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)

Thomas Wilson – convict ancestor

After my previous slightly light-hearted post about Thomas Wilson ( an-odd-fellow ), I thought I should tell his real story, his transportation to Sydney in the Lady Nugent in 1835 and his later role in the Mona Vale Outrages.

The Lady Nugent on the high seas. Pencil drawing by George Richard Hilliard, 1840 (4).

The Lady Nugent on the high seas. Pencil drawing by George Richard Hilliard, 1840 (4).

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An odd fellow

Back in 2011, I discovered that one of my great-great- great-grandfathers (on grandpa Baker’s side) Thomas Wilson (1817-1890) had been transported to Australia in 1835 as a convict. He and two others had committed a highway robbery.

Just recently, I came across convict records that gave more information and a description of him. He was aged 21, single, a Protestant who could read and write. He came from Kent, and was a skinner and poulterer.  According to the convict records, he was 5 feet 4¾ inches tall, with ruddy and freckled complexion, brown hair and grey eyes, his eyebrows partially meeting. Among various marks and scars, he had (presumably tattooed) a sun, half moon, seven stars and a crucifix inside his lower left arm. At this point, I realized I was out of my depth, and called in the renowned symbologist, Professor Robert Langdon of Harvard, who told me that the sun, moon and seven stars were a set of symbols used by Freemasons and were also adopted by the Order of Oddfellows, founded in the eighteenth century. The Oddfellows modelled themselves on freemasons though were dedicated more to people of modest lifestyle, labourers and artisans. For the Oddfellows, the “sun, moon and stars” collectively might represent all God’s creation, all that is wonderful and admirable. The seven stars recalls The Pleaides constellation representing the “seven liberal arts”, and for a skinner and poulterer would probably translate to literacy and numeracy.

Langdon concluded that a literate 19 year old working class boy who was already a member of the Oddfellows and had a distinctive set of symbols tattooed on his arm was unlikely to have been a simple highway robber. Could he have deliberately set out on a course of action that would result in him being transported to NSW?  Was there any significance that after he was given his ticket of leave, he bought substantial land holdings in the Manly area in 1853? Land now worth $300 million. And in 1869 became tenants of the “Mona Vale” property belonging to William Charles Wentworth, one of the three explorers who found the first route across the Blue Mountains in 1813. Was it significant that when he arrived in Australia in 1835, Wilson was first sent to Paramatta to work for William Lawson one of the other three explorers. Could it be another coincidence that Thomas Wilson sold his land in 1877, exactly one year before the foundation stone was laid for the first Oddfellows Hall at Manly.

Langdon immediately flew to Geneva and interviewed Mathers, seeking any evidence of Oddfellows involvement in his life. Mathers was surprised at the turn this research had taken, and unwilling to believe that the location of the Oddfellows Hall in Casino just half a block from where he lived as a child was anything more than coincidence. Or that one of father’s close colleagues was the Warden of the local Oddfellows Lodge. And why did the Lodge reach out and offer Mathers a scholarship as a teenager that enabled him to visit New Zealand. Why did they try to bend his interest in astronomy towards astrology and more occult concerns? Clearly Langdon would have to follow the leads in New Zealand to see what connections were found.

Discussions with Mathers also revealed that in the 1940s, his grandfather had applied considerable pressure on his mother to get her to  visit two elderly women in Mosman, the granddaughers of Thomas Wilson. Why was it so important that this contact be made? Could the Oddfellows really have had a plan, a vision, reaching centuries ahead. And what could it possibly be?

Admiration: a post from Irene Waters

My Dad is a person I have admired from before the time I first knew him. My Dad had a wonderful sense of humour. His childhood and university days were full of harmless pranks and the nicest sound I can remember is my Dad reading or listening to the radio when something would tickle his sense of humour making him laugh out loud, infecting anyone within hearing.

Source: <a href=””>Admiration: Weekly Photo Challenge</a>




A footnote on Princess Budhson

Shahu II

Shahu II

In a recent post, I described the descent of my great-aunt Boodie (Florence Teasdale Smith) from an Indian Princess. Princess Budhson (was the daughter of Raja Shahu II Bhonsle (1763 – 3 May 1808), who was the titular Chhatrapati (emperor) of the Maratha Empire, and his third wife Rani Shrimant Akhand S Gunwatabai.

The Ancestry database India, Select Births and Baptisms, 1786-1947 (1) contains an index entry for the marriage of Henry Crawshay Teasdale to “Native Woman Buh’Hson”. The same name is cited on the birth certificate for her daughter Emma. Her name is also variously given as Budhson or Bakshan in various sources and family trees. I did a google search for names in the district of Satara in the Maharashtra state in Western India and found “Bakshan” but no mention of the other two variants. So perhaps Bakshan was the currect version of her name.

Ellen Teasdale

Ellen Teasdale

Emma Mary Teasdale

Emma Mary Teasdale

Major Henry Crawshay Teasdale(1801-1843) and Princess Buh’Hson (1803-1831) had three children Ellen Teasdale (1825-1895), Emma Mary Teasdale (1825-) and Henry Jackson Teasdale (1830-1870). As Emma was born in May 1825, it is likely that she and Ellen (from whom my Aunty Boodie is descended) were twins.


Boodie and theosophy in Australia

My great-aunt Boodie (Florence Teasdale Smith) was born around 1892 in Melbourne and was descended from Irish quakers and an Indian Maharajah (see ancestral-tales-a-theosophist-a-thief-and-an-indian-princess).

Boodie and her mother were theosophists, and Boodie was a vegetarian who never ate meat. She was involved in funding the construction of an amphitheatre at Balmoral to watch for the coming of Krishnamurti. Another family recollection was that “her money bought a house in Balmoral for the theosophists”. This note gives a brief overview of theosophy in Australia and sheds some light on the “house” and amphitheatre in Mosman.


Florence Teasdale Smith (Boodie)

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