Australian History

The Australian Hatter

The origin stories of words and how they evolved is fascinating. A word may have a particular use or meaning today but had a completely different meaning in the past (such as the word ‘dude‘). A word may have developed from another word or started off as slang. Perhaps a word which is common today filtered into the public’s vocabulary thanks to clever use of advertising. Then there are words and their meanings, regularly used at one point in time, which eventually disappear. The ‘hatter’ is one such example.

Though the word was often used in Australian newspapers in its usual form (describing people who made hats) I’m most interested in its use throughout the Victorian era and into the early 20th Century as a word describing people who lived alone in the bush or the outback.

Its origin most likely stemmed from Lewis Carroll’s ‘Mad Hatter’ character in Alice in Wonderland and while it does not denote a hat maker, it was probably used to indicate madness; madness at choosing to live alone in the bush or madness which developed from living alone in the bush.

How the hatter came to get his name I have never been able to find out – definitely. The distinguishing mark of a hatter in the bush is supposed to be a string of corks suspended around the brim of his hat to keep the flies away. There is the glimmering of a clue there. But I think Lewis Carroll is really to blame for the naming of one of our most peculiar and distinctive types. Mad hatters! – a quaint term for a strange tribe.

The hatter was most often a middle-aged bearded man (usually portrayed as an old prospector still searching for gold) who lived and travelled alone with no other company except perhaps for a pet dog. He was not social and did not like to talk to other people. He went into town when he needed something but generally kept to himself.

Finding the Hatter

Some moved about from place to place while others preferred to stay in one spot (often in remote areas and far away from people). They constructed their homes from whatever material they could find or lived in ready made shelters such as hollow logs.

A hollow log serving as a hatter’s home in Busselton circa 1900. Courtesy of the State Library of Western Australia.
The Hatter’s Home (possibly near Boulder) circa 1902
The Australasian
The Hatter’s Home. Printed in The Australasian (Melbourne) in 1895.
The Hatter’s Hut in the Dandenong Ranges circa 1891. Courtesy of Museums Victoria.

Articles tended to differ in their descriptions of the hatter. Some were kind and simply painted them as men who wanted to be on their own while others highlighted their eccentricities and paranoia with regards to people. They liked a drink or two and it was alcohol which brought the walls down, loosened the lips and resulted in the hatter telling stories about his life and travels.

They lived simply, ate simply, worked odd jobs and panned for gold (if they lived in a gold mining area). Whatever they did or found was usually just enough to get by.

They wander about on their own, tall and spare and straight backed, clad in patched flannels, the skin round their clear eyes wrinkled and creased after a life spent looking into sun-drenched distances.

Much like their swagman equivalent, hatters were immortalised by writers in the form of stories and poetry. An epic poem printed in 1898 titled ‘The Hatter‘ by Von Kotze told the story of Bill “The Silent” who lived on an old tin field near the Palmer River in North Queensland.

Bill “The Silent”

Even Louisa Lawson (you may know her son, Henry Lawson) composed a lovely poem about a man named Jack the Hatter who (she wrote) was considered “one of nature’s gentlemen“. You can read the poem here.

Hatter Poem

A short story by Z. V. Webb printed in 1949 (again simply titled ‘The Hatter‘) told the tale of George Blake who lived at the back of Dead Horse Gully. It is well worth a read.

There is no doubt that these characters were fictional however one wonders if these verses and stories were partly inspired by real men who lived the life of a hatter.

Finding factual articles with regards to the real hatters is no easy task. They lived alone and they likely died alone. Without family to remember them it fell to the aforementioned storytellers to immortalise them. Continually digging does however yield some results on Trove. It is a sad fact that only in death do we finally learn who they were. There was Jack Faulkiner also known as Jack the Hatter who lived in Croyden in North Queensland. William Dunn, an old pensioner and hatter of Tarnagulla in Victoria. And James Dick, a hatter and gold miner who lived at Bacchus Marsh in Victoria.

Unlike the word ‘swagman’ the word ‘hatter’ disappeared from public use. I’m not sure why one survived and not the other. Perhaps the word swagman (enhanced by the song Waltzing Matilda) became embedded in the public’s mind more than the hatter. Perhaps the true definition of a hatter leaned more towards a person who camped and stayed in one spot and, as less people did this, the word, along with the hatters, slowly vanished.

I don’t know what happens to them in the end. One never hears of a hatter dying. Perhaps, like old soldiers, they never die, but gradually fade away and haunt old stock routes and old diggings.



4 thoughts on “The Australian Hatter”

  1. Wow, what a great post Jess. I hadn’t heard of the term used in that way before, and it goes to show that it’s another part of Australian history that seems to have been forgotten over time.


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