‘to jump one’s horse over the bar’: meaning and origin

The obsolete Australian-English phrase to jump one’s horse over the bar, and its variants, meant to sell a horse for liquor.

The following definition is from an unpublished manuscript entitled Materials for a dictionary of Australian Slang, collected from 1900 to 1910, by Alfred George Stephens and S. J. O’Brien—as quoted by Gerald Alfred Wilkes (1927-2020) in A Dictionary of Australian Colloquialisms (Sydney University Press in association with Oxford University Press Australia, 1990):

Jumping your horse over the bar to sell his horse or mortgage it to the publican so as to prolong his spree.

These are, in chronological order, the earliest occurrences of the phrase to jump one’s horse over the bar, and variants, that I have found—several texts evoke the fact that publicans used to take advantage of the bushmen who had just received their wages:

1-: From the column On Dit, published in The Manaro Mercury and Cooma and Bombala Advertiser (Cooma, New South Wales) of Wednesday 30th March 1881:

That legal gentlemen use umbrellas for whips, but never jump their horses over the bar.

2-: From “The Horrors” at Wilcannia, published in The Bulletin (Sydney, New South Wales) of Saturday 18th July 1885:

“Jumping the horse over the bar,” as selling it to the publican is colloquially phrased, is done every day. A bushman determined to spree will sell everything. A few days’ drinking drives some men into the “horrors.” They must then be tied down. The verandah of a bush pub is as good a place as any to do it. We helped to tie a man that way once. A pitiful man loosed the straps, and the man in the “horrors” arose and wrenched the pitiful man’s jaw from its fastenings.

3-: From Arcadia in Australia, the eighth chapter of The Land of the Golden Fleece, by the British author and journalist George Augustus Sala (1828-1895)—as published in The Argus (Melbourne, Victoria) of Saturday 22nd August 1885:

The sound of the cantering horse is to a stranger in the land one of the most characteristic of Australian noises. […] If you are trying to sleep in an hotel in a small bush township, […] when the feathered tribe have come to an end of their moaning, and the last house-dog with a troubled conscience has ceased to bark […], there is one more noise which you may with tolerable certainty reckon on hearing before you drop off to sleep. It is the sound of the cantering horse. Some belated squatter, maybe; some convivial but cautious stockrider haply, the whole of whose cheque has not been “lambed down” by an enterprising bush publican, and who has refrained from “jumping his horse over the bar”—that is to say, selling his horse, saddle, bridle, and all to the landlord for more drink.

4-: From Life and Travels in Queensland. Being a paper read before the Nicholson St, Wesleyan Improvement Association, published in The Mercury and Weekly Courier (Fitzroy, Victoria) of Friday 19th November 1886:

One of our fellows who came with us, decided to come down to Victoria when we ceased work. Accordingly, in company of another, who was going to Blackall, he left us one morning in the very best of health and spirits, promising to call on our friends in Victoria. Poor man! little did he think that before going a hundred miles he would be a corpse. Two weeks from the time he left us I received a letter from the man in whose company he was, informing me of his death—he had been waylaid by one of those human vultures in the shape of publicans. Poor fellow! he was only what is called, a moderate drinker, but had he been a total abstainer he might have been alive now. There was an inquest held, and the doctor stated that the man had died through drinking bad grog and eating no food. He had a cheque for £83 in his pocket when he left us—that accounts for him getting the bad drink. It is by no means a new occurrence, for persons with nice little sums of money to be poisoned (I cannot call it anything else) in those places. I know of one place, that used to be kept by two brothers where they had a private cemetery, to bury people who died there. Many were the means employed to trap the unsuspecting traveller. One man, who had been out working for a long time and had about £150, made up his made to go down to Brisbane for a holiday, he would not call in at W——’s as he passed. They found out that he had been out on the back blocks for some time, and concluded that he must have earned a good bit of money. Wishing to save him the trouble of going down to Brisbane to spend his cheque, one of them saddled a horse and went after him on a circuitous road, and then met him. Of course, they struck up a conversation, like persons would, on meeting one another in the bush. After a while the publican pulled out a bottle of brandy, and asked the other if he had any water in the bag, offering him the bottle—he had a drink and soon had another. After a little more conversation, the publican said, Come on back to old W——’s and stop there for the night, I am going to stop there and then you can go on in the morning. The man never suspecting that this was one of the W——’s and his head being a little muddled with the drink he had, he soon consented to go back. They took care to keep him muddled after that, and very soon he was told that he had spent all his money. They always made a point of giving a man a good supply of rations to start him again, which I think was very good policy. This is only one case out of scores. I have heard many men making a boast of how much they knocked down in a week; and upon asking them what they have done with their horses, Oh! jumped them over the bar.

5-: From More Colonial Experience, the eleventh chapter of Benbonuna: A Tale of Thirty Years Ago, by Robert Bruce, published in The Port Augusta Dispatch, Newcastle and Flinders Chronicle (Port Augusta, South Australia) of Tuesday 3rd May 1887:

“Fifty pounds in two weeks! You don’t mean to say that you spend your year’s hard-earned wages in two weeks—and in such a manner! I would not have believed it had you not told me yourself, Mick,” said Frank, regretfully, though he could not help feeling amused at his friend’s notion of not drinking to excess.
“Sorra a lie is in id, sorr; an’ av I had a horse it’s most loikely I’d jump him over the bar afther the cheque. Thim as has a horse mosthly does it,” answered Mick in the most matter of fact way.

6-: From At the Sign of the Jolly Bushman, by ‘L. L.’, published in The Australasian (Melbourne, Victoria) of Saturday 24th February 1894—the following is a dialogue between Daniel, the innkeeper, and one of his guests:

“Look ’ere, boss,” said Jim, the next morning, “my mate’s goin’ as far as Peeko. He wants to see if he can’t get a job. Sez he’s tired o’ loafin’ on me. I’ve promised to go with him for kumpny. Lend us a couple o’ prads—good uns. If I likes my mount, I’ll buy him when we comes back this evenin’.”
“All right,” said Daniel. “I’ll lend you the best I got. Your mate can have the one he jumped over the bar here last shearin’ twelvemonth. He’s in the paddock—fat as butter.”

7-: From The Australasian (Melbourne, Victoria) of Saturday 24th April 1897:

A genial settler […] was obliged to make a long journey to the nearest port, and prepared for the trip by opening one end of his canvas water-bag and sewing in a bottle, so that he could have his whisky and water both fairly cool. On the way he met an old employe, who had just finished the agreeable annual pastime of knocking down his cheque, and then “jumping his horse over the bar.” The tramp was weary and dry, and when his old boss hailed him with, “Hello Clumper, could you do a whisky?” he answered pathetically, “Could a duck swim?”

8-: From A Bushman’s Sweetheart, by ‘Bushwoman’, published in The Australasian (Melbourne, Victoria) of Saturday 9th October 1897:

“Don’t you go and knock down your cheque. There was Mick Brannigan, one of the contractors here, left last Christmas with a hundred and fifty odd pounds. He took the pledge, and went away swearing that the publicans wouldn’t get a copper. He’d been had too often, he said. He only got forty miles along the track, and in ten days the cheque was finished. He’d two good horses. They swore he’d jumped them over the bar, too. He lost his swag, and they would not give him a last nip when the cheque was done. He came back carrying his water-bag, the only thing they had left him.”

9-: From Jack and Me, by ‘Joko’, published in The North Queensland Register (Charters Towers, Queensland) of Wednesday 12th January 1898:

Now and then, we [= Jack and I] would vary the monotony with a bit of a spree in some bush township, not the sort of spree that a man has when he drinks himself into the horrors and jumps his horses over the bar, but a quiet, decent, self-respecting sort of spree, when we used to stroll from one pub to the other and sample the whiskey till we found out which was best, and play billiards, or nap *, or poker, or snooker, with the town chaps or have a turn in “the heading school” of a Sunday morning.

* A shortened form of Napoleon, the noun nap designates a card game in which each player receives five cards and declares the number of tricks he or she expects to win.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.