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The Bushman’s Bible

“The Bulletin Polka’ (1892) played by The Australian Bush Orchestra.


The following article by Warren Fahey first appeared in The Bulletin Magazine 1st February 2005
Life in the Australian bush of the nineteenth century was intolerably lonely and, for many, especially the itinerant workforce, madeworse by the lack of intellectual stimulation. Despite being a time of general enlightenment and relatively high standards of education, reading material was often difficult and expensive to obtain. For these reasons almanacs, reciters, songsters and pulp fiction, mainly cheap detective and western novels, became the reading fodder of the masses. The arrival of The Bulletin Magazine in January 1880 considerably changed this for here was a national weekly, which, from its first issue, spoke to both the city and bush with a distinctive Australian voice.




For the first thirty-five of its one hundred and twenty-five years The Bulletin enjoyed the affectionate moniker of The Bushman’s Bible; and with good reason. Founded by J F Archibald and John Haynes, the fiery weekly delivered Australian thought, passion and spirit at a time when the nation sat at the crossroads of immense economic, political and social change. It was a brave publication where nationalism was a major focus as it vigorously waved the flag of protectionism over free trade, and declared an editorial policy that, from today’s perspective, would probably meet with the approval of One Nation and certain Communist ideologies, as The Bulletin’s banner openly addressed the burning issues of the day:


  1. A republic form of government.
  2. Australia for the Australians.
  3. The cheap Chinaman, the cheap nigger, and the cheap European pauper to be absolutely excluded.
  4. The entire abolition of the private ownership of land.
  5. The abolition of titles of so-called ‘nobility’.


The bush was in turmoil in the 1880s and although the bulk of the population lived and worked in the country, the cities were also growing and flexing their muscles. Rural workers, especially shearers, were rolling up their shirtsleeves in preparation for a ‘donnybrook’ with the cocky landowners and station managers who had kept them down for far too long. The shearing huts and cattle camps buzzed with talk of unprecedented rebellion and strike action. The Bushman’s Bible fanned these fires with cartoons, poetry, editorial and sly comment that would have provoked many a worker’s campsite discussion and argument. There was also a general misguided belief that the owners of the magazine were ‘battlers’ and therefore taking the side of their loyal reader mates.


Published out of Sydney by two acknowledged ‘cityslickers’, the magazine’s appeal to the average bush worker was established after only a few issues. Haynes departed the magazine in 1885 leaving the brilliant and somewhat eccentric Archibald to steer it down bush track and city street. The fact that The Bulletin has remained in continual publication is a tribute to Archibald’s tenacity and original vision.


Archibald and Lawson

Archibald and Lawson

By the 1890s the magazine was irreverent, self-opinionated and sometimes downright antagonistic as it reported politics, the Federation debate, unionism, social gossip, entertainment, and news from the colonies and abroad. It wasn’t necessarily aimed at the bush and its news was usually somewhat out of date by the time the erratic mail train arrival and eventual local delivery to the station or worker huts. This didn’t seem to matter and it was said that its enthusiastic audience even ‘read between the ink’. There was some specific rural news including recent wool sales, wheat export figures and mining half year results but all these were available in the general press, and usually with more reliability.


This was the era of top hats and bush hats with quite evident social differences. The Bulletin tried to steer a middle path. One imagines that the bush people got quite a laugh out of the coverage of city political events as the magazine was never short of witty cartoons, caricatures and satires. This probably reinforced their view of the unfathomable ‘Big Smoke’ and of city dwellers as fools. Quips like the following would have certainly raised an eyebrow or two: ”A dog cart with ‘debt collector’ painted around it, and drawn by a dun pony, is now an everyday sight in some parts of Sydney.’ (1894). Then there were the magazine’s often unflattering and unrealistic impressions of the bush including cartoons lampooning bush characters, especially cadging swagmen, lambed-down shearers and stingy squatters.


The Bulletin’s appeal to its city readers, and it had many, grew from its political coverage, especially in the Federation debates, its biting social and entertainment reportage, and in its fiercely anti-imperialist stance. This was an era of unprecedented free thought and, more importantly, free speech. It must also be mentioned that the drift to the cities had already commenced and by Federation, in 1901, the population balance had swung in favour of the coastal cities.


During the ‘nervous nineties’ the city folk, like their bush brothers and sisters, were trying to work out what exactly did the bush represent. Was it the real Australia? Where did that place the rapidly growing cities? How was the Australian different from the Englishman? These questions were important to a nation attempting to define itself at the dawn of nationhood. The Bulletin appeared braver than most journals, especially by its self-promotion as the Bushman’s Bible, and by its romanticising of bush life through stories and verse.


We are not certain where the phrase Bushman’s Bible originated but we do know as early as January 22, 1881, the magazine advertised, ‘Every bushman should have The Bulletin mailed to him every quarter.’ In the December 15 issue, 1888, it went as far as to describe itself as ‘The Bushman’s Bible’. It also regularly promoted itself saying, ‘The Bulletin’s red cover is equally familiar to the bushman of the far north, the stockman of Central Australia, the pearl sheller of Torres Straits, as the digger in the New Zealand ranges. A paper which is at once the most popular city publication and the organ of the intelligent bushman must indeed be broadly based…’

There were other magazines but somehow they never spoke to the bush like The Bulletin. Archibald, ever jealous of his magazine’s place, openly ridiculed other publications; especially those that dared to challenge him. ‘Town and Country Journal’ was repeatedly called ‘Down and Gumtree Jernil’ and, in 1894, a Bulletin par sarcastically noted ‘The Ipswich Times explains that The Bulletin is not a ‘yahoo journal’ – “It was all a mistake, the Bulletin, it seems is, “one of the finest,” and so on.’

Unlike earlier weekly publications such as Melbourne Punch, Sydney Punch, The Lantern, Sam Slick, and so on, The Bulletin had successfully bridged the gap between city and bush readers and benefited from improved delivery systems and a flow of controversial issues. The magazine had a good ‘nose’ for news stories.


The role and rights of labour were hotly debated topics that inevitably brought in the question of racism. The Bulletin hardly ever shied away from this issue and as late as the 1950s still carried the legend: Australia for the white man. In the 1890s a bitter fight erupted as Chinese scab labourers were hired to take the place of striking shearers. The Bulletin struck back with cartoons showing Chinese and other foreigners taking over all areas of industry and commerce. This racism was not restricted to the bush and in 1894 it reported ‘Shop signs from the corner of Lonsdale Street, Melbourne, to the corner of Spring Street, inclusive numbers on the same side: Assid Michael, Habib Khyat, Ellias Nathan, A. H. Schunke, Kong Goon and A. Khaled’. Jews, typifying big business, were also a regular target, especially in cartoons, inevitably with large hooked noses, and referred to as kikes and Hebrews. This was all the more surprising considering Archibald’s claim of being half-Jewish.


The Bulletin appeared at a time when consumerism was taking giant leaps as new inventions, products and services became available and needed to be advertised. During the 1890s strikes the economy suffered and it is difficult to reconcile how The Bulletin’s stated antagonistic policy towards private ownership could sit comfortably with its major advertisers, especially those advertising land sales and announcing investment prospectus. It certainly didn’t stop them advertising.


The advertisements of the early Bulletin were of particular interest to readers and, considering a large number of repeat advertisers, it must have been a successful way to get products known nationally. Many of these advertisements were aimed at the bush workers who generally suffered from bad nutrition, all manner of aches and pains and, the two most common ailments: bad blood and nerves. Scott’s Emulsion offered cod liver oil as ‘hypophosphorous’, Rowland’s Macassar Oil prevented ‘hair falling out’, Frazer’s Sulphur Tablets ‘the pearl of medicine’ were ‘ideal for purifying blood, rheumatism, gout, chills, warding off diphtheria, smallpox and all infections and epidemic complaints‘. Krupp’s Galvanic Chain Belt prevented ‘nervousness’ and, supposedly as a last resort, one could order ‘Dr William’s Pink Pills for pale people.’


Yorkshire Relish boldly advertised itself ‘for steaks, chops, cold meat, fish, soup and entrees. Makes cold meat a luxury! The plainest viands palatable and blends admirably with all gravies.’

There were quite a few advertisements for imported whiskey and local ales but surprisingly few for tobacco products. Drunkenness ‘or the liquor habit‘ could be ‘cured by Golden Specific’ – “It can be given in a cup of coffee or tea or in food with or without the knowledge of the patient.” Hotels were also frequent advertisers Aaron’s Exchange Hotel advising country people that it was ‘The leading hotel for pastoralists in Sydney – situated opposite the Land’s Office and Sydney Wool Sale Rooms’. The Federal Hotel in Melbourne simply advised it had ‘500 rooms’.


Advertising also represented the latest fads of the day, especially cycling, with large promotions for Swift Cycles, Dunlop Tyres, and in an advertisement for Austral Cycles reported that: ‘A. Macdonald rode from Port Darwin to Adelaide – 2050 miles in 28 days 6 hours – on a Swift Bicycle with Dunlop Tyres.’ Such news would have been hotly discussed in the work camps and no doubt led to many itinerant shearers purchasing a bicycle to transport themselves across the country.


If the advertisements were read enthusiastically then the general news and reports were positively devoured. Archibald certainly knew what he was doing in devising a magazine based on extremely short pars. Many bush people were poor readers and 200-300 word pars suited them to the ground, though the extremely small print must have been irritating considering the poor standard of spectacles and lighting.


Undoubtedly the policy of soliciting reader contributions played a major role in the overall success of The Bulletin and its mythical position as the Bushman’s Bible. The magazine stated: ‘All correspondence acknowledged and 300 words invited.‘ And write they did – in the thousands. To get paid contributors had to present their published cutting at the Pitt Street office. Although this system must have been an accounting nightmare it has been said that the majority of contributors usually bought an additional one or two copies ‘to show their friends back home.’ It was a system that certainly worked for the magazine’s finances!


Sidney J. Baker, author of pioneering works on our language commented: “The simple facts are that the material on bush lore, slang and idiom, collected by thousands of writers in The Bulletin pages is absolutely irreplaceable.”


It was within the pages of the Correspondence and Aboriginalities sections of the magazine that Archibald seems to have had the most fun. In an 1894 issue he advises a J. M. Davis: “You want the dreadful thing returned. Fortunately for yourself, you’ve forgotten to give your address.” To L.G. of Wagga Wagga it is a curt, “Namby Pamby. Send to Young Ladies’ Journal.” P.M. NSW gets an intriguing: “Do you usually want to ‘repair the spotless lustre to your pedal extremities?’ In short, do you usually blacken and polish your feet! That and similar exalted vapourings have ensured the return of your mss as desired.”


The reports of current entertainments were just as brief with the editor showing no fear or favour. In 1892: ‘Randolph the Reckless has been doing moderately well at the Royal, notwithstanding its inherent imbecility and specially weak spots.” And another comments, “Caicedo, the bounding wanderer of the wire, went through a form of nearly losing his balance, the other night, since when public interest in the little South American Spaniard has made another spurt.”

It was not unusual to read a single tantalising line such as ‘Patrick come home, father dead. Brother Timothy. Richmond, Victoria.’ (1890), or, in the social jottings, ‘The red straw hat is the newest fad of the Melba swells.’ (1894). Pars such as these gave the magazine a sense of familiarity that would have sparked the imagination of its readers.


Above all, it was The Bulletin’s publication of Australian writers that reinforced its place as the Bushman’s Bible. Through prose and verse these contributors helped define ‘the real Australian’ as male, white and a hard-yakka worker. We could be colonial-born or British ‘new chum’, and while acknowledging The Bulletin’s nationalist and anti-imperialist philosophy, we were not anti-British. If anything, we saw ourselves as whiter than white and better than British. We had been born of a cruel convict system, grew up in the bush and were now living in God’s-own country. Henry Lawson, ‘Banjo’ Paterson, Henry Kendall, Victor Daly, G. H. ‘Ironbark’ Gibson, Will Ogilvie and George Essex Evans, to name only a few, delivered a steady literary diet that shaped and reshaped the Australian identity. Much of their writing echoed the bohemian traits of new urban journalism, being almost a caricature of the Australian legendary characteristics portrayed by the journal: mateship, unionism, anti-wowser, anti-authority – whilst earnestly cheering drinking and gambling, and nodding to republicanism. It was the Bushman’s Bible that carried this mythical creation to the bush and back.


© Warren Fahey