A billycan, more commonly known simply as a billy or occasionally as a billy can, is the traditional Australian utensil for boiling water, making tea and cooking anything liquid on a campfire.
What is a 'billy'?
A billy is cylindrical, with its height about one and a half to two times its diameter. It comes with a wire handle, to allow any handy stick to be used to move the hot billy off the fire or to its edge to keep it hot, and normally a close-fitting lid with its own wire handle is also provided. Traditionally there is no spout or pouring lip of any kind. Originally made of thin tin-plated steel, billies are now more commonly made of aluminium, and stainless steel billies are also available. Billies come in many sizes, from about two cups capacity to a gallon or more. Modern Australians often boil a billy on a portable stove rather than on a campfire.
A quite adequate billy, but without a lid, can be made from one of the larger sizes of tin can (so long as the lining is metal and not plastic!) and a piece of fencing-wire for the handle, and this was possibly how the first billies were made. A number 10 can makes a medium large billy, and has just the right proportions.
Using a billy
Billy tea is made by boiling the water in a billy, adding the tea immediately after removing the billy from the fire, and allowing the tea to draw for a time. Then often one of several methods is employed to make the tea-leaves settle to the bottom of the billy before pouring, preferably into mugs known as pannikins.
"Billy Tea" is also the registered brand name of a popular brand of tea long sold in Australian grocers and supermarkets, but this Billy Tea makes equally good tea in a teapot, and conversely any good black tea will make well in a billy.
To boil the billy most often means to make tea, but coffee is also made occasionally, either instead of or as well as.
There are many theories on the origin of 'billy':
- It was derived from the local indigenous language billa, meaning creek.
- It was derived from North of England slang 'billy', meaning mate.
- A corruption of 'bally': Scots language meaning milk-pail.
- Large 'bully beef' cans may have been cleaned out to become the first billys. This became 'bullycans' then 'billycans'.
Methods of settling the leaves
There are two common methods for settling the leaves; one more spectacular than the other.
The first method is simply to tap the side of the billy with a stick until the leaves settle.
The second, more dramatic method, is to stand away from any overhead obstructions and swing the billy in a vertical circle.
The billy in Australian literature
A billy features in many of Henry Lawson's stories and poems. Some examples:
The swagman tramping ’cross the plain; Good Lord, there’s nothing sadder, Except the dog that slopes behind His master like a shadder; The turkey-tail to scare the flies, The water-bag and billy; The nose-bag getting cruel light, The traveller getting silly.
"'I’m going to knock off work and try to make some money,' said Mitchell, as he jerked the tea-leaves out of his pannikin and reached for the billy." - Mitchell’s Jobs.
"The hatter warmed up the tea-billy again, got out some currant buns, which he had baked himself in the camp-oven,..." - The House that was Never Built
"Then he made a fire in the kitchen, and hung the kettle and a big billy of water over it." - A Child in the Dark, and a Foreign Father
"I started early, and Mary caught up to me at Ryan’s Crossing on Sandy Creek, where we boiled the billy and had some dinner." - ‘Water Them Geraniums’.I. A Lonely Track.
"Mitchell and I turned off the track at the rabbit-proof fence and made for the tank in the mulga. We boiled the billy and had some salt mutton and damper." - The Lost Souls’ Hotel
"Brewing his tea in a billy-can under the bough of a shady tree." - The Swagman by Elaine Bannister.
"Then he went to the camp-fire to try some potatoes which were boiling in their jackets in a billy, and to see about frying some chops for dinner." - The Loaded Dog.
I mind the days we played at camp With billy-can and swag,...
"Then he lifted his swag quietly from the end of the floor, shouldered it, took up his water-bag and billy, and sneaked over the road, away from the place, like a thief." - An Incident at Stiffner’s
"And he sang as he watched and waited 'til his billy boiled..."