Waltzing Matilda and the Swagman Inquest

The song ‘Waltzing Matilda’ has held a place in the hearts of Australians throughout the decades and across nations. Many people will know that the lyrics were penned by Andrew Barton ‘Banjo’ Paterson in 1895 while staying with the Macphersons at Dagworth Station, near Winton, after hearing the story of their woolshed being burned during the infamous 1894 shearers’ strike. Some might also be aware that Paterson set the lyrics to a tune Christina Macpherson had been playing. But who was the notorious ‘jolly swagman’?

A strong contender is Samuel Hoffmeister. Hoffmeister was an active unionist during the 1894 shearers’ strike, which occurred in the aftermath of a three-year economic depression that had severely impacted Australia’s colonies. The strike began in May when falling wool prices saw pastoralists slash pay rates and call in non-union labour. When pastoralists refused to meet with unions to discuss employment conditions, some strikers resorted to violent tactics, such as burning down shearing sheds.

ITM3558743: Shearer’s Strike (from Photographic records, descriptions and histories of male prisoners) [separated item]; 1891 – 1891; page 4

At Dagworth Station shearing was due to begin in early August, but unionised shearers refused to sign a new agreement. Shortly before 1am on 3 September, a party of unionists took up sheltered positions in a creek bed close to the rear of the Dagworth shearing shed. From there, they opened fire on the shed. Macpherson, however, had stationed a group of seven men to defend his property and when the strikers attacked the defenders returned fire. During the twenty-minute affray, an unidentified unionist – possibly Hoffmeister – was able to stealthily reach the shed and set it alight. As it burned down the attackers decamped.

During the strike a unionist camp had been set up at Kyuna, not far from Dagworth, and it was at this camp that Samuel Hoffmeister met his demise the day after the attack at Dagworth.

The depositions taken from Hoffmeister’s campmates at the inquest into his death reveal that at around midday on 4 September 1894 Hoffmeister and others sat around the fire and ate a meal of corned beef and damper. Hoffmeister had a letter in his possession that he read, then burned in the fire, purportedly exclaiming, ‘That done, I am satisfied’ before walking about twenty yards away. A shot was heard and Hoffmeister was found dead, lying on his side with a revolver and gun pouch beside him. At the inquest into his death, Dr Francis Wellford, the Government Medical Officer examining the body, found that the ‘bullet wound … was the only injury and was undoubtedly the cause of death.’

ITM2732718: Inquest file – HOFFMEISTER, Samuel, 1894

In January the following year, a young Banjo Paterson visited his fiancée, Sarah Riley, at Dagworth Station where she was a guest of her school friend Christina Macpherson. While some uncertainty surrounds the origins of ‘Waltzing Matilda’, it is widely accepted that Paterson’s hosts related the tragic story and Paterson penned the song’s lyrics as he sat outside on the homestead verandah.  

ITM1235108: Statue of a seated swagman at Winton commemorating the Waltzing Matilda song composed by Banjo Paterson, 1966

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