‘Jimmy Woodser’: meaning and origin

The Australian-English phrase Jimmy Woodser, also Jimmy Wood(s), designates:
a person drinking alone at a bar;
a drink taken alone.
—Cf. also the Australian-English phrase to drink with the flies, meaning to drink by oneself in a public house.

In The Australian Language (Sydney and London: Angus and Robertson Ltd., 1945), about the larrikin’s immense “influence on Australian speech as a whole”, Sidney John Baker (1912-1976) explained the cultural significance of the phrases Jimmy Woodser and to drink with the flies:

Several of his [i.e., the larrikin’s] characteristics should be underlined. Primarily there is his toughness, recklessness and brutality. Then there is his instinctive desire to be one of a company. Much of our large drinking vocabulary built round the shout and the companionship it implies, together with the Australian’s contempt for the Jimmy Woodser or the man who drinks with the flies, is closely linked with the larrikin’s masculine idea of mateship.

These are the earliest occurrences of Jimmy Woodser and Jimmy Wood(s) that I have found, in chronological order:

1-: From The Dalby Herald and Western Queensland Advertiser (Dalby, Queensland) of Saturday 22nd January 1876:

St. George.
From our own Correspondent.

January 14th.
Our Christmas carnival has passed away, and the re-action usual after a time of excitement, together with the depressing effects of continued dry weather, has changed the aspect of affairs very much. […] I took an observation at noon yesterday, and the only objects of prominence that appeared were—a skeleton of a horse, hitched to a spring cart, standing in front of one of the stores, half asleep, with his head hanging listlessly, perhaps re-calling memories of better days when he roamed unhobbled through the shady scrubs and green pastures of the bush; a shepherd’s dog lounging in the shade of an ironbark tree, with his tongue out, panting miserably; a fiddler, wrapped in ecstasy by the dulect [misprint for ‘dulcet’] notes of his instrument, was performing in front of a public house without a single soul to participate in his enjoyment, or witness the enthusiastic contortions of his expressive countenance while executing one of his brilliant solos, a d——The owner of the dog was drowning dull care in the flowing bowl; he appeared on the scene and disturbed the harmony of the hour by abusing the performer, showering emphatic epithets rather thickly on him, and winding up with a contemptuous query as to whether he called himself a b——y fiddler, did he? The man of charms to soothe the savage inserted his forefinger and thumb into a vest pocket, drew therefrom a silver sixpence, went to the bar and enjoyed a “Jimmy Woodser,” or solitary nobbler, with much gusto put away his fiddle, sat near one of the verandah posts, with elbows on his knees and chin resting on his hands, in reflective mood, the very picture of disconsolate misery.

2 & 3-: From the Goulburn Evening Penny Post (Goulburn, New South Wales):

– Of Thursday 17th February 1881:

(From our Correspondent.)

“Brien” says times must be getting bad, as he notices a good many doing “Jimmy Woodsers.”

– Of Tuesday 16th May 1882:

(From our Correspondent.)

NOT BAD.—“B.” was doing a “Jimmy Woodser” at the bar of a pub, the other day, when the landlord noticed a fly in the liquor and was going to take the insect out, when “B.” dryly remarked—“Oh, don’t disturb it—there’s not enough liquor in the glass to drown him.”

4-: From The Burra Record (Burra, South Australia) of Friday 28th October 1887:

By Mac.

What rollicking times were those when I first met my friend, Wonomonta Joe. High life was nothing to the life Joe infused into our township when he made periodical visits from the station. The first pub. he called at Joe used to step inside, and, no matter who was there, a free shout was the result. There was no “Jimmy Wood” (Anglice, a man who drinks by himself) about Joe. Everyone was welcome when he was about, and, as he put it, “stood behind the smash again” (Anglice, had the money).

In the following ballad, published in The Bulletin (Sydney, New South Wales) of Saturday 7th May 1892, the Australian poet Barcroft H. Boake (1866-1892) attributed the origin of the phrase to a fictitious Briton named Jimmy Wood(s):

Jimmy Wood.
A Bar-Room Ballad.

There came a lonely Briton to the town,
A solitary Briton with a mission,
He’d vowed a vow to put all “shouting” down,
To relegate it to a low position.

Transcendentally Britannic in his dress,
His manners were polite and slightly formal,
And—this I mention with extreme distress—
His put-away for liquid was abnormal.

He viewed this “shouting” mania with disgust,
As being generosity perverted,
When any of the “boys” went on the bust
He strove his best that they might be converted.

He wouldn’t take a liquor with a man,
Not if he was to be hanged, and drawn, and quartered,
And yet, he drank—construe it as you can—
Unsweetened gin, most moderately watered.

And when the atmosphere was in a whirl,
And language metaphorical ran riot,
He’d calmly tender sixpence to the girl,
And drink his poison—solus—nice and quiet.

Whenever he was asked to breast the bar
He’d answer, with a touch of condescension:
“I much regret to disoblige so far
As to refuse your delicate attention.

“That drink’s a curse that hangeth like a leech—
A sad but most indubitable fact is,
Mankind was made to drink alone, I preach,
And what I preach invariably practise.

“I never pay for others, nor do I
Take drink from them, and never, never would sir—
One man one liquor! though I have to die
A martyr to my faith, that’s Jimmy Wood, sir.

“My friend, ’tis not a bit of use to raise
A hurricane of bluster and of banter,
I preach the humble gospel in the phrase—
Similia similibus curantur;

“Which means: by drinking how and when I like,
And sticking to the one unsweetened sample,
I hope in course of time that it will strike
All men to follow up my good example.”

In course of time it struck all men that Jim
Was fast developing into a soaker—
The breath of palsy on his every limb,
A bleary face touched up with crimson ochre.

Yet firmly stood he by the sinking ship,
Went down at last with all his colours flying;
No hand but his raised tumbler to his lip,
What time J. Woods, the Martyr, lay a-dying.

Misunderstood reformer! gallant heart!
He gave his path to Death—the great collector.
Now . . . in Elysian fields he sits apart
And sips his modest “Tommy Dodd” of nectar.

His signature is on the scroll of fame,
You cannot well forget, though you would, sir,
The man is dead, not so his homely name,
Who drinks alone—drinks toast to Jimmy Wood, sir.*

Barcroft H. Boake.
* A man who drinks by himself is said to take a “Jimmy Woodser.”

Two readers mentioned synonymous phrases in letters published in The Bulletin (Sydney, New South Wales):

– Of Saturday 21st May 1892:

Dear Bulletin,—Your version of the term “Jimmy Woodser” may be correct in some parts of Australia; but in three provinces, at least, a solitary drink is always known as a “Jack Smithers.” However, it does not much matter, for you get there all the same.—D.

– Of Saturday 2nd July 1892:

Dear Bulletin,—A “Jimmy Woodser” may mean a solitary drink (or a solitary drinker) in some places, a “Jack Smithers” in others, but in the Western district of Victoria, if a man takes a drink by himself, he is said to “go Ballarat 1.”—K.

1 Ballarat is a mining and sheep-farming centre in Victoria. It is the site of the discovery in 1851 of the largest gold reserves in Australia.

In The Australian Language (Sydney and London: Angus and Robertson Ltd., 1945), Sidney John Baker (1912-1976) wrote the following about the origin of the phrase:

Jimmy Woodser is an interesting Australianism about which there has been a good deal of guesswork and theory and little conclusive evidence. There was not, for instance, a man named Jimmy Woods who became renowned for his lone drinking habits 2. But there was, according to a record of about 1882 3, an old Sydney expression Johnny Warder used for “an idle drunkard who hangs about pub corners looking for a drink (called after a publican named John Ward who formerly kept a low house in Sydney noted for that species)”.
This may explain why we sometimes have the alternative form, Johnny Woodser.
In the “Bulletin” of 9 August 1902 a staff writer offers the following note to explain the term:
“One yarn is that some Jimmy Woods used to always drink by himself; another that a man wanting to drink by himself asked an imaginary Jimmy Woods to come and drink with him.”
These are more in the nature of stories concocted after the event than genuine explanations.

2 Here, Sidney John Baker refers to the above-quoted ballad Jimmy Wood. A Bar-Room Ballad.
3 Here, Sidney John Baker refers to The Australian Slang Dictionary, published in Sydney, circa 1882, by H. J. Franklin; its compiler is unknown.

Among the “stories concocted after the event” is this one, published in The Bulletin (Sydney, New South Wales) of Tuesday 27th July 1982:

I have read with interest, and some amusement, letters pertaining to the origin of the term “Jimmy Woodser.”
“Jimmy” Wood was the son of James Wood who, in 1716, founded the Gloucester City Old Bank, the most ancient banking house in England with the exception of Messrs Child of Fleet Street. “Jimmy” was a miser who, although generous to the poor—such as a gift of £200,000 to the impoverished of the City of Gloucester—was exceedingly frugal in his own living habits. His always drinking alone, led to the term “Jimmy Woodser” for mean people who adopted the same practice.
I can vouch for the accuracy of the above statements as I am connected with the Wood family.
Heather M. Hassall
Mundubbera Qld

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