An Australian Swagman using a hollow gum tree as a campsite

An Australian Swagman using a hollow gum tree as a campsite

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A swagman (also called a swaggie, sundowner or tussocker) was a transient labourer who travelled by foot from farm to farm carrying his belongings in a Swag (bedroll). The term originated in Australia in the 19th-century and was later used in New Zealand.

Swagmen were particularly common in Australia during times of economic uncertainty, such as the 1890s and the Great Depression of the 1930s. Many unemployed men travelled the rural areas of Australia on foot, their few meagre possessions rolled up and carried in their swag. Typically, they would seek work in farms and towns they travelled through, and in many cases the farmers, if no permanent work was available, would provide food and shelter in return for some menial task.

The figure of the “jolly swagman”, represented most famously in Banjo Paterson’s bush poem “Waltzing Matilda”, became a folk hero in 19th-century Australia, and is still seen today as a symbol of anti-authoritarian values that Australians considered to be part of the national character.