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Billy Can – The Original Camping Kettle

The camping Billy is part of Australian Folklore and heritage, the term “Billy” is described as: “(noun) A tin used for boiling water over a campfire, usually for a cup of tea. Originally made from an empty jam tin with a loop of wire for a handle and used by swagmen during the depression years. Also called a “billy can”. (from www.aussieslang.com)

billy can Likewise, “Billy tea” is described thus: “(noun) Tea brewed over an open fire in a billy can. Billy Tea usually has a Gum Leaf thrown in for flavour. Gum leaves are rich in Eucalyptus Oil.”

The term Billy Can arguably comes from the ancient root word for “boil” now found in modern French as “boullier” and in Spanish “bullir” and therefore connects historically very clearly to the Billy Can as “Boiling Can”. Wikipedia mentions the “large cans used for transporting “bouilli” beef as a source of the term, which in an interesting roundabout way is the same connection. The beef was specifically boiled and salted beef, packaged in tin and used extensively as army ration and aboard ships due to it’s longevity: and became known as “Bully Beef”. The tins then re-purposed for boiling water became “Billy Cans”, and so almost by chance preserving the connection to the original word, with the end use – i.e. boiling!

More background can be found from “Wikipedia”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Billycan

“A billycan, more commonly known simply as a billy or occasionally as a billy can (billy tin in Canada), is a lightweight cooking pot which is used on a campfire or a camping stove.”

“The term billy or billycan is particularly associated with Australian usage, but is also used in the UK and Ireland [1]. Elsewhere, there is no special term for a pot designed for camping use.

It is commonly 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. [2][3]
In Australia, the billy has come to symbolise the spirit of exploration of the outback. To boil the billy most often means to make tea. “Billy Tea” is the name of a popular brand of tea long sold in Australian grocers and supermarkets[4]. The natural companion to the Swag and part of Australian heritage and bush folklore, 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 watched and waited ’til his billy boiled…”

Description: English: A billycan on a campfire.
Author’s caption: “Some Billy Tea after a hard morning ride”.
Date: 1 May 2006

billy can kettle large

Author: Flickr user “Johan Larsson”

Of course things have changed over time, and although the simple Billy cooking pot remains a valuable camping tool, for the purpose of boiling water specifically, a Kelly Kettle is a much improved piece of gear, providing much faster boiling due to it’s design, providing a useful water carrier when full, and as a closed pot keeps out ash and bugs from your Billy Tea! But in it’s simplicity it stays true to the Billy Can principle and remains evocative of an Australian past and all the legends of the bush.