The tale of the Banjo Patterson

AB Paterson's portrait adorns the Australian $10 note.
AB Paterson's portrait adorns the Australian $10 note.

Apart from being the face of the $10 note, Andrew Barton “Banjo” Paterson is most renowned for three poems: "The Man from Snowy River", "Clancy of the Overflow" and "Waltzing Matilda". 

The latter is indelibly associated with Winton in Queensland and its North Gregory Hotel where it was first performed.  

When the Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove officially opened the new Waltzing Matilda Centre last weekend he said the building represented the spirit of Paterson and his most famous song.

“It tells the story of the jolly swagman and also recounts the sacrifices made by so many in the great war,” he said. “The museum reminds us of who we once were.”

Banjo scholar and Winton WMC board chair Jeff Close said Paterson played a vital role in collating and recording old bush songs.

“In those days poems were never recorded so one of the great things Banjo did for Australia was to gather the old songs about the convict era and the bushrangers and the sheep-shearers,” Mr Close said. 

“He captured an era that would have been lost otherwise. Banjo had a good eye and ear for the bush and he came from the bush.”

Paterson was born in 1864 near Orange, NSW but Mr Close said there were a couple of times Banjo could have been a Queenslander. 

“His dad came up north of Winton to a property but they snagged a couple of years it was so dry they had to move back to the Orange district, but he knew this country,” he said.

When his father lost his wool clip in a flood they moved to a farm near Yass where he saw bullock teams, Cobb and Co coaches, drovers and horsemen from the Murrumbidgee River area and Snowy Mountains country which inspired both his love of horses and some of his best poetry. 

Sir Peter Cosgrove and Lady Cosgrove open the new Winton Waltzing Matilda Centre next to the Banjo statue which survived the fire of the old centre.

Sir Peter Cosgrove and Lady Cosgrove open the new Winton Waltzing Matilda Centre next to the Banjo statue which survived the fire of the old centre.

In 1874 Paterson was sent to Sydney Grammar School but left aged 16 to become a law clerk and later a solicitor. From 1885 he began submitting to The Bulletin with a poem criticising the British war in the Sudan.

Over the next decade, the Bulletin published his work under the pseudonym of "The Banjo", the name of his favourite horse. The Bulletin publication of The Man from Snowy River and other ballads made “The Banjo” a household name and started a friendly rivalry with Henry Lawson about the allure of bush life. It was at this time that Paterson had his second brush with Queensland, as alluded to by Jeff Close.

“His girlfriend Sarah Riley was from the Vindex station family out here and they had been engaged for eight years,” he said.

In 1895 he and Sarah went to Dagworth station near Winton to visit her best friend from school days, Christina Macpherson. Here Christina played the catchy traditional air for which he then wrote the lyrics of "Waltzing Matilda", based on the shearers’ strike that affected Winton a year before.

With rumours of a scandalous liaison, Paterson was asked to leave the property and Riley abruptly ended the engagement. Whatever the truth of his relationship with Christine it did not last, and in 1903 he married Alice Emily Walker, of Tenterfield Station with whom he had two children Grace (born 1904) and Hugh (born 1906).

The current North Gregory Hotel, Winton, Waltzing Matilda was first performed at the old hotel on this site in 1895.

The current North Gregory Hotel, Winton, Waltzing Matilda was first performed at the old hotel on this site in 1895.

Paterson became a war correspondent during the Second Boer War in 1899 and his stirring accounts of battle attracted British attention.  He went to China to report on the Boxer Rebellion and was editor of Sydney papers before abandoning journalism to work a Yass farm in 1908.

In the First World War Paterson was an ambulance driver and later commissioned to lead the 2nd Remount Unit which broke in horses.

He came home with the rank of major and published his third collection, Saltbush Bill JP and other verses in 1917.

Paterson died of a heart attack on February 5, 1941, 12 days shy of his 77th birthday. He is buried next to wife in Sydney.