Lucy Atkinson’s family and ‘Waltzing Matilda’

Marianne Simpson writes:

The Atkinson family has had more than its fair share of meetings with the great and good. Thomas Witlam Atkinson certainly met both Tsar Nicholas 1 and also Queen Victoria – a double that few others can match. His and Lucy’s acquaintances also included the Russian foreign minister Karl Nesselrode, Nikolai Muravyev-Amursky, the governor of Siberia, as well as his cousin General Michael Muravyev-Vilensky, the chairman of the Russian Geographical Society, and many senior members of the Russian aristocracy. Lucy Atkinson, we know, mixed with many celebrities in England, including the great geographer Sir Roderick Murchison and various literary luminaries, including the author, George Meredith. Their son Alatau Atkinson met with US President William McKinley whilst his son Jack was a close companion of the Prince of Wales (and future Edward VIII), who he taught to surf during a visit to Hawaii.

However, it has only recently come to light that Lucy’s siblings, seven of who emigrated to Australia during the mid-19th century, had a close relationship to Andrew Barton ‘Banjo’ Paterson (1864-1941), to this day Australia’s most celebrated poet and the composer of Waltzing Matilda, Australia’s unofficial national anthem.

Andrew Barton ‘Banjo’ Paterson (Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales)

Several of Lucy’s siblings settled in central western New South Wales, including Lucy’s oldest brother, Matthew Smith Finley (1811-61) who arrived in Sydney in 1833. In 1840 he and another close relative obtained a de-pasturing licence that allowed him to graze stock on Crown lands. At this point he was living at Buckinbah, near Wellington in the Lachlan District.

Those familiar with Banjo Paterson will immediately recognise the name Buckinbah as the station where the poet spent the first seven years of his life. Later he wrote that “This place was held on lease from the Crown at a few pence per acre, and was worth no more. It was dingo infested, unfenced country, where the sheep had to be shepherded, and the cattle, as the black boys [sic] said, could go ‘longa bush’ and wander afield until they got into somebody else’s meat cask, or could be mustered and driven away by enterprising people who adopted this cheap method of stocking up.”

Despite the hardships, this was the place that Paterson’s love for the Australian bush – to be expressed so compellingly in his ballads – was born. As his son Hugh was later to record, “You could sense it the whole time – that he loved Australia, and he loved the bush of Australia…”.

When Banjo was ten years old, he was sent to live with his grandmother in Sydney from where he made the daily trip across the harbour to Sydney Grammar School. After school, he served the customary articles of clerkship and was admitted as a solicitor in 1886. He had begun writing verses as a law student and his first poem was published in 1885. In 1889, sitting in his city solicitor’s office and yearning for the bush, he penned one of his most famous poems, Clancy of the Overflow, which includes the lines:

***

I had written him a letter, which I had, for want of better

Knowledge, sent to where I met him down the Lachlan, years ago,

He was shearing when I knew him, so I sent the letter to him,

Just ‘on spec’, addressed, as follows, ‘Clancy, of The Overflow’.

***

And an answer came directed in a writing unexpected,

(And I think the same was written with a thumb nail dipped in tar)

‘Twas his shearing mate, who wrote it, and verbatim, I will quote it:

‘Clancy’s gone to Queensland droving, and we don’t know where he are.’

***

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.

***

And the bush have friends to meet him, and their kindly voices greet him.

In the murmur of the breezes and the river on its bars,

And he sees the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended,

And at night, the wondrous glory of the everlasting stars.

And I somehow rather fancy that I’d like to change with Clancy,

Like to take a turn at droving where the seasons come and go,

While he faced the round eternal of the cashbook and the journal –

But I doubt he’d suit the office, Clancy, of ‘The Overflow’.

***

By 1895, ‘Clancy of the Overflow’ and other ballads were so popular that they were published in a collection, entitled, ‘The Man from Snowy River, and Other Verses’. The first edition sold out in the week of publication and 7000 copies in a few months. It established the bushman in the national consciousness as a romantic and archetypal figure. According to the Australian Dictionary of Biography Banjo Paterson “made balladry of the scattered lives of back-country Australians and immortalised them. He left a legacy for future generations in his…appreciation of the outback: that great hinterland stretching down from the Queensland border through the western plains of New South Wales to the Snowy Mountains – so vast a country that the lonely rider was seen as ‘a speck upon a waste of plain’.”

One of Banjo Paterson’s popular ballad books

The Man from Snowy River and Other Verses’ made Banjo Paterson a national celebrity overnight. His writing was praised as much in England as in Australia, with The Times comparing him with Rudyard Kipling, who wasted no time in writing from America to congratulate the publishers.

And what of the connection to the Atkinsons? Banjo’s rise to fame would have been of special interest to another of Lucy’s siblings, her youngest sister, Mary Ann (1831-1897) who in 1857 had married the pastoralist, Francis Smith. This marriage produced seven children, including the first daughter, Lucy Jane (clearly named Lucy after her aunt), who in 1884 married Arthur Sterling Barton. It will be remembered that Banjo Paterson’s full name was Andrew Barton Paterson – the Barton came from his mother Rose Isabella Barton who was an older sister of Arthur Barton. So, although Arthur Barton was only eight years older than Banjo, his marriage to Lucy Jane Smith made Lucy Jane an aunt to Banjo Paterson and the children of their marriage (Lucy Atkinson’s great nieces and nephews) Banjo’s first cousins. 

Banjo’s writing skills were to take another direction with the outbreak of the South African War. He was commissioned by The Sydney Morning Herald and the Melbourne Age as their war correspondent and, in March 1900, was to be the first correspondent to ride into Bloemfontein. Here he finally met Kipling who in December 1901 entertained him as his guest in his Sussex home. The quality of Banjo’s reporting in South Africa attracted attention beyond Australian shores and led to him being recruited as a Reuters correspondent. On returning to Australia, he abandoned his legal practice and, with the interruption of the First World War, in which he commanded the Australian Remount Squadron (he was a superb horseman), he was to remain active in journalism until 1930.

2 thoughts on “Lucy Atkinson’s family and ‘Waltzing Matilda’

  1. Dear Nick, Thank you for this interesting post; it’s exciting there is an Australian connection to Lucy Atkinson.

    Banjo Paterson brings the Australian bush to life, and Clancy of the Overflow is a favourite. It’s glorious to read with the rhythm dancing across the page. I’d never compared Banjo Paterson to Kipling, but they both beautifully pick up local vernacular and, by doing so, infuse authenticity into their poems.

    I live in the grand gold-mining town of Bendigo, which includes the borough of Eaglehawk. Banjo Paterson’s poem Mulga Bill’s Bicycle holds special significance for us.

    http://www.middlemiss.org/lit/authors/patersonab/poetry/mulgab.html

    Restoration Australia is a TV program produced for our national broadcaster, ABC. They have done two programs about restoring houses with a connection to the Barton family, which may interest you.

    http://australianarchaeology.blogspot.com/2020/10/restoration-australia-season-3-episode_29.html

    http://australianarchaeology.blogspot.com/2015/09/restoration-australia-quick-review-ep-5.html

    All the best,

    Jennifer

    Sent from my iPad

    >

    Like

    1. Thanks Jennifer. Delighted that this wonderful article by Marianne Simpson hit home with you. YOu can read more about Lucy’s family connections with Australia here: https://siberiansteppes.com/2017/08/18/lucy-atkinsons-uncle-joseph-and-his-adventures-in-the-south-seas/ Also written by Marianne Simpson, it is about Lucy’s great uncle, Joseph Sherrard, who was an early visitor to Australia – he was in Tasmania in 1792 – where he established a cattle farm.

      Like

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