WA History

The Oldest Swagman in the State

Like all good bushmen, he knew how to spin a yarn. As he ambled into towns carrying a billy and his matilda (swag) he almost always sought out a man of the press.

Paddy Redmonds me name, and I am the oldest swagman in W.A.

With attention firmly turned towards him, Paddy would launch into a story about his life, his work and his love of the open road.

Many’s the time I could have made me pile had I but stuck where I was but, shure, the love of the road would set me feet a-jigging, whether I felt like it or no.

James ‘Paddy’ Redmond was born in Dublin, Ireland in approximately 1866. In his youth he learnt bare-knuckle boxing from other Irishmen and developed his skills to such an extent that he knew “the way to emerge victorious from an “all-in” combat.

He claimed to have joined the military and supposedly spent six years in India with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. The regiment was created in 1881 with the merging of the East India Company’s 102nd Regiment of Foot and 103rd Regiment of Foot and, in working out a timeline, Paddy would probably have been a soldier during the early to mid 1880s. While it is possible that he was part of the original group of Fusiliers, attempts to confirm his statement have been unsuccessful. Records may not exist or there is the possibility that he was telling tall tales.

Nevertheless, in 1886 (aged in his 20s) he left Ireland on board a windjammer (a large sailing ship built to carry cargo) bound for the east coast of Australia. His reason for emigrating to Australia was never given but perhaps (like many other people at that time) he was tempted by the prospect of gold.

It’s not known what he did once he reached our shores but he soon took to the Australian outback and found that the carefree lifestyle of a swaggie suited him. Throughout the years Paddy worked in the cane fields of Queensland, the Gulf of Carpentaria, Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia. He had been at the head of the Murray River, along the Blue Mountains to Cobar, was at the Broken Hill rush in the late 1880s and was one of the first prospectors at Coolgardie in the 1890s. He was a shearer in his younger days and came to be known in the outback camps as ‘Young Ireland’. He often worked odd jobs and rarely stayed in one place for too long.

Open Road

He travelled around the country by any means possible; donkey team, camel train, river steamer, horse and cart, coach, motor and was often known to “jump the rattler” (hitch a ride on a train). Nothing however was better than the open road and the feel of the earth under his feet.

By the mid 1890s, he had made his way to Western Australia when the lure of the new goldfields became too much to resist.

In Western Australia he eventually worked under C. Y. O’Connor, describing him as the State’s finest engineer. He was involved in the damming of the Helena River to create the Mundaring Weir and then went on to work in the pipe laying gangs for the Goldfields Water Supply Scheme. He worked many different jobs in many different places, moving on whenever the wanderlust became too strong.

One time he could name places in each where a man “humping his bluey” was sure of a bunk in the travellers’ hut. He also knew where the dog would be sooled upon chance wayfarers.

As the days of old colonial Australia slowly disappeared, Paddy may have realised that how he looked and what he was doing had become a novelty. No longer one of many swagmen roaming the countryside, he used this fact to his advantage in attracting attention, with the earliest example taking place in 1927.

In January 1927 Paddy Redmond travelled down from Carnamah and wandered into Perth attracting stares and laughter from the city folk.

During the last couple of days an old swaggie has been seen in the streets of Perth seeming and feeling very out of place amidst the hurrying throngs; the “citified” dress, and the rush and roar of traffic.

Before long he was photographed and interviewed by a reporter from The Daily Paddy RedmondNews and spent some time recounting stories of his travels. He spoke with an Irish accent that still remained despite years of speaking “Australianese” (as he put it).

Paddy boasted that he was “the oldest swaggie in Western Australia” and, stating that he was 70 years of age (he was actually 60) perhaps it seemed like he was.

He did not receive a pension because he never remained in one place and completely shunned the thought of ever being in the Claremont Old Men’s Home. According to Paddy, other old men died once they became “citified“.

Of course, much of what we know about Paddy stems from his own words and while he may have been sincere, there is the strong chance he was bending the truth. This can be seen with respect to his abhorrence of the Old Men’s Home. He so vehemently claimed that he would never end up there but records indicate that as early as January 1926 and up until August 1929 he was admitted and discharged regularly; sometimes he stayed for month long periods while other times he was there for a week or so. These short stints may have simply been to recover and receive a good feed before he headed back out onto the road.

By February 1929, Paddy was in Bunbury and was spotted walking along Victoria Street carrying his billy and his swag. He came to the attention of The Bunbury Herald and Blackwood Express and once again, Paddy gave them the spiel.

Paddy Redmonds me name, and I am the oldest swagman in W.A. I am down from the goldfields to see a ship and I am 64 years old.

His age differed to the previous article and while there wasn’t as much detail compared to the Perth newspaper, he did however claim that he was one of the first to work on the Midland railway.

Absent from these ‘happy-go-lucky’ articles was Paddy’s constant struggle with alcoholism. Two months after his arrival in Bunbury he was still there and was brought before the Bunbury Police Court charged with drunkenness.

He was supposed to have left Bunbury for Busselton but instead stayed a little longer and went drinking instead. He was sentenced to seven days imprisonment.

In August 1929 he travelled from Bunbury back to Perth (he was an inmate of the Old Men’s Home throughout the month of August) where he found himself once again in trouble for being drunk. He spent the night in the cell at the Central Police Station and pleaded guiltyNot Drunk even though he claimed that he wasn’t. Paddy hoped that admitting guilt would result in a lenient sentence and, perhaps it did. Unlike at Bunbury, he was not imprisoned but was instead fined ten shillings by the Magistrate.

Later that month he again appeared at the Police Court. He was charged with being drunk at Claremont Railway Station, acting and behaving in an abusive manner and damaging a window. He had been asked for his ticket, refused to show it (he probably didn’t have one) and then flew into a rage where he ended up throwing a hurricane lamp through a window. He was found guilty and was fined £3. In this instance he was using an alias: James Joseph Campbell Redmond.

By 6 November 1929 he had returned to Bunbury where he was charged with (unsurprisingly) drunkenness. Found drunk and attempting to sleep it off on Stirling Street, he was quickly arrested by the Police. Throughout the year he had become well known to the Courts and his previous convictions (four or five) were put forward to the Justice of the Peace. Paddy pleaded guilty and found himself locked up for seven days.

The next day the South Western Times ran a similar article about his conviction but also provided details as to how Paddy often ended up in the paper. He had arrived in Bunbury, rather quickly took to drinking and then began asking the reporters to take his photo and to print it in the paper. He said the usual words…

I’m James Redmond, 71 years of age, the oldest swagman in the State, known from Esperance to Broome and, like Johnnie Walker, still going strong.

Unimpressed, the writer of the article described Paddy as “obsessed with a sense of his importance…

Personally, I’m not sure that I entirely agree with this analysis. While the question remains as to why he constantly sought out reporters, it is however doubtful he would have been paid to be featured in the paper. Perhaps having his image published made him more accessible to other people in the outback and somehow helped him to obtain work. Or, perhaps having had a taste of being in the limelight once, he simply took a liking to the attention. Actions such as this may indicate self importance (as the Bunbury reporter thought) but it may also indicate loneliness.

There was also a discrepancy with his age which was brought up in Court. Paddy had stated his age as 71 but they later found that his age was 63 (born in 1866). While he could have been deliberately concealing his age, there is also the possibility that Paddy simply didn’t know it.

With regards to Paddy claiming that he was known from Esperance to Broome, the J.P. stated that “There was not opportunity of testing the veracity of his statement…“.

Paddy remained out of the papers for the next couple of years. This could mean that he stayed out of trouble with the Police or his offences simply weren’t printed in the paper. Hopefully it was the former. By January 1931 however, his image was once again featured in The Daily News.

Paddy Redman

Described as being from Karalee (once a small town near Southern Cross) Paddy was in Perth and was heading to Larkinville (south of Coolgardie) to try his luck on the goldfield.

His name was printed as ‘Paddy Redman’ but I believe this could have been an error. The age (66) matches Paddy’s age. There are similarities between the two images and similarities in the names. It also resembles his ‘modus operandi’ viz approaching reporters. There is no doubt in my mind that this wonderful, clear image is of Paddy.

In this instance there was only a photo printed in the paper and a short caption headed with the words “Where are Those Nuggets?”

Three months later the same image was printed once again in The Daily News under the heading “Full of Hope Then”. Paddy had made it to Larkinville, stayed for about three days and quickly departed. When he showed up in Fremantle on 27 March 1931, he had travelled over 1,200 miles; on foot, by car, truck and finally, by stowing away on the steam ship Hindustan at Esperance.

He had been happy to meet up with some of his friends at the goldfields but (in a manner which seems to almost never change from era to era) he “…was not much impressed by the cut of most of the younger generation…” According to Paddy:

Some of them wouldn’t know gold if they saw it.

From Perth he was next heading to Wiluna where a friend was waiting for him. Retirement from a life on the road was definitely not on the cards and once again he stated (despite it being partially untrue):

I’m not an old man yet, and I’m too strong to go into the Old Men’s Home.

Paddy went on his way with his ‘bluey’ and the final sentence noted that he was once a light horseman in the Boer War. The Boer War took place from 1899 to 1902 and at this point in time Paddy would have been in Western Australia. There is no man with the surname Redmond enlisting in WA so it would appear this statement was a fabrication.

On the other hand, there is a note on his record for the Claremont Old Men’s Home that he enlisted in the Duke of Edinburgh Own Volunteer Rifles on 14 May 1901 and was discharged the following year on 12 February. Serving in South Africa during the Boer War, there is a J. Redmond who enlisted. Perhaps this was him after all. But if it was him, it throws the rest of his stories and timelines into disarray.

Paddy remained absent from the news for the next five years. By 21 November 1936 he was located in Geraldton and had obtained employment as a cook on a farm in Yuna Yuna(north east of Geraldton). Departing town via the Yuna mail truck he declared that he felt “…like only twenty, and have never given a doctor sixpence in my life.

Unfortunately his new job did not work out and a month later he was back in Geraldton. He turned to drink and was found drunk on Eleanor Street annoying the shopkeepers.

Brought before the Geraldton Police Court, Paddy stated that it had been a while since he was last convicted of drunkenness. In familiar fashion he pleaded guilty and (luckily) was cautioned but ordered to pay costs of four shillings.

This 1936 article was the last instance where Paddy appeared in the news. He continued living in Geraldton at 7 Armstrong Street throughout 1936 and some of 1937. He was listed in the Electoral Rolls for both years as a pensioner which means he eventually received a pension after all. Perhaps having finally decided to ‘stay put’ he was able to apply for the pension and could collect it.

He didn’t ‘stay put’ for long. At the same time in 1937 he was listed as living at 56 Stirling Street in Perth (also recorded as a pensioner) indicating that some time before the Election, he moved from Geraldton down to Perth.

The years however had taken their toll and his stints in the Old Men’s Home began to lengthen. He was an inmate for the first eight months of 1937, four months of 1938 and two months in 1939. Despite his constant declarations of being too strong to go into a home, it was inevitable that Paddy would eventually reach a point where he could no longer regularly travel on the road, sleep under the stars and fend for himself.

He was last admitted on 5 January 1943 and remained there for two months until he was discharged on 12 March. A short time after this date he turned to the Little Sisters of the Poor in Leederville and it was in their care, on 24 March 1943, he passed away.

James ‘Paddy’ Redmond was buried in the Roman Catholic section of Karrakatta Cemetery in a pauper’s grave. No headstone marks his burial place and today the area has been renewed which means that even his gravesite is no longer visible.

Paddy remains a rather fascinating individual who once roamed the outback of Western Australia as a swagman. True to his Irish roots, wherever he went he told stories (albeit sometimes not particularly truthful ones). He was also a man of contradictions. His words indicated that he disliked the Old Men’s Home but at the same time, he was level headed enough to know that he could go there when he needed help.

Spending his last years (by all appearances) ‘citified’ may have been the last thing that he wanted and it’s probably why overall he never really stayed for long stretches in the Home. The call of the bush and the yearning to explore was always stronger than the prospect of continued comfort. Perhaps he also had a yearning to meet new people in new towns so that he could spend his time spinning yarns, recounting his life on the road and telling anyone who would listen that his name was Paddy Redmond and he was the oldest swagman in W.A.

Please note that the majority of this blog post has been written using newspaper articles in which Paddy described his various travels and jobs throughout the years. Due to the contradictory nature of his stories much of what I have written could be ‘tall tales’ and should not be taken as absolute fact.

Update: The Little Sisters of the Poor have since confirmed that James Redmond was admitted to the Home in June 1942 and left in December 1942. He returned in March 1943 and stayed there until his death on 24 March.



5 thoughts on “The Oldest Swagman in the State”

  1. Great work Jess. Paddy must be grinning from his place in the ether, ear to ear, I reckon. Good on you.


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