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Banjo Paterson 1935 John Longstaff Winner of the 1935 Archibald Prize

Banjo Paterson 1935
John Longstaff
Winner of the 1935 Archibald Prize

Andrew Barton Paterson was born at Narrambla homestead, near Orange on 17 February 1864. His parents, Andrew Bogle and Rose Isabella Paterson were graziers on Illalong station in the Yass district. The eldest of seven children, he was instructed during his early years by a governess, but once able to ride a pony Andrew attended the bush school at Binalong. In 1874 he went to Sydney Grammar School where in 1875 he shared the Junior Knox Prize with (Sir) George Rich, and matriculated aged 16. Whilst at Sydney Grammar he lived at Gladesville with his widowed grandmother, poet Emily Barton, who fostered his love of literature.

After failing a University of Sydney scholarship examination, Paterson was articled to Sydney solicitors, Spain and Salway. He was admitted as a solicitor on 28 August 1886 after which he and John William Street formed the legal partnership Street and Paterson.

It was during his years as a law student that Paterson began writing verse. His first poem – El Mahdi to the Australian Troops – was published in the Bulletin in February 1885. His poetry also appeared in the Sydney Mail, often under the pseudonyms ‘B’ and ‘The Banjo’, the name of a racehorse owned by his family.

A keen sportsman, Paterson enjoyed tennis, rowing, polo and hunting to hounds. He also rode at Randwick and Rosehill as an amateur jockey. His interests ranged from politics and debating to pearl diving and crocodile hunting. As a writer he drew inspiration from his rural upbringing and the Australian bush with its many characters. The Man from Snowy River and other verses was published in 1895 to great public acclaim. The first edition sold out within a week of publication; a further 7000 copies were sold within a few months. Paterson’s identity as ‘The Banjo’ was exposed and he became a literary celebrity in Australia and England.

In October 1899 Paterson set sail for South Africa, where he worked as a war correspondent during the Second Boer War for the Sydney Morning Herald and the Melbourne Argus. He worked as a journalist in China during 1901, returning to Australia the following year. In 1903 he married Alice Emily Walker from Tenterfield. They settled in Queen Street, Woollahra where a daughter Grace was born in 1904, and a son Hugh in 1906.

When World War I broke out Paterson embarked with the first Australian Imperial Force convoy in October 1914. He had hoped to secure employment in Flanders as a war correspondent, but was unsuccessful. During 1914 and 1915 he drove ambulances for the Australian Voluntary Hospital in Wimereux, France. In October 1915 he was commissioned by the Australian Imperial Force as a captain in the 2nd Remount Unit in Egypt where he broke in and trained Australian horses and mules. Paterson was promoted to the rank of major in April 1919. His wife Alice worked in a nearby Red Cross ambulance unit.

View from Major 'Banjo' Paterson's tent, Remount Camp at Moascar, North Egypt, 1918  George Lambert

View from Major ‘Banjo’ Paterson’s tent, Remount Camp at Moascar, North Egypt, 1918
George Lambert

Following the war Paterson resumed work as a journalist until 1930 when he decided to pursue creative writing full time. His books during this time include a collection of children’s poems, The Animals Noah Forgot, and Happy Dispatches in which he described his encounters with famous people, including Winston Churchill, Rudyard Kipling and Lord Allenby. In later years he became a radio broadcaster with the ABC, reporting on his travels and experiences.

In 1939 Paterson was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in recognition of his contribution to literature. ‘Banjo’ Paterson died in Sydney on 5 February 1941 following a short illness. Australia had lost not only a celebrated writer, but also a respected solicitor, a proficient horseman and a proud soldier.