NotesThe swaggie doll was made by Rita Williams (1904-1955) in Merrylands, New South Wales, 1933
Rita was born Rita Howe at Werris Creek, near Tamworth, NSW, in 1904. She met her husband to be, William Williams, while he was posted to Werris Creek in railway maintenance. Rita and William were married in Werris Creek in 1924 and returned to live in the house William had built in Merrylands, a suburb of Sydney. They had three daughters, Ruth, Heather and Barbara, the youngest. Rita had trained as a dress maker but worked in a munitions factory throughout the Second World War. Rita died in 1955 and was buried at Werris Creek.
Despite the hardship of the 1930s Depression, Rita Williams was determined to giver her four-year-old daughter, Barbara, a Christmas present. Rita had found a commercially-made plastic doll's head in a garbage bin and to this added a stuffed fabric body. Searching among her own scrap bag for fabrics to use for the clothing, she was at first disappointed to find only dull off-cuts from a suit and shirt rather that the fancy fabrics she had hoped for.
Outside Rita William's window were some characters who had become very familiar during the Depression. It was these homeless men who sometimes camped by the canal in front of her Merrylands home that inspired Rita's choice of subject for the doll and solved the problem of the paucity of fabrics. Rita clearly noted the details of the clothing and swag of the men. This attention to detail is apparent in the doll's outfit with its tiny piece of copper wire fastening the front of the jacket, the length of string tied around the waist to serve as a belt and the patched and frayed suit. As a final touch Rita made a rolled swag and her husband, William, carefully cut out the tiny billy, frying pan and cutlery from an old pepper can.
Swagmen were usually travellers who loved the bush and the freedom of life it brought on the road. Others were the victim of circumstances, or eccentrics, escapees from genteel society or the law. Many were former shearers, farm-hands, tank-sinkers, scrub-cutters or occasionally office workers.
Swaggies usually had a beard and wore faded and patched but serviceable clothes and a hat with corks or a net attached to repel the flies. Swagmen were usually taciturn but occasionally talkative and seldom used their surnames. They were independent, survived on their own bush skills, and rarely rode on trains without paying. Sometimes they got lifts with bullock drivers, opening the stock gates, but preferred to travel alone. Occasionally they camped in groups at specific locations such as under bridges. Some travelled with a dog as housewives would offer handouts more readily to a man with a dog, little knowing that it may have been trained to later steal her chickens.
The swagman carried a swag which was a sausage-shaped bundle comprising a waterproof sheet or calico bag inside which was rolled a dark blue blanket, so as not to show the dirt, and the swagman's few possessions including spare clothes, needle and thread, and maybe a faded photograph or tattered book. It was an art to ensure that the weight of the swag was evenly distributed. After rolling it was secured tightly with leather straps, rope or greenhide and carried over the swagman's shoulder with a leather strap or loop of rope. A tomahawk was carried in the straps and a tucker bag, usually an old sugar bag, hung from the top of the swag with food, tobacco, a tin mug and bowl for mixing damper. In his right hand a swaggie carried his water-filled billy, sometimes wrapped in a bag to stop the campfire soot from rubbing off on his trousers. Various names were given to the swag including a 'bluey' or a 'Matilda' so that when a swaggie took to the road he was said to be "humping the bluey" or "waltzing Matilda".
The way a swag was rolled and carried indicated at a glance what State a swaggie came from. Those from Victoria had long, neat, swags worn over the right shoulder and under the left arm. Queenslanders carried short, plump, swags perpendicular between the shoulder blades, while NSW swaggies didn't care how their swags were rolled but carried them on a slant from the right shoulder to the left hip.
The swagmen of the Depression years of the 1930s were different from the earlier swaggies. Thousands more were on the road at this time looking for food and work rather than the wandering lifestyle of earlier swagmen. They illegally rode in goods trains, or on the couplings of passenger trains because they could not afford the ticket for a seat. Near stations it was common to see small stacks of stones on boundary walls or fences to indicate to other swagmen whether this house would give you a meal.
Swaggies often had nicknames prefaced by the name of their home town such as 'Dubbo Slim' or 'Greta Blue'. At this time they were often collectively referred to as bagmen, hobos or just 'bo's' and sometimes committed petty crimes. There was a swagman's language around the countryside. Signs and codes were left on the front gates of stations advising others of the likelihood of getting work or food. Food vouchers were distributed by local policemen in country towns and food and light work was also given at special aid centres, the most famous being the Eagles Nest Swaggie's Camp near Toowoomba in Qld.
Visiting swagmen were a familiar part of country life on Australian farms. Some called so often they were 'regulars' and would chop wood, milk the cows, pull thistles, or cut timber in return for meals and accommodation on an army stretcher in the harness shed. On some farms only 'regulars' were allowed to sleep over while others had to be content with their handout of sandwiches, hard-boiled eggs and a billy of tea. Generally all were given food in preference to graziers loosing their sheep.
Women swaggies were rare but were still seen on the roads. In NSW there was 'Menindee Mary' and 'the Portia of the Pooncarrie'. Rather than carry their swag, women swaggies used a wheelbarrow or pushcart.
Swagmen differed from sundowners who arrived at a farm at sundown asking for work when it was too late and left early in the morning. Another type of wanderer, who also preferred not to work, was the Murrumbidgee whaler who camped for long periods on the Murrumbidgee or Darling Rivers catching fish and begged food from the stations up and down the rivers.
"The Australian Encyclopaedia", The Grollier Society, Sydney, 1963, Vol. VIII, pp.374-5
"Country Australia; The Land and The People", Reader's Digest Services Pty Ltd, Surry Hills, NSW, 1989, pp.352-3.
Fearn-Wannan, F. "A Dictionary of Australian Folklore: Lore, Legends and Popular Allusions", Lansdowne Press, Dee Why, NSW, 1981.
Marshall, Alan, "In Mine Own Heart", Longman Cheshire, 1963, pp.178-182.
Murphy, Joan, Campbelltown & Airds Historical Society, http://www/cahs. com.au