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Freedom on the Wallaby



Bush life was often hard but there were genuine pleasures to be found in its solace. As a people we developed a strong bond with the Australian environment but no more so than in the ‘golden years’ of the rural boom that followed the end of the goldrush era and continued up until 1890. These thirty or so years saw Australia riding high with record wheat, wool and beef prices. Work was plentiful; life was good. The pioneers had fought seemingly impenetrable bush, drought, flood, bushfire and pestilence – and usually won. We felt proud of being Australians and a certain ‘freedom’. The early 1890s saw dark clouds descend over the bush: the continuing struggle between labour and industry was experiencing painful and overdue arbitration. The shearing industry, which relied predominately on itinerant seasonal workers, had become more organised in their demands for better rates and conditions. The workers and pastoralists were at loggerheads and strikes erupted across the country. These were bitter times with the introduction of scab labour, vicious media campaigns (each side had their own newspapers) and inept colonial government interference. Crippling drought covered much of Australia intensifying rural problems. Many farmers walked off their properties in despair and out-of-work bush workers had no option that to take to the roads. Thousands ‘humped their blueys’ as swagmen, walking from town to town in search of work, or relying on handouts and sustenance rations.

One of the things that kept body, mind and soul together was the perceived freedom of the bush. The unemployed took shelter under towering gumtrees, camped near river bends or simply disappeared into the quietness of the bush.

It was this freedom on the wallaby that captured the spirit of men trying to survive lean times. The poets understood and many of the poems of the period talk of the beauty of silence, the smell of open air and the freedom of open plains and mountains high. Much of it romanticises the past referring to the excitement of the gold fields, the pluck of bushrangers and the might of shearers, drovers and bullock drivers. It was if the poets knew there were better times ahead.