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Hoffmeister’s Matilda

by John Noack

A german shearer and unionist called Samuel Hoffmeister has entered the debate about the background to Andrew Barton (Banjo) Patterson’s poem “Waltzing Matilda”. Samuel was involved in the dispute between shearers and squatters at Dagworth Station near Winton in Queensland in early 1895, where he set fire to the shearing shed. His body was later located at a nearby camp by police, who revealed that he had committed suicide. Is it perhaps his ghost which may be heard as you pass by the billabong?

The traditional explanation suggests that the property manager Robert Macpherson related to Patterson how he, together with an Aborigine and two mounted policemen, found a swagman under a coolibah tree beside Combo waterhole. He had killed a sheep, so fearing punishment, he jumped into the deep water hole to escape, was pulled down by his clothes and drowned.

As for the melody, Patterson heard the manager’s daughter Christine playing on her autoharp the march “Craigielea”, which was based on a Scottish ballad “Thou Bonnie Wood of Craigielea” and which had been adapted from a marching song “The Bold Fusilier”. Having a catchy tune with no remembered words, Patterson then composed some words, based on the local story he had heard about the swagman with his rolled-up possessions, who tried to stuff a slaughtered sheep into his sugar bag and who then drowned in the waterhole.

Patterson led a varied life as a solicitor until 1900, as a journalist and contributor of ballads to various journals, as a property owner at Coodra in 1908 and as a Major in Egypt during the First World War. He derived his nickname and early pseudonym “The Banjo” from the name of the station’s racehorse. It is widely agreed that his many ballads “embody the spirit of the ‘golden age’ of the droving days of Australia”.

[Australian Encyclopaedia, The Grollier Society of Australia, Sydney, Vol 7, p 34 and Vol 9, p. 151; The Age Green Guide, 21 Jan 2010, p.3]