Every Australian knows the chorus of Waltzing Matilda but who sang the song first? We know that the Australian classic, based on Banjo Patterson’s poem, was originally recorded with vocals by a John Collinson – but until now nothing more was known about him. His name appears on the 1926 release by Vocalion Records (Broadcast Deluxe Series W573) but it seems to be the only recording the tenor made – so who was he? The song was added to the Sounds of Australia registry in 2008 but all we knew was that the singer had been described as a ‘Queensland tenor’.
The only other hint we had was from the archivist at the Royal College of Music in London who told us that a John Collinson had enrolled there in 1919. The College records contained little biographical information other than that he was listed as a British subject, and the date suggested that he could have been a discharged serviceman, with WWI ending in 1918.
The mystery of John Collinson was put aside until a recent conversation with an NFSA visitor reminded me to pursue the possible military connection. Searching the National Archives’ military records from WW1 quickly turned up three John Collisons, two from Victoria and one from Queensland. The Queensland Collinson enlisted in Brisbane, joining the 25th Battalion in February 1915 aged 22. His birthplace was given as Newcastle-on-Tyne in England, and his occupation as a boilermaker. He served in Gallipoli and the Western Front until wounded in 1917, a gunshot wound breaking both forearms. After medical treatment in England he was discharged, giving his intended place of residence as Wallsend-on-Tyne. Then in 1963, aged 70, John Collinson wrote to Army Records from a PO Box in Broome WA requesting his campaign medals and applying to join the WA branch of the RSL. There is no mention of any musical activity, but it gave us a Queensland enlisted John Collinson who was in the UK after the war finished in 1918.