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.

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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

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!

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…