If something has ‘Buckley’s’ or ‘Buckley’s chance’, it has almost no chance at all. This Australian colloquialism is usually said to derive from the unlikely survival of William Buckley, a convict who fled a remote penal outpost (near present-day Melbourne) in 1803 to spend 32 years living with Aborigines.

Buckley has his own chapter in my Tour To Hell, as he was a particularly interesting and well-documented example of a ‘Chinese traveller’ – a runaway convict inspired to risk the bush by the curious belief that China was accessible overland from Australia.

In Tour To Hell I also mention my belief that the alternative explanation for the term Buckley’s Chance – a pun on the long-defunct Melbourne department store Buckley & Nunn – does not necessarily exclude William Buckley.

The pun, which says an unlikely outcome has two chances – Buckley’s and none – gains an extra layer of cleverness if the first half nods to Buckley’s semi-miraculous return.

William Buckley (1780-1856), the 'Wild White Man'

Buckley & Nunn opened in 1851, around the same time that Buckley’s ghost-written autobiography (1852) popularised his story in a colony just beginning its gold-rush boom in population and prosperity. Does ‘Buckley’s Chance’ owe its origin to the coincidence of two very different Melbourne Buckleys coming to prominence in the same period?

We need to fast-forward four decades for the first known printed mention of the phrase. The earliest citing in A Dictionary Of Australian Colloquialisms (Sydney University Press, 1985) is Will Ogilvie’s poem Fair Girls And Gray Horses (1898), which has the lines:

But we hadn’t got a racehorse that was worth a dish of feed / So didn’t have a Buckley’s show to take the boasters down

However, here’s a couple of earlier mentions I’ve tracked down, inching back recorded usage a few years.

March 6, 1895: an Adelaide citizen writes to the South Australian Register, pleased that England won the latest cricket test because it showed Australians generally ‘haven’t Buckley’s chance’ against ‘the good old country and its people’. The letter, signed ‘Spade Guinea’, appeared in the paper the next day (7.3.1895). A little harsh there, Spade!

But the oldest mention (so far) is a boat, not a quote. What are the chances of that?

March 19, 1894: The Sydney Morning Herald lists a yacht named Buckley’s Chance (Neutral Bay Yacht Club) coming fourth in a Sydney Harbour race. Now that’s an odd name for a competitor to choose when you think about it…

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