Origin of the word ‘swag’. There are two origins, one old Scandanavian for to ‘sway’ and the other, more likely, Middle English for a bag of probably stolen goods. Whichever the case the word appeared in Australian slang extremely early and is mentioned as ‘rough slang’ in ‘The Concise History of the Colony and Natives of New South Wales’, published Edinburgh, 1815.
As the word travelled down through Australian history is became identified as the blanket roll, and chattels, carried by itinerants, be they workers or unemployed travellers. Banjo Paterson, in ‘Waltzing Matilda’, firmly attached the word to those forced by economic hardship, to tramp the outback tracks in search of work, dole relief or solace.
(left) Swagman Jack Pobar. Warren Fahey Collection.
Those carrying swags became known as ‘swagmen’. Yes, there were ‘swagwomen’ however, because of the hardship of tramping, the majority of swaggies were men and young boys.
These swag-carriers were also known as ‘tramp’s, ‘bums’, ‘knot-carriers’, or, as one swagman I interviewed in the 1970s, Bart Saggers, told me, ‘some of us were ‘roads’ scholars’.
Swaggies were said to be ‘on the wallaby’, ‘on the outback track’, ‘humping the drum’ (drum referring to the rolled blanket carried over the shoulder), ‘humping bluey’ (the bluey blanket roll got its name from a reference to the blue-grey woollen vests worn by convicts – and later transferred to a similar-coloured blanket available in the 1880s). Some were given specific names like ‘Murrumbidgee waler’ – a swaggy who spent an extended time camped by a river well-stocked with fish. ‘Sundowners’, or ‘sun chasers’, were another group with a speciality of arriving at station homesteads just as the sun set – an easy way to avoid the light labour usually requested when handing over rations.
Many of the blanket rolls were thread bare and Bart Saggers told me ‘some of the blankets were so worn and devoid of nap that they wouldn’t catch a burr if you dragged them from Bendigo to Bourke.”
The Bulletin magazine, October 8, 1898, detailed the correct way to tie and carry a swag. ‘The swag usually consisted of a blanket, spare singlet, pair of moles, towel, a couple of coloured handkerchiefs for binders, and woollen muffler for the sling (wool being springy and easy on the shoulder). Swag was fastened near the end with binders, through which was passed the sling, so arranged that the knot came just below the breast and gave a rest for the hand, which thus acquired a habit of pushing the sling outwards from the body as the man neared the end of his tramp.’
Warren Fahey (accompanied on concertina) sings ‘Humping Old Bluey It Is A Stale Game’
Harry Chaplin sings ‘Two Professional Hums’. Recorded Broken Hill, 1973, Warren Fahey Collection NLA.
At one time, when a certain gang of bushrangers were ‘out’ they caused it to be known that tramps and such like were under their special protection, and bade squatters treat them well or beware retaliation at their lawless hands. The effect of this was to make sundowning an intolerable nuisance within the district infested by these worthies. There is a story that after they were caught someone met a tramp and scoffed at him, saying ‘Aha, my man, your day’s over now that the Hall Gang of thieves is hanged’
‘The bastards may be put away,’ he retorted, ‘but’, drawing a box of matches from his pocket, ‘Bryant and May are not!’
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