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Postcard featuring an Australian bush setting with a man holding a billy over a camp fire. The scene is set within the outline of a map of Australia. The text reads 'Greetings Sincere for Christmas.
'Greetings Sincere for Christmas' postcard (detail). Josef Lebovic collection, National Museum of Australia. Photo: Jason McCarthy.

A practical companion and a mate

The billy is an Australian term for a metal container used for boiling water, making tea or cooking over a fire.

By the end of the 19th century the billy had become as natural, widespread and symbolic of bush life as the gum tree, the kangaroo and the wattle.

The billy was cheap, lightweight and versatile. But its elevation to symbolic status stemmed from more than its practicality.

Australians invested it with human qualities such as reliability, hospitality and egalitarianism — qualities that were celebrated as distinctively Australian. The billy became a source of comfort and companionship; ultimately it became a mate.

The billy today is largely an object of nostalgia, symbolic of a way of life that has almost disappeared.

Postcard featuring a group of men in hats, many of whom are holding a billy or mug.
A postcard showing a group of men with billies and mugs. Josef Lebovic collection, National Museum of Australia. Photo: Lannon Harley.
Postcard featuring two horses tethered to a tree and two men sitting waiting for a billy to boil. The text reads 'A HALT. WHILE THE BILLY BOILS'.
'A Halt. While the Billy Boils' postcard, 1910, Massey-Harris Co Ltd. Josef Lebovic collection, National Museum of Australia. Photo: Jason McCarthy.
Postcard featuring a cartoon of Sir Henry Rawson, wearing ceremonial medals, but dressed in swagman's clothes and holding a billy. The text reads: 'In Borrowed Plumes Sir Henry Rawson in Swagmans Attire'.
'In Borrowed Plumes: Sir Harry Rawson in Swagmans Attire' postcard, by 'Zif'. Josef Lebovic collection, National Museum of Australia. Photo: Jason McCarthy.

The swagman, his billy and Waltzing Matilda

Waltzing Matilda is an unofficial Australian anthem, with lyrics written in 1895 by bush poet Banjo Paterson. However, the version most Australians are familiar with was rewritten by the Billy Tea Company in 1903.

In the new version of the song the line 'he sang and he looked at the old billy boiling' was replaced by 'he sang and he watched and waited till his "Billy" boiled', thus stressing the connection to Billy Tea. This new line was also inserted into the chorus, ensuring maximum exposure for the 'Billy' brand.

As Federation approached, many Australians looked to the bush as representing the 'real' Australia. Sketches, stories, poems and art about bush life invariably included the billy.

In particular it was linked to the swagman, the nomadic traveller in search of work, who is also the central character in Waltzing Matilda. It was around the boiling billy that the great Australian yarn was spun.

At the same time as it was a symbol of bush hospitality it also represented the democratic, self-reliant Australian spirit.

Many young and newer Australians, even if they are familiar with the words of Waltzing Matilda, may be unaware of what a billy is.

A rectangular-shaped metal vessel with a lid and wire handle, which bears marks of being used in a fire.
Adventurer Dot Butler's billy, made by Taro. National Museum of Australia. Photo: Lannon Harley.

A 'bushies' birthright?

For bushwalkers, the billy served as a connection to an 'authentic' bush culture well into the twentieth century.

'Bushies' still use billies, tourists on outback holidays are offered billy tea, and billy-boiling competitions are held at country shows.

Restrictions on fire use in national parks, however, has limited the use of the billy, and some bushwalkers complained bitterly of being denied access to an Australian birthright — the campfire and the opportunity to boil the billy.

The billy pictured at right was owned by Dot Butler, a keen sportswoman who was involved in bushwalking, mountaineering and cycling from the 1930s.

This legendary adventurer always travelled light and her billy demonstrated her belief that a person could make everything they needed.

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