Kangaroo, Gum Tree, wattle and Billy were once the symbols of Australian bush life. Billy, is a common name used for a tin can, used by Australians living in the bush for many purposes like carrying water, making tea and cooking. There are many legends about its origin, but the most probable one is as follows. During the Gold rush days, miners after a long and hard day of work, consumed rather large quantities of French tinned soup, called bouilli. Bouilli comes in a tin can. The empty tin cans were used for making tea, carrying water or cooking by miners. In a short time this bouilli cans were so widely used it became a symbol of Australian Bush life.
Billy is immortalised by story writers and poets. Noted Australian writer Edward S Soresen (1869 – 1939) penned these words about billy can.” All classes of people, whether city dwellers or backblockers, take it along with them when they go picnicking. There is scarcely a camp or hut in Australia without one, and some have a dozen. And what an array they would make if they were all stood in line! There would be a hundred miles of billy-cans! And the quarts and pannikins that are carried about would build a mountain.” No utensil is so generally used in the bush as the billy-can; none is more widely distributed, none better known in Australia. It is cheap, light, useful, and a burden to no man. It goes with every traveller, it figures in comedy and tragedy, and has been the repository of the last words of many a perished swagman. Often it is found with the grim message scratched on the bottom, beside the dead owner.”
Billy also finds a mention in Australia’s unofficial national anthem ‘ Waltzing Matilda’ by Banjo Patterson.
“Once a jolly swag man camped by a billabong,
Under the shade of a coolibah tree,
And he sang as he watched and waited till his billy boiled,”
There were many established ways to heat a billy on campfire. One was to put a fork at each side of the fire with a pole across to hang the billy. The other way was to make a tripod with wood to hang the billy and fire underneath. Two logs were kept closer to place the billy over it with fire in between the logs.
Billy always represented Australianness and by the end of 19th century, it has become a symbol of Australian bush life. Today though billy only represents nostalgia of a way of life that existed in the 18th and 19th century, tourists on outback holidays are offered billy tea, and billy-boiling competitions are held at country shows.
The bush men and women valued mate-ship and a boiling billy was an invitation for a passing swagman to join and share hot billy tea. Billy tea was strong and usually served black.
Billy tea is also an Australian Icon. James Inglis , as the agent of the ‘Calcutta Tea Syndicate’, sold tea at the 1880 Sydney International Exhibition. About 1887 he had set up a company, James Inglis & Co. By 1893 James Inglis & Co. were selling over 600,000 lb. (272,155 kg) of ‘Billy Tea’ and over 1,000,000 lb. (453,592 kg) of packaged teas a year.
Billy Tea used Banjo Patterson’s Waltzing Matilda to promote their product. He bought a bundle of lyrics from Angus & Robertson and chose ‘Waltzing Matilda’ to wrap round ‘Billy Tea’ as a free gift.