Recently I have come across two different things that reminded me of swaggers in New Zealand and Australia (called ‘swagmen’ there, I think). Swaggers were men who wandered the country looking for work, or at least looking for food and shelter. They abounded in the depressions of the 1880s and 1930s, and were generally very liberally treated by farmers, farm wives, pub owners, the police and the communities generally. Some of them were happy to work for their food, others managed to arrive just on sundown (and were therefore sometimes referred to as ‘sundowners’) after the day’s work was completed. And others took pride in the fact that they did not work for their keep at all and learnt wily ways to ensure that continued. Swagmen had no fixed abode and carried their worldly possessions in a swag (oil cloth or waterproof twill rolled up with clothes, boots, books, mementos etc held inside it and with food bits on the top).
At Totara Estate which we visited recently (it was the farm which produced the first shipment of frozen meat for Britain in 1882) the history boards on the walls talked of the farm using up to 50 swaggers at a time. I would think of those perhaps as just casual workers, but maybe they weren’t actually given monetary pay.
And a book I was reading on New Zealand folksongs had a section on swaggers and the songs associated with them. It talked of individual men who were famous in their time (and sometimes still now). I doubt that my kids know of Ned Slattery, the Shiner, but he was a well-known name to people of my generation in this area. My book (Faces in the Firelight, by Phil Garland)said, "The characters and personalities were legendary: Barney Whiterats, so named for carrying performing white mice; Joe Fleming, the poet of the road; John the Baptist; Concertina Joe; Dirty Dick; Crowing Jimmy; the Highland Chief; the Honourable John Bourke O’Brien, one of the great remittance men, and last but not least Ned Slattery, alias The Shiner. Many of these loners and wandered spent a lifetime tramping New Zealand roads, only to end their days collapsing and dying beside the tracks they had come to know and love so well."
Slattery was Irish-born and Australian-brought-up, told great stories and was popular. "Most swagmen were ashamed to be on the road looking for work, but the Shiner glorified the profession and constantly crowed about how he dodged work, feeling shame only when someone offered him a poor handout or a job." He used trickery to get what he wanted, was never in trouble with the law, and went to church quite regularly. He entertained people with his stories and his Irish jigs. He spent twenty years as a swagger, reluctantly went into a nursing home and died there aged 87 in 1927.
The Highland Chief (Jock McKenzie) on the other hand worked hard and drank hard, totally drunk at 5am but able to walk fifty miles to be on the shearing roll for his next job at 9am. He died at the side of the road and was buried there. Barney Whiterats (Winter) entertained with his mice, his shadowgraphs, his magic lantern, and his Punch and Judy show which meant children viewed his arrival with great excitement. Joe Fleming wintered over in a town and set off on his regular round looking for work. He entertained with verses and songs and ‘farmers were careful not to offend lest they acquired a reputation for meanness as a result of his verse." He was found frozen to death with his own four-line obituary in his pocket. John the Baptist was a swagger-evangelist and preached sermons. He refused to work for a wage and children enjoyed his harmonica playing. The Honourable John Bourke ‘became a notorious but tolerated scallywag throughout the country, Always flamboyantly dressed in a top hat and frock coat, he played the character of an honourable gentleman to the hilt..." "He had a glass eye which he used to great effect in pubs. His special trick was to lean over someone’s glass, allowing his eye to fall into their drink, apologise profusely and retrieve it and insert it back in its socket. Naturally horrified, folk didn’t want to finish their drink, so O’Brien would polish it off. This trick gained him free drinks from one end of the country to the other." He was another loved by children. "He made an inauspicious exit from life after finding his way into a bottle store, where he lay down beside a barrel and turned the tap on to a trickle. He was found the following morning, lying in a pool of beer." [I am not clear if that means he drowned, or just died beside the beer.]
Britain was suffering from lack of cheap food in the 1880s and was affected by the depression, but I don’t know of a similar tradition of country men taking to the roads. Did they do this at all? I am not sure when poor house laws meant people were unwelcome in strange towns – did that last till the late 19th century, [size=12][sup]or was it just much earlier? Was farming life too different in Britain (I think most of these swaggers went to large stations, not the smaller farms, but I am not sure about that. Very large runs were broken into smaller blocks in New Zealand around 1890, so in the 1880s there were some very large farms around, taking up many miles of area. But there were still plenty of swaggers around after that. Not now though - people have grown more fearful and more condemnatory, I think. Such men wouldn't be tolerated.