Bush Ballads

Release date: 13 May 2014

The bush ballad is a thread of Australia’s early literary and popular tradition. It is a rhyming, narrative-based poem adapted for singing. Bush ballads arose from everyday rhymesters setting their words to folk tunes. The form was likely brought to Australia by Irish and English migrants, whose home countries had had versions of the verse tradition for centuries. Bush ballads were thought to be an authentic expression of Australian rural identity, though some also claim that Aboriginal content, where it occurs, is the only unique aspect of Australian ballads. Yet certainly balladists shaped their poems to an Australian setting and cultural context.

The lyrics of Australian ballads are generally simple stories of swagmen, bushrangers, drovers, shearers, working-class oppression and rural isolation, although some extend to war, drought and flooding. The narratives romanticise their characters and settings, and during the heyday of the bush ballad they helped create a mythology of Australia and Australian identity. Although often sentimental and nationalist, many ballads were also humorous and entertaining in tone and content.

The glory years of the bush ballad were during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when nationalist sentiment was flourishing. The publication of serials such as the Bulletin and Lone Hand were significant in developing and circulating this popular verse form in Australia. Some of Australia’s most well-known balladeers are Adam Lindsay Gordon, Henry Lawson, C.J. Dennis and, of course, Banjo Paterson.

Andrew Barton “Banjo” Paterson (1864–1941) is perhaps our most renowned folk poet. The film of “The Man from Snowy River” (1988) and the use of “Waltzing Matilda” as something of an unofficial national anthem have ensured Paterson’s memory across time. In 2014, it is the 150th anniversary of his birth on 17 February 1864. Paterson was born on “Narrambla” station (near Orange) and spent much of his childhood at “Illalong” (near Yass), these early years founding his love of and respect for bush life, which became a key theme of his writing.

As a 10-year-old, he and his cousin Jack were sent to Sydney Grammar, living with their maternal grandmother, Emily Mary Barton, during the term and returning to “Illalong” in the holidays. Paterson then trained in law, serving his articles of clerkship with Herbert Sawley before being admitted as a solicitor in 1886. His interest, however, lay not in law but in poetry and writing; his grandmother had been a strong influence on him in this respect, and his father, too, had had poems published in the Sydney Bulletin when it was first established in 1880.

It was in the Bulletin that “The Banjo” would make his mark, his first published verse, “El Madhi to the Australian Troops”, appearing here in 1885. He gained much acclaim early in his poetry writing career. Many of his ballads were popular when they were published in the Bulletin during the 1880s, and at the urging of its editor, JF Archibald, he approached Angus & Robertson to publish a collection of his works. Well received in Australia and the United Kingdom, The Man from Snowy River and Other Verses (1895) sold out within a week, apparently beating the Australian record in publishing and leading to further print runs. The title poem was significant in the formation and circulation of a particular Australian archetype, and, while it may not be particularly relevant to contemporary Australians, this romantic figure of the bush retains a significant place in popular historical consciousness.

It was after the publication of this collection that Paterson came out from behind his pseudonym. “The Banjo” had been adopted early in his writing days, and it was not for the musical instrument but for a station racehorse owned by his family. The connection was fitting for a man who had such a close affinity with horses. They are central to many of his poems, and his equine affinity is evident in his association with horseracing and with his military service.

As well as being an accomplished folk poet, Paterson was a journalist and news editor. He had sent dispatches home from the front in South Africa for Fairfax during the Boer War in 1899–1900, and from China during the Boxer Rebellion in 1901. His reportage was recognised internationally through his being appointed a correspondent for Reuters. Although his application to report from France during the Great War was rejected, he served in that war in the Middle East.

AB “Banjo” Paterson was appointed a Commander of the British Empire in 1939.

The Stamps

The stamps depict four of Banjo Paterson’s well-known poems: one a political allegory, two in a romantic bush-life vein and one demonstrating his clever humour. Artists Jamie and Leanne Tufrey have interpreted the poems to create a signature image for each.

70c Clancy of the Overflow
In this well-known poem, published in the Bulletin in December 1889, demonstrates Paterson’s romanticism for bush life, and perhaps his ambivalence to a career, then practising law, that tied him to desk and city.

The poem apparently originates from a lived experience, in which Paterson was asked (as a lawyer) to write to a man named Thomas Clancy to claim unpaid monies; the letter was addressed to Clancy at a sheep station called “The Overflow”. Written in the form a letter, the urban-dwelling author compares the freedom and environment of the bush favourably to his own existence in the “dusty, dirty city”.

As the story goes, Paterson received a reply from “The Overflow” that read: “Clancy’s gone to Queensland droving and we don’t know where he are”.

70c The Man from Snowy River
First published in the Bulletin in April 1890, “The Man from Snowy River” tells the tale of a phalanx of horsemen in pursuit of a prizewinning colt that escaped from its paddock to join a herd of brumbies in mountainous country. The brumbies go down an unfeasibly steep slope that stops all but the young hero from Snowy River country in their tracks. Riding his courageous mountain pony, he cracks his whip and follows the brumbies down the “terrible descent” and beyond, until “alone and unassisted he brought them back”.

Interestingly, Clancy from “Clancy of the Overflow”, published the previous year, is one of two characters mentioned in this poem, and the one horseman who has faith in the skills and pluck of the young lad to accompany the group in its mission.

Written just prior to Federation, nationalist spirit was running high and “The Man from Snowy River” depicted something of an archetypal figure for a nation looking to forge a sense of itself: youthful, courageous and risk-taking.

70c Waltzing Matilda
“Waltzing Matilda” is probably the most famous of all Australian ballads, considered by some an unofficial national anthem. Over the decades this ballad has had frequent airings in any number of contexts, including in military arenas, at the closing ceremony of the Sydney Olympics and prior to AFL grand finals.

Paterson wrote “Waltzing Matilda” in 1895, when staying with friends at “Dagworth” station near Winton in western Queensland in 1895, to a tune played by Christina Macpherson. It was first published as sheet music in 1903, by Allan’s Music.

Contention remains regarding the meaning of this popular ballad. However, it is generally believed that this story about the suicide of a swagman is a well-worded political allegory for the Great Shearers Strike, which took place in the early 1890s and had direct links to “Dagworth”.

70c Mulga Bill’s Bicycle
Of the four ballads featured in this stamp issue, “Mulga Bill’s Bicycle” is the only one to strike a humorous chord. Published in the Sydney Morning Herald in July 1896, the poem was written at the height of the late-19th-century bicycling craze. It tells the tale of the buffoonish Mulga Bill, who prided himself on his skill in the saddle, whether a thing “clothed in hair or hide, or built of flesh or steel”. Needless to say, Mulga Bill gets his comeuppance, losing control of his mechanical steed and finding himself submerged in Dead Man’s Creek: “A horse’s back is good enough henceforth for Mulga Bill”.


This beautifully illustrated minisheet shows the author at work.

Technical Details

  • Issue date

    13 May 2014
  • FDI withdrawal

    11 June 2014
  • Denomination

    4 x 70c
  • Stamp design

    Jamie and Leanne Tufrey
  • Product design

    John White, Australia Post Design Studio
  • Illustrator

    James and Leanne Tufrey
  • Paper (gummed)

    Tullis Russell
  • Printer (gummed)

    McKellar Reown
  • Paper self-adhesive

  • Printer self-adhesive

    McKellar Renown
  • Printer (rolls)

  • Printing process

  • Stamp size

    37.5mm x 26mm
  • Minisheet size

    170mm x 80mm
  • Perforations

    13.86 x 14.60
  • Sheet layout

    Module of 50 (BL$). Printed gutter
  • National postmark

    Yass, NSW 2582
  • Issue withdrawal date

    30 November 2014


Australian illustrators Jamie and Leanne Tufrey were commissioned to undertake the artwork for this stamp issue. Jamie has illustrated several stamp issues for Australia Post, including Air Force Aviation in 2011.

Additional Products

  • Cover (blank)
  • First day cover (gummed)
  • First day cover (minisheet)
  • First day cover (s/a)
  • Stamp pack
  • Maxicard (4)
  • PNC (RAM)
  • Medallion cover
  • Prestige booklet
  • Booklet of 10 x 70c
  • Chequebook of 20 x 10 x 70c
  • Roll of 100
  • Collector pack
  • S\A strip of four
  • Gutter (10 x 70c) design

*This content was produced at the time of the stamp issue release date and will not be updated.