Home

Introduction

Biographical details

Hugh Capel's Books
 -Where the Dead Men Lie
 -Kiandra Gold

Index of Poems

Glossary

Locations

Photo Gallery

1896 memoir by Barcroft's father

Barcroft's Letters

Address to Cooma Monaro Historical Society

Press Articles

Man from Snowy River linkage

Contact Hugh Capel



Address To The Cooma Monaro Historical Society

The Story of Barcroft Boake:
Bush Poet of the Monaro
Address to the Cooma Monaro Historical Society
21 March 2002

I very much appreciate the opportunity I’ve been given tonight to address the Cooma Monaro Historical Society.  For this I am specially grateful to Wendy Hain, the President of the Society, and to Heather Rhodes, the Society’s Librarian. 

The title of my talk tonight is: The Story of Barcroft Boake: Bush Poet of the Monaro.  It’s based on research I have done for my book, “Where the Dead Men Lie, The Story of Barcroft Boake, Bush Poet of the Monaro” - just published by Ginninderra Press.

Barcroft Boake is famous for his poem, “Where the Dead Men Lie”, which is included in most collections of Australian poetry.  What is less well known is his connection with the Monaro district, which he came to call his home. 

I hope you will find Barcroft’s story as fascinating as I do.  It’s a story about his love for the bush, and for its people – and particularly about his love for the Monaro.  It’s a story about life in the Monaro district in the late nineteenth century.  But it’s also a tragic love story. 

At a different level, it’s been a detective story – a challenge to find out the truth – to discover history.  I’ve had to seek out and put together the clues that can explain why things happened the way they did. 

The big questions that puzzled me were:

§       Why did Barcroft kill himself in 1892?

§       Was it because of his love for a girl?

§       Was it over one of the McKeahnie girls from Rosedale?

§       If so, was it over Jean, or was it over May?

For me the story is a personal one.  My mother, who was tragically killed in 1972 in a car accident at Michelago, gave me a book of Barcroft’s poems when I was a teenager.  My mother had a special interest in Barcroft as we are descended from his oldest sister, Adelaide.  Barcroft was my mother’s great uncle.

When I was younger I read some of his poems, and skimmed through the Memoir written by A G Stephens, which is included with his collection of poems.  We had the 1913 edition.  Over the years I would occasionally glance through the book, but I found it very emotional to read his story.  I couldn’t easily read the part that described the circumstances of his death.

By a strange coincidence, in 1992 my wife and I bought land at Dry Plain, fronting Caddigat Creek.  It was bushland that I immediately felt comfortable in.  Like my mother, I’ve always had an affinity for the high country bush and have been a frequent visitor to the Snowy Mountains since the 1960s.  I knew some of Barcroft’s works related to the Monaro so a couple of years ago I took the book of his poems up to our place at Caddigat. 

On re-reading the book up there I suddenly realised that many of the places mentioned in the book were in the vicinity.  I decided to see if I could locate them on the map, and visit them.  About a year ago I located and then visited the site of Rocklands farm, on the old Cooma/Adaminaby road (in the Frying Pan Creek area) where Barcroft lived for two years – from 1886 until 1888.  These were the two happiest years of his life. 

By this time I was fully familiar with his relationship with the McKeahnie girls.  As I drove back to our place at Caddigat Creek it struck me I could well be travelling the same route that Barcroft had taken when riding over to Rosedale to visit the McKeahnies each Sunday. 

The story of his relationship with the McKeahnie girls and his sad ending suddenly seemed most vivid.  It struck me as a very moving story.  At the same time I suddenly felt I had to tell his story to people today.  I felt I owed it to him - to tell his story - and to bring his works to attention again.  This urge was more than an inclination.  It was a pressing task that could not be delayed.  So I began writing - and researching.  In fact I felt quite driven in this way until I had completed the first draft of my book - in about August last year.

In the book I tell Barcroft’s story in the form of a novel.  As such it cannot be entirely “true” historically because I have had to fill in the gaps where information is not available.  But I have tried to tell the story in a way that is true to the spirit of what happened.  As well, I have woven a number of Barcroft’s letters into the story, just as he wrote them at the time.  These letters are of historic interest themselves. 

Later tonight I will read to you some interesting material that I have discovered in my research, which is not included in my book, and which has not previously been published.

But first some information about Barcroft.  In the Memoir accompanying the collection of his works first published in 1897, A G Stephens (Bulletin Red Page Editor and contemporary literary critic) said:

“To Australians, lovers of letters, the brief and thwarted life of Barcroft Boake must always remain a theme of regret.  By education he was poorly equipped for poetry.  He found his talent late, and early made an end.  His small performance was completed in a period of scarcely more than a year.  Dying by his own hand at the age of twenty-six, he achieved little of all that his capacity promised.  Yet, had fortune favoured, this ill-starred idealist might easily have 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 short stories in 1897 (The Australian Cinematograph).

Other literary critics were impressed too.  J Brunton Stephens agreed that had Boake lived seven years longer he may have won recognition as the foremost poet of Australia.  He wrote that Boake’s work “had atmosphere - Australian atmosphere........Paterson has it.  Lawson has it.  O’Hara has it and several others I could name.  But I think Boake has more of it than any of them - more than Kendall and Gordon, and that’s saying a very bold thing.”  Later, Douglas Stewart and Clement Semmler were similarly impressed. 

Barcroft’s star blazed briefly and brightly as an Australian bush poet for little more than a year, before he took his own life by hanging himself by his stockwhip on the shore of Sydney Harbour in 1892.

He was born Barcroft Henry Thomas Boake in Sydney in 1866.  His father, Barcroft Capel Boake, had a photographic studio at 330 George Street in Sydney.  As there are too many Barcroft’s in this story so I will refer to Barcroft Capel in future as Boake Senior.  Boake Senior had migrated from Dublin to Melbourne in 1858, when he was 20 years old.  Eight years later, in Sydney, he married Florence Eva Clarke, who had been born in Adelaide.  Apart from Barcroft, who was the eldest son, they had a total of nine children, only five of whom survived into adulthood.  These five included Barcroft (the poet) and his four sisters, Adelaide, Violet, Clare and Evie.

Barcroft grew up in North Sydney when it was mostly bush.  He had to ride his pony to Milson’s Point to go to school across the harbour.  According to his father his chief outdoor amusement in his leisure time consisted of exploring the local bush of Middle Harbour by boat, by horse or on foot.

When he finished his schooling, in 1885, after qualifying by passing the Government examination, he was taken into the Government Survey Office as a temporary draughtsman.  He soon became bored with life in the office.  An interesting quote from Boake Senior, written in 1896 after Barcroft’s death, will give you the picture.

“He (Barcroft) became very weary at his office life and of the hopeless inactivity of his fellow clerks.  The art of doing as little useful work as possible was made a study.  He had known, he afterwards said, one youth in his room more than once spent the afternoon asleep under the desk.  All this of course long ago.”

Clearly this sort of thing could never happen today!

After two years in the Survey Office Barcroft was offered the place of field assistant by Mr Commins, based at Rocklands farm, near Adaminaby.  During his two years in the Adaminaby district while working as a surveyor, Barcroft developed such a love of the bush that he never wanted to return to Sydney.  It was during this time he became friendly with the McKeahnies who lived at Rosedale Station (now called Bolaro), and in particular their daughters, Jean and May.

Barcroft got bored with surveying and after leaving the Monaro in 1888 he travelled north, working firstly as a stockman and then as a drover, ranging as far north as the Diamantina River.  In 1890, after his droving boss splurged Barcroft’s earnings in a drunken spree, Barcroft had to return to working as a surveyor in the Riverina district, where he began to write poetry based on his bush experiences.  Most of his published poems appeared in the Bulletin during 1891 and 1892, initially appearing under the pen name of “Surcingle” (a horse’s girth strap).  He must have realised the silliness of this nom de plume as he soon changed to signing off as Barcroft Boake. 

In December 1891 he returned to Sydney to join his dying grandmother and his father, whose photography business had failed.  It was the time of the severe 1892 financial depression and Barcroft was unable to find further employment.  In May, apparently after hearing that his “best girl” was going to be married, he was found dead, with a note in his pocket saying “Write to Miss McKeahnie.”

In his brief but eventful life young Barcroft managed to capture and record for posterity the colour and the characters of the Monaro district.  Perhaps more directly even than Banjo Paterson, with whom he was contemporary, Barcroft’s poems are based on real life occurrences.  In this way they have special historic interest for Monaro residents. 

Of Barcroft’s published poems six are set directly in the Monaro/Snowy Mountains District.  In no special order these include:

§       The Demon Snow Shoes (A Legend of Kiandra) - about a mythical ski race - based on what Barcroft had seen of skiing at Kiandra.

§       Kitty McCrae - which tells how brave Kitty was shot by bushrangers while bringing home the Kiandra gold mail.

§       How Babs Malone cut down the Field - the story of how a baby on a horse accidentally won the Adaminaby Handicap.

§       On the Range - describes how Charlie McKeahnie chased a wild brumby from Nungar Plain to the upper Murrumbidgee gorge, where it killed itself by running into a granite boulder.

§       Jack Corrigan - describes a trooper’s chase starting in Adaminaby and ending downstream from Rosedale - in which a local cattle thief ends up drowning in the Murrumbidgee River.

§       An Easter Rhyme - compares the sad and grimy life in the city with the excitement at Rosedale on an Adaminaby race day.

A number of these poems concern events that actually happened.  For example Lem McKeahnie (the youngest of the McKeahnie sisters) said the bones of the horse that Charlie McKeahnie chased down the Murrumbidgee in “On the Range” could be seen at the spot where it died.  If anyone can locate this spot I would like to know as I am keen to retrace the chase.  I have already visited where it began on Nungar Plain.

As an aside, it is claimed that during a visit to the Bredbo Hotel Banjo Paterson told the publican that Charlie McKeahnie was one of the mountain horsemen on whom he based the Man from Snowy River.  Neville Locker believes he now has compelling evidence that Charlie McKeahnie was indeed The Man From Snowy River.

An interesting comment appears at the end of Boake Senior’s Memoir when he describes correspondence between himself and Mrs McKeahnie after Barcroft’s death.  Boake Senior writes:

“Mrs McKeahnie is mentioned in one of (Barcroft’s) letters, her address is Rosedale Station, Cooma.  But Miss McKeahnie he never mentioned before.  I wrote as directed and got a reply asking for further particulars which I supplied and received another letter from the same lady.  I sent her “Jack Corrigan” which she acknowledged and said it was evidently suggested by the fate of a young fellow in the neighbourhood against whom a warrant was issued for cattle stealing and when the police came to arrest him he was found drowned, presumably in his attempt to escape by crossing the Murrumbidgee then in flood.  She said the poem gave a faithful description of the road.”

Further evidence of the connection between Barcroft’s poems and the Monaro is provided in a letter from Jean McKeahnie that I recently located in the Mitchell Library archives.  This was written in 1896, and explains how some of Barcroft’s poems written at Rosedale came to be included in the A G Stephens book.  It is worth quoting in full. 

Bombalong

31 - 8 - 96

Messrs Angus and Robertson

Dear Sirs

Please find enclosed 2/2 stamps for book “David Livingstone”.

Having noticed that you intend publishing B H Boake’s poems, I am enclosing one of a few I have written by him in a scrap book.  You may wish it worthy of a place.  It is also interesting as being among his first attempts, and also having been written the night before he left Monaro where he had been for some years, many of his poems being local.  Indeed all his horse’s names were taken from horses belonging to our station, Rosedale.  Hoping I am not taking up too much of your time.

I remain

Yours truly

Jean McKeahnie.

C/- A Peden

Bombalong

Colinton.

The poem that Jean enclosed, copied out in her own handwriting, was Barcroft’s “Goodbye”, which he wrote in her scrapbook just before he left Rosedale in August 1888.  This is included in my book.

The study of history is full of surprises.  Until I found Boake Senior’s memoir I worried that I was drawing too heavily on A G Stephen’s work for my story.  I now know that much of Stephen’s work was drawn from Boake Senior’s own Memoir, and from Barcroft’s letters, which his father provided to Stephens.  This is the primary source material.  Somehow it feels good to have relied mostly on the work of my own relatives.

I will now try and answer the questions I posed at the beginning of this talk. 

The first question was why Barcroft killed himself in 1892.  The answer to this became more complex the more I researched.  There is evidence that he suffered from bouts of depression from an early age.  I wondered at the effect of his separation from his family for nearly two years at the age of nine, when he accompanied a friend of his father’s to Noumea.  I also wondered at the effect of the death of his mother when he was 13.  These were personal events that no doubt were important, but it is hard to accurately quantify their effects.

Until I revisited the history of the time I did not realise the severity of the 1891-93 financial depression, and how this could have been instrumental in the failure of his father’s photography business.  The depression would also have had a major effect on Barcroft’s prospects of obtaining employment.  In the months before his death the Bulletin featured articles about the civil service retrenchments that were then occurring.

In summary it is probable there were a range of factors which caused Barcroft to take that last irrevocable step.  In my book I have tried to give the reader an understanding of how and why this might have been.

As to whether he killed himself for the love of a girl, the key evidence concerns his receipt, shortly before his death, of news from the bush that his best girl was going to be married.  Boake Senior writes about this as follows.

“About this time, his sisters tell me he received a letter from the country, and he told one of them that he had had a “bad turn” or “rather a knock” today; “I hear that my best girl is going to be married.”  Whether this was serious or not I cannot say.  He never confided in any of his sisters.  There may have been nothing in it; on the other hand it may have been the last straw.  He left no letters behind to give me a clue and, as he received a good many, he must have destroyed them.”

If a girl was involved there are three candidates.  May and Jean McKeahnie I have already mentioned.  There is also the possibility it may have been an O’Connor girl.  Despite keeping in touch by letter, Barcroft never returned to Rosedale after leaving there in 1888.  On the other hand, while working in the Riverina District in the year or so immediately prior to his death, he became friendly with Dr and Mrs O’Connor of Connorton, Wagga Wagga, and their daughters.  In the introduction to the 1897 edition of Barcroft’s work A G Stephens specially thanks Mrs and Miss O’Connor for their assistance.

There are two clues that suggest it was a McKeahnie girl who was most dear to Barcroft’s heart.  The note that was found on him after his death instructed his father to write to Miss McKeahnie.  But it did not say which Miss McKeahnie, or why.  There are clues that point in different directions.  While at Rosedale he wrote poems in Jean’s scrapbook, yet it is May who is mentioned in the poem published just before his death, “An Easter Rhyme”, the full text of which is in my book.

I was still uncertain as to whether it was an O’Connor girl or a McKeahnie girl that he loved until I came across a most unusual poem in the Mitchell Library archives.  I will read some of it to you.  It was in his verse book and has never been published.  As best I can gather it was written around 1891, when he was in the Riverina District.  It is titled “To a Hatpeg”.  In the poem the hatpeg is clearly a symbol for the girl he has left behind.  It goes like this:

“There’s a nice little hatpeg that hangs on the wall
That long from its owner has parted,
And though he is wandering far beyond call
Like him it is always true hearted.
Many seasons have passed since his limp Cabbage Tree (hat)
Has dangled upon the old rack
But that one single peg, always vacant must be,
For its owner will surely come back.
And though in far countries, he sadly doth roam
While hunger had forced him to beg
Till fortune grows kindly, and sends him back home,
There’s an Angel who watches that peg.
One afternoon, after a long weary tramp,
And hard grafting (work), to which he’s no stranger,
He found, that a letter, had come to the camp,
To warn him, his peg was in danger;
The words that he used, are best shown by a dash -
As he swore that no rival he’d brook,
Said he “my fine fellow I’ll settle your hash”
As the first train to Cooma he took,”

He then proceeds to describe how he will deal with his rival – by making mincemeat of him – literally - quite gory really - but not really meant to be taken too seriously.  The last verse then concludes:

“Read these verses sweet youth! for a moral lies there.
‘Tis short, not much more than a line,
At Rosedale, are plenty of pegs and to spare -
Don’t hang up your hat upon mine –“

The full text of this poem is included at the end of my book.

This poem implies that Barcroft was willing to fight for his girl - at least at the time he wrote it.  His frame of mind at the time of his death, after more than four months of unemployment and after the other things that had happened, may have been quite different.

While this poem is not certain proof, it is compelling evidence to me that it was one of the McKeahnie girls he truly loved.  However, when Jean and May were asked the question later in life, both apparently denied it was either of them. 

If you ask me who I think he loved, I won’t be telling you tonight.  The answer is in my book.  I hope people will be interested enough to read my book and find out.  We will probably never know the certain truth.  What we can know is that his premature death is a cause for deep sadness, and for reflection.

I mentioned at the beginning of this talk that Barcroft’s story was a very personal one for me.  For some unknown reason I have always felt a strong affinity for him.  As a result I found writing the end of the book a very emotional experience.  When I wrote the last chapter I had tears in my eyes.  I don’t know how other people will react to the story.  I hope I have managed to capture in some way the emotion involved, so that readers too can feel and care about what happened.

I hope I have not put you off.  It is only the end that is sad.  Along the way Barcroft had many interesting adventures and experiences, both while in the Monaro District, and while droving.  These are captured in a unique way in the letters he wrote to his father, which I have woven into the story.

Barcroft’s poems are also worth reading.  Some are better written than others, but like his letters they have historic interest.  In my experience his poems increase in interest as you learn more about the context in which they were written.  This is one of the reasons I have included the selection of poems as an appendix to the book.  I would recommend reading his poems after reading the book.

The range of subjects covered by Barcroft in his poems is unusual.  His poems are not just bush ballads.  Despite common belief some are humorous, and he covers a diverse range of subjects.  His portrayal of women is also unusual for the time.  There are a number of courageous women in his poems, for example in “Kitty McCrae” and in “How Polly Paid for Her Keep”, while “Jim’s Whip” is narrated with strength and sensitivity by Jim’s widow. 

Barcroft’s sympathetic treatment of women may be due to his experience growing up and spending time in the company of strong women, including his sisters and the McKeahnie girls.  A G Stephens implies it was due to the feminine side of his character, which in the nineteenth century was associated with any sensitivity.  Stephens’ 1897 commentary says as much about Stephens’ own beliefs and prejudices as it adds to our understanding of Barcroft.  Certainly “To a Hatpeg” suggests there was more than a feminine and sensitive side to Barcroft’s character!

A word about editors.  When reading Barcroft’s poems in the Bulletin I realised they were different from those in the A G Stephens book.  Clemment Semmler in his book apraising Barcroft’s poetry also noted this.  When A G Stephens published Barcroft’s poems in 1897 he edited them.  By his admission he “strengthened a line or changed a word where the advantage seemed obvious or the necessity great.”  In doing so he changed much of the punctuation.  Some of his editing may improve the poems, as Barcroft’s punctuation was pretty erratic, but overall I think his changes are for the worse. 

Stephens loved exclamation marks.  Barcroft only occasionally used them.  Nearly all the exclamation marks you see in the reproduction of Barcroft’s work have been added by Stephens.  This is particularly so in “Where the Dead Men Lie” where Stephens has changed the whole tone of the poem.  Wherever I have reproduced Barcroft’s poems I have used the original versions, as first published in the Bulletin.  If Barcroft wasn’t perfect it’s not our job to correct him.

In conclusion I’d like to explain why I have written Barcroft’s story as a novel, and not as history. 

My interest is in living history.  I want people to feel how it was to be there.  Barcroft and the McKeahnie girls are so real to me that I can almost talk to them.  I wanted readers to feel the same way.  By writing analytical and factual history I could never have hoped to achieve this.

Delving into family history can have unexpected results.  In the process of researching my book I discovered a family secret.  It concerns my grandmother’s father, who married Barcroft’s sister, Adelaide.  We, in later generations, had always thought of our ancestors as models of stability.  However Boake Senior writes about his daughter Adelaide and her husband as follows.

“(Barcroft’s) grandma was invalided and confined to her bed and his eldest sister (Adelaide) had found marriage a failure and was domiciled with me: her husband being a helpless creature was dismissed from the Railway Dept.”

This is my great great grandfather talking about his son in law, my great grandfather!

Another unexpected comment was from my father.  Although he is a trained historian, when I told him I was researching Barcroft he said he’d never been greatly interested in Barcroft because he’d thought of him as  “yellow”.  By this he meant that Barcroft didn’t have the courage to face life. 

I was initially taken aback, but I soon realised this was really a comment on the relationship between my mother and my father, who separated when I was three.  Anything that was dear to my mother would not have found favour with my father, particularly another man, and perhaps even a dead one.  There are plenty of my mother’s relatives who share a more sympathetic view of Barcroft.  These include Evie’s two daughters, Claire and Adele, who I recently met in Sydney, and who are now both around their nineties.  Evie was Barcroft’s youngest sister.

Writing my book on Barcroft has prompted me to reflect on my own life.  I studied history for three years at university.  Then, after meeting with Professor Manning Clark, who was to supervise my honours year thesis, I decided not to go on with it.  That is a story for another time and place.  What I will say now is that it is refreshing to return to the study of history after a break of thirty years.  I am now free to write history as I see it. 

Already I am thinking of another book, also in the form of a novel, but based on a detailed study of the history of the time.  Kiandra Gold is the title I have in mind.  It would be set in the Snowy Mountains and the Monaro, at the time of the Kiandra Gold rush, around 1860.  Perhaps I will be able to talk to you about it again in a few years time.

As part of my commitment to raising Barcroft Boake’s profile I have established an Internet web site.  This is available at www.boake.net.  This web site includes the poems in the appendix to my book plus a few more. 

You can visit the web site and have a look at pictures of Barcroft and his family.  I am also proposing to include Boake Senior’s Memoir on the web site as this is primary source material that history students may be interested in.  A study of Barcroft, his writing and his times is a window into the fascinating world he lived in.  It is the Australia that some of us have come from.

Thank you for listening to me this evening.  I have enjoyed sharing Barcroft and his world with you.  I hope you have found it interesting too.

I would be pleased to answer any questions.

 

Hugh Capel

Author of “Where the Dead Men Lie, The Story of Barcroft Boake, Bush Poet of the Monaro”, Ginninderra Press, 2002.

Copyright 2002