© Warren Fahey
Life in the Australian bush of the nineteenth century was made more tolerable by the potent trio of tea, grog and tobacco: the tea was strong, dark and sweet, the grog usually second-rate gin, rum or worse, and the tobacco heavily aromatic and, no doubt, deadly. All three were consumed in unbelievable quantities and became significant contributors to our folklore.
Tobacco arrived with the first fleet in 1788, and nearly every ship that arrived here for the following one hundred years. We know of the rum currency period but tobacco was also a much-traded commodity as the military and colonists emulated British society’s passion for the peculiar habit introduced a century before by Sir Walter Raleigh. Colonial paintings and drawings show the popularity of smoking with the majority of colonialists and, in some instances, convicts, seen smoking pipes. There is little doubt tobacco was used to bride convicts and there is evidence that it was used to ‘tame’ Aborigines who soon developed a taste for the exotic habit.
In the nineteenth century most tobacco was sold in small, dark, moist lumps known as plugs and smoked in clay pipes. There was an elaborate ceremony associated with the preparation of the pipe with the smoker using a knife to slice the tobacco then rolling it in the palm of their hand and then, finally, separating the strands in preparation for the pipe.
The pipes were usually made of clay with the bowl section called a cutty. Here’s what F. Fowler, a visitor to Sydney in 1859, wrote:
“The ‘cutty’ is of all shapes, sizes and shades. Some are Negro heads, set with rows of very white teeth – some are mermaids, showing their more presentable halves up the front of the bowls, and stowing away their weedy fundaments under the items. Some are Turkish caps – some are Russian skulls. Some are Houris, some are expressions of the French, some are Margaret Catchpoles. Some are as small as my lady’s thimble – others as large as an old Chelsea teacup. Everybody has one, from the little pinafored schoolboy to the old veteran who came out with the second batch of convicts. A cutty-bowl, like a Creole’s eye, is most prized when blackest. Tobacco, I should add here, is seldom sold in a cut form, each man carries a cake about with him, like a card case; each boy has his stick of Cavendish, like so much candy. The cigars usually smoked are manilas, which are as cheap and good as can be met with in any part of the world. Lola Montez, during her Australian tour, spoke well of them. What stronger puff could they have than hers?”
Margaret Catchpole was a Suffolk horse-thief and goal-breaker transported to Australia in 1801 where she led an industrious life, gained a pardon and became a noted midwife and farmer. One assumes she smoked a style of pipe that carried her name into history, or at least into the goldrush era. The mention of femme fatale, Lola Montez, is interesting as her appearance on the Ballarat diggings proved nothing short of sensational with near riots breaking out as miners scrambled to see the exotic beauty. The fact she was often seen smoking a cigar was nothing short of scandalous.
Whilst there were some long-stemmed wooden pipes, mostly Dutch or English, the average smoker used a short-stemmed clay pipe because they were inexpensive and easier to obtain. These pipes only lasted a short while, two or three weeks for a solid smoker, and then crumbled. Long stemmed clay pipes were totally useless as they broke too easily.
If there were no pipes the tobacco was chewed; a most unsavoury habit. When gold petered out and rural enterprise took over many station-holders kept a supply of pipes for their workers.
The most successful distributor of tobacco products was the Sydney firm of Dixson and Sons, who imported primarily from America. One of the problems of plug tobacco was that it would dry out in the Australian bush and quickly lose its characteristic sweetness and in the early 1880’s Dixson’s introduced hermetically sealed tins. These tins were branded with a small tin disc pressed into the tobacco plug. ‘Yankee Doodle’ was one of the most popular brands.
The rituals of cutting tobacco and smoking entered our folklore. Often the bushman used the same knife to cut his tobacco as he would his evening meal of mutton. Every smoker kept his ‘makings’ in a leather pouch and it was considered bad luck to refuse a man who asked to borrow the ‘makings’. Joseph Furphy, in his wonderful novel, ‘Such Is Life’, points to the importance of the bushman’s knife:
‘I hate that beggar, I wouldn’t lend him my knife to cut up a pipe of tobacco, not if his tongue was sticking out as long as your arm.”
In 1973 I was recording some bush songs from Mr Rad Dawson, an 82 year old retired prosector and stockman, of Forrester’s Beach, NSW, when he gave me this account of a bushman’s camp:
“I remember my brother and I were coming in from the west and just about midday we struck two old rabbiters. They were two of the dirtiest men I had ever seen. Old straggly beards and there were rabbit skins and carcasses and crows in what was the dirtiest camp I’d ever seen. They only had a 6×8 tent, just room for a bunk on each side. We asked whether we could boil our billy on their fire. Oh, they were only to pleased and they started to chat to us. One old cove was looking for his clay pipe when he comes out of the tent muttering, “Hey! Jim, did you see my old doodee anywhere? That’s a bushman’s name for a pipe. Without looking up the other rabbiter says, “Yeah, she’s in on the pianner”. After a while we’re all squatting by the fire discussing a certain track we had planned to take. “I wouldn’t take that track,” Jim offered “they’ve done nothing to that track since Hadam was in the Hark.” At this the other rabbiter nudged us and whispered, “Hadam was never in the Hark.”
Lighting your pipe was usually a trial. In the early days of the colony pipes had to be lit from the open fire, a risky business for the wigged gentry! The introduction of wax matches in the 1850s probably saved many a miner from going up in flames and then, in the late 1860s, safety matches were introduced. These matches became extremely important to bush life and branded with bush symbols like Platypus Brand, Australia Brand (made in Japan) and The Dingo (made in Norway). The later introduction of rolling rice paper, sold with a distinctive glue strip, heralded the arrival of the cigarette. Converted and desperate roll-your-own smokers were known to tear pages of The Bulletin for a makeshift smoke when the Tally-ho or Boomerang rollers were unavailable!
Dixson’s imported an American cigarette rolling machine around 1880 but smokers deemed the tailor-made cigarettes too mild and too expensive. One group of cityslickers did embrace the new fashion: the larrikins of Sydney and Melbourne, ever considerate of their street-credibility image, considered a fag hanging out of the mouth as an important statement of urban fashion.
Most rural workers smoked at night as if a well-earned respite from hard yakka. In reality it was difficult to smoke a pipe while undertaking manual labour. In more organised workplaces like offices and shops smoking was frowned upon or banned during working hours. It was seen as a waste of work time and the smell objectionable. Eventually, as work timetables became more uniform, a mid morning and afternoon break was introduced so as to allow smoking and a cup of tea. This became known as ‘smoke-oh’.
The mythical image of the bushman, be it rowdy miners in a tent shanty, shearers yarning around the men’s hut, drovers or bullockies settled around an open campfire or the lone swaggie, mug of tea in hand all look more Australian with a pipe or smoke hanging out of their mouths. The squattocracy also shared this image and one suspects that typical Australian wide verandah was a very suitable place for an evening pipe and brandy. Of course, no one gave a minute’s thought to the ill effects of smoking. The over-riding aspect of smoking was that it was a simple pleasure that could be enjoyed by all and, most importantly, it was seen as an opportunity to show mateship. The sharing of a smoke was synonymous with our view of the mythical bush character who held little belief in the class system, and believed just about anything could be sorted out with a friendly yarn.
Smoking was definitely seen as part of the bushman’s image and this was also reinforced in traditional song and poetry.
One of the most popular bush songs was ‘Four Little Johnny Cakes’ which was later included in the New Theatre production ‘Reedy River’. One verse goes:
I have a little book and some papers for to read,
Plenty of matches and a good supply of weed,
I envy not a squatter, as at my fire I sit,
With a paper in my hand and my old clay a-lit.
Banjo Paterson, pipe in mouth, signified the continuation of the old school.
Around 1860 Robert Stewart, a bush worker and poet, penned ‘The Man With The Concertina’ including:
I light my pipe and puff a cloud,
You’d think I was a steamer,
Then Finnegan’s Wake I finger out
Upon my concertina.
It was between the two world wars that cigarette smoking really took off in a cloud of smoke. There were role models too. The cartoon strip image of Alex Gurney’s wartime duo Bluey and Curley always saw the two mates with fag ends hanging out of their mouths.
Bluey & Curley – part of our folklore and they always had a fag hanging out of their mouths.
Country music legend Tex Morton posed for publicity shots as he rolled his cigarette in one hand.
Hollywood had already made smoking sexy and hardly a movie star was seen without a cigarette. Classic movies show entwined lovers, surrounded by a cloud of smoke, ready for the embrace – it must have been like kissing an ashtray. A new Australian phenomenon – the advertising billboard – gave a visual presence to what radio listeners had already heard: smoking was fashionable, smoking was smart and smoking made you irresistible to the opposite sex.
The long-legged, sexy Ardeth girl and the sophisticated Craven-A model looked down on us as we drove our Vanguards and Austins across town. Women had also taken up the smoking habit: if Betty Grable, Marilyn Monroe, Dorothy Lamour and Rita Haywood could smoke – so could they!
Writers and academics also set the standard and no professor was worth his salt unless he had a pipe.
The good Professor Murdoch was hardly seen without his beloved pipe.
Walter Murdoch, academic and essayist summed it up as follows:
“To be without a pipe in your jowl is to be the prey of a thousand petty distractions. The unsolved problem – of the differential calculus, or the butcher’s bill – is knocking at the door, and will be heard. Religion and patriotism, honour and duty and love, each is blowing its importunate bugle-call to your conscience. You must reform the world; or you must reform your neighbour; or, at the very least, you must dine. And so, poor soul, you are harried hither and thither, and have no rest. But put a pipe between your lips, and lo! At a whiff you pass to where, beyond these voices there is peace.”
West Australia’s Murdoch University’s website still carries a profile of its pipe-smoking namesake.
Writer, Randolph Bedford, in his ‘Naught to Thirty-One’, published in1944, reminiscences:
“As a child I recited these words in the old Temperance Hall in Sydney, now a picture theatre:
“I’ll never smoke tobacco,
It is a filthy weed –
I’ll never put it in my mouth,”
Said little Bobby Reed
“For there is idle jerry Jones,
As lazy as a pig.
Who smoked a clay pipe all day long,
And thought it made him big.”
God be merciful to me! Since then I have become a chain smoker; the first pipe of the day I smoke immediately after breakfast, and the last just before sleeping. In between there is an ounce of tobacco.”
Sir Walter Raleigh is said to have ‘brought smoking to the civilized world’, but he in no sense invented it. Raleigh, one time darling of the English Court started more than one trend. When due to be beheaded he was granted one last request – a smoke before the axe fell.
Smoking is obviously an offshoot of man’s early smoke superstitions, and later incense burning, to ward off evil spirits. We have inherited a vast catalogue of associated superstitions, many still circulated today. It is considered unlucky to offer a broken cigarette or to light your cigarette from another. It is a sign of trouble if a cigarette burns unevenly down one side. Taking the third light from the same match is also a sign of bad luck. Superstitions have also become urban myths and you might have heard the story about the women who threw inflammable liquid down the toilet and her husband, used to smoking a fag on the loo, blew himself to Kingdom Come when he dropped the fag end in the bowl. Another, introduced when menthol cigarettes hit the market, reported that all menthol cigarettes contained fiberglass. It wasn’t true but cigarettes do contain literally hundreds of additives and chemical falvourants, so what the hell!
We now know a lot more about smoking and health and also how advertising and spin doctors manipulate us. We are supposed to learn from history. Some people never learn.
© Warren Fahey