History of Bush Poetry in Australia

© 1998

Australian history is framed in bush poetry particularly since the arrival of the British first fleet in January 1788. This history of early colonial Australia is reflected in performance bush poetry, which was ultimately recorded in written bush poetry in later colonial days.

From 1788 until 1823, the Colony of New South Wales was classified as a penal colony consisting mainly of convicts. From 1793 free settlers started to arrive, and this broadened the diversity of the population. Only the people educated in their mother country (predominantly England) could read or write as there were no formal schools in the Australian colonies; therefore, it was difficult for early settlers to develop literacy skills. Since the population was poorly educated, there was no demand for written communication such as newspapers, so communication was limited to word of mouth, and the odd note pinned to the notice board of the local store.

Telling jokes and stories was a common form of entertainment at any place where people gathered; hence, telling stories became a competitive art form as storytellers tried to out do each other. These stories which were known as yarns became longer, and consequently they were more difficult to remember. Rhyme was introduced into the stories to assist the authors to memorise them. The structure of the stories evolved even further with the storyteller's introduction of consistent rhythm and metre, which made them even easier to recall. As a result of these changes, Australian bush poetry was born. The essence of the yarns was supposedly true. Sea shanties with rhyme and rhythm, were mostly composed by illiterate English and Australian sailors, and may have influenced the development of bush poetry's structure.

Many free settlers, who immigrated to Australia, entered into commercial enterprises that met the needs of convicts, guards, soldiers and administrative personnel of the colonies. They supplied food, clothing, timber, horses and bullocks for transport, as well as other essentials. A large number with convicts of tickets of leave were employed by these free settlers, therefore a significant proportion of the population lived or worked in towns and rural areas. The stories relayed in bush poetry reflected the interests and attitudes of the general community in the colonies, which were expanding into the more fertile rural areas and growing in population at the time. Any subject that could hold the interest of an audience was used in bush poetry. Stories of people, places and events ranged from the most hilarious to the devastatingly tragic or simply an interesting topic of the day.

History can classify bush poetry in the colonies as Australia’s first home grown popular culture. While oral bush poetry was accessible to the masses written bush poetry was slowly evolving with stories of people and current events throughout the community. In addition, existing bush poetry was also being recorded. During this period only the wealthy could afford the very few private tutors that were available to educate their children. A concerted effort was made in the 1830's to provide accessible education facilities to children in the colonies, by establishing public schools, which were administered by the state. Independent schools mainly administered by the Anglican, Catholic, Methodist or Presbyterian Churches were also established. It was not until 1875 that schooling was compulsory for children 7 to 13 years of age, but many children did not attend school as education for most did not translate into better jobs or more pay.
History of Bush Poetry in Australia. © 1998 - 2008 Andy Schnalle https://andy.com.au/CQ_Bush_Poetry_Association/bush_poetry/history_of_bush_poetry.html
In 1802 George Howe (1769 - 1821) a convict with some printing skills was appointed government printer and given the task of printing the first published printed material in Australia at the government press. From the fifth of March 1803 George Howe was permitted to print Australia's first newspaper. This newspaper which was known as the Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser was published weekly. It contained mainly official notices, shipping arrivals and departures as well as (other) general notices, local news and other items of interest. The circulation of this newspaper was very limited as there were still only a few people in the colony who had enough literacy skills to read the paper or who were interested in the content that was controlled by severe censorship. Some poetry, which complied with the strict censorship criteria was included in the newspaper. Most bush poetry that was written during this period wasn’t submitted for publication because it breeched the censorship criteria. Censorship by the government continued until 1824; subsequently, within ten years over forty newspapers were established throughout the Australian colonies. However, many did not survive for very long because of the limlited readership. The literacy level of colony had only slightly increased, with eighty-six percent of the population being convicts.

There were few public records and the newspapers did not accurately reflect community attitudes and values because they were still being censored by the British-controlled administration. However, bush poetry conveyed the experiences and feeling of the community. While bush poetry was not always factually accurate, many poems demonstrated the spirit and the general lifestyle of the people, and reflected community attitudes and values. Consequently, if poetry is used in conjunction with other sources a more accurate perspective of Australia's history can be obtained.

Over the following twenty-five years, many of the convicts completed their sentences and received conditional pardons. Subsequently, on the approval of the Governor they could marry and start a family. As the population increased through more children being born in the colonies, public attitudes about the importance of education changed; consequently, the demand for additional schools increased. As schools became more accessible, the population's literacy improved, thus creating a demand for newspapers and magazines. Although censorship had been abolished for over fifty years most newspapers still published only material which conformed with the views of the British establishment including news, notices, poetry and other items of interest.

In 1880 Jules François Archibald in partnership with John Haynes founded The Bulletin newspaper and published the first edition on Thirty-first of January. Archibald began his career as an apprentice in a printery and then worked delivering papers while employed as a journalist and clerk. Subsequently, he worked in a crushing mill at the Maytown gold fields, living in a miner’s hut and working amongst Aboriginals, Irish, German, French, Chinese and people of other nationalities who had been lured to the colonies by the gold rush. During this period he lived through disease, food shortages and with drunken bush parsons, argumentative miners and claim jumpers experiencing life in the raw from the amazingly heroic to the hilariously humourous.

The Bulletin was an instant success which was attributed to Archibald’s innovative management, through targeting everyone in the community from all walks of life as a potential customer. Archibald did not apply the anti-establishment censorship restrictions that other newspapers and magazines were using at the time but by applying his flare for editing, gained from his life experiences. He published contributions of opinions, articles of interest, short stories, cartoons and poetry from anyone including politicians, entrepreneurs, lawyers, school teachers, unionists, land holders, stockmen, shearers, miners or freelance writers. Archibald also printed articles of well informed political and business news, gossip about dukes and archbishops, including the latest events from Australian cities as well as from London, Paris, New York and Moscow. These items contained in The Bulletin were often used by bush poets of the day for subjects of their poems.

As The Bulletin’s circulation expanded into all sections of the community, the origin of bush poetry’s writers broadened from land holders and stockman to lawyers and politicians, some of whom used bush poetry to promote community opinions as well as their own. Archibald not only published poetry contributed by the readers but paid for poems that he considered worthy, of which the most notable were, Andrew Barton (Banjo) Paterson (1864 -1941) a solicitor and Henry Lawson (1867 - 1922) a builder’s labourer and coach painter. The Bulletin was a conduit to connect the cities of Australia and beyond with the rural communities; thereby, facilitating the prominence of bush poetry as a popular culture throughout the Australian states. Even though bush poetry still covered stories from all walks of life the romantic portrayal of country life was held in highest esteem.

The years immediately prior to the federation of Australia on the First of January 1901 were turbulent times in Australia's history as opinions ran hot between the British establishment, the supporters for creating an independent democratic entity for each state and those championing a national Australian democratic system. Many authors with political views used bush poetry as a vehicle to disseminate their political opinions for the British Empire's colonial administration while others aired their views for independent states or democratic nationalisation. This period of Australian history is recorded in public documents, newspapers and books but the true essence of the Australian community is best reflected in the bush poetry of the time. The Bulletin was extremely influential in Australian culture and politics from about 1890 until 1917, in a time that was known as The Bulletin School of Australian literature.

Bush poetry remained a prominent form of popular culture although other forms of entertainment were evolving with the invention of new technologies such as cinema in 1896, radio in 1923 and the gramophone in 1925. Although these and other technologies competed with bush poetry as cultural leisure activities they did not impact dramatically on bush poetry’s popularity.

Television began regular transmission in Australia in 1956. Since its introduction, television increasingly dominated Australia’s popular entertainment and the leisure time of Australians which saw the decline of writing and performing bush poetry as a popular pastime. Fortunately, there remained a small group of bush poets who continued utilising their poetic skills to capture the community spirit of the times but the opportunities to publish and perform their work was progressively restricted by the competition of other popular cultural entertainment.

In the latter 1980s, bush poetry began its revival when a small number of bush poets performed at the Tamworth Country Music Festival, (formerly known as Country Music Week) which became increasingly popular each year. In January 1994 the Australian Bush Poets Association, Inc. was formed at Tamworth NSW during Country Music Week. The objective of the ABPA is to foster and encourage the growth of Bush Poetry in Australia. Australian Bush Poetry is defined as metred and rhymed poetry about Australia, Australians and/or the Australian way of life. The ABPA has developed into a national organisation that services members throughout Australia.

Today, the resurgence of bush poetry is continuing as numerous bush poetry clubs and competitions can be found in the cities, towns and rural communities throughout Australia. Furthermore, many functions and festivals include bush poetry in their entertainment programmes.

Many sources can be used to record Australian history. The indigenous Australians used word of mouth and rock art to communicate and pass on their history through the generations. Similarly, Australian history since European settlement is reflected in bush poetry revealing community attitudes, ideas and events of the colonial settlement days. Public records and newspapers were officially censored by the British controlled establishment for nearly forty years and the effects of censorship generally continued for over seventy years. Most newspapers conformed to the British establishment. It is therefore not unreasonable to conclude that community attitudes and emotions are more accurately reflected in early bush poetry and that still applies today. The importance of bush poetry's role in Australian history from the days of the first fleet to the present day cannot be overemphasised.



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