‘Barney’s bull’: meanings and early occurrences

The noun Barney’s bull is used in various expressions and similes, in particular as a type of someone or something in a very bad state or condition.

This noun also occurs in the phrase all behind like Barney’s bull. and variants, meaning very delayed or backward.—Synonym: all behind like a cow’s tail.

Apparently composed of the genitive of the forename Barney and of the noun bull, denoting the male of a bovine animal, the noun Barney’s bull is of unknown origin: what this noun originally alluded to is now forgotten. The following explanations are from the Oxford English Dictionary (online edition, December 2021):

Barney’s Bull [is] the name of the eponymous bull in a popular 19th-century pantomime for shadow puppets […], in which the escaped animal marauds through the countryside pursued farcically by various comic characters before being led away exhausted by a farmhand […]. The character and the phrase both appear to reflect an earlier story, event, or song, which has yet to be identified; perhaps compare earlier Barney’s brig, used in various similes in maritime slang to denote a state of utter confusion or destitution […], although the identity of the individual referred to in this expression is also uncertain.

The earliest occurrences of the noun Barney’s bull that I have found are as follows, in chronological order:

1-: From Hobart Town Police Report, published in The Morning Star, and Commercial Advertiser (Hobart Town, Tasmania, Australia) of Tuesday 23rd December 1834:

John Bowlell, was charged with assaulting Ann, the wife of Bernard Hill. John, it appeared, got foul of “Barney’s Bull,” and was about taking it to the pound, when Ann showed fight, and in the scramble fell down from John’s evident push in defence of himself. Two witnesses were called pro and con, but the “Bull” to Ann’s surprise, turned out a “bore,” for the case was dismissed.

2-: From the Northern Times & Newcastle Telegraph (Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia) of Saturday 12th June 1858:

Police Court.—On Thursday the Magistrates present were the Police Magistrate, J. Hannell, and C. Bolton, Esq.’s. John Dalton, lighterman, appeared on summons to answer the complaint of Captain Henderson, of the schooner Hargraves, for having, on the 6th May last, cut the warp of that vessel. It appeared defendant was warping down his lighter with a strong ebb tide when he came across the hawse of the Hargreaves [sic], which was made fast to a buoy in the stream, he called to the mate to slack it, but he not having sufficient to do so—or not doing it very promptly, defendant had cut it. Some playful allusions had also been made at the time by the mate, as to being “jammed like Barney’s bull,” &c., which had no doubt “ris [sic] the dander” of defendant a trifle. The case was dismissed.

3-: From Leaves from the diary of a celebrated burglar and pickpocket. Being a compilation of the events and occurrences of the most exciting, interesting and extraordinary character in the life of a thief. Written by himself. Detailing incidents, hairbreath escapes, and remarkable adventures (New York: George W. Matsell & Co., 1865)—the story is set in Britain:

All simultaneously (with the exception of Fobbs) gave vent to a loud and continued roar of laughter, in which Tommy indulged more than either of us. We had separated during the turn of laughing, and by so doing, Fobbs discovered Tommy, sitting almost convulsed with laughter; and moving up to him, with wonderment strongly pictured in his ‘mug,’ he eagerly asked:
“Why, what the * * * is the meaning of all this? Why ain’t you at the ‘gaff?’—where is the ‘sheeney moll?’—where did you leave her?” etc.
As soon a Tommy could collect himself he answered:
“Don’t you see through it, you b——y ‘mug?’—why, we’re both sold!” and another laugh followed. “Sold—as dead as Barney’s bulls—the little curse has ‘namased’ after ‘kidding’ me out of my ‘super,’ and has left only this card behind.”

4-: From an account of the Marine Exhibition, held in Le Havre, France, published in the Weekly Journal of Commerce (New York City, New York, USA) of Thursday 2nd July 1868:

As for new propulsors, there is not one exhibited that has any merit. One craft, with an endless screw, bearing the name of “Swomboullifirie,” is a cross between the ark and Barney’s bull, and another model, named the “Amphitrite,” is said to go as well upon land as water. I concur in the statement; but she wont [sic] go at all on land.

5-: From an account of a meeting of the Citizens’ Reform Association, held in Brooklyn, published in The New York Herald (New York City, New York, USA) of Saturday 16th October 1869:

Captain Baxter spoke in favor of “doing something” and not being like “Barney’s bull’s tail,” which was always behind time, or the politicians would be ahead of them.

6-: From Mining Items, published in The Evening News (Sydney, New South Wales, Australia) of Thursday 5th January 1871:

In the Hit or Miss, they are completely flooded out, and all operations for the present are suspended. In the Red White and Blue, the sawn timber for the framework of their machinery is on the ground. They have also a large quantity of slabs ready for the shaft, so that when the engine and pump arrives, there will be no delay. At the Great Britain, everything is being fixed in readiness for their engine, which has not yet arrived, and like the tail of Barney’s bull, is a long way behind.

7-: From The Oamaru Mail (Oamaru, New Zealand) of Monday 8th December 1879:


December 6.
Some little amusement was occasioned here this week by a gentleman with the high-sounding name of Professor Winter, exhibiting what he termed “Barney’s bull,” which was no less than one of the old-fashioned galanty shows at which we were wont to amuse ourselves in days gone by. Previous to commencing his performance he must have paid sundry visits to “ye hostelrie,” for he did make a “bull” of it properly. Unfortunately for the Professor, the audience were not content with this, and seeing no other way of getting value for their money, they determined to seize upon his performing pieces of cardboard, which they accordingly did, and next morning they were to be seen displayed upon every post in the township. As for the Professor himself, he was seen the next day wandering about with a pack on his back and his tongue hanging out, praying for some kind Christian to “lend me a sixpence. It’s right.” But now I am glad to say he has disappeared as mysteriously as he came.

8-: From The Northern Star, and Richmond and Tweed Rivers Advocate (Lismore, New South Wales, Australia) of Wednesday 22nd August 1883:

German Creek
(From a Correspondent).

August 13th.
[…] German Creek is destined to become one of the leading parts of the river for sugar growing. For the size of the creek, there is more good land on it, than any other part of the river for the same extint [sic] of country, and the main thing frosts take no effect on the cane; but here we are like Barney’s bull, stuck in a creek and no way to get out. We did expect when the present Government went into office, they would attend to some of our wants; they sounded their trumpets loud enough to try and make us believe they where [sic] all work and no play, my opinion their [sic] all pay and no work.

9-: From The Lynn Advertiser (King’s Lynn, Norfolk, England) of Saturday 2nd February 1884:

To the Editor.

Sir.—These words are perhaps startling, but such is the case with most of us. Our English farmers are sinking from continual bad seasons and one-sided free trade and daily-increasing foreign competition. John Bull is getting like Barney’s bull.—and most of us know what that means: and when he is ruined what will become of England? She will become like a howling wilderness, with her broad acres uncultivated. Sad and gloomy are the prospects before us, and unless a change soon comes we must all likewise perish. Yours truly. W.

10-: From the interview of one George Wilson, who had just been released from Chelmsford Prison, published in The Essex County Chronicle (Chelmsford, Essex, England) of Friday 17th May 1889:

“Tell me something about the waste of labour that you have mentioned, Mr. Wilson?”
“[…] It is owing to the incapacity of the Chief Warder for his duties as far as the labour question is concerned. He knows as much about labour as ‘Barney’s bull knows about plaiting’—which is a prison phrase. There is no management. Everything is helter-skelter.”

11-: From The West Australian (Perth, Western Australia, Australia) of Monday 1st May 1893:

To the Editor.

Sir,—Under the above heading I notice in the evening paper of yesterday, a letter from Mr. W. E. Wray commending on the “astounding” statement, which Captain Pitts made to your representative. Either Mr. Wray’s syntactical education has been sadly neglected, or his stretch of imagination rivals that of Jules Verne, for under no other circumstances would anyone put such a construction on this statement. In the first place the ship had left Broome three days when the passenger first showed symptoms of small-pox, thus giving him ample time to have contracted the infection aboard the ship. Therefore Mr. Wray’s theory shares the same fate as Barney’s Bull.

12-: From The Bradford Daily Telegraph (Bradford, Yorkshire, England) of Thursday 13th August 1896:

A Bradfordian at Buluwayo writing on June 29th gives a stirring picture of what was then the siege of the capital of Rhodesia. The settlers were then anxiously awaiting the assistance of the redcoats to avenge the massacres. The country, he adds, will be Barney’s bull for at least 18 months until the line is opened, and then there will be a boom. “I hope some Bradfordians will take advantage of it, especially in the contracting way.”

13-: From the account of a football match, by ‘North Ender’, published in the Preston Herald (Preston, Lancashire, England) of Wednesday 14th October 1896:

The referee seemed to enjoy himself immensely, and was evidently glad he’d left his collar at home, for he was sweating like Barney’s bull, a classical allusion which I am sure will be greatly appreciated.

14-: From The Goldfields Morning Chronicle (Coolgardie, Western Australia, Australia) of Wednesday 16th February 1898:


It may be that the continued croaking of the Sylvester-street bird of evil omen, the Coolgardie Miner, in its protest that the place is done, that there is neither gold in the mountain nor silver in the mine, that the blacks will shortly have the town, and the kangaroo and emu will again browse on the succulent salt bush, in Bayley-street, has operated to take the heart out of the prospectors and justify them in sitting outside the doors, and in the shade offered by the verandahs of the pubs and echoing the wail of the Miner that all is barren, and the town is in a position similar to that occupied by Barney’s bull shortly prior to his decease.

15-: From The Northern Miner (Charters Towers, Queensland, Australia) of Monday 10th July 1899:

A correspondent, “8 x 10,” writes from Cambridge Downs on July 1, as follows:—Those who got up the concert at Cambridge Downs woolshed in aid of the erection of a Hospital building at Richmond, deserve all praise for their trouble. The troupe consisted of eleven men, including our well known cook Clendenning [?], and every man-jack of them tried his best to make the entertainment amusing, the evening being spent most pleasantly. The programme opened with an item by a minstrel troupe, Mr T. Clough being the interlocutor, which position suited him admirably. A number of songs and dances followed, the whole winding up with the laughable farce “Barney’s Bull.”

16-: From a letter that a British soldier wrote from South Africa to his mother, published in the Croydon Times (London, England) of Saturday 5th May 1900—they and their refer to the enemy:

Well, mother, I think the war is nearly finished now, as they are like Barney’s Bull, and we have all their best positions.

17-: From Dipso-Dodgers, published in Truth (Sydney, New South Wales, Australia) of Sunday 24th June 1900:

The drugs utilised by the “doctor” are purchased in large quantities from the wholesale houses, and are such as would never be prescribed by a qualified medico, the average quack having no more idea of physic and its administration than Barney’s bull.

18-: From a letter that a section wrote from Vaal River, Transvaal, to Captain H. Peers Lyle, published in The Bath Chronicle (Bath, Somerset, England) of Thursday 26th July 1900:

Dear Sir,—We have no apology to offer for not writing you before, as, like Barney’s bull, we have been fairly in it.

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