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© Warren Fahey

Australia’s settlement history was as a penal settlement. From the arrival of the First Fleet and its cargo of transported convicts up to the last shipment in 1863 some 150,000 men and boys and around 25,000 women and girls were sent to the various colonial goals. The first was Botany Bay, the now site of the City of Sydney and others included Moreton bay in Brisbane, Port Arthur in Tasmania or, as it was known, Van Diemen’s Land, Norfolk Island off the east coast and, later colonies in West Australia.

The convicts were sent to Australia to relieve the pressure being put on the British prison system. Transportation to America had ceased by the late 1700s and even old anchored harbour hulks had been transformed into floating prisons, and still there were major accommodation problems. Shipping the problem to far off Australia seemed the ideal solution.

a  convict chain gang in Sydney, New South Wales The convicts were sentenced to transportation, usually seven, fourteen or twenty years, sometimes for the ‘term of their natural life’. The list of crimes appeared endless and included petty crimes such as picking pockets, breaking and entry, forgery, poaching and crimes against landlords. There were also many so-called ‘political crimes’ and especially any insolence from the Irish against English landlords in occupied Eire. The convicts were a mixed lot and of all ages and social background. In truth, many of them would have been far better off than staying in Negate or any other British goal.

In Australia they had cleaner air, (usually) dryer climate, tolerable rations (sometimes) and hard labour to strengthen the body.

Like their British, Scottish and Irish counterparts the convicted class composed and circulated songs. Some were old ballads that had been in their family or community repertoire for some time and others were newly composed songs that had been circulated by broadside and chapbook sellers. The convicts sang to amuse themselves and fellow inmates because this was an accepted part of the entertainment patterns of the day. The soldiers and administrators who governed them also had their music, notably patriotic songs and parlour music, but some would certainly have also sung the old songs from their child hood.

The ‘bush of Australia’ mentioned in the verses of the following is not to be found on the map! This is an old song that could best be described as erotic rather than bawdy song. Interestingly it is one of the earliest to discuss sexual relations between the Europeans and indigenous people. It is also an age-old theme in folk song where the innocent woman is left with a baby but no father.

Here is Jim Cargill singing the song.


One day as I strolled by the Hawkesbury banks
Where the maids of Australia, they play their wild pranks
Near a palm-shaded tree, I laid myself down,
To admire the young damsels who gathered around
On the banks of that stream in Australia
Round the banks of that stream in Australia
Where the maids are all handsome and gay

Soon a charming young damsel before me appeared
She came for to bathe in the streams close by here
With kissing and caressing, she soon said to me
Can’t you see it’s the dress that kind nature gave me
On the morn I was born in Australia
On the morn I was born in Australia
Where the maids are all handsome and gay

Soon exhausted by swimming she swam to the brink
Come and save me, kind sir, I’m afraid that I’ll sink
Like lightning I sprang and got hold of her hand
I tried for to rise but fell back on the sand
And I entered the bush of Australia
And I entered the bush of Australia
Where the maids are all handsome and gay

Soon the eighth month was over and the ninth month had come
And the charming young creature brought forth a fine son
She looked for his dad, but nowhere could be found
It’s then she remembered that fall on the ground
On the banks of that stream in Australia
On the banks of that stream in Australia
Where the maidens are all handsome and gay.
Anonymous. From the singing of Jim Cargill, Randwick, NSW, collected by Warren Fahey 1973. Mr Cargill was in his late eighties when he recorded this song that he had learnt off his father who had sailed here in the nineteenth century. See Australian Folklore Unit file for more information and songs from Jim Cargill.