Old Sydney’s Physician: the Southerly Buster

 

THIS ARTICLE   ORIGINALLY  APPEARED  IN THE SYDNEY MORNING HERALD.

A Southerly Buster Approaches

A Southerly Buster Approaches

In 1910 Henry Lawson wrote the following lines celebrating Sydney’s restorative Southerly Buster;

‘Tis a glorious mission , Old Sydney’s Physician

  Broom, Bucket  and Cloth of the East,

‘Tis a breeze and a sprayer that answers our prayer,

 And it’s free to the greatest and least.

Often down on his luck, Lawson identified with the city’s urban poor; those who benefited most from a cool, southerly change. In the heat of summer the wealthy escaped to the Blue Mountains or sought refuge in the shady grounds of their waterfront properties, while the disadvantaged sweltered in inner-city slums. They  greeted the arrival of a Southerly Buster with relief, and could not have cared less if the storm  scuppered a few  rich men’s  yachts in the harbour.

Lawson’s ‘Sydney Physician’ made house calls in the  tenements of Darlinghurst and  Surry Hills with  a bedside manner every bit as gentle as the West’s  Freemantle Doctor;

Oh softly he plays through the city’s hot ways

  To the beds where they’re calling ‘Come quick!’

He is gentle and mild round the feverish child,

  And he cools the hot brow of the sick.

 

The arrival of a Southerly Buster is notoriously difficult to predict, though meteorologists now have the benefit of satellite imagery and weather-watch radar. At the time of WW1, staff at the Sydney Observatory coped with far less sophisticated equipment. It was the custom to warn residents of an approaching storm by hanging a red light on the GPO  tower, though according to  Henry Lawson the forecasts were not always accurate. His  1914 poem ‘Old Southerly Buster Gets Lost’  was inspired by  the non-arrival of a predicted southerly change.

Oh have you not heard –

And the thing seems absurd,

  Though the citizens knew to their cost –

            As they dragged through the street

            In the sweltering heat –

 That old Southerly Buster was lost!

            Oh! We stared for an hour

            At the Post Office tower,

      Where the red lamp was plainly in view:

      Where it hangs from the rope

Like a signal of hope

When old Southerly Buster is due.

Until WWII, there was another signal that a Buster was on its way.  A flag  was flown at Observatory Hill with the letters JB printed in white on a blue background. The letters indicated that a southerly blow  had reached Jervis Bay.

During the earliest days of the colony Sydney’s summer storms were accompanied by billowing red dust from the settlement’s open brickworks. In 1850, colonial  artist Frederick Garling captured the image of a southerly or  ‘brickfielder’ sweeping across Sydney Harbour. His evocative watercolor depicts small craft  being tossed under  a dusky pink sky. And several years later visiting British journalist Frank Fowler wrote an equally vivid account of   the strong, dust laden wind;

‘A cloud of dust…they call it, in Sydney, a ‘ brickfielder’…thicker than any London fog, heralds its approach, and moves like a compact wall across the country. In a minute the temperature will sink fifty or sixty degrees, and so keenly does the sudden change affect the system, that hot toddy takes the place of the sherry cobbler, and your great-coat is buttoned tightly around you until  a fire can be lighted. ’

 In 1879 George Herbert Gibson, who wrote humorous verse under the pen-name ‘Ironbark’, published a book called Southerly Busters. Its cover of gilt stamped blue cloth shows seven sets of bellows blowing up a gale of laughter. The frontispiece is a cartoon of a Buster wreaking havoc near Hyde Park. Inverted umbrellas  are clutched in the hands of startled ladies, hats bowl down Macquarie Street, and a judge’s wig is in full  flight. Only Queen Victoria’s beloved Prince Albert stands unruffled on his plinth.

The word ‘buster’ was a little too vulgar for the Victorians. In 1894 the Royal Society of New South Wales offered twenty five pounds for the best essay on what was  known in polite company as a ‘Southerly Burster’. The winner, Mr Henry Hunt, had an unfair advantage over the rest of the field as he was Meteorological Assistant at the Sydney Observatory. Henry produced forty pages of detailed information, effectively blowing his competitors out of the water.

During WWI, patriotism and a growing desire for a national identity led to a competition in the Bulletin magazine in which readers composed Australian nursery rhymes. I’m surprised the following did not  replace “Baa Baa Black Sheep’ in our affections;

Muster, muster

All of a cluster,

Bring in the sheep to be shorn.

Bluster, fluster, southerly buster,

Poppity’s  pants are torn.

Patriotism also inspired a Norman Lindsay cartoon which appeared in the Bulletin during World War II. Lindsay’s Southerly blows against a shivering Winston Churchill. It represented the chill wind of Australian public opinion created by Britain’s wartime policy. Following the Fall of Singapore in 1942 Churchill wanted our troops to remain in action overseas, but  it was felt they were needed at home.

 

Southerly Buster - the Sydney Physician

Southerly Buster – the Sydney Physician

There is a raffish irreverence  about Southerly Busters that appeals to Australians of all ages. Ruth Park captures this feeling perfectly in her novel Poor Man’s Orange (1949); ‘After an  unbearably hot day, the old men on the balconies were sniffing the air and saying, ‘Here she comes!’ The Southerly Buster, the genie of Sydney, flapped its coarse wing over the city…..  ‘The women undid the fronts of their frocks, and the little children lifted up their shirts and let it blow on their sweaty bottoms.’   .

 

So deeply embedded in the city’s  psyche is the Buster that in her poem In Andrea’s Garden, contemporary poet Susan Hampton (b.1949)  calls it, ‘familiar as a national event’.  And the idyllic scene John Tranter paints in the concluding lines of  his poem Backyard surely resonates with all Sydneysiders;

some cold beer, a few old friends in the afternoon,

a Southerly Buster at dusk.

One can imagine Tranter and his friends happily raising their glasses and joining in  a  toast to the Southerly  proposed by  Henry Lawson;

Our own wind and only, from seas wild and lonely-

Old Southerly Buster! – To you!

 

In view of the growing threat of global warming, perhaps  we should all stand and  salute ‘Old Sydney’s Physician’.

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12 Comments
  1. I am living in London now but grew up in Leeton N.S.W. Australia.
    This wonderful article reminded me of many continuous hot summer days.Just when everyone in town thought they could not take any more heat up she came, The Southerly. Everyone shouted here she comes hooray!It was faster and better than any air conditioner.

  2. Pauline

    Thanks for your comment Vonnie. Had never actually associated Southerly Busters with inland towns but guess they would be even more appreciated there! I undertand that Henry Lawson has a link with Leeton as well.

  3. How interesting, and I can see that it’s awfully relevant to you at the moment!

    Funnily enough, I live in the path of something strangely described as ‘Britain’s Only Named Wind’ (! someone checked?): the Helm Wind. It creates a cloud formation (the helm(et)) which sits on the top of the North Pennines, and drives gusty winds varying from 50mph to well over 100mph. This area hold England’s windspeed record (128mph, I think) as a result. Around here they say it’s ‘strong enough to blow the beaks off geese’.

    I haven’t seen that, but I have seen it blow half my roof off. Twice.

    • Oh dear Diane, the Helm Wind sounds a corker! What sort of roof have you got?

      I grew up on a very windy hill in Tasmania. My father’s farm diaries are sprinkled with ‘Rough day’ meaning it was blowing a bloomin’ gale!

  4. Dearest Pauline, I loved the Southerly Buster. I’ve never been to Sydney, but growing up in the hot dry summers of Texas, this poetic and historical treat was a memory jogging escape. Thank you!

    • Pauline

      So pleased you enjoyed the piece Dawn. It’s one of my own favourites. I love the work of Henry Lawson. He really captured the spirit of Australia, both in the city and the outback.

  5. Always a bit tense as I have to work out the sum (!) before the submit.
    As a Sydney child the arrival of the Buster was always marked by copious banging of doors. I love all winds which have names, it makes them somehow human, and not the angry making annoyances they are.

    • Pauline

      I think the best name for a wind is the Freemantle Doctor, which of course has the same effect as the Buster. In most circumstances I hate wind…I used to dream of living on a Scottish croft until Rob reminded me of this!

  6. Fascinating post – I had no idea about this phenomenon. Loved the verses, by the way!

  7. I have been to Sydney on a few occasions and on my most recent trip, during 2005, I was there to watch Australia qualify for the World cup 😀 ), but while on my holiday I went to the Zoo for some sightseeing and they predicted the southerly would show up mid afternoon. It did show up then and the change shocked me since it was quite warm early on and then it was very windy and cold. I’m not sure if i was fully prepared for it, but it was quite fascinating from this westerner. Our cool breeze here is called the “Fremantle Doctor”, because it is a South-Westerly and that is the direction the breeze comes from when it hits the city centre, but for us it is only a cool breeze and normally doesn’t bring wet weather with it.

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