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A billycan is a lightweight cooking pot in the form of a metal bucket[1][2][3] commonly used for boiling water, making tea/coffee or cooking over a campfire[4] or to carry water.[3] These utensils are more commonly known simply as a billy or occasionally as a billy can (billy tin or billy pot in Canada).

Usage and etymology of the term[edit]

A traditional billycan on a campfire

The term billy or billycan is particularly associated with Australian usage, but is also used in New Zealand, Britain and Ireland.[5]

It is widely accepted that the term "billycan" is derived from the large cans used for transporting bouilli or bully beef on Australia-bound ships or during exploration of the outback, which after use were modified for boiling water over a fire;[6][7] however there is a suggestion that the word may be associated with the Aboriginal billa (meaning water; cf. Billabong).[8]

In Australia, the billy has come to symbolise the spirit of exploration of the outback and is a widespread symbol of bush life, although now regarded mostly as a symbol of an age that has long passed.[4]

To boil the billy most often means to make tea. "Billy Tea" was the name of a popular brand of tea long sold in Australian grocers and supermarkets.[9] Billies feature in many of Henry Lawson's stories and poems. Banjo Paterson's most famous of many references to the billy is surely in the first verse and chorus of Waltzing Matilda: "And he sang as he looked at the old billy boiling", which was later changed by the Billy Tea Company to "And he sang as he watched and waited 'til his billy boiled ...".[9]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Black, S. J. S. 2010 “'Tried and Tested’: community cookbooks in Australia, 1890-1980” Thesis (Ph.D.) -- University of Adelaide, School of History and Politics
  2. ^ Dalzell, Tom; Victor, Terry (27 November 2014). "The Concise New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English". Routledge – via Google Books.
  3. ^ a b Farrell, Michael. "Death Watch: Reading the Common Object of the Billycan in ‘Waltzing Matilda’." Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature 10 (2010)
  4. ^ a b "National Museum of Australia - Billy". National Museum of Australia.
  5. ^ Sceilig: Information Pack for Troops Archived July 21, 2011, at the Wayback Machine (p. 4) and The Patrol goes to Camp (pp. 9, 11)
  6. ^ "'Swinging the Billycan' - Making Tea in the Australian Bush". BBC. 2003-01-22. Retrieved 2007-02-16.
  7. ^ "The Manning Index of South Australian History". State Library of South Australia. Retrieved 2009-07-11.
  8. ^ Oxford English Dictionary
  9. ^ a b John Safran (2002-12-10). "Waltzing Matilda, courtesy of a tea-leaf near you". Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 2013-09-29.