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Class and Jumping the Rattler

Iron Road

First and Second Class

In the latter half of the 19th century rail became an invaluable partner in the growth and development of our rural industries. It enabled wheat, rice, wool, meat and coal to be transported to the city and export markets. Most importantly, for industries like sheep, cane, agriculture and cattle, that relied on itinerant labourers, it transported the workers. These were the days of first and second-class passengers. The itinerant workers, of course, travelled second-class, promoting poets like Henry Lawson to write poems like his haunting ‘Second Class Wait Here’.

Jumping the Rattler

During the lean times, especially in the 1890s and 1930s, rail travel became the only other affordable option to ‘shank’s pony’ (the Australian colloquial expression for walking), however, some could not even afford the price of a ticket. Like American we had tramps (or bums) who ‘waltzing their matildas’ from town to town. They called it ‘jumping the rattler’ and since an out-of-work individual had to prove he or she had travelled a certain distance to be entitled to a ration card hand-out (cards were stamped by each issuing officer), the train provided a quick link to the next hand-out. Since many of the trains were goods trains, sometimes stock trains, the ride would have been both uncomfortable and smelly.

Me and me dog
We travel the bush
In weather cold and hot.
Me an me dog
We don’t give a stuff
If we get any work or not.

(swagman’s toast)

The railway employed ‘railway police’ who tried to clear the free travellers but they were never entirely successful being outnumbered thousands to one. Some were known for their officious nature. Sergeant Small, the subject of a song performed by the great Tex Morton in the late 1930s was such a man.

When the recording was released commercially Small instigated legal action and the song was removed from sale with an apology.

Robert ‘Tex’ Morton

In the 1890s the SA railways had their own dog. It was believed to be the pet of a deceased driver and it retained its nickname of bob the dog. A traveler had a special collar inscribed: ‘Stop me not but let me jog, I am Bob the driver’s dog’ Bob had a habit of jumping onto the footplates. (Quoted Patsy Adam Smith Outback Heroes)