The Northampton sheep thief, George Bellamy, was the first person to ever return from Australia after escaping from the penal colony in 1788. Despite his claims to have swum back it’s thought that he stowed away on a Dutch East India slave ship from Indonesia to the Cape Province, from where he made his way back to England.
He brought back tales of strange animals such as the kangaroo and the wallaby that jumped around on their back legs. His impressions of these animals caused much mirth and led to many impressions as did his description of the boomerang and the didgeridoo.
On the first anniversary of his return it was decided to hold a contest in his honour. There was the category of best impression of a kangaroo or a wallaby, which was judged by Bellamy himself. This category resulted in a mass brawl when one of the entrants, Elias Wollingford, rather enthusiastically jumped into a cowpat, spraying the other contestants who took objection to his tactics.
In the late 1960s this category was widened due to the popularity of the hit TV show Skippy the Bush Kangaroo. People had to do their best impression of Skippy conveying information to the authorities, which largely comprises people opening and closing their lips in rapid succession while making kissing noises. A storytelling element, called “What’s that Skip?” was also added where the contestant had to come up with the most ridiculous and long-winded sentence that could be conveyed by a kangaroo– a good example would be the winning 1971 entry as follows: “What’s that Skip? the bad guys, one six feet high, the other five foot ten, are heading this way in a blue and white checked pickup truck whose leftside rear tyre is low on pressure and which will run out of gas in 12 miles, if they don’t fill up at the gas station in Woollamaloo before midnight.”
Another element of Australia Day is throwing the boomerang. Originally people just threw any piece of wood into the air, not realizing that the wood has to come back to them. George Robinson was disqualified in 1821 for using his retriever dog to return the wood – this was deemed to be an infringement of the spirit of the contest.
In 1862, Jeffrey Smeruy achieved the first return flight of a boomerang although due to short-sightedness his attempt to catch the returning object left him with a broken nose and concussion. Smeruy’s design was soon copied by everyone else, which lead to the contest of 1863 being fondly remembered as the Headache Year. All the entrants threw their boomerangs at the same time and the first one back won the prize as long as it was caught by the owner. At a signal from the Hurling Judge the 185 entrants threw their Smeruy-designed wooden objects into the air. The boomerang has to be thrown at the correct angle and not with great force otherwise its arc will be too wide. Of the 185 throwers, it’s estimated that 87 had the correct technique and their boomerangs arrived back en masse causing people to run into each other; some people were hit by a boomerang and some caught the wrong one leading to both disqualification for interference and a pummeling from the owner, whose chance for victory had also gone.
The winner was announced as James Sidney although he was unconscious at the time and had his boomerang wedged in his mouth. By sheer luck Sidney had unintentionally intercepted his own boomerang with his teeth – the good news was he won the prize of a year’s supply of chickens, the bad news was he would have to eat soup for the rest of his life – Chicken Soup for the Sole Winner of the contest.
In subsequent years, the boomerangs were thrown individually and the one with the longest flight time won the prize of a soup bowl with matching soup spoon, known as the Sidney Soup Set or SSS for short.
The last element of Australia Day is the didgeridoo contest, which has two separate parts. The first is where entrants have to play either a classical piece of music such as Swan Lake or a medley of pop hits by groups such as The Beatles, Abba, or Elvis Presley. 12 judges then mark their efforts for accuracy and artistic merit. The three highest scorers have to perform the same piece of music in the final and the winner is the person who garners the highest marks from the judges. Josiah Applegate’s rendition of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata in 1956 is still remembered for its lilting qualities and had many people in tears.
The other didgeridoo event is the ‘Make a noise’ competition. Contestants make a didgeridoo out of unlikely components such as flower pots, downpipes, or cardboard boxes and then attempt to play them like a didgeridoo. Nobody can use the same instrument twice in the contest, which makes the feat of Mark Rochester quite remarkable. He won this contest for 23 years in a row from 1959 to 1981 using an amazing variety of designs. Just before the 1982 contest he was taken to hospital with severe concussion after dislodging a slate roof tile from his neighbour’s house after trying to steal his downspout for use in the contest. The suspicions of the police were aroused and they found an Aladdin’s Cave of stolen property in Rochester’s garage. Whisky bottles, tubes, drains, pipes, flower pots, gutters, safety cones, chimney pots, and pottery mugs were found in abundance. Now the rules state that everyone entering this contest must produce a receipt detailing the components of their didgeridoo.
This is an extract from the book 40 Humourous British Traditions by Julian Worker