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Billy Tea – ‘Jack the Painter’

Billy tea. Mern Merna Station, South Australia. David Moore 1964 NGV







Before packet tea, the leaves were sold in bulk form in these canisters.


















The Story of Jack the Painter.

Colonials believed the only dinkum mug of tea was the really strong stuff that had the bite of full flavour. They used to call it ‘Jack the Painter’ because of the tell-tail tannin stain that it left around your mouth. The average bush worker in the 1870s and 80s consumed around 60 litres of the stuff every week and, according to some accounts, was strong enough for a teaspoon to stand up in. They drank what they called ‘China tea’, usually with lots of sugar and hardly ever milk.

In 1973 I recorded an itinerant bush worker who was known in the Lachlan Valley district as’ Old Cole’ (I never did discover his real name or see any signs of a younger version) and he gushed freely about the importance of tea in a bushman’s life. “Forget the booze, forget the beauty of the bush, forget the peacefulness, forget the occasional lure of city life – the real joy of the bush is that first mug of tea in the morning and the last at night … and all those little beauties in between.”

I have travelled the bush for over fifty years and reckon I have consumed something like 40,000 cups of tea. Some tasted like stewed dishwater and some like Earl Grey’s finest but one of the best was that cuppa with ‘Old Cole’ on the banks of the Lachlan river.

According to him, “To make billy tea you need to have a good billy and that means one that has been used for a few years and is as battered and friendly as an old mate. The blacker the better – and even better if you boil her up over a campfire. Set the billy over the fire using a forky stick and wait until she gets boiling and singing. Throw in a good handful of tea leaves and take her off the flames and allow the tea to relax and settle for a good five minutes. Tea doesn’t like to be rushed. Give it a bit of a stir with a twig and then bash the sides so the leaves sink to the bottom. Pull up a stump and sip away as you take in the smell and flavour.”

Experienced bushmen could always pick a ‘new chum’ by the way they made a campfire and how they made their tea. Old hands always filled their billy to the very top knowing that a billy filled halfway would result in the rim being burnt off. If you have to have a half full billy then it should never be placed against the fire, but stood or hung over it. Once boiled they would lift it from the fire carrying it safely with two sticks held crosswise through the handle so that the ends grip the billy like a pair of tongs. It sounds easy but it required a certain amount of skill.

Most tea was drunk out of rough, large tin mugs that were tough on the lips and demanded careful sipping. A hunk of damper with thick, sweet treacle, colloquially known as ‘cocky’s joy’, was a favourite accompaniment. With a bit of luck they might have had some brownies, small dough cakes sweetened with a bit of sugar and currants. There were standing jokes that if the currants had run out, the crafty station cook probably used dead flies as they looked pretty much the same and had the required crunch.

Australians have been said to be the greatest gamblers on the planet so maybe there’s some truth in stories about bullockies and other itinerants placing bets on whose billy would reach the boil first. The crafty ones, always eager to stick it up a ‘new chum’, knew that an old black billy will always boil faster than a new one. They also knew their billies well and were fairly accurate in guessing the time it took to boil merrily. They also believed different types of water would boil differently. River water boiled faster than tank water, stagnant water quicker than running water, and cold water that has already boiled will boil faster than any water.

It seems that every man and woman in yesterday’s Australia had a ‘secret’ way of making tea. Some swore that the tea should go in boiling water and others argued it should be added off the boil; some added a couple of gum leaves for a definite bush flavour whilst others viewed this as sacrilege. Some liked sugar or treacle and others not. The real debate came with methods of keeping the tea leaves out of your mouth. ‘Old Cole’ swore by the tapping method to send the leaves to the bottom of the billy and others declared that the only solution was the swing the billy in a great circle so the laws of gravity forced the pesky leaves to the bottom. Truth is that none of these work completely and the only sure method is to sip carefully whilst blowing the errant leaves to the other side of the mug.

There was another type of tea – station tea – which was really a strong brew prepared by the station cook in six or eight-gallon iron boilers. The cook rose an hour before the shearers or drovers and gawd forbid if he hadn’t the tea brewed (which usually meant stewed) and on the boil. The men would forgive most culinary catastrophes but not badly made tea. It was commonly held that a station cook didn’t need to be a great cook, just a good fighter! A good cook was one who could make a damper with his right hand, carve a roast leg of lamb with is left hand, and do the washing up with his feet. They always had nicknames like ‘Bait Layer’, The Poisoner’, ‘Gut Buster Jimmy’, ‘Greasy Sol (they said he never washed and was so greasy you couldn’t look at him – your eyeballs would just slide off him.. he was that greasy!). I heard a story about a cook at Gooriannawa station who’d only been there a short time when the missus of the house came ranting into the cookhouse screaming about the soap being left in the wash bowl and “it was a disgraceful waste of soap as it just dissolved…” The cook, no doubt used to such tantrums, snapped back at her, “Look missus, It definitely wasn’t me. I’ve only been here two weeks and I haven’t washed me hands since I arrived!”

The campfire is an integral part of the Australian story and has been captured in early drawings, paintings, story, verse and song. It was seen as a neutral territory where the workers and the boss could meet with relative equality. Conversation, inevitably over a mug of tea, allowed for some discussion, within boundaries, on working conditions, food standards and politics of the day. It also allowed workers to let off a bit of steam between each other if there had been problems. Anything was better than a donnybrook fist-cuff fight. The campfire was the stage setting for Australia’s traditional culture of mateship and a fair go. All were welcome – young, old, black, white or brindle. Old hands sat with ‘green new chums’ and there were always a pack of dogs edging in to get their rightful share of warmth and, hopefully, scraps of tucker. This was the iconic campfire with the boiling billy that also inspired our great writers like ‘Banjo’ Paterson, John Shaw-Nielsen and Henry Lawson. It still inspires today’s breed of bush poets who like to remind us of our glorious pioneering past.

The campfire was typically a place of entertainment where old yarns were spun, songs remembered and recitations offered. Some participants read aloud newly-penned poems published in The Bulletin, (often referred to as the ‘Bushman’s Bible’), or The Lone Hand Magazine, and others penned and recited or sang their own original verse, often including references to their fellow workers and shearing sheds or droving tracks they had shared. Bullockies and teamsters often met on the road and joined a communal campfire where the sound of the concertina or mouth organ invited them to gather.

One of the most enduring bush songs was simply called ‘The Billy of Tea’ and was first published in the Native Companion Songster in 1889.

You may talk of your whisky or talk of your beer,

i’ve something far better awaiting me here;

it stands on the fire beneath a gum-tree,

and you cannot lick it – a billy of tea.

So fill up your glasses as high as you can,

you’ll never persuade me it’s not the best plan,

to let all the beer and the spirits go free

and stick to my darling old billy of tea.

Tea also gets a guernsey in Australia’s unofficial national anthem, ‘Waltzing Matilda’, where ‘Banjo’ Paterson opens his now well-travelled poem with its hero seated at a campfire ‘and he sang as he looked at his old billy boiling.’ It was also tea that brought the song to widespread popularity in 1902 when the words and music were included in every packet of James Inglis ‘Billy Tea’.

Then there’s Steel Rudd’s classic On Our Selection story about the pioneering Rudd family. Titled ‘When the Wolf Was at the Door’ the story tells of how hard times had hit the family and they had exhausted their supplies of sugar, meat and, worst of all, tea. Dad Rudd, ever the inventive pioneer optimist, came up with a solution.’We couldn’t very well go without tea, so Dad showed Mother how to make a new kind. He roasted a slice of bread on the fire till it was like a black coal, then poured the boiling water over it and let it draw well. Dad said it had a capital flavour – he liked it!’

Tea was included in the inventory of the First Fleet however stocks soon ran out and erratic supply from England made it a luxury.The settlers looked at the Aboriginal diet but there were no hot drinks. They next sampled teas made with native berries and leaves but these were usually bitter and didn’t appeal. When supplies eventually arrived there was jubilation because the settlers saw tea-drinking as their mainline link with British tradition and a way of expressing their assumed civilised heritage.

It was the discovery of gold in 1851 that really opened up Australia when over a million people arrived in the space of two decades. Tent cities were replaced with more permanent buildings including tea and coffee houses. The Chinese diggers, inheritors of a long tradition of tea drinking, brought their own supplies but the exotic flavours were not always to the liking of the European fossickers who had a general disdain for all things Oriental.

As tea supply evened out it became the staple in every bushman’s swag. It sat alongside the flour, sugar, salt, matches and tobacco and it was a very poor man indeed who couldn’t claim to have the ‘makings’. During the lean and mean years of the 1890’s, a time when many swaggies travelled the roads, a handout of the essential rations, including tea, was always welcome if not half expected. Many the ‘road’s scholar’ quelled the pangs of hunger with a meal of damper and tea.

By the time of Federation in 1901 the face of Australia had changed dramatically and in the space of ten years, between 1895 and 1905, the bulk of the population had relocated from the bush to the cities. Our sheep and cattle industries were being over-shadowed by manufacturing, mining and commerce. The tea trolley became the new campfire as morning and afternoon tea became an accepted part of our daily social and working life.

Tea drinking is still a part of the ‘Australian way of life’ and you can even buy, heaven forbid!, ‘Billy Tea tea-bags’ We have also become a nation of coffee drinkers, especially since the 1940s when so many migrants arrived from coffee-drinking countries like Italy, Greece, Spain, and Hungary. Somehow I don’t think ‘Old Cole’ would approve of tea bags or espresso coffee.