William Buckley (convict)

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William Buckley
William Buckley portrait.jpg
Born1780 (1780)[1]
Cheshire, England
Died30 January 1856 (1856-01-31) (aged 75-76)
Hobart, Tasmania, Australia
Cause of deathFalling out of his gig
Occupationbricklayer, soldier
Spouse(s)Julia Eager
Parent(s)Eliza Buckley

William Buckley (1780 – 30 January 1856) was an English convict who was transported to Australia, escaped, was given up for dead and lived in an Aboriginal community for many years.

Early life[edit]

According to one source Buckley was born in Marton, Cheshire, England, to Eliza Buckley. In the book The life and adventures of William Buckley [2] his place of birth is, however, given as Macclesfield. Buckley had two sisters and one brother. At around the age of six he was being raised by his mother's father in Macclesfield.

He was apprenticed to a bricklayer, Mr. Robert Wyatt but left to enlist in the King's Foot Regiment. He was soon transferred to the King's Own Regiment. In 1799 his regiment went to the Netherlands to fight against Napoleon, under the command of the Duke of York, where Buckley suffered an injury to his hand. Later, in London, Buckley was convicted of knowingly receiving a bolt of stolen cloth; he insisted he was carrying it for a woman and did not know it was stolen. He was sentenced to transportation to New South Wales for 14 years.

Transportation and escape[edit]

Buckley's transportation and escape as depicted by 19th century Aboriginal artist Tommy McRae

Descriptions of the adult Buckley vary. According to John Helder Wedge, who met him in 1835, 'with his long, matted hair, he was a most awfully savage-looking fellow, standing 6 feet 5 78 inches (197.8 cm) in height without shoes, erect in person, and well proportioned'.[3] When Buckley appeared at their camp, James Gumm out of curiosity measured him as 6 feet 7 inches (201 cm) or 6 feet 8 inches (203 cm).[4] Buckley himself records his height as being 6 feet 5 inches (196 cm).[5] John Fawkner, who was also at Sullivan Bay when he was 11 years old, states that Buckley's height was 6 feet 4 12 inches (194.3 cm).[6] According to George Russell who met him near the Yarra River in 1836, Buckley stood 6 feet 4 inches (193 cm) tall, but numerous other heights are reported, ranging from 6 feet 3 inches (191 cm) to 6 feet 7 inches (201 cm).

According to Russell, Buckley "was a tall, ungainly man ... and altogether his looks were not in his favour; he had a bushy head of black hair, a low forehead with overhanging eyebrows nearly concealing his small eyes, a short snub nose, a face very much marked by smallpox, and was just such a man as one would suppose fit to commit burglary or murder". That general description was echoed by other reports of the day, although not always as flattering. He was generally represented as being of low intelligence.[7]

Buckley left England in April 1803 aboard HMS Calcutta, one of two ships sent to Port Phillip to form a new settlement under Lieutenant-Colonel David Collins. They arrived in October 1803, and anchored on the south-eastern side of the bay, near modern-day Sorrento. The new settlement, called Sullivan Bay, quickly ran into problems. It lacked fresh water and had poor soil, so a decision was made a few weeks later to abandon the site.

After hearing that the settlement was about to move to Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania), at 9 pm on 27 December 1803, Buckley and three other convicts ran away into the bush. One was shot and severely injured, but the others made their way around Port Phillip Bay. They split up in the vicinity of present-day Melbourne. Buckley's companions went north-east, hoping to reach Sydney, which they thought was not far away, although it was 1000 km away around the coast. Buckley, tired and dehydrated, continued alone around the bay.

Life with the Wathaurung people[edit]

During the weeks following his escape, Buckley avoided contact with Aboriginal people, travelling around Port Phillip Bay as far as the Bellarine Peninsula. In an account collected by George Langhorne in 1835, Buckley told of his first meeting with a small Aboriginal family group, who gave him immense help and shared food, and from whom he began to learn their language, before parting company.[8] In the well known account collected by John Morgan in 1852, Buckley describes travelling much further; as far as Painkalac Creek, Aireys Inlet (Mangowak) and Mount Defiance (Nooraki) living alone, off the land.[9] Common to both accounts, however, is his significant first meeting with a group of Wathaurung women, several months after his escape. Buckley had taken a spear used to mark a grave for use as a walking stick. The women befriended him after recognising the spear as belonging to a relative who had recently died and invited him back to their camp. Believed to be the returned spirit of the former tribesman, he was joyfully welcomed and adopted by the group.

For the next thirty-two years, he continued to live among the Wathaurung people on the Bellarine Peninsula being treated with great affection and respect. "By virtue of his age and peaceful ways, Buckley ... became a Ngurungaeta, a person of considerable respect among his people and his voice was influential in deciding matters of war and peace."[10] Buckley also became expert with Aboriginal weapons, though despite this, as a revered spirit, he was banned from participating in tribal wars. He had at least two Aboriginal wives, and almost certainly a daughter by one of them.[11] One of these is said to have been killed by the tribe for preferring an Aboriginal man; but it is also reported that Buckley said he gave her up in order to prevent unrest among the men; preferring to stay alive and to "return to the simple life". Buckley also recounted information about warfare among the Aborigines. According to Buckley he was a central part of life among the Australian hunter-gatherers. He had often witnessed wars, raids, and blood-feuds. This information was uniquely important as little is known about warfare between indigenous groups.


Frederick William Woodhouse, The first settlers discover Buckley, 1861, State Library of Victoria

On 6 July 1835 William Buckley appeared at the camp site of John Batman's Port Phillip Association with a party of Aboriginal people who had told him about the sighting of a ship at Indented Head. Wearing kangaroo skins and carrying Aboriginal weapons, he walked into the camp.[12] The three European men at the camp were William Todd, James Gumm and Alexander Thomson and five Sydney aborigines who had been left behind to maintain a base while John Batman had returned to Launceston. They fed him and treated him with kindness. Buckley showed them the letters "W.B." tattooed on his arm. Fearful of being shot, he told them he was a shipwrecked soldier, but a few days later he revealed his identity, to the amazement of everybody present. In September the same year, he was granted a pardon by Lieutenant-Governor Arthur, in Van Diemen's Land.

Return to Western culture[edit]

In 1836, Buckley was given the position of interpreter to the natives, and as a guide for Captain Foster Fyans, among others; his knowledge of the Aboriginal language was put to good use.

On 4 February, William Buckley accompanied Joseph Gellibrand and his party, which included William Robertson, one of the financiers of the Port Phillip Association, on a trip west from Melbourne, heading toward Geelong, where they met with a group of Aboriginal people with whom Buckley had lived. From Gellibrand's diary:[13][14]

February 5th, 1836: I directed Buckley to advance and we would follow him at a distance of a quarter of a mile. Buckley made towards a native well and after he had rode about 8 miles, we heard a cooey and when we arrived at the spot I witnessed one of the most pleasing and affecting sights. There were three men five women and about twelve children. Buckley had dismounted and they were all clinging around him and tears of joy and delight running down their cheeks.... It was truly an affecting sight and proved the affection which these people entertained for Buckley ... amongst the number were a little old man and an old woman one of his wives. Buckley told me this was his old friend and with whom he had lived and associated thirty years.

By late 1837, Buckley had become disenchanted with his new way of life—and the people around him—and left for Van Diemen's Land. He remained there for the next nineteen years, until his death in 1856; taking on a number of jobs, including gatekeeper at the Female Factory, and for a short period as an assistant storekeeper at the Immigrant's Home at Hobart.

On 27 June 1840, he was married to Julia Eager (phonetically Egans and correctly Higgins), at St. John's Church, New Town, by the Reverend T. J. Ewing,[15] According to a contemporary, George Russell, she is said to have been as short as he was tall—so much so that when out walking she was too short to even reach his arm. To remedy this problem he would tie two corners of his handkerchief together, and after fastening this to his arm, she would put her arm through the loop.[16] Julia was the widow of Daniel Higgins, who allegedly had been murdered by Aborigines while en route overland from Sydney to Port Phillip in 1839. They were free Irish immigrants. Julia had one daughter, Mary Ann, from her first marriage, whom Buckley later "claimed" as his. Buckley met Julia when she was living at the Immigrant's home with her daughter following the death of Daniel. He "tendered" himself to her and they were married shortly after in New Town, Hobart, in an Anglican ceremony.

He died in 1856 at the age of 76, when he fell out of his gig at Greenpond near Hobart.[15] After his death, his widow Julia moved north to live with her daughter and son-in-law, William Jackson, and their family. Eventually they moved to Sydney. She died there at the Hyde Park Asylum on 18 August 1863.

John Morgan's The Life and Adventures of William Buckley as history[edit]

Almost all we know of Buckley's life with the Wathaurung people is based on the 1852 account written by John Morgan, Life and Adventures of William Buckley.[17] Written when the illiterate Buckley was 72 years old, it was clearly intended to make money for the insolvent Morgan and Buckley.[18] As a result, the account has sometimes been dismissed as more the product of Morgan's fertile imagination than a true representation of the Buckley adventures. Its references to the mythical Bunyip and tribe of copper-coloured, pot-bellied "Pallidurgbarrans" who supposedly lived in the Otway forests are often cited as evidence of this. However, while acknowledging its limitations, most historians now see it as "close to fact"[19] and consistent with "modern understandings of Aboriginal social life".[20] Tim Flannery suggests that "Buckley's intensely human and confronting story" has been "ignored or mentioned only in passing by historians" because it is "so at odds with contemporary preconceptions." Yet another factor, he suggests, is that "studies of Aboriginal Victoria have long relied heavily on archaeological research."[21] He also cites Edward Curr, an early author of Aboriginal studies, who claimed Morgan's book gave "a truer account of Aboriginal life than any work I have read".[22][23]

You've got Buckley's Chance[edit]

Buckley's improbable survival is believed by many Australians to be the source of the vernacular phrase "you've got Buckley's or none" (or simply "you've got Buckley's"), which means "no chance", or "it's as good as impossible". The Macquarie Dictionary supports this theory, although the ANU Australian National Dictionary Centre tends to support a second theory:[24] that the expression was a pun on the name of a now defunct Melbourne department store chain, Buckley & Nunn.[25]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ See death certificate at http://portal.archives.tas.gov.au/menu.aspx?detail=1&type=P&id=51528
  2. ^ Morgan, J. (1852). The life and adventures of William Buckley. United States: Kessinger Legacy Reprints.[page needed]
  3. ^ "Before Melbourne Was". The Argus. Melbourne. 14 February 1920. p. 6. Retrieved 17 January 2012 – via National Library of Australia.
  4. ^ "Pioneering Fifty Years Ago". The Mercury. Hobart, Tasmania. 14 September 1885. p. 4. Retrieved 17 January 2012 – via National Library of Australia.
  5. ^ Morgan, John (1852). The life and adventures of William Buckley thirty-two years a wanderer amongst the aborigines of then unexplored country round Port Phillip, now the province of Victoria. Hobart: A. Macdougall. p. 4. OCLC 5345532.
  6. ^ "The Founders of the Colony". The Argus. Melbourne. 16 September 1868. p. 5. Retrieved 18 January 2012 – via National Library of Australia.
  7. ^ Tipping, Marjorie J. "Buckley, William (1780–1856)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Australian National University. Retrieved 2018-08-12.
  8. ^ Flannery, T. (ed.) (2002) Morgan, J. The Life and Adventures of William Buckley; 32 Years a wanderer amongst the Aborigines of the then unexplored country around Port Phillip, now the Province of Victoria. p. 192. (Appendix: George Langhorne's account of Buckley, 1835). Text publishing, Melbourne Australia. ISBN 1-877008-20-6
  9. ^ Translations in Schicht, Roland (ed.) (1996) Morgan, J. The Life and Adventures of William Buckley; 32 Years a Wanderer amongst the Aborigines, Tower Books, Sydney. p. 26. ISBN 0-646-28459-2
  10. ^ Flannery, T. (ed.) (2002) p. xli
  11. ^ Flannery T. (ed.) (2002) pp. xxvi–xxvii
  12. ^ "Domestic Intelligence". Colonial Times. 20 (1008). Tasmania, Australia. 25 August 1835. p. 6. Retrieved 28 May 2016 – via National Library of Australia.
  13. ^ Museum Victoria [ed-online] Encounters
  14. ^ The Life and Adventures of William Buckley
  15. ^ a b "Anniversaries". The Mercury. Hobart, Tasmania. 12 July 1924. p. 11. Retrieved 20 January 2012 – via National Library of Australia.
  16. ^ Russell quoted in Flannery, T. (ed.) (2002) p. xliii.
  17. ^ Morgan, John (1852). The life and adventures of William Buckley thirty-two years a wanderer amongst the aborigines of then unexplored country round Port Phillip, now the province of Victoria. Hobart: A. Macdougall. OCLC 5345532.
  18. ^ Flannery, T. (ed.) (2002) p. xxiii
  19. ^ Marjorie Tipping, http://www.adb.online.anu.edu.au/biogs/A010158b.htm
  20. ^ L. R. Hiatt, cited in Flannery, T. (ed.) (2002) p. xl
  21. ^ Flannery, T. (ed.) (2002) p. xxxix
  22. ^ Curr, E. (1886) The Aboriginal Race, cited in Flannery, T. (ed.) (2002) p. xxxix
  23. ^ Curr, Edward Micklethwaite (1886), The Australian race: its origin, languages, customs, place of landing in Australia and the routes by which it spread itself over the continent., Vol 1, Melbourne: J. Ferres, p. 57, OCLC 786599
  24. ^ Frederick Ludowyk, Australian National Dictionary Centre, Ozwords October 2000
  25. ^ The Macquarie Dictionary, Fourth Edition (2005), p. 192.

Further reading[edit]

Flannery, T. (ed.) (2002) Morgan, J. The Life and Adventures of William Buckley; 32 Years a wanderer amongst the Aborigines of the then unexplored country around Port Phillip, now the Province of Victoria. p. xxvi. First published 1852. This edition, Text Publishing, Melbourne, Australia. ISBN 1-877008-20-6

External links[edit]