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Australian folklore

william buckley tale ABC TV

The Extraordinary Tale Of William Buckley. Image courtesy of ABC TV.

Australian folklore is based on traditional beliefs, legends and customs of a group, handed down through generations. Folklore tells the stories and experiences of people in ways that factual accounts cannot - conveying emotions, hopes and fears though time and place. Some are literally true and some are not.

UNESCO has a convention that recognises the importance and value of folklore as a means of understanding culture and heritage. It classifies languages, music, rituals, performing arts, craftsmanship and folklore as 'Intangible Heritage'

Australian folklore traditions

Australian folklore, its traditions, customs and beliefs are based on both Indigenous and also non-Indigenous people's knowledge and experience of history in Australia.

The Indigenous Australians' knowledge base goes back tens of thousands of years. Indigenous knowledge, law, and religion, which provide the basis of their folklore, are rich in stories of the land, its animals and plants. This knowledge has its roots in the 'Dream times', 'The Dreaming' or 'Dreamtime' stories, meaning to see or understand the law (Frank Gillen with Baldwin Spencer translating an Arrernte word Altyerrenge).

An image of an Aboriginal myth - the bunyip.

J. McFarlane, Aboriginal myths the bunyip, 1890, photomechanical reproduction: halftone. Image courtesy of the State Library of Victoria.

Some Indigenous stories, like the bunyip - man-eating animals that live in water-holes, swamps and creeks - have been absorbed into wider Australian folklore and identity.

Some of Australia's folklore remembers the relationship between Europeans and Aboriginal people and this is reflected in Australian language and writing. For example, the Australian slang terms 'Buckley's', 'Buckley's chance' and 'Buckley's and none', meaning 'next to no chance' are based on the experience of William Buckley, an escaped convict. Buckley survived in the bush with the Watourang people in the Geelong region for 32 years before giving himself up in 1835. This story also inspired a number of contemporary books, as well as later studies, an epic poem by Barry Hill in 1993 and an ABC TV documentary, The Extraordinary Tale Of William Buckley.

Democratic heroes

Australian folklore since European settlement has established a folk identity of Australians as resilient people who laugh in the face of adversity, face up to great difficulties and deliberately go against authority and the establishment - reflecting a 'larrikin' spirit. The bush and the outback are also identified as characteristic of Australian life along with bushrangers, shearers and drovers.

Many convicts and early free settlers were unable to read or write very well, like a large percentage of the British population at the time. The use of folk songs and other non-written forms of recording memories was particularly important to them.

An image of Morgan the bushranger sticking up Round Hill Station, 1865, by Frederick Grosse.

Frederick Gross (1828-1894), Morgan the bushranger sticking up Round Hill Station, 1865, print: wood engraving.
Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

Bushrangers were often escaped convicts or those unwilling or unable to fit in with mainstream society. Jack Doolan is remembered in the folk song The Wild Colonial Boy. The legend of Ned Kelly and his gang of bushrangers is one of Australia's most famous stories.

In the mid-1800s, gold was discovered in Australia. Over half the Victorian goldfields population of 150,000 in 1858 were British immigrants, and 40,000 were Chinese. Chinese workers worked as miners but also providing a wide variety of other services for the fledgling communities that grew around the diggings. The stories and experiences of the culturally diverse goldfield workers have become part of our folklore.

Gold diggers were portrayed as romantic heroes who embraced the socialism and mateship already adopted by pastoral workers. This experience is celebrated and remembered by Australians as a turning point in our history for its strong democratic impulse. The camaraderie and defiance of the diggers on the goldfields became a huge source of national pride, just as it did with their namesakes in World War I. Their egalitarianism, mateship, and disdain for authority were to become central to the national character.

In Victoria, the violent but brief uprising of miners at the Eureka Stockade in Ballarat has become a major focal point for writers and artists and is a key element in Australia's identity. The events of December 1854 have been retold and romanticised as the beginnings of Australian democracy and republicanism. Eureka is seen as a symbol of the power of free men, as a celebration of multiculturalism and as a moment when workers triumphed over the upper class and which saw the birth of the unions in Australia.

A drover's life and drovers' wives

Drovers were a disparate group of people, including Europeans and Aborigines, who herded stock in search of fertile grazing plains, water, or to take the fattened cattle or sheep to sale yards. In the late 1800s, A B 'Banjo' Patterson wrote Clancy of the Overflow which romanticised the itinerant life of a drover. His poem tells the story of Clancy, a drover, and a city office worker who longs for the bush, and a life like Clancy's:

In my wild erratic fancy visions come to me of Clancy
Gone a-droving 'down the Cooper' where the Western drovers go;
As the stock are slowly stringing, Clancy rides behind them singing,
For the drover's life has pleasures that the townsfolk never know.

Samuel Thomas Gill (1818-1880), Herdsmen with horses and drove of cattle, c 1850, watercolour. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

Other poems show a different side to the drover's life and paint a more realistic picture of what bush life was like. Banjo Paterson wrote a number of poems about a drover and bush character named Saltbush Bill who drove starving mobs of sheep vast distances in an attempt to get them feed in the 1880 drought.

Henry Lawson's The Drover's Wife is a short story that tells of the lonely, exhausting and dangerous existence of a woman whose husband has gone droving. She is left alone in a remote bush hut with her children, waiting months for his return. During his absences she endures floods and bushfires, threatens swagmen who try and take advantage of her situation, nurses her sick and dying children and fights off frequent attacks from snakes.

Ted Egan, an Australian songwriter and folklorist wrote the song The Drover's Boy in recognition of the many Aboriginal women who worked as drovers in years past. With their hair cut short and breasts flattened with scarves, they were made to conceal their identity and live and work as men did, as Aboriginal women were not permitted to work as drovers. The lyrics highlight the nature of the close, yet hidden relationships that existed between many white men and these Aboriginal women:

'They couldn't understand why the drover cried as they buried the drover's boy... They couldn't understand why the drover cut a lock of the dead boy's hair...'

A book was written based on the story in this song.

Outback women and Aborigines

Painting of Daisy Bates in the outback

Sydney Nolan, Daisy Bates, 1972, ripolin or enamel paint on composition board.
Image courtesy of The Sidney Nolan Trust and the National Archives of Australia.

The European woman in a long layered dress in the Australian landscape has become one of the iconic images of Australian folklore. The encounters of European women with Australian Aborigines are a familiar theme in many of the folk stories of their lives.

Films have been made about the lives of Eliza Fraser, Jeanie Gunn and Daisy Bates, three European Australian women, and their experiences with Australian Aborigines. Eliza Fraser was a survivor of the shipwrecked Stirling Castle (1936) who was helped by the Butchulla people of the island then known as K'gari (Fraser Island). The story of Jeannie Gunn was popularised in her book We of the Never Never, which introduced urban Australians and foreign readers of the early 1900s to life on an outback station. Daisy Bates became an outback legend because of her work for many years living with Aboriginal communities in remote areas of South Australia.

The 'Bush' and bush searches

Bush searches quickly became recognised as a feature of Australian colonial life and were frequently represented in literature that tried to be distinctly Australian. Works by Henry Kingsley, Marcus Clarke, Henry Lawson and Tom Collins all use the theme of lost children. Searches for children lost in the bush involved communities on a large scale and the frequent use of 'black trackers'. Quite often searches yielded no result.

hanging rock

Hanging Rock. Image courtesy of Macedon Ranges Tourism.

The close association of the bush with being lost is indicated by the term 'bushed' meaning 'to be lost'. The Peter Weir film Picnic at Hanging Rock , 1975, captures this sense of pathos and loss, of children who disappeared in the mystical and spiritual Australian bush at Hanging Rock, near Macedon in Victoria.

In more recent years, a great deal of Australian folklore has been celebrated, recorded and studied in ways that preserve the oral histories in a more permanent form - in books, movies and sound recordings.

Many internationally well known Australian films are built on folklore, such as Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), Eliza Fraser (1976), Breaker Morant (1981), Gallipoli (1981), Man from Snowy River (1982), Crocodile Dundee (1986), Evil Angels (1988), and Rabbit Proof Fence (2002).

Useful links

Shearers and drovers


Chinese heritage and folklore in Australia

Australian women

Australian folklore resources

Look, listen and play

Last updated: 25th February 2008
Creators: Big Black Dog Communications Pty Ltd, et al.

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