Barcroft Boake (1866-1892): Australian bush poet

In an earlier post I wrote about my great-aunt Boodie (Florence Teasdale Smith) who was a theosophist, whose father was a bank robber and she was also descended from an Indian princess.  I mentioned in passing that her uncle was a famous Australian poet who committed suicide but did not give any details. So this post is about Barcroft Boake, an Australian bush poet, who committed suicide at the age of 26.

The following information is drawn from Hugh Capel’s website1 and the memoir written by Barcroft’s father. A G Stephens also drew on this memoir, when writing his own Memoir, included with the collection of Barcroft’s poems published by Angus and Robertson in 18972. Hugh Capel has also written a novel based on the life of Barcroft Boake3.

Barcroft Henry Thomas Boake was born in Sydney in 1866, the eldest son of Barcroft Capel Boake and Florence Eva Clarke (who died when he was 11 – his age in the photo at right).  Young Barcroft’s childhood was spent in Sydney, and for two years in Noumea, where he spent time with a friend of the family. When living in North Sydney, which was then mainly bush, he had to ride his pony to Milson’s Point before going to school across the harbour. Later he was to be described as “a good horseman, and a first class bushman” and it was said “he looked infinitely better on a horse than off.”

Barcroft trained as a surveyor in Sydney before taking up a surveyor’s assistant position in 1886, based at Rocklands Farm, near Adaminaby in the Monaro district of New South Wales.  He spent two happy years in this district, becoming friends with the McKeahnie family, and in particular their two daughters, Jean and May.  Their brother Charlie, who features in some of Barcroft’s poems, was an excellent horseman and was said to be one of the men on whom Banjo Paterson based the Man from Snowy River. Barcroft’s poem, On the Range, tells how Charlie chased a wild brumby stallion from the headwaters of Nungar Creek in the Snowy Mountains to its death in a gorge on the upper Murrumbidgee, near Tantangara Dam.  Barcroft may have been there. While in the Monaro district Barcroft also went skiing at Kiandra.  Later he wrote what is possibly Australia’s first skiing poem, The Demon Snow Shoes.

Barcroft Henry Boake at age 18

After his time at Rocklands, Barcroft headed north to seek adventure and work as a stockman and a drover.  He initially worked on a sheep station at Trangie (near Narromine) then headed north again, droving cattle on the main Queensland/Victoria stock route from the Diamantina and then working at Burrembilla Station, near Cunnamulla, in Western New South Wales.

After returning to Bathurst in 1890 and then working as a surveyor in the Riverina, he began to write poetry based on his bush experiences.  His work first appeared in the Sydney Mail in 1890, and in 1891 his first verses were published in the Bulletin.  This was the beginning of a brief but productive period in which many of his poems were published in the Bulletin, where his work appeared alongside of that of Banjo Patterson and Henry Lawson.

In December 1891, Barcroft returned to Sydney, where his grandmother was dying and his father’s photography business had failed.  Barcroft was unable to find work because of the 1891-83 financial depression, and not long after apparently receiving news that “his best girl” was going to be married, he took his own life. Ten days after disappearing from his home in May 1892, at the age of 26, he was found hanging by the lash of his stockwhip on the shore of Sydney Harbour at Folly Point, not far from where he used to live as a child. The place is now marked with a plaque, and a tree has been replanted in the same spot as the original hanging tree.

Why did Barcroft Boake kill himself in 1892, just as he was gaining recognition as a published poet?  Was it for the love of one of Charlie McKeahnie’s sisters? The note he left when he hanged himself with his stockwhip said “Write to Miss McKeahnie”.  But it didn’t say to which one, or why. He wrote a number of poems in Jean’s scrap book.  But May is mentioned in his last published poem, An Easter Rhyme.  This appeared in the Bulletin in 1892, just before he died.

He is listed among “famous people with bipolar disorder (manic depression)” in many lists on the internet, but I have been unable to find the original source or evidence for this claim. His father’s memoir describes him as oppressed by melancholia in the last period of his life, and A.G. Stephens quotes from his employer, the surveyor W.A. Lipscombe, that “his habits were solitary, his disposition melancholy — even morose. He made few friends…”.

Another of Lipscombe’s employees wrote that Boake “was one of the most reserved (even grumpy) individuals” he had ever met, and was “brooding continuously”. I could not find any clear reference to periods of mania as well as depression in these sources. In 1888, a joke played on Barcroft nearly left him devoid of life as some friends hung him from a tree. He became obsessed with the experience and wrote two separate accounts of it. The evidence seems to suggest to me that Barcroft developed a form of severe depression after the Monaro days, and a confluence of difficulties combined with a fascination with hanging, led to his suicide.

Barcroft’s poems are unusual for their wide range of subject matter and for his sympathetic portrayal of women, who are distinctly characterised.  His talent was recognised by A G Stephens, the Red Page Editor for the Bulletin, who said “had fortune favoured, this ill-starred idealist might have easily won recognition as one of the foremost poets of Australia.” Banjo Paterson also gave Barcroft credit.  He wrote “to very few of us is it given to express their feelings in such words as came with the poetic inspiration of Barcroft Boake.”  He judged three of Barcroft’s poems – Where the Dead Men Lie, ‘Twixt the Wings of the Yard and At the ‘J. C.’ – as first class works.  Henry Lawson paid the ultimate tribute.  He included most of the text of Where the Dead Men Lie in one of his own short stories in 1897 The Australian Cinematograph. It is considered that he may have become one of Australia’s finest poets if he had not ended his life at the age of 26.

Barcroft Henry Boake, Australian bush poet (1866-1892)

  1. Barcroft Henry Boake: Australian bush poet []
  2. Barcroft Boake: Where the Dead Men Lie and other poems. London: Angus and Robertson Ltd; 1913.
  3. Hugh Capel: Where the Dead Men Lie, The story of Barcroft Boake, bush poet of the Monaro. Canberra: Ginninderra Press; 2002.

Centenary of the Battle of Passchendaele

The centenary of the Battle of Passchendaele was commemorated today in Belgium. This battle lasted from 31 July to 10 November 1917 and was the third and largest of the battles of Ypres. Overall, 800,000 soldiers from both sides of the conflict died at Ypres from 1914-1918. My grandfather, Will Mathers and his brother Tom served in the Australian Army Medical Corps in France during World War I and were at the Battle of Passchemdaele. They carried the wounded out of the battlefield from around 20 September 1917 until 7th October, when both were gassed. Will was hospitalized for 8 days.

Left: Will Mathers 1915, Right: Will and Tom in Salisbury, 2 September 1916.

Will and Tom had two cousins John and William Melrose who both died at Ypres. Their uncle Robert Melrose lost both his children in 1917. John died on 7 June 1917 at Messines, a day on which 6,700 Australians died. The battle of Messines commenced in the early hours of 7 June with the detonation of a million pounds of explosives packed into tunnels dug under German positions on the Messines Ridge. The explosion was heard in London and Dublin and killed approximately 10,000 German soldiers, the deadliest non-nuclear manmade explosion in history. Five months later, his brother William was also killed on Oct 12, 1917 in the Battle of Passchendaele. John Melrose was the first husband of my (great-) Auntie Annie, who lived until 1989 and was like a second mother to my father. She was married to John for only two weeks before he left Australia for France.

Left: William and John Melrose, Right: Annie Melrose (née Gammie)

Rare footage of 1989 jujutsu training

I came across a video recently posted on youtube of my former jujutsu teacher, John Bear Shihan demonstrating futari kata in 1989.  Was surprised to see that I was the main receiver, joined partway through the video by Neil Phillips.

At that time, I was a shodan (1st Dan black belt) and Neil was probably 3rd kyu brown belt. This kata was a training exercise for 5th kyu purple belt level.


Méribel mountain views

Some photos of the French Alps from the Saulire on the mountain ridge between Méribel and Courcheval. The Saulire is at 2738m and has spectacular views of the surrounding mountains, including Mont Blanc in the distance 63 km away. And then a thousand metre descent which made for great skiiing.

Looking west over the Méribel valley towards Val Torens

Dent du Bergin seen from Saulire

A traverse along the ridge before dropping over the other side to descend to Méribel.

A week skiing at Méribel

We went to Méribel in February for a week skiing. It is a resort in the French Alps about halfway between Grenoble and the Italian border. Last winter was not a great year for snow, but it snowed heavily just before we arrived and there was lots of fresh powder. The entire week until the last day was clear blue skies.

At 2275 m on the Col des Lozes between Méribel and Coucheval

Looking down towards Méribel village in the valley. We could ski from here down to the door of our hotel.

We were skiing on one day with eagles,owls and a condor. One large eagle, 2m wingspan, was flying down the piste with us. It was just behind Alex some of the way, then flew over his head. His handler was waiting at the bottom, but the eagle decided to take a sandwich from a man having lunch with his family. A fight for the sandwich ensued, the eagle won, leaving the man with cut fingers.

The eagle came up on the chairlift ahead of us, in the white container. Its sitting on the foream of the woman behind.

Eagle taking off. It flew down the piste between Alex and me.

And won the fight for the sandwich. The man in orange has fallen back clutching his cut fingers.

The handler eventually got the eagle under control.

At 6.15 pm on 15 February, the international space station passed directly over Meribel with a French astronaut aboard. 500 skiers with flaming torches formed a giant heart on the piste visible from the space station. We saw the lights in the distance, but didn’t find out what they were until later.

The next day we went up to the highest point on the mountains between Méribel and Courcheval. The Saulire is at 2738m and has spectacular views of the surrounding mountains, including Mont Blanc in the distance 63 km away. And then a thousand metre descent which the boys loved, and insisted on doing again the next day. To get to the top we skied to the bottom of the valley and caught this cablecar all the way up.

One of the boys starting the descent.


Snow on the pines

Thanks to the President of China, I spent a day in January skiing at Les Houches near Mont Blanc. Xi Jinping was visiting my organization, and we were told to avoid coming to work if possible, as the security arrangements were extreme. Juras and Swiss Alps were forecast to have low temperatures, low visibility and strong wind, so I headed up towards Mont Blanc where it was sunny and no wind. The temperature was still low at about -10 degrees C.

Mont Blanc seen from Les Houches

Mont Blanc seen from Les Houches

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Hot and cold: from New Year in heatwave Australia to mid-winter Geneva

Somewhat belatedly, a few photos from a quick trip to Australia in the New Year break 2016-2017 to visit my family in Noosa on the Queensland coast.  Flying from the midwinter Geneva around zero C to heatwave in the middle of summer – middle 30s C and then back to a cold spell at -4 C. Around 35°C temperature drop from my last Saturday on Sunshine Beach to the first day in Geneva.


Even though it was hot, there were some stormy days and some dark clouds on Noosa Main Beach. It was much more crowded when the sun was out.

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