[1960:] The most authentic story concerning the term ['waltzing Matilda'] seems to come from East Gippsland, Victoria. [...] Matilda is said to have been the first woman swaggie to be seen in Victoria. She and her husband Joe were very well known and respected throughout East Gippsland; their surname was unknown, and the wife was always called Mrs Swaggie Joe. Matilda and Joe were entirely happy in their carefree life, wandering the old bush tracks winter and summer, Joe with his bluey on his back, Matilda with a smaller swag on hers. Matilda often told how her father reacted when Joe asked him for his daughter's hand: 'What! My daughter marry a common swaggie! A man who can't even offer her a shack to live in! Do you think I'd let you go a-waltzing Matilda all over the countryside?' Despite this opposition the girl married Joe and and set off with him on a lifetime of wandering through the spacious countryside, which they understood and loved from the bottom of their hearts. [...] Then one sad day Matilda was taken ill in the morning and died at midday. Swaggie Joe dug her grave at the foot of an old gum tree and sat with his arms about her until it grew dark. Then he buried her. Next morning as he prepared to fasten on his bluey he muttered, 'Oh well, Bluey, you'll have to be Matilda to me now, and we'll waltz along together 'til the end.' Swaggie Joe's name for his bluey was soon adopted by other sundowners. 'Waltzing the bluey' was already their idiom for tramping with their swag, so it was not long before it evolved into 'Waltzing Matilda'. [...]
The verses were written by the Australian poet, A. B. ('Banjo') Paterson in 1896, when he was staying at the home of his fiancee, Miss Sarah Riley, at Winton, Queensland. One day they visited Mr Robert McPherson, owner of Dagworth, one of the largest sheep stations in the district. McPherson and his sister, Christina, were driving Paterson and Miss Riley home when, in a paddock, they saw an old swagman trying to catch a sheep for his tuckerbox. McPherson stopped the buggy, exclaiming, 'He's after a jumbuck!' And jumping down he chased the swaggie away. (Jumbuck was the name coined for a sheep by the aborigines.) This incident caught Paterson's imagination and he softly spoke the first lines of Waltzing Matilda. Miss McPherson was intrigued with the words and told the poet that some time previously she had heard a brass band playing a tune that she thought would suit them. When they reached Miss Riley's home Paterson and Miss McPherson sat down at the harmonium and adapted the tune to the words. The tune is an old Rochester (Kent) marching air of the Marlborough Wars. In 1903 Marie Cowan set the music in its present arrangement. (Beatty, Treasury 11ff)
The name 'billy' seems to be a purely Australian word. Legend says that it was first used in Western Australia on the goldfields. In the early days France used to export quantities of tinned meat to the miners there. It was labelled 'Boeuf Bouilli' (boiled beef). As cooking utensils were extremely scarce on the goldfields the miners put the empty tins to good use. Some they used as drinking cups, others they put handles on to make pots for boiling water and cooking purposes. They called them 'bouilli' cans. It was only a matter of time before the name became billy can and was later shortened to billy.
The billy is one of the most widely used articles in outdoor Australia, popular among rich and poor alike. Swagmen sometimes carry sets of billies of graduated size that fit inside each other. Rarely, though, will you see a swaggie with a new or bright-looking billy. It brands him as a new chum, so he blackens it as quickly as possible, boiling it over smoky fires until it becomes a 'respectable' black. (Beatty, 22f)
The swagman, sundowner, bagman, battler and whaler were itinerant Australians of various kinds who roamed the bush tracks either in search of work, or merely seeking sustenance to keep themselves alive. [...] Their numbers were considerable from the 1860's, when the main gold-fields began to peter out, until World War I. The whalers were a race apart from the sundowner, who lived on the station handouts when they couldn't dodge work, and the genuine swagmen travelling outback in search of work. (Beatty, 230f)