I have a weird interest in tracing the Australian colloquialism ‘Buckley’s chance’ (i.e virtually no chance), mainly because it has been plausibly linked to the remarkable 19th-century convict escapee William Buckley to whom I devote a chapter in my book Tour To Hell.tourhellbookcover

William Buckley

The Trove online newspaper archive continues to claw back the history of ‘Buckley’s chance’. The first time I checked Trove the earliest printed mention of the saying was 1894. Then a mention from ’92 appeared, then ’88, but now the earliest is from 1887. It’s interesting to note that all of these mentions appear in sporting contexts – yachting, horse racing and now Aussie Rules football, almost a decade before the launch of what is now the AFL (Australian Football League).

Anyhow, to quote the 22 September 1887 issue of Melbourne Punch

In our sporting columns, in the Fitzroy team appears the name of Bracken. It should have been BUCKLEY. “Olympus” explains that he altered it because he didn’t want the Fitzroy men to have “Buckley’s chance”.

Three more points of interest (apart from noting Carlton won that year – belated congratulations): Firstly, it’s clear from the context that ‘Buckley’s Chance’ is already a well-known cliché. Secondly, its early appearance in a Melbourne paper strengthens the case for a Melbourne origin (likely a combination of Buckley’s survival and a pun on the Melbourne department store Buckley & Nunn). Thirdly, our current government’s mindless axing of the Trove budget gives us Buckley’s of finding those earlier mentions now.

 EXPLORATION FAWCETT (1953, Hutchinson) by Percy Harrison Fawcett

A century ago South America was at the tail end of the rubber boom, a jungle frontier wilder than the American West. Life was cheap, anacondas were 60 feet long and Percy Fawcett was in the thick of it, swashbuckling his way through exploits that make Indiana Jones look about as intrepid as a suburban paperboy.

An English army officer, Fawcett began his South American adventuring in 1906, surveying boundaries in remote wilderness along the Brazil-Bolivia border. This was a hideously arduous undertaking but Fawcett was the man for the job. His attraction for death-defying jungle jaunts seems to have baffled even himself. As he put it: “Inexplicably – amazingly – I knew I loved that hell. Its fiendish grasp had captured me”.

Fawcett spent most of the first quarter of the 20th-century exploring Amazonia. He became fascinated by rumoured lost cities, particularly one he called Z, a mysterious civilisation of ‘white indians’ said to exist in the Matto Grosso. Z was his obsession and downfall; in 1925 Fawcett and two others (including his eldest son Jack) failed to reappear from an expedition in search of it.

The dream that unknown white civilisations might be found in the unexplored depths of new countries crops up again and again in the annals of European colonialism. The legendary ‘Welsh Indians’ were a staple of US frontier lore, while Australia had (or rather, didn’t have) its elusive ‘white colony’ which convicts believed lay in the bush just beyond Sydney, as described in my book Tour To Hell.

In the early 1950s Fawcett’s surviving son Brian assembled Exploration Fawcett from the Colonel’s journals, adding a chapter about the search for his father. It was a bestseller and no wonder, bursting with piranha-infested rivers, drunken gunmen, lethal wildlife, revolting diseases, haunted houses and poison-tipped arrows raining down from jungle tribesmen not home to visitors.

Percy ‘Exploration’ Fawcett

A major strength is that Fawcett himself is much more than your typical rock-jawed derring-doer. He frequently surprises. For instance, his method of avoiding starvation in the jungle was to ‘pray audibly’ for food, an early exercise in positive thinking that he claims invariably resulted in the sudden appearance of game willing to be shot for his pot. Ready to sign up for an expedition with this man?

Fawcett’s enthusiasm for extreme and horrific conditions is impressive, if more than a little barking mad. And it is debateable how many tall tales crept into the narrative, especially given that he often recounts stories from people he met along the way. Some critics have suggested his son Brian may have found vested interest in adding colour – and a few feet to the gigantic 62-foot anaconda his father described shooting (this is two to three times longer than various recorded maximums for the largest anaconda species).

Still Fawcett is a lively writer, a most entertaining vicarious travel companion and an excellent antidote to the gentle horror of a regular city commute. You can bet he’d much prefer a river churning with ravenous piranha to a train carriage stuffed to the gills with office workers checking Facebook.

PS: Paramount has a movie lost in pre-production, The Lost City Of Z, based on a book of that title (2005) by David Grann which offers a theory about Fawcett’s disappearance. Charlie Hunnam will play Fawcett; Robert Pattinson and Sienna Miller also star. Director James Gray promises it will be ‘epic and hallucinogenic’ – two words which well describe Fawcett’s own book. And yet I wonder: could any Hollywood adaptation keep pace with the wild ride of the real story? Brad Pitt, whose production company kicked off the project, was originally slated for the lead role but dropped out four years ago. From Jungle Hell to Development Hell, the Colonel’s adventures continue…

PPS: A conspiracy theory (not espoused by Grann’s Lost City Of Z ) contends that Exploration Fawcett was a smokescreen concocted by Brian Fawcett to disguise his father’s true fate. Colonel Fawcett, so this story goes, never intended returning and abandoned the outside world to found a secret jungle commune. It’s an attractive idea – the indefatigeable seeker of lost worlds ends up building his own to lose himself in – but convincing evidence remains thoroughly lost, too.

CONVICT AUSTRALIA’S GREAT ESCAPE MYTHSTour-To-Hell

  Tour To Hell (UQ Press) tells the true story of a fascinating but little-known aspect of Australia’s early convict days – the myths of escape that fired many dreams of liberty throughout the penal colony, particularly amongst convicts transported from Ireland.

Founded in 1788 as the world’s most remote penal colony, Sydney presented formidable natural barriers – thousands of miles of ocean to the east, thousands of miles of uncharted wilderness to the west. These were very effective de facto prison walls.

But within a few years, convicts had other ideas about the daunting unknown around them. Tales arose of white colonies across the nearby Blue Mountains with churches and masted ships, a nation of ‘copper-coloured people’ beyond a river just north of Sydney – places where Irish and other escapees hoped to find sanctuary, or even a way home.

The first convict 'Chinese travellers' went eastwards along the Parramatta River in 1791 (seen here from Sydney, 1797) but were soon bewildered in the extensive scrub.

The first convict ‘Chinese travellers’ went east along the Parramatta River in 1791 but were soon lost in the extensive scrub. Courtesy National Library of Australia (nla.pic-an2716983-v)

These ideas were often corroborated – perhaps even originated – by Aborigines, and they inspired many escapes. Governors Hunter and King, exasperated by these unexpected and destabilising myths of liberation, both mounted inland expeditions aimed at disproving the existence of the mythical ‘white colony’.

Convict escape myths appear in the historical record from 1791 until about 1830 and peaked between 1798 and 1803. Their role in colonial development has to date remained largely unexamined. But they prompted some of the most wide-ranging early explorations and had a surprisingly close relationship to the parallel ‘official’ myth of the inland sea.

Escape mythology could be said to constitute the first genuine folklore of colonial Australia.

It offers unique insight into the convict imagination, and shows how imagination helped shape the development and exploration of a continent.

Tour To Hell combines tales of escape, exploration and bushranging with a new look at Australia’s most reluctant first settlers coming to grips with the harsh and foreign landscape of their new home. It is the first book devoted solely to this chapter of Australia’s story.

For reviews, escape to HERE, or to order online run away to THIS PAGE

Tour To Hell has placed in the following literary awards:
Alex Buzo Prize 2009, awarded to shortlisted finalists of the CAL Waverley Library Award For Literature (The Nib).
Honourable Mention, Manning Clark House National Cultural Award 2008
Commended, Melbourne University Publishing Award 2008
(Fellowship of Australian Writers National Literary Awards) 

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.

tourhellbookcover

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 store 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’.

The First Settlers Discover Buckley (1861) by FW Woodhouse

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

Australia Day (January 26): The day of national celebration now goes way beyond commemorating the beginnings of the penal colony that became modern Australia, but what actually happened when the First Fleet finished anchoring in Sydney Cove on January 26, 1788?
From the First Fleet journals of Governor Phillip and Judge Advocate David Collins:
By John Allcot (nla.pic-an7891482)

By John Allcot (nla.pic-an7891482)

PHILLIP: In the evening of the 26th the colours were displayed on shore, and the Governor, with several of his principal officers and others, assembled round the flagstaff, drank the king’s health, and success to the settlement.

COLLINS: In the evening of this day [i.e January 26] the whole of the party that came round in the Supply [i.e the governor] were assembled at the point where they had first landed in the morning, and on which a flagstaff had been purposely erected and a union jack displayed, when the marines fired several vollies; between which the governor and the officers who accompanied him drank the healths of his Majesty and the Royal Family, and success to the new colony. The day, which had been uncommonly fine, concluded with the safe arrival of the Sirius and the convoy from Botany Bay.
******
The convicts began to be landed over the next few days. Few wanted to be there, and some were so desperate to escape that they took to the bush, fleeing several miles south hoping to get aboard the French ships commanded by La Perouse, then at anchor at Botany Bay. And so began the history of escape in colonial Australia, leading to the strange myths of bush sanctuaries described in Tour To Hell. Read all about it!
tourhellbookcover
I wish to correct a false impression I mistakenly gave in Tour To Hell about the death of William Buckley, the famous convict runaway feted as the ‘Wild White Man’ after three decades in the bush with indigenous people. On p245 I wrote: ‘On 30 January 1856… Buckley died after falling under a cart at Arthur Circus, in Hobart’s Battery Point’.
Convict runaway William Buckley
Buckley did indeed die at Arthur Circus that day, but the cart accident happened about six weeks’ beforehand on Constitution Hill, between Kempton and Bagdad on the Midlands Highway north of Hobart. Arthur Circus was Buckley’s street address – he died at home.
Arthur Circus, Hobart

Arthur Circus, Hobart

Here’s the full story from a contemporary news report (Hobart’s Courier, 31 January, 1856):
Buckley was thrown out of a gig at Constitution Hill about a week before Christmas-day last.
He remained insensible about two minutes after the fall, and upon recovering his senses found he had lost the use of his limbs.
He was received into St Mary’s Hospital on the 9th January, having been under medical treatment for a fortnight without experiencing any relief.
Upon admission he was unable to move any of his limbs, complained of a cutting pain across the loins, and could not lie long in one position.
He was discharged on the 18th, after undergoing medical treatment, upon the request of himself and wife, and died last night.

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!