A follow-up on earlier posts re the Wild White Man William Buckley, a remarkable convict of Australia’s penal colony era who has his own chapter in my Tour To Hell.

The amazing survival of this hardy escapee after three decades in the bush (1803-1835) is thought to have inspired the Australian phrase Buckley’s Chance, meaning a very slim one.

But what is the earliest published evidence of this saying?

As Trove increasingly digitises Australia’s newspapers, earlier mentions keep popping up. Here’s one from an anonymous sporting columnist in the Daily News (Perth), March 21st, 1892.

In his Sporting News From Victoria (dated March 8), one ‘Nunquam Dormio’ [i.e. ‘I Never Sleep’] writes that had a horse named The Duke been fit to compete in a certain race, ‘he might have sneaked ahead so far in the first mile and a half that they wouldn’t have had Buckley’s chance of catching him afterwards’.

As the context strongly suggests the saying is already a well-known cliché, there must be earlier examples as yet unearthed. Thanks to Trove we have more than Buckley’s of finding them!

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…

Another excerpt from doctor/rugby international/author Herbert Moran’s surprisingly Tour-To-Hellish 1940s memoir Beyond The Hill Lies China (see previous post):

Here Moran, in London during the Blitz, tells how he found a metaphor for his life journey in the difficult flight into unknown territory undergone by convict runaways as they struggled towards an imagined freedom.

He is inspired and encouraged by how they staked everything on their belief, which he elevates to a vision of transcendence. Challis, his protagonist, is his barely fictionalised self.

Over to Moran:

‘He had come to identify himself with those convicts who, out of the enclosure of their settlement, had pushed forward, their pockets full of grain. Was he not kindred to them in a felony of the senses? The West Road was the symbol of their travail and their release. Did it not carry still the meager relics of their passing: crumbling stones with an arrow and a number, the dust over all? Yet those convicts had pushed on, exhilarated. They had seen summits and ranges with red dawns spilling over a distant peak. Beyond the Hill and across the Bay they had found a goal. God in His Mercy had given distance to their dream. What did it matter if, on the way, they shed the trivial remnant of their flesh?

Originally a gift in 1946

Challis thought on the years when he had blindly groped his way, years of precarious foothold, when the mountain peak was veiled in mists, when Faith had slumped through nights, when he had known the shame of self-pity and the yielding to it. He had been giddy on sudden heights and vain on little pinnacles. But now he, too, was pushing forward with those old shadows for company.’

Beyond The Hill Lies China (Dymocks, 1945) by Herbert M Moran is a thinly fictionalised memoir of Moran’s life and career as a doctor in Sydney about a century ago. It’s an obscure little gem, an interesting blend of everyday scenes with the odd quasi-mystical musing thrown in.

The title refers to one of the convict myths of place I write about in Tour To Hell, the idea that China (and freedom) could be reached by crossing the unmappped Blue Mountains near Sydney.

Herbert Moran: doctor, writer, poet, rugby international

I’d never heard of Moran, but click goes the computer and I meet the fascinating ‘Paddy’ Moran (1885-1945), a leading early Australian rugby player who captained the first Wallabies tour to England, back in 1908. He served in both world wars, and his interest in cancer treatment research led to him becoming the first doctor in Australia to use radium tube therapy. 

Moran wrote three books, all autobiographical. He was fascinated by Classical Greece and Rome, and alive to the poetic dimensions of the convict myths, divining how they tell one of the first stories of landscape evoked in the imaginations of Australia’s early settlers.

Here’s a quote from page 71 of Moran’s book:

‘But not all the convicts had submitted. He remembered the story of those who, moved by fierce nostalgia, had burst their bounds. Beyond the hill, across the Bay, lay China! Men whispered the news, their hearts excited. China! The freedom and romance of Cathay!

And so, some more daring or more desperate, had saved from their meager ration or pilfered from public stores, and then set out, with high hearts, to walk. Beyond the hill lay China! And on they went, and on, till failure of supplies or a black’s spear halted their dream. Halted their dream? No. They had but passed from physical suffering to transcendental joy. Had they not horizons beyond the fickleness of seasons or the illusion of a dawn? What if the casual drover still finds their pitted bones – resistent vertebrae and ribs that once hooped a great breath? These are but the lesser things of the flesh they shed en route.’

I thought I’d share some extra information I’ve recently chanced upon concerning one of the convict escapes featured in Tour To Hell – an ill-starred quest in 1828 by runaways in northern New South Wales to walk to their imagined Timor.

The most detailed source is an 1828 Sydney Gazette article containing the confession of William Sergison, one of the survivors. A second version emerged several years later when another survivor, John Budge, re-entered the news after he captured a bushranger. The evidence surrounding Budge’s story differs markedly from Sergison’s, claiming the runaways had resorted to cannibalism.

Until now I couldn’t trace the original source for Budge’s evidence, relying instead on a secondhand account in George Boxall’s The Story Of The Australian Bushrangers (1899). But Serendipity has struck and here it is, from the Sydney Herald, October 11th, 1841.

SCONE, OCTOBER 4
The upper gang of bushrangers have again been heard of; a letter received from the Peel yesterday, states they attacked Mr. M’Intyre’s dray (at Weary Creek, outside the boundaries), which they plundered of tea, clothing, &c , and destroyed a great deal; that during the robbery, the bullock driver watched his opportunity, and seized one of them, whom he managed to secure and disarm, but that while he did so the other mounted his horse and fired at the bullock driver, but missed him; that  the men belonging to the dray kept the captured robber and his horse in custody some time; but fearing that he who had escaped would bring others to the rescue of his fellow, thought it best to give up the horse again and let the fellow go, retaining his firearms in case they should be attacked. Be this as it may, they brought arms with them to the Peel, which they declared to have taken from the bushrangers.

A gentleman has this moment arrived who saw the bullock-driver (Budge) shortly after his affray with the bushrangers; he states that Budge was accompanied only by a little boy, that one bushranger stood sentry over him whilst the other ransacked the dray. Budge, watching his opportunity, knocked down the fellow who acted as sentry, and, seizing his pistol, presented it at the fellow in the dray, whom he made come down and stand beside the other; after keeping them thus for some time, without any one arriving to assist him in securing them, he was necessitated to let them go, but retained possession of their arms, consisting of two guns and four pistols, and one saddle, the property of Mr. Jolliffe, which he delivered up to the Commissioner.

It is perhaps worthy of remark that this man, Budge, has before figured as one in an adventure of a very different nature to the foregoing. Some of your readers may recollect some years since a party of men running away from Sedgenhoe, the estate of Potter Macqueen, Esq., with the avowed purpose of searching for Timour – one, it may be recollected, was eaten by his fellows, so reduced were they by want of food ; one was found starved to death; some were never heard of; and this man, Budge, who had left the others and turned back, was found some miles from where they had set out, but unable to move, and all but dead. “

A BRIEF HISTORIOGRAPHY OF CONVICT ESCAPE MYTHOLOGY 

In history’s pages, the efforts that runaway convicts in colonial Australia made to reach mythical bush sanctuaries is a topic almost as obscure as the phantom colonies themselves.   

When I came to write Tour To Hell I soon found that, for well over a century, commentary on the topic had barely gone further than an incredulous escape anecdote or two, along with brief mention of the ignorance and desperation that clearly drove such attempts.  While no-one seems to have attempted the full story, over the years several writers have considered aspects of escape mythology that fall within the orbit of their primary concerns. 

The pattern was set in the 19th century. Ernest Favenc’s History of Australian Exploration From 1788 To 1888 briefly presented the journeys of the earliest myth-inspired escapees – mostly Irish and ‘panting for liberty’ – as a weird prelude to more conventional exploration of Australia. Favenc, who was an explorer himself, was sufficiently fascinated by the idea of mystery outback civilisations to write a Rider Haggard-type novel, The Secret of the Australian Desert (1895).

A decade later, George Boxall (Story Of The Australian Bushrangers) acknowledged escape myths in another context, noting that some of the earliest bushrangers were runaways with ‘incredible’ notions of nearby settlements. He reminded his late-Victorian readers that ‘the majority of the working classes at the beginning of the century could not read and had no knowledge of geography’.  

Fast forward to The Fatal Shore (1988) by Robert Hughes, perhaps the most famous general convict history. Hughes confines most of his brief escape myth commentary to one lengthy footnote, stating that ‘the fantasy of escape to China was one of the obsessive images of early transportation’, and that Irish runaways had created a ‘Paradise myth to alleviate their antipodean Purgatory’. Patrick O’Farrell (The Irish In Australia, 1986) regrets the convicts’ error offered such rich fodder for Irish stereotyping, which he finds echoing through our national story ever since.  

In 1987, Paul Carter’s Road To Botany Bay offered a new approach. Carter used the earliest examples of these escapes to illustrate a wider point that the colony’s ‘law and order were not self-fulfilling, but the offspring of the convicts’ collusion in the dream’. In other words, to go bush was to subvert the convict-driven empire-building which England’s plans for Australia required.  

Carter adopts a revisionist perspective that the convict myth was merely a story to hoodwink colonial officials. To me this is a false trail, untenable given the full weight of evidence, as Tour To Hell details. But to his credit Carter seems to have been the first writer to deeply consider the nature of the convict myth. As a poet preoccupied with his own idiosyncratic notion of ‘spatial history’, Carter prefers to see ‘Chinas and inland kingdoms’ as ‘metaphors which concealed, rather than revealed a plot to travel’. 

Martin Thomas, within the context of his Blue Mountains historiography The Artificial Horizon (2004) sees the convict myths of place as, ‘despite their indeterminacy, among the most important fragments that survive from the colonial period’. In them, he argues, we see how the colony was not just developed by ‘rational enterprise’, but by ‘the fictional, the fantastic, the imagined’. 

Thomas includes a rare acknowledgement that the myth outlasted the first Blue Mountains crossing, and also thoughtful consideration of the Aboriginal use of phantom settlements. He spends 18 pages on mythical settlements, delving more deeply than most other accounts.

In Tour To Hell my intention was complete immersion in the story of what was, above all else, itself a story, a convict story, probably the first piece of lasting folklore to arise in the Australian colonies.

While researching for Tour To Hell, I came across an obscure but interesting convict, Colin Hunter, who was charged with ‘bush ranging’ on 6 February 1802. This is the earliest reference to the term bushranging I’ve located, three years older than the most commonly cited first-known mention (‘bush-rangers’ in the Sydney Gazette, 17.2.1805). There is an earlier one claimed (an 1801 manuscript by James Elder which calls a gang of convict runaways ‘Bushrangers’), but I’ve yet to see the original and the source citing it didn’t check out.

Even so, Hunter’s court appearance may be the earliest usage of ‘bushranging’ as a criminal offence, although the sense was no more than being illegally at large. His punishment was 100 lashes.

The term ‘bushranger’ obviously originated in the colony’s early years to define white people who left the settlements to wander the bush. As most doing this were runaway convicts, the term had criminal associations from the outset, even though early on it was also sometimes used for anyone skilled in bushcraft.

Over time the definition narrowed to denote outback banditry, as runaways tended to support themselves by theft. The title ‘bushranger’ has since been retrospectively applied to outlaws such as the First Fleet runaway John ‘Black’ Caesar, whose career predates the word. Caesar is usually called our first bushranger, probably because he was the first runaway to carry a gun, but Colin Hunter may have a pedantic technical claim to the title thanks to the wording of his charge in 1802.

Sydney in 1802. By W.S. Blake. Courtesy National Library of Australia (nla.pic-an6016088-v)

So who was Colin Hunter? Unusually, he came to Australia from Africa, as a soldier stationed at the Cape of Good Hope. The convict transport Royal Admiral, which arrived (via Cape Town) in November 1800, lists him in an addition to its indent as one of nine Cape soldiers ‘to be sent to New South Wales as convicts’.  His crime was noted simply as ‘felony’, his sentence unrecorded.

However, a later amendment to this list reveals that three of these soldiers (John Smith, Thomas Rice and William Conway) ‘did duty on board HM Ship Porpoise’, which reached Sydney a couple of weeks before the Royal Admiral. In other words, instead of joining the Royal Admiral at Cape Town as convicts they were put to work as soldiers on the HMS Porpoise. Hunter was probably recalled to this military duty too – the 1806 Colonial Muster has him as ‘Coll Hunter, Cape soldier’ who ‘came free’ on the Porpoise, employed by John Bishop.

Hunter’s status in the colony – flogged as a bushranging runaway in 1802 yet listed as a free arrival in 1806 – is rather enigmatic. Then, in July 1808, the Sydney Gazette describes him as a ‘servant of the Crown’ (that is, a convict) who has absconded from the Hawkesbury farm of Thomas Rickerby. The notice cautions against ‘harbouring or employing him on pain of prosecution’.

Curiouser and curiouser: just over a year later he’s back in the Gazette, now one of 14 men due to depart the colony in the vessel Endeavour. However, it appears he didn’t go. While we can’t rule out journalistic error (i.e. the listing was wrong) or identity theft (more than one man used the name), it seems Hunter was either denied permission to leave, or changed his mind. Had his Cape sentence expired by 1809? Did his unconventional secondment to the Porpoise give him an opportunity to pass himself off as a free man?

However, there’s no doubt that Hunter got into serious trouble over the next three years. By 1812-13 he was up at Newcastle, a penal outpost for colonial re-offenders. Paperwork for this transfer also notes him as a Porpoise arrival. He had escaped Newcastle by March 1813, and three years later was known to be bushranging with a man named George Fuller.

Newcastle penal outpost in 1812, when Colin Hunter was sent there

In September 1816 this pair recruited two convict farm servants to raid the property of John Miller at Canterbury (now a suburb in Sydney’s inner-west). On the evening of September 30th, Miller was relaxing by his fireside with his wife and four children. Four strangers – two armed – suddenly burst through the farmhouse door. Miller rose to his feet in alarm and was immediately shot dead by one of the intruders. Ignoring the terrified screams of Mrs Miller, the bushrangers threatened her life and proceeded to pillage the house.

At first Hunter blamed his accomplice Thomas Dooley for the shooting, but the others soon found that Hunter’s fowling piece had been fired. Later in court Hunter claimed his gun went off by accident. This may have been true, but it didn’t stop the plundering – even the children’s clothes were stolen.

With a free pardon and fifty pounds offered for the bushrangers, it wasn’t long before they were rounded up. Colin Hunter, Thomas Dooley and Michael Ryan were hanged in Sydney for murder and robbery on November 4th, 1816. Fuller saved himself by turning informer. The hanged men were suspended for an hour before their bodies went to the surgeon for dissection, standard legal procedure if the judge did not order gibbeting after execution.

So ended a colourful, unusual and distinctly inglorious colonial career. First bushranger or not, he was possibly the only one ever named Colin, a very rare name in colonial times.