of carriers who always camp at the wagons near the “Warrego bridge, and very often there are other men that camp with the carriers for the sake of safety to their belongings. One day one of the light-fingered gentry saw the carriers’ camp empty, and he got the idea that there might be something worth “pinching.” So he started to investigate one wagon. He saw the old cattle dog there, but as the dog made no demonstration or fuss, he felt sure that the animal was only an ornament, and was not there as a watchdog. Accordingly, he clambered up into the waggon, and started to ransack the belongings of the carrier, but as he could not find anything of value he decided to come down again. Then the band began to play. The dog had taken no notice of the would-be thief up to this stage, but when he attempted to get down from the waggon the dog took a hand, and made at him, with the result that he had to get back on “to the wagon for safety. The “dog kept him there, and would not let him down again, so that if there had been anything worth stealing he could not have got away with it. The dog kept him “treed” until the owner of the team came and rescued him from the wagon tops.
There are many songs and poems about teamsters. The classic ‘Holy Dan’, a humorous poem about a non-swearing bullock driver, was much-loved, the song ‘The Old Bullock Dray’ being equally popular and appeared in A. B. Paterson’s 1905 edition of ‘Old Bush Songs’. Other songs include ‘The Bullocky’s Ball’, ‘The Carrier’s Song’ and ‘Bullocky-O’. Over the years I have recorded all these songs and poems.
Warren Fahey & Ian ‘The Pump’ sing ‘The Bullocky’s Ball’
Here is a song published in The Mercury. Fitzroy, Victoria. 26th August 1876 The Driver’s Song
With tarpaulins unfolded at close of the day,
Behold us encamped by the side of our dray,
Forgetting the hills and the gullies we’ve passed,
Content to have reached a safe haven at last.
Forgetting the troubles of Blucher or Snip,
Who heeded no shouting, no swearing, or whip,
Who “jibbed” at the “pinches,” and scarce gave a pull,
To help us along with our burden of wool.
The low flats are boggy, the rises are steep,
The “blind creeks” are dusty; the rivers are deep.
Old bullocks! You’ve work to do and be done,
And long is your stage from the rise of the sun,
Both offside and nearside are animals fine
, Fond looks from their mild eyes at times flash to mine,
With kindness I rule them, and this they well know.
As unyoked after toil to new pastures they go.
Good luck, fellow drivers wherever you steer.
May your lives from misfortune and bad grog be clear,
May you follow your calling with honour and pride,
And reach fortune’s summit by means of greenhide.
And the Bullocky’s favourite – the story of Holy Dan, the man who never swore.