Winton in the Year of Waltzing Matilda

By kind permission of Gregory North, author of Winton in the Year of Waltzing Matilda 1895-6, published 2020 and available for purchase on his website here:

What was making news when solicitor and poet Andrew Barton "Banjo" Paterson visited Winton, Queensland, in the 1890s? What was Winton like when Banjo and Christina Macpherson created what became Australia's best-known song, Waltzing Matilda?

Through contemporary newspaper reports, Gregory North's impeccably-researched book paints a picture of the Winton district of 1895-6. With Greg's permission, during 2022 I included the following excerpts in my monthly electronic newsletter eLines (published 2013-2023). Greg has extended his permission for those fascinating excerpts to be reproduced here.

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The North Queensland Register (Townsville) – Wednesday 23 January 1895

The Winton Hospital Ball was held in Steele's Hall on Wednesday the 2nd January ... Unfortunately the attendance was not so large as we could have wished, but probably our country visitors and others were tired out from the races. ... We are sorry to have to state that the larrikin element was very noticeable outside, and their unseemly conduct on occasions like this should meet with prompt punishment. It is only fair to state that the young men who made themselves so conspicuous by their conduct on the evening of the ball, are mere birds of passage who were attracted here by the races, and we are pleased to say the majority of them are back again to their haunts where their hilarity and horse play goes unchecked.

Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton) – Wednesday 5 February 1896 (Winton News column – "With the Premier")

Our townsman Mr F Jensen had business in Longreach, so he started on his bicycle last Saturday, reaching Longreach on Monday at two o'clock in face of intense heat and a headwind. He transacted his business and started back. In spite of having had to walk and wheel his machine for about ten miles (16 km) and carry it for about two miles (3 km) more over black soil mud, he did the return journey in a day and a half.

The North Queensland Register (Townsville) – Wednesday 13 February 1895

"The Winton Herald" says - We are informed on very good authority that the local bore water possesses some curative qualities. One of our most respected citizens has for years been troubled with rheumatism, and latterly he was induced to try the effect of the bore water. After a few visits to the bore he experienced a wonderful change for the better, and at the present time he is of the opinion that a few weeks' constant bathing with the artesian water will restore him to his former health. Should the bore water really possess this virtue, our town should eventually become the sanitorium of the West.

Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton) – Monday 4 March 1895

Winton (from our own correspondent). These past few weeks we have been cut off from civilisation except by wire. We never knew when mails would come in or when they would leave. ... The rainfall here in the eight days from the 11th of February to the 18th totalled 9.18 inches [233 mm]. ... Mr D M'Lennan, the district engineer of the Water Supply Department, got back to town this week, after a three or four months' trip down in Brisbane. Not having been here at the time, we cannot well blame him for the flood.

The Queenslander (Brisbane) – Saturday 7 March 1896

Out West – The Season and Selection. The extension of the railway system from Hughenden to Winton promises to give a great impetus to small settlement, for it is said the turning of the first sod will mean the selecting of every available grazing farm within reasonable distance of the line. The drawback will be water, which is only obtainable at a very great depth, but on the other hand the small owner is much more advantageously situated than the squatter. The former will chiefly go in for buying store stock and fattening, and with the approach of a drought will merely stop buying. Under these conditions, perhaps, in ordinary seasons, the natural surface water, with the aid of tanks, will allow the small man to still make a good thing of it.

The North Queensland Register (Townsville) – Wednesday 10 April 1895

The "Winton Herald" says - During the latter part of last week we had the pleasure of inspecting a splendid mob of horses which were purchased for the Indian market through Messrs Riley Bros., of Winton. The horses for the most part were bred on Dagworth and Ayrshire Downs, and a better looking lot it has seldom been our lot to see in one yard. Messrs Riley Bros. are admittedly among the best judges of horse flesh in the West, and it is satisfactory to know that the horses changed hands at satisfactory prices both to buyers and sellers. The horses amongst others were selected to the order of Mr Julius Grove and are destined for the Indian market.

The Western Champion and General Advertiser for the Central-Western Districts – Tuesday 25 June 1895

I notice that at Winton the foundation of a brass band has been laid, and that the residents constantly hear the learners floundering among the flats and sharps while getting into shape. They have eight performers for a start, and they are all determined to knock some music out of the trombones and things or burst in the attempt. I am sure I wish them heaps of luck and cash, and the hearty appreciation of everybody ... but ... I have had some experience of brass bands in our Central cities, and they never last long.

The North Queensland Register (Townsville) – Wednesday 26 June 1895

Winton is certainly thrice blessed, Rockhampton and Townsville are wrangling for its trade; the district has had a good season; and now at over 3000 feet [914 m] the bore has struck a stream of water which is flowing down two sides of the town, and making the whole territory blossom as the rose. It is not long since a reverend gentlemen was fired at by a bush whacker, who considered the pastor had not properly spread himself during a dry spell. Times have, however, changed. Clergymen are safe in Winton now, and are not likely to run any extra risks unless the bore stops.

Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton) – Monday 7 October 1895

Winton (from our own correspondent). We are having little strikes all round. It seems that Barenya and Rockwood Stations paid their men 30s. a week on account of their being short handed having in fact two men doing three men's work. This of course got circulated among the sheds where work was going on, and the fact that the wages had been raised on account of extra work imposed, seems to have been forgotten in the report. The consequence was a strike at Kynuna, a strike at Dagworth, and a strike at Ayrshire Downs; second consequence, fourteen free labourers passed through the town to-day, a first instalment, to fill the places of the strikers at Kynuna and Ayrshire Downs.

Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton) – Tuesday 17 December 1895

Western Mail News – Winton. The Chinese at the western end of the town continue to supply the aborigines with opium notwithstanding the heavy fines which have lately been imposed by the Bench in cases where a conviction was obtained. One Chinaman had the audacity to offer the Senior constable the sum of £5 per week, together with a fair share of the profits ... It is a well-known fact that at least one Chinaman makes his living solely by selling opium to the aborigines.

Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton) – Monday 30 December 1895

Winton (from our own correspondent). The opal market is very capricious. London is the chief market of that and of every other gem, and the dealers do not know for a week in advance how prices were ruled, whether they will jump 100 or fall 50 per cent. So an eminent Clerkenwell gem dealer writes to a Winton consignor, and one or two of the buyers who have been visiting Fermoy field for Continental dealers are reported to have lost heavily, by giving fancy prices, in their effort doubtless to secure a monopoly.

Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton) – Monday 6 January 1896

Winton (from our own correspondent). The weather has been most unpleasantly, though by no means unseasonably, hot. The thermometer yesterday registered 107 degrees [42 degrees C] in a cool shade. In spite of the heat, however, two large parties of picnickers were out on horse back, bicycles, and buggies, and appear to have enjoyed themselves heartily. There were no sports or races to usher in 1896, which doubtless accounts for the very large turn out of picnickers. To-day the clouds gathered, the lightning and thunder were in evidence, and we got a big dust storm from the north-east, and a few drops of rain.

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Droughts - floods - workplace disputes - international and domestic trade - infrastructure - illicit drugs - arts and entertainment - and a bit of hooliganism. Such was the landscape of Winton in 1895 and 1896. It seems very little has changed!

I highly recommend "Winton in the Year of Waltzing Matilda 1895-6", by Gregory North - where you can read and enjoy more of the day-to-day news of this Australian outback town, almost 130 years ago.

Greg has since written "The Life and Rhymes of Banjo Paterson" - a pictorial collection of episodes in Banjo's life along with illustrations of some of his most famous poems.

Gregory North is an acclaimed bush poet and and author. He was the Australian Bush Poetry Performance Champion in 2008, 2009 and 2010 and has released a number of audio and video recordings. Greg performs in Winton from May to September each year (daily at the North Gregory Hotel and nightly at the Winton Roadhouse Cabins and Caravan Park "Banjo's Barn").

All merchandise is available via Greg's website:

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