William Buckley was a famous runaway convict in Australia’s colonial days. He fled the first settlement in Victoria in 1803, believing he could walk to China. Given up for dead, he lived with Aborigines for 32 years before re-entering colonial society.
He’s still hiding out in Tour To Hell, my book about convict ‘escape mythology’ (bush Chinas, mystery white societies, etc). In fact I give him a whole chapter to roam unfettered while I discuss his case.
His unlikely survival allegedly gave rise to the famous Australian expression Buckley’s Chance (i.e. next to no chance). But many dispute this, and the saying’s origin remains mysterious. Recently, however, increasing digitisation of historical newspapers on the Trove website reveals earlier and earlier printed mentions.
Last time I checked, about a year ago, the earliest mention was 1892. Now it’s June 21st, 1888, in the Sydney sporting paper The Referee.
It appears as a familiar cliche needing no explanation. Commenting on the first entry on the Victoria Racing Club’s list, ‘Miss Carrie Swain, by the mare Tomboy’, the paper reckoned this wasn’t a real horse, but a sneaky ad for a play called The Tomboy, starring Carrie Swain. The journalist suggested ‘there will be ‘Buckley’s chance’ of the handicapper’s giving the entry the same pride of place’ (i.e first listing).
This demolishes two explanations of ‘Buckley’s chance’ which depend on events later than 1888. One concerns an over-optimistic legal action against the Crown in 1890 by a Mr Buckley over land in Bombala, NSW. The other cites the Melbourne retail magnate Mars Buckley withdrawing 10,000 gold sovereigns from the Bank of Australasia during a financial crisis in 1893, leaving the bank with ‘no chance’ to lose his fortune.
The most popular non-convict theory is that ‘Buckley’s chance’ grew from a pun on the Melbourne department story Buckley & Nunn (i.e. ‘two chances: Buckley’s and none’). But the reverse may be true, as the first known mention of the store pun (Melbourne Argus, 23 November 1901) comes 13 years after ‘Buckley’s chance’ was demonstrably extant – and the writer seems to make the point that ‘Buckley’s chance’ was the original. The subject was the new federal parliament: ‘there is only one chance of getting through the tariff before Christmas, and that is Buckley’s – or, according to the local [Melbourne] adaptation of the phrase, it is Buckley and none’.
Then there’s the pre-WW1 columnist in the Perth Sunday Times, who calls it ‘Bill Buckley’s chance’, a direct link with the Wild White Man. The first instance, on January 31, 1909, ventures that an American swindler, Mr Leach, ‘has Bill Buckley’s chance’ of over-reaching’ when targeting certain victims in Australia.
But another early mention (The Referee, April 29th, 1891) is quite odd and might send us all back to the drawing board. Unless it’s a joke, it opens a whole new can of etymological worms. The lightweight boxer Jim Ryan, says The Referee, ‘had the very reverend Mr Buckley’s chance’ of beating his opponent Harry Mace. Reverend?
Illustration: The First Settlers Discover Buckley (1861) by FW Woodhouse