‘wood-and-water joey’: meaning and origin



The Australian-English noun wood-and-water joey designates an odd-job man.

The following definition is from A Dictionary of Australian Colloquialisms (Sydney University Press in association with Oxford University Press Australia, 1990), by Gerald Alfred Wilkes (1927-2020):

wood-and-water joey Someone given the menial tasks on a station, etc., having no special skills of his own.




In wood-and-water joey, the wood-and-water element alludes to the phrase hewer of wood and drawer of water, designating a labourer of the lowest kind, which in turn alludes to the Book of Joshua, 9:21-27, as occurring in the King James Bible (1611).

There are two different explanations for the joey element in wood-and-water joey:

First explanation: According to John Ayto in The Oxford Dictionary of Slang (Oxford University Press, 1998), in wood-and-water joey, joey is an obsolete noun designating a recent arrival on a goldfield, an inexperienced miner.

This meaning of joey was in turn derived from Joe, also Joey, which, on the Victorian goldfields, designated a trooper enforcing the regulations of Charles Joseph La Trobe (1801-1875), Superintendent of the Port Phillip District of New South Wales from February 1839 to July 1851, then Lieutenant-Governor of Victoria from July 1851 to May 1854 1. The Australian lexicographer Susan Butler (born 1948), editor and publisher of the Macquarie Dictionary from 1981 to 2018, wrote the following in The Age (Melbourne, Victoria) of Saturday 6th February 1999:

[In “wood-and-water Joey”], the “Joey” element goes back to goldmining days when the goldfields population was roughly divided into miners, police and hangers-on. The Governor of Victoria was Charles Joseph La Trobe who made himself fairly unpopular with the miners and, so, the troopers, being the Governor’s representatives, were referred to as “Joes”, as in: “The well-known cry of ‘Joe! Joe!’—a cry which means one of the myrmidons of Charley Joe, as they familiarly style Mr La Trobe.” (W. Howitt, 1855) 2
It is easy to understand how offensive it must have been to be referred to as “Joe” by way of general abuse. However, as the heat passed out of that particular situation, “Joe” lost its force, remaining only as the marker of derision in the term “wood-and-water Joey”.

1 The Port Phillip District of New South Wales became the Colony of Victoria in July 1851, when it was separated from New South Wales.
2 This is a quotation from Land, Labour, and Gold; Or, Two Years in Victoria: With Visits to Sydney and Van Diemen’s Land (London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1855), by the British author William Howitt (1792-1879).

However, the earliest occurrence of the noun wood-and-water joey that I have found is from a text published in June 1847 [cf., below, quotation 1], i.e., four years before the appointment of Charles Joseph La Trobe as Lieutenant-Governor of Victoria. It would therefore be necessary to show that Joe, or Joey, became a term of abuse when Charles Joseph La Trobe was the Superintendent of Port Phillip from 1839 to 1851.

Second explanation: In The Australian Language (Sydney and London: Angus and Robertson Ltd., 1945), Sidney John Baker (1912-1976) associated joey in wood-and-water joey with the Australian-English noun joey, denoting a young kangaroo, and by extension a young animal or child; commenting on the fact that Australian “flora and fauna have been put to use […] in an effective but economically descriptive fashion, by applying certain words to human beings”, Sidney John Baker wrote the following:

Blue tongue (from the lizard of that name) and crocodile are both used outback for rouseabouts; and joey (the young of a kangaroo) also denotes a handyman, although the more customary expression is wood-and-water joey.

Likewise, the following is from Australian Colloquialisms, published in All the Year Round. A Weekly Journal. Conducted by Charles Dickens (London, England) of Saturday 30th July 1887:

It may be noted by the way that “inns” do not exist in Australia, every house of refreshment is a “hotel.” It may be only a wooden shanty up country; or it may rise to the dignity of a galvanised iron erection in a small township; or finally it may be a palatial building in a capital city; but the name remains the same.
A native of New South Wales is known as a “cornstalk,” because the men generally grow tall and thin. The opposite kind of build, short and thickset, is called “nuggetty.” A “gum-sucker” is a native of Tasmania, and owes his elegant nickname to the abundance of gum-trees in the Tasmanian forests. A native of Queensland is a “banana-lander.” “Joey” is a familiar name for anything young or small, and is applied indifferently to a puppy, or a kitten, or a child, while a “wood-and-water Joey” is a hanger about hotels, and a doer of odd jobs.




The earliest occurrences of the noun wood-and-water joey that I have found are as follows, in chronological order:

1-: From Bell’s Life in Sydney and Sporting Reviewer (Sydney, New South Wales) of Saturday 19th June 1847:

“A Wood and Water Joey.”—Christopher Pemmington, a hired servant to the man “wot drives the age,” was charged by his master, Mr. Alexander, with wilful neglect of duty, and using ungentlemanly language when remonstrated with. Mrs. Flora Alexander, wife of the complainant, when sworn stated, that Pemmington had neglected notwithstanding strict orders given to him to bring in a load of wood on Saturday last, greatly to the inconvenience of the wood merchant’s customers, and consequently to his [illegible word]. The good lady, who rather bothered us to keep pace with the volubility of her tongue, was interrupted some score of times by the defendant with contradictions of her statements, and numerous inquiries quite irrelevant to the case. He was repeatedly warned by the bench, but to no purpose. This Wood and Water Joey once started [?] must, and did keep up the chirrupping [sic]. […] The Bench taking all these grave charges, and the time the garrulous recital of them occupied, ordered that Joey be mulct in the balance due to him for wages (18s.), and his agreement cancelled. On this Mr. Alexander most modestly asked for costs, which, of course, he was told to deduct from the 18s. he had in hand.

2-: From the following letter, published in The Argus (Melbourne, Victoria) of Tuesday 3rd June 1856:


To the Editor of the Argus.
Sir,—Previous to my leaving Melbourne you wrote strongly against any emigration from Port Phillip to this country, and the sequel proves how justly too. I am one of the unfortunates beguiled away by the flaming reports of good wages, plenty of work, and cheap provisions. Now, Sir, for the benefit of those who may think of coming here, I will give you a plain statement of facts. When immigrants arrive here they are found a shelter, it is true, and three days’ provisions (at least we had that after a vast deal of trouble), and that any man could easily consume in one. Then, Sir, in regard to work, there is a very great scarcity, and moreover, all the settlers, and those are but few, look upon a stranger (at least one from Victoria) very much in the light of an imported snake, and are very unwilling to engage him even should they need his services. The average run of wages is from £45 to £50 per year; and for that sum a man is supposed to milk, shepherd, fence, cut wood, and, in fact, be “wood and water Joey.” Even the settlers themselves say (and I have spoken to many on the subject) that if one hundred laboring men were to land at once in Wellington it would fairly inundate the stations with laborers, and therefore it is that they are so energetic in their endeavors to bring men out here, knowing that they must take to road-making or starve, and in fact, Mr. Editor, it is for that express purpose they are wanted. Now on the roads Government finds no lodging, but will allow you one day to build a hut. Generous treatment, of a surety! and then give you 6s. a day for eight hours—all the hours they will allow you to work. The road runs over ranges, and it generally rains half the time, so that you are constantly in debt for stores, and there you are fixed. Many of the poor girls who were brought out and expected to be engaged at once at good wages, have been driven on the streets, and I feel convinced in my own mind, from want.
Surely, Mr. Editor, the reports that are abroad in Port Phillip concerning the flourishing state of this country should be contradicted, and a stop put to this rascally system.
I am, Sir, truly yours,
W. W. S.
New Zealand, April 18th, 1856.

3-: From The North Australian, Ipswich, and General Advertiser (Ipswich, Queensland) of Tuesday 14th July 1857:


Our wood and water Joeys ape high—very high gentry indeed!—high in price, pompous in speech, arbitrary in conduct. At a word, a load of wood (and a small one too) is raised from five to seven shillings; pay, or be without fire, is their rule; nay, one of them, has made an overbearing charge of, after the rate of, 40s. per day, for himself and two-horse dray, in which he carried scarcely a one-horse load. Water per butt is to be fifteen pence instead of a shilling. Truly, comforts are to be dearly bought, under the rule of these gentry.

4-: From The Moreton Bay Courier. And Northern Districts’ General Advertiser (Brisbane, Queensland) of Saturday 18th July 1857:


7th July, 1857.
Comforts are to be dear bought under the rule of “the wood and water Joeys.” A small load of wood is raised from 5s. to 7s.; and one man has charged after the rate of 40s. a-day for himself and two horse-dray. Water is to be 15d. instead of 1s. per butt.

5-: From a letter to the Editor, by a person signing themself ‘Nimrod’, published in the Gipps Land Guardian (Port Albert, Victoria) of Friday 14th August 1857:

Sir,—Some few days ago, two or three of the leading sporting men of the district were gathered together at one of our houses of public entertainment in Sale, and the question arose “why should we not have a small pack of hounds here.” for the time being every one was delighted with the idea, very liberal offers were immediately made on all sides, indeed, I have it from unquestionable authority, that a round of nobblers 3 was instantly called for, old fogies, that had not been in the pig skin 4 perhaps half a dozen times in their lives, fancied themselves on the outside of a “bit of blood” clearing impossible fences, and anxious enquiries might be heard and long prices offered in the evening for horses that took timber and water well. I thought they meant hunters, but as nothing was seen of the hounds in the morning, I suppose it must have been wood and water joeys they spoke of and so the thing departed this life. I think you will agree with me Mr. Editor, when I say that such unorganised gatherings as the above will never establish a pack of hounds in the district.

3 The phrase a round of nobblers denotes a round of drinks.
4 The noun pigskin denotes a saddle.

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