Inside the Collection


Photograph Home made billy cart
Home made billycart. Powerhouse Museum collection, Gift of the National Trust of Australia, NSW, 1999, 99/4/83


Did you see that amazingly candid and moving interview with Clive James the other week? He spoke with great affection about his “Unreliable Memoirs” growing up in Sydney’s Kogarah. Funniest of all was his account of his billycart “super-train” taking out Mrs Branthwait’s prize poppy garden in Irene Street.

Do people still make billycarts? My father made us one from a fruit box and old doll’s pram wheels. It was fast with the solid rubber tyres. But my little sister used it for carrying things, not riding in. We lived a short walk from an old abandoned cemetery in the country and one day my sister used the billycart to haul home a load of marble headstone pieces. You can imagine my mother’s horror when she found my sister had contributed to our garden landscaping with a row of neatly placed epitaphs ‘in loving memory’ and ‘dearly loved’. Needless to say, Mum made her return the stones immediately.

‘Billycart’ is an Australian word which literally means a male goat and a cart, and originally referred to a small two-wheeled handcart or mail cart drawn by a goat. Later, it came to mean a home-made cart on four wheels.

In his 1952 memoir “Old Books, Old Friends, Old Sydney” bookseller James Tyrrell remembered as a boy using a billycart or what was probably a form of mail cart or cart with a goat, to deliver books not headstones for Angus and Robertson. Anthony Hordern and Sons Ltd the large Sydney department store was advertising billycarts in the 1920s. It was around this time or a little later that the modern billycart developed as a fruit box with wheels or the more sophisticated H-shaped frame with rope controlled steering.

Billycarting represented in Bunnykins figurines
Billycarting has even been represented in Bunnykins figurines. This one was made in 2010. Powerhouse Museum collection, Gift of Waterford Wedgwood Royal Doulton Australia, 2012. 2013/15/2.

According to the fabulously titled “Stunned Mullets and Two-pot Screamers: A Dictionary of Australian Colloquialisms” (G.A. Wilkes, 2008) there were two types of billycarts. One was a load carrying type comprising a platform on wheels with a box like structure at the back. It was homemade, used by children to collect bottles and newspapers and was pulled along. The other type was known as a racing billycart for riding on. It was of the same design but with the front axle pivoted for steering by the rider’s feet and a hand rope attached near the front wheels.

Books on how Australian children lived in the past tell hair raising tales of them knocking together their own billycarts, scarring arms and legs, and suffering from splinters in their bottoms from wood palings pinched from someone’s fence. Brakes on billycarts were almost unknown and little care taken when the best “billycarting” hill ended intersecting with a main road. Billycart races were very popular with teams of pushers and riders. It was said to be great fun lining up together and racing down a local hill as if your life depended on it. For the grandparents of today’s children this was pretty much what many of them got up to on a regular basis. With roads full of cars and the fear of injury how many parents allow their children that freedom today?

Post by Margaret Simpson, Curator

2 responses to “Billycarts

  • Commonplace in my part of Everton, Liverpool in the fifties. They were known as steering carts or steeries. Best were made with wheels and axles scrounged from an old pram / pushchair and whatever wood could be acquired. The one illustrated is as “posh” as any I ever made or seen for that matter. The only tools us kids used to have were hammers and occasional screwdrivers and pliers. Most fixings were nails hammered around the axles.
    Great for mad downhill rides and carrying heavy loads like coal when needed and available!

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