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Jim’s Australiana Spot – 2UE - March 13, 2016

Two Claims of Fame

Christina Macpherson is not a name that would immediately mean much to many Aussies. It was Christina McPherson who provided the original tune to the words to Waltzing Matilda written by Banjo Paterson.

In 1854 the McPherson and Rutherford migrated together from Scotland and took up 150 000 acres of good grazing property near Wangaratta, which the families owned jointly. Ewan McPherson married Margaret Rutherford and they had eleven children.
The ninth child was Christina Rutherford Macpherson, born in 1864.

The Macpherson’s were wealthy people and Christina was educated at Oberwyl Ladies School, run by Elise Pfund in the Melbourne suburb of St Kilda. There she befriended Sarah Riley, whose father ran a Sydney legal firm. His partner in that firm was none other than Andrew Barton Paterson, also of Scottish descent, a man who would become our best-known and best-loved poet - and the man who wrote the words of Waltzing Matilda. He became engaged to Sarah Riley in 1887.

In 1894 Christina visited her younger sister Margaret who had married Stewart MacArthur (who would later become a Supreme Court Justice in Victoria) at their property at Meningoort, in the western districts and while Christina was there they attended the famous Grand Annual, a three day race meeting still held every year in May at Warrnambool. The Warrnambool Garrison Artillery Band played between races over the three days and the band frequently played a catchy march version of a Scottish song, Bonnie Wood O' Craigielea, which Christina like and soon learned to play on the piano.

Christina's mother died later that year in December and her father, in early 1895, took his unmarried daughters Christina and Jane to visit another family property, Dagworth Station, in far north Queensland. There had been a major riot on the property in September 1894, during the shearers’ strike, when a group of shearers burned Dagworth Shearing Shed, which contained about 150 lambs.
This act of violence ignited much outrage and police were sent to the area and the media had a field day; anarchy was loose in the bush! Sarah Riley and her fiancé of eight years, Andrew Barton ‘Barty’ Paterson, were visiting from Sydney, staying on Sarah’s brother’s property, ‘Vindex’ which adjoined Dagworth and a house party was arranged between the two old school friends, Sarah Riley and Christina Macpherson.

It was during the time together that Christina played the tune she had heard at Warrnambool races on an auto harp, and Paterson began composing some words to the melody. His lyrics told, in a figurative way, the story of Hoffmeister and the squatter and the police. The young poet had to be circumspect as he was a guest in the house of the man who may well have been an accessory to the murder of the arsonist Hoffmeister. This is apparently the reason for the lyrics of the song being symbolic rather than factual. The collaboration between Christina and Paterson evidently developed into far more than and song-writing exercise – probably an affair - between the two, which led to the breaking of Paterson’s engagement to Sarah Riley.

Whatever did happen at Dagworth, it is true that neither Sarah Riley nor Christina Macpherson ever married and Paterson was always dismissive of Waltzing Matilda, sold of the rights cheaply to the Billy Tea Company and appears to have tried to put the whole episode out of his memory. He married many years later and his family were always reluctant to deal with the ‘Dagworth’ episode in biographies after his death.

Christina Macpherson lived quietly as a spinster in Melbourne for the rest of her days, dying aged 72 in 1936. Her grave remained unmarked until the 1970s when interest in the history of the song led to some recognition of her role in its creation and her niece placed a small plaque to mark her grave in the family plot at St Kilda Cemetery.

The tune most used today is the one which was used after Paterson sold the rights for the lyrics to Billy Tea, a march tune composed by Mary….., although many folk singers still use and prefer the tune first applied to the song by Christina, which is often called ‘the Queensland version’.

Christina Macpherson never attempted to take any credit for Waltzing Matilda, she wrote a letter explaining how the song came in existence to Thomas Woods, a folklorist and historian, but never bothered to post it. The letter was a found amongst her papers when she died in obscurity in 1936.

Christina Macpherson has another ‘claim to fame’ in our history. On the 8th of April 1865 the psychotic bushranger, arsonist and murderer, Mad Dan Morgan, arrived at the Macpherson homestead ‘Peechelba’ near Wangaratta and held the family and their employees hostage at gunpoint in their dining room. Morgan was the most wanted man in the colonies, He was known for his erratic behaviour and sadistic tendencies. On Once he held up a station, wounded a man, then apologised and allowed another to ride for the doctor, changed his mind again and rode after the man and killed him.

On this occasion, having rounded up all the adults on the property and made them prisoners in the dining room, he allowed Alice Keenan, a nursemaid, to go and attend to a crying infant in the next room. The brave young Alice escaped by climbing through a window and ran to the other homestead on the property, which was the home of the Macpherson’s relatives the Rutherfords.

The Rutherfords notified the local police who arrived and laid a trap for Morgan in the early hours of the following day. Next morning as Morgan was leaving the homestead a station-hand named John Quinlan, who was the best shot in the district, shot him in the back as he crossed the open ground between the house and the stable. Morgan died of his wounds and the event was celebrated by the press with gruesome photographs of his body propped against the stable. The body was also mutilated by souvenir collectors before the bushranger was buried in the Wangaratta Cemetery.

This infant whose crying caused ‘Mad Dan’ Morgan to allow Alice Keenan to leave the room, and eventually bring his life and career to a bloody and gruesome end, was fifteen month old Christina Rutherford Macpherson.

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