1825 Australian ‘damper’ first mentioned

“Tea and Damper” by A . M. Ebsworth. From Digital Collection of the State Library of Victoria.

Damper, the traditional bushman’s bread originally made from flour, water and salt and cooked in the campfire, was first mentioned in Memoirs edited by Barron Field, judge of the Supreme Court of New South Wales from 1817 to 1824. According to the Australian Dictionary Centre the name is derived from a Lancashire expression meaning “something that damps the appetite”. Modern recipes often include baking soda or self-raising flour, beer, butter or powdered milk.

It may well be, however, that the damper was actually invented in Sydney. Historian James Bonwick ( 1817 – 1906) refers to a First Fleeter by the name of William Bond, who had a bakery in Pitt Street, and claims the first bread he made was damper. According to Bonwick, the name was derived from Bond’s way of “damping” the fire, covering it with ashes. This preserved the red coals, ready to rekindle the fire the following morning. The damper was buried in the ashes to bake.

In the bush, it was cooked in the same way. It became a staple for swagmen, drovers, stockmen and other travellers, as flour and salt could easily be carried and all that was required was to add water. As the sugar industry developed, damper was often eaten with “cocky’s joy” – golden syrup – which was easily transportable and cheaper than jam. 

In 1946 in the Sydney Morning Herald, Bill Beatty gave the following recipe:

Take 1 lb of flour, water and a pinch of salt. Mix it into a stiff dough and knead for at least one hour, not continuously, but the longer it is kneaded the better the damper. Press with the hands into a flat cake and cook it in at least a foot of hot ashes.

There are other methods of cooking.  The dough can be wrapped around a stick, which is suspended over the fire. A neater method, and one that’s commonly used today, is to cook the damper in an iron camp oven, avoiding the need to brush off the ashes before eating.

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