A billycan is an Australian term for a lightweight cooking pot in the form of a metal bucket[1][2][3] commonly used for boiling water, making tea/coffee or cooking over a campfire[4] or to carry water.[3] These utensils are more commonly known simply as a billy or occasionally as a billy can (billy tin or billy pot in Canada).

Usage edit

A traditional billycan on a campfire

The term billy or billycan is particularly associated with Australian usage, but is also used in New Zealand, and to a lesser extent Britain and Ireland.[5]

In Australia, the billy has come to symbolise the spirit of exploration of the outback and is a widespread symbol of bush life, although now regarded mostly as a symbol of an age that has long passed.[4]

To boil the billy most often means to make tea. This expression dates from the Australian gold rushes and probably earlier.[6] "Billy Tea" was the name of a popular brand of tea long sold by Australian grocers and supermarkets.[7] Billies feature in many of Henry Lawson's stories and poems. Banjo Paterson's most famous of many references to the billy is surely in the first verse and chorus of Waltzing Matilda: "Waltzing Matilda and leading a waterbag", which was later changed by the Billy Tea Company to "And he sang as he watched and waited 'til his billy boiled ...".[7]

Etymology edit

Although there is a suggestion that the word may be associated with the Aboriginal billa (meaning water; cf. Billabong),[8] it is widely accepted that the term billycan is derived from bouilli can, the name given to the empty canisters used for preserving Soup and bouilli and other foods. With the addition of a handle, these tins were repurposed for boiling water. Letters to newspapers[9] in the early 20th century support this view and David George Stead quoting his father, who emigrated in 1862 aged 16, wrote "the term "billy can" was commonly used in south coastal England, to describe a "bouilli" can or tin.[10]

The preservation of foods in tin canisters began in 1812 at the firm of Donkin, Hall and Gamble in Bermondsey, England.[11][circular reference]

The reuse of the empty cans probably began at the same time but it is not until 1835 that there is a record of "an empty preserved-meat-canister serving the double purpose of tea-kettle and tea-pot".[12]

By the 1840s, soup and bouilli tin or bouilli tin was increasingly being used as a generic term for any empty preserved food can.[13][circular reference]

The earliest known use of billy for kettle is in an 1848 Tasmanian newspaper report of a criminal trial. A defendant is reported as saying "he put some bread on the table and the "billy" on the fire."[14] Reminiscences by Heberley[15] and Davenport[16] place billy or billies at earlier events but these accounts were written much later.[17][18]

Another early example from 1849 shows that use of the term was possibly widespread in Australia. It occurs in idyllic description of a shepherd's life in South Australia: "near the wooden fire, is what is called the billy or tea-kettle".[19]

From 1851 the gold rushes spur British emigration to Australia with many gold diggers writing letters home describing the journey to Australia and life on the goldfields and many writers mentioning their use of a "billy". From these it is known:

  • In 1853 soup and bouilli cans were converted to useful items on an emigrant ship.[20]
  • "Billy - (this is what you call a tin-can, which is used very often at home for milking cows in, but which the diggers have christened Billy) - and a useful Billy he is: in it we make our tea and coffee".[21]

By 1855 "tin billys" are no longer just repurposed bouilli tins but are being sold by a Melbourne importer[22] and by 1859 are being manufactured in Australia with "Billys, all sizes" being sold at the Kyneton Tin and Zinc Works.[23]

Whitely Kings edit

Named for the secretary of the Pastoralists' Union of New South Wales, this was the swagman's contemptuous term for billycans improvised from a tin can and a length of wire as carried by inexperienced travellers. John Whiteley King (1857–1905) enticed hundreds of unemployed city men to the shearing sheds as a strike-busting strategy.[24][25]

See also edit

References edit

  1. ^ Black, S. J. S. 2010 "Tried and Tested": community cookbooks in Australia, 1890–1980. Thesis (Ph.D.). University of Adelaide, School of History and Politics
  2. ^ Dalzell, Tom; Victor, Terry (27 November 2014). The Concise New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English. Routledge. ISBN 9781317625117 – via Google Books.
  3. ^ a b Farrell, Michael. "Death Watch: Reading the Common Object of the Billycan in 'Waltzing Matilda'". Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature 10 (2010)
  4. ^ a b "National Museum of Australia - Billy". National Museum of Australia.
  5. ^ Sceilig: Information Pack for Troops Archived July 21, 2011, at the Wayback Machine (p. 4) and The Patrol goes to Camp (pp. 9, 11)
  6. ^ Geelong Advertiser and Intelligencer (Vic. : 1851 - 1856) Tue 28 Sep 1852, page 2, EUREKA DIGGINGS
  7. ^ a b John Safran (2002-12-10). "Waltzing Matilda, courtesy of a tea-leaf near you". Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 2013-09-29.
  8. ^ Oxford English Dictionary
  9. ^ Register (Adelaide, SA : 1901 - 1929), Friday 1 December 1916, page 9,ORIGIN OF 'BILLYCAN
  10. ^ The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 - 1954) Fri 13 Jun 1947, age 2, ORIGIN OF "BILLY"
  11. ^ "John Hall (Engineer)".
  12. ^ Narrative Of A Voyage Round The World, T.B. Wilson RN, 1835
  13. ^ "Soup and bouilli".
  14. ^ The Hobart Town Advertiser (Tas. : 1839 - 1861), Fri 21 Jul 1848, Page 2,SUPREME COURT, CRIMINAL SITTINGS.
  15. ^ "Kiwi Xmas poem or reading needed".
  16. ^ Sarah Davenport, Diary, 1841-1846 page 59 of 74
  17. ^ Evening Post, Volume LVIII, Issue 81, 3 October 1899, Page 2, EARLY DAYS IN MAORILAND
  18. ^ "Sarah Davenport: A working woman at the diggings- Gold Rush". 21 June 2018.
  19. ^ The Working Man's Handbook to South Australia, George Blakiston Wilkinson, 1849, page 79
  20. ^ British newspaper archive, Dundee, Perth and Cupar Advertiser - 9 August 1853, page 3, Extracts from the Diary of a Dundee Emigrant to Australia
  21. ^ British newspaper archive, Newry Examiner and Louth Advertiser, 15 April 1854, page 4
  22. ^ The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 - 1957), Mon 28 May 1855
  23. ^ The Kyneton Observer (Vic. : 1856 - 1900) Thu 14 Apr 1859
  24. ^ The Australian National Dictionary. Oxford University Press. 1988. ISBN 0195547365.
  25. ^ Moya Sharp (19 August 2023). "The Swagman's Friend". Retrieved 3 December 2023.
  26. ^ "Dixie". TheFreeDictionary.com. 2018-10-04. Retrieved 2023-01-29.

External links edit