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U3A Writing: Send Round The Hat

"My life has been enriched by the custom of sending the hat around,'' writes Jim Graham.

Henry Lawson in his wonderful poems and short stories epitomises so many of the great Australian traditions including giving a bloke (or woman) a hand when they are down on their luck. The origin of the custom is unclear, but it may have evolved from the award of a new hat to a cricketer who took a wicket with three successive balls – it was first used in cricket to acknowledge the feat of H H Stephenson in 1858.

I first encountered it at a rodeo in Muttaburra, Queensland, in 1959, when a ringer, Jacky, from the property I was working on was injured in a fall from a buckjumper. At the Monday morning gathering of all staff to receive their orders from the Manager and Overseer, the Boss suggested it might be a good idea to “pass the hat around” to help the injured man’s expenses as he was not covered by insurance because he was riding in his own time. The boss described Jacky as “a silly bastard but not a bad poor bastard” who “could do with a helping hand”, and made a substantial donation to the hat to kick the appeal off. As there were more than fifty men on the place Jacky did alright.

As an aside on hats and their uses in the bush it was a common sight to see perhaps twenty mounted horsemen riding in line astern, as the first one passed an empty rum bottle on the track he would solemnly raise has hat; this was repeated by all the others as they passed the spot, as a mark of respect for a “dead marine” – as the bottle was known!

I recall that when playing football, Aussie Rules, in country Victoria as a callow youth it was customary for various local charities - hospital. Red Cross, Salvos, other sporting clubs, Apex and Lions – to take weekly turns to walk around the boundary with a blanket into which patrons threw loose change (and the occasional half-eaten pie!).

Nowadays not many gentlemen wear hats so it has become customary for any receptacle to be passed around the workplace with the request to “chip in”, “kick the can” or “tickle the kitty” for births, deaths, engagements, marriages, divorces, christenings, circumcisions, bar mitzvahs, retirement or departure from a job for any number of reasons, or even as a means of raising funds for the office picnic because the management are too lousy to supply any more than one drink and one sausage roll per person.

The ubiquitous collection tins rattled under our noses for everything from “Save the whale” to the “Michael Jackson school of responsible parenting” is another form of sending the hats around. .

Prior to our move to town I spent quite a deal of time in Sydney where I was involved in agri-politics at a State and Federal level and I encountered any number of beggars who in their own way were sending the hat around. I developed an acquaintanceship with one particular bloke who had been a drover; he had fallen on hard times and moved to Sydney where he lived rough where-ever he could find a bed and a feed. He had a very old, very fat kelpie named Digger who he said was a “bloody good lead dog” and “the last of his line.” He always sat in the shade in Martin Place and picked me for a bushie, probably by my dress. The first time we met he said “Got a dollar for an old drover, Boss?” and pointed to the dusty, sweat stained Akubra lying alongside him. There was also a blackened quart pot full of water for Digger and a brown paper wrapped bottle which I supposed held cold tea for Mick’s consumption I stopped and fished in my pocket for coins, but something made me hesitate rather than just drop the donation and keep walking.

He was tall, very wrinkled from years in the sun, and had the almost closed eyes a bushman sometimes develops to combat years of glare and dust. And he had a sign which read Down on our luck, me and me mate. Nowhere to go and a limp. I refrained from asking what part of him was limp, and I gave the old dog a pat. We had a yarn for a few minutes and agreed I’d see him again when next in town.

Over many years I stopped and yarned with Mick. We discussed the bush and the many characters we had both met. Sometimes I’d take him to a nearby cafe and buy him a good feed; the proprietors at first were a bit reluctant as he was a mite grubby and needed a bath and a shave, but my money was paying their bill and we always sat outside in a corner where Digger could enjoy the scraps and Mick could drink from a longneck.

He told me his father’s name was Jimmy Devine and he was buried near Muttaburra – by sheer chance I had seen his grave – he was buried on the stock route outside of town and his epitaph read
Here lies the body of Jimmy Devine
He opened a jackpot with a pair of nines”.

Years passed. The old dog died and Mick was heartbroken – we continued to yarn whenever I was in town, and many of his stories and mine may prove useful in time to come.

One day, not long before I retired from agri-politics, he was not there and I asked the cafe proprietor if he had seen him. He said he had died of a heart attack on his favourite bench about two weeks earlier. I was saddened that I had not been there for a man who had become a mate.

My life has been enriched by the custom of sending the hat around and Henry Lawson summed it up with the word
“Now this is the creed from the book of the bush
Should be simple and plain to a dunce
If a man’s in a hole, you must send round the hat
Were he jailbird or gentleman once.”

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