Talking with my Dad: Wattles and Jimmy Woodsers

As many of you know, my father turned 100 this year, and three weeks later, my mother died. Life is sad, but Dad and I are soldiering along – with support of course from Mr Gums, not to mention family elsewhere in Australia. What is amazing, though, is how often new little pieces of information, or insights into Dad’s life, are still cropping up! I’m sharing a couple here, to document them for myself and because they might interest readers here too.

Wattle Day

Image of Golden Wattle

Acacia pycnantha or Golden Wattle, by Melburnian (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Wattle Day, as most Australians now know, occurs on 1 September, celebrating the first day of spring here downunder. The golden wattle (acacia pycnantha), which was included in Australia’s coat of arms in 1912, is just one of many wattle species found around Australia, but most tend to blossom in late winter to early spring. Wikipedia provides the complicated origins of Wattle Day, but by the 1910s it seems, most states in Australia were celebrating it, though it wasn’t a nationally gazetted day until 1992.

So, on this year’s Wattle Day, as I was visiting my Dad, he burst into song, with these opening verses:

The bush was grey
A week to-day
(Olive-green and brown and grey);
But now the spring has come this way,
With blossoms for the wattle.

It seems to be
A fairy tree;
It dances to a melody,
And sings a little song to me
(The graceful, swaying wattle)

– by Veronica Mason

I was astonished. I’d never heard this song. Indeed, I had only become aware of Wattle Day relatively recently. However, on discussing the Day with my patchwork-now-coffee group, I discovered that all present, except one other, were very familiar with Wattle Day. What? Then the penny dropped. My father was born in 1920, and most of this group were born in the late 1930s to 1940. The “one other” was, like me, born in the 1950s. So, on thinking about it, I realised that they were born during times of pro-Australian nationalism, whilst that other and I grew up during a period of cultural cringe, a time when we turned away from things Australian.

Wikipedia helped confirmed this. Referencing Libby Robin, Wikipedia advises that “the day was originally intended to promote patriotism for the new nation of Australia”. I sussed out Libby Robin’s article, “Nationalising Australia: Wattle Days in Australia”, in which she talks about the linking of nature with nationalism. After discussing some of the various nature days that were created, she writes that

Wattle Day was the most aesthetic and human-centred of the three ‘days of nature’, and its influence waned as the century wore on. In the 1930s and later the Gould League went from strength to strength. Arbor Day had a steady and strong following, reinventing itself in the 1990s as ‘Arbor Week’. But Wattle Day changed in the early 1930s, eventually fading away altogether. A Wattle Day League limped on in Victoria until the mid-1960s, but the other states were no longer interested.

So, those born in the first half of the twentieth century were well familiar with the day – and its various songs and poems – while those of us born mid-century have only discovered it in recent years, with its revival and 1992 gazetting. Thanks Dad for the song – and the inspiration to suss out Wattle Day a little more.

A Jimmy Woodser

And then, just this week, Dad mentioned a “Jimmy Woodser”! I looked blank! Do you know what a Jimmy Woodser is, because I sure didn’t!

Barcroft Boake portrait

Barcroft Boake, by George Lambert, pre 1913, Public Domain.

So, back to Google I went. I found several references, but this one on Time Gents (Australian Pub Project) blog is particularly good. The post starts by saying:

Jimmy Woodser is a name given to a man who drinks alone, or a drink consumed alone. The name is thought to come from a poem by Barcroft Boake, published in The Bulletin on May 7 1892, about a fictional Jimmy Wood from Britian [sic] who is determined to end the practice of ‘shouting’ (buying rounds of drinks for a group of mates), by drinking alone.

“One man one liquor! though I have to die
A martyr to my faith, that′s Jimmy Wood, sir.”

“Jimmy Wood, sir” to “Jimmy Woodser”!

Barcroft Boake (1866-1892) was an Australian poet best known for his poem “Where the dead men lie”. (In a little digression, I have posted on, and reviewed works by, his niece Capel Boake.)

Back, though, to Jimmy Woodser. There is an alternative anecdotal version of the term’s origin provided in The Brisbane Courier (May 11, 1926), which dates it to the 1860s and a story about two rival publicans. There’s another one in the Dungog Chronicle (July 14, 1942), while this one in Adelaide’s The Mail (7 July, 1945) provides a rundown of several theories. Without doing more research I can’t confirm which is right, but the meaning doesn’t change. (In a fun little aside, the Glen Innes Examiner and General Advertiser (11 May, 1906) has an article titled ‘A “Jimmy Woodser” Club’ about the creation of the Non Shouting Club, in Araluen, near where I live. Its aim was to reduce the drunkenness that they believed shouting encouraged!)

Meanwhile, Time Gents go on to share a poem by Henry Lawson, titled “The old Jimmy Woodser” (c. 1899). They suggest it could be about a Wollongong character, Billy Fitzpatrick. Its first verse is:

The old Jimmy Woodser comes into the bar
Unwelcomed, unnoticed, unknown,
Too old and too odd to be drunk with, by far;
So he glides to the end where the lunch baskets are
And they say that he tipples alone.

“Too old and too odd to be drunk with, by far”. Well, my Dad is pretty old, but I’ll have a drink with him any day – and look out for more little treasures like this to research and share.

43 thoughts on “Talking with my Dad: Wattles and Jimmy Woodsers

  1. Golly it’s a long time since I was in a pub being included in a round of drinks, maybe 40 years. As a young man it always worried me because I very rarely had enough in my pocket to shout my round. As for Wattle Day I’ve never heard of it. Is it really a ‘day’ now? I’m usually only aware of ‘days’ if they mean I can’t get unloaded. I was in the Gould Bird League though, in 1959 or 60 with glossy certificate to prove it.

    • Ah, Bill, I wondered with your peripatetic life, whether you would know any of this. Yes, Wattle Day is a thing … officially since 1992 (when I was living overseas) but I think I’ve only become aware of it in the last few years.

      I think the shouting is really problematic if you are in a big group – how many drinks do you want and can afford. Both issues can worry people I reckon.

  2. I still can’t ‘Like’, dammit. Next week I hope for everything to be sorted.
    I was totally taken aback by the song, ST !!! – we were taught it in Singing at my convent school – it’s a 2-parter. I wonder if your Dad sang the soprano or the alto part ! [grin] I can even sing the following verse, which begins “See how it weaves / its fairy sheaves / Before the wind a maze of leaves” .. A very pretty and melodious song, there now !
    (Note that the Commenter above has gone straight to one point and I to the other ! [grin])

  3. Now here’s an interesting thing… I am an import, as you know, and yet unlike you Dinky-Di Aussies, I had heard of Wattle Day.
    I am not sure how. Possibly from one of the pictorial histories I have, but I think the connection is probably via schools, who were involved in the celebrations. It may have featured in the School Magazine which was part of our reading fare here in Victoria in the 1960s, (and you note that Wattle Day limped on in Victoria till the mid 60s) or I may have learned about it at Teachers’ College where I did a semester-long unit on the history of Australian education.
    Whatever, I rather like it, even if I do get hay fever from wattle!
    Or, perhaps I know of it in the context of Change the Date: something stirs in my memory about the idea of Wattle Day as a less contentious opportunity for national celebration.

    • Probably both reasons Lisa … I’m sure schools in Victoria probably kept it going, and I think it may have been mooted as a less contentious national day. I could live with that I think but I don’t know what Indigenous Australians think?

      Re hayfever, Mr Gums used to think that … we had one right outside our en-suite window in our previous house, but later research suggests that was probably coincidental with the plants really causing it. I think wattles are often wrongly blamed. Now my hayfever is caused by dust. It’s better I leave dust alone , than actually do dusting as l did (rarely) yesterday and ended up blowing my nose for hours. Today, no dusting, no tickly runny nose!

  4. These are great things to know about!
    The story of your dad singing reminds me of the fourth of July when we were grown and visiting my parents and we all starting singing patriotic songs–we knew the same ones until my parents started singing one about “Remember Pearl Harbor” and astonished us by singing about twenty verses of it.

  5. My Mum (born in Sydney, 1914) used to sing that song every year when the wattles bloomed. I think I remember singing it as a child in Victoria as well. You have not only a lovely dad but your own piece of living history 🙂

  6. What a beautiful post. Both items stirred something – I’d heard the term ‘Jiimmy Woodser’ but had only the vaguest idea of its meaning, and I’d met Wattle Day in the ancient issues of the NSW School Magazine. Please do more posts like this as the occasions arise, and may the occasions continue for a long time..

    • Thanks Jonathan … and thanks, I will if the occasions arrive, and I hope they do!

      I’m guessing school magazines kept it going a bit longer because of their orientation to Australian culture.

      • Probably true, though I did go trawling back to1916 in the archives, and couldn’t tell you when Wattle Day stopped featuring. Anzac Day was the only ‘Day’ that continued into the 90s, and NAIDOC became an annual feature.

        • Oh thanks Jonathan, for checking. My father has enjoyed seeing the responses to his “tidbits”. I didn’t tell him I was writing this post, but he’d already seen it when I asked him at lunch today!

  7. Hi Sue, lucky you that your Dad is still alive. My dad was also born in 1920, but unfortunately died aged 67. Your dad is certainly an encyclopedia, it must be great to have these chats with him. I knew about Wattle Day, but as to what age I was aware of it, I am not sure. Also, I don’t know the song or Jimmy Woodser. You have probably seen at the Arts Centre Melbourne. the beautiful stage curtains. Red velvet, painted with the native flora comprising fern leaves, gum leaves and wattle flowers, and lyre birds. .

  8. Hi Sue, you got me thinking about Jimmy Woodser. Then something clicked, and I searched in my book of poems by Henry Lawson. “The Old Jimmy Woodser: (1900) “The old Jimmy Woodser comes into the bar…..

    • Oh good for you Meg for it clicking in your brain! Yes that’s the poem I quote at the end of my post. It appeared in a book of poems in 1900 – as you say – but I did find it in a newspaper in Trove in 1899.

  9. Hi Sue, something didn’t click as it was at the end of your post. In my defense I was discussing the term with my husband and then checked my book – oops! And yes both opera and ballet at Arts Centre.

    • Haha, Meg, I understand. I’m rather glad it resulted in family conversation.

      Thanks re curtains. We went to the very last pre-COVID Australian Ballet performance on 12 March. Our seats were quite back but I thought I remembered rich red curtains.

  10. I was not familiar with Wattle day either. A mainland thing??? Hmmm , nor did I know about ole Jimmy. Enjoyed your post. My dad used to sing at times but they were obscure cowboy songs from his childhood. Born in 1919. No idea where he got them from. But we loved them….and him. Happy memories.

  11. Parents can so often surprise you! We somehow forget that they had a life before we ever existed but now and again they give us glimpses into those pasts. During lockdown since I can’t get to see my parents we’ve talked every day on the phone – I’m getting my dad to tell me about his childhood, using an app to record the conversation. He’s enjoying his trip down memory lane and I’m enjoying living it with him

    • That’s a great idea Karen. Sometimes it’s hard to find topics of conversation. In mum’s last month we spent a lot of time talking about her past but there’s so much still I didn’t think to ask.

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