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Barcroft Capel Boake

The following memoir was written by Barcroft Capel Boake (the poet’s father) in 1896.  It was provided to A G Stephens, who drew on it when writing his own Memoir, included with the collection of Barcroft’s poems published by Angus and Robertson in 1897.  The original of this text, and a typescript copy made by Stephens, are held in the Mitchell Library, Sydney.

Barcroft Capel Boake - father of the poet – was the fifth son of a respected citizen of Dublin, where for three generations the family had been in business in Dawson St. for nearly a century; and was born in that city Nov. 1838.

Barcroft was an old family name the original bearer of which is lost in dim archives of the past.  But this particular Barcroft was named after his cousin the Rev. Barcroft Boake D.D. who was his godfather and who subsequently was appointed Incumbent of Holy Trinity Church, Balaclava, Melbourne, and occupied the pulpit there much esteemed by a larger circle of parishioners till his death in the year 1876.

Barcroft Capel was apprenticed at the age of 15 to a business calculated to fascinate a boy viz a Polytechnic depot for scientific instruments including photographic cameras the use of which he there got an inkling.  But he had to be at business at from 7.30 a.m. to 8 o’clock p.m. and with no very clearly defined duties and not overly well fed and so constantly getting into trouble from break-ages through clumsiness and bad luck that his life became un bearable and he concluded to break his indenture and run away, so took ship one day for Holyhead and tramped from there to Chester and from thence next day to Manchester some 40 odd miles.  Here he readily got employment at a photographers’ and was brought by his boss to London where he spent two years and where he experienced some of the vicissitudes and pains of the prodigal and was even aquainted for a short time (pantomime season) with the bright side of the footlights of the “Hay-Market.”  He then returned home to Dublin and after a few months was sent out with a family who were migrating to Australia.  He sailed with them on the “S.S.Great Britain” and arrived in Melbourne 1858, practiced as a photographer there for 4 – 5 years and then accepted an engagement as operator for Messrs. Freeman Bros. The leading artist of Sydney at that time.  Here he fell in love with a beautiful girl of 17 Florence Eva Clarke native of Adelaide S.A. only daughter of Mrs. Clarke a widow residing at Miller’s Point and after a two years engagement was married to her at St. John’s Darlinghurst by the Rev. Rogers of Miller’ Point on Feb. 7th 1865.

The young couple spent the first year of their life at “Vergemont Cottage,” Waterview Bay Balmain and there their first child Barcroft Henry was born on March 17 1866.  The mother of the poet is worthy of more than passing word of description, more especially as the latter derived many of his mental qualities from her – as such at least is the opinion of one who knew them both well.

She was of medium height and build for a woman and possessed a magnificent head of bright silky waving hair a golden brown.  Her eyes were uncommonly large and blue.  Highly “spirituelle, of rapid thought and quick decision.  The contour of her face a sharp oval with an unusually long Jewish nose which did not, however at all detract from the delicate femininity of her expression, and correspondingly short under lip and small firm mouth.  Her character was a singular an most charming combination of force and tenderness.  She was gifted with high moral courage – fear of man or woman was to her unknown.  This she proved on more that one occasion when the emergency arose in the course of her all too short married life.  With a graceful manner and a ready flow of well chosen words she could speak her mind with calmness and dignity without the least display of anger under the most trying conditions.  Yet for all that she was of a cheerful and joyous nature courteous and amiable and fond of society; energetic in her duties of which the tender care of those around her came first on the list.  She had a capacity for study and a good memory and continued her studies in French and Music for long after her marriage her object being to qualify herself to instruct her children. For she did not believe much in Girls’ schools and although she was imbued with strong religious principles, her mother having been a woman of great religious fervour she disapproved of Sunday schools she said she knew too much about them having been herself a teacher.  Shortly after Barcroft’s birth Mr. Boake opened business on his own account and the family removed to Sydney residing for two years upon the premises 330 George St. where he had his studio.  At this place the second child Adelaide Eva (now Mrs. Kerr) was born – a weird little elf with huge dark eyes, a dimple and a great crop of dark brown hair.  It was said that she took after her grandma Mrs. Clarke.  Mr Boake who was doing a large business purchased a waterside residence at Lavender Bay near Milson’s Point since resumed for Govt. Railway purposes and to this place the family removed and there spent 10 happy years, broken only by one sorrow, viz, the death of a girl 2 ½ years (Ernestine Maud). Here also was born Florence Violette (The “pretty” Miss Boake, now Mrs. G.E.Smith of Melbourne) 1872

Clarice Capel    1873
Ernestine Maude             1875       died 1878
Evelyn Jessie   1877
Wilfred                                     1879       died 1880
The father being fond of aquatic sports young Barcroft at an early age could swim and sail or pull a boat and these exercises constituted afterwards his chief amusement during his residence in Sydney.

When about 8 years old he received accidentally a rather bad scalp wound through falling against a window which severed the eyebrow and eyelid without however injuring the eye but leaving permanently a disfiguring scar.

At the age of 8 – 9 “Bartie” as he was called was sent to a day school at Milson’s Point (the Misses Cook) but when he was about 9 ½ a Mr. Allen Hughen of Noumea N.C. an intimate friend of the Boakes paid them a visit and taking a great fancy to the little fellow having no sons of his own wished to take him to Noumea for a term.  Mrs Boake consented to part with him for 18 months on condition that he was put to a French school and made to learn the language.

Accordingly Mr. and Mrs. Hughen took loving charge of the little fellow and returned him in two years with a good knowledge of French and this he continued to study and eventually became proficient therein.

Meantime owing to Mrs. Boake’s delicate health a change of residence was considered desirable and the Boake family removed to “Roebuck” North Willoughby, about 3 miles from Milson’s Point and not far from one of the arms of Middle Harbour (“Sailor Bay’).

Some few months after Barcroft’s return from Noumea when he was about 11 ½ the sad affliction occurred that altered the whole future of the family, viz the death of his mother by puerperal fever after giving birth to twin boys one of whom died in infancy the other Ephraim lived to the age of 14 but a hopeless idiot.  In a letter to Mr. Hughen at this time Bartie said that “His mama was taken away leaving a little baby boy behind – what an exchange.”

Mrs Boake died on Nov. 4 1897 and was interred a the Church of England Cemetery St. Leonards leaving 6 children living viz Barcroft Henry 11 ½  Adelaide Eva 10  Florence Violette (8) Clarice Capel (6) Evelyn Jessie (2 ½) and one of the twins an infant boy – Ephraim.  Mrs. Boake’s mother Mrs Clarke, and old lady, not physically strong but of exemplary piety and devoted to her grandchildren, undertook the care of children from that time forth, a task which she performed as far as her strength permitted, with loving care and solicitude for their moral well-being as long as she lived.  Her special favourites were Barcroft over who she exercised a strong influence and who was correspondingly attracted to her and the little afflicted one Ephraim who remained the chief object of her care for the remainder of her life.

Bartie was now placed by his father as a day scholar at the Sydney Grammar School, but as he had to ride his pony down to Milson’s Point, stable him there and take the ferry across and then walk up to school, it is not surprising that he was frequently late and his father thought he passed too much time writing penal exercises.  So after two terms he withdrew him and placed him under Mr. Blackmore who kept a private school in Hunter Street, under whose tuition he made fair progress in Latin and Mathematics.

At the age of 15 Mr. Blackmore advised that he be placed to some profession; acting thereon his father removed him from school and placed him with Mr. Reece, a land surveyor and draughtsman to learn something of plan drawing.  According to Mr. Reece’s account he seemed at first indifferent about his work but after a time got interested and showed so much aptitude and capacity that he was very soon qualified to pass the Govt. examination and was taken into the Survey Office as a “temporary Draughtsman” in March 1885 at the age of 17 at a salary of 120 pounds.

From this time till he left the service his chief out-door amusement in leisure time consisted of exploring the wilds of Middle Harbour by boat on horseback or on foot – sometimes in the company of his father or sisters or some companions, if not, alone.

He admired football and cricket as games and was a good tennis player and also rode a “Bike” of the old fashioned pattern for a time – but was never enthusiastic about athletics and took his pleasure with serenity.

In character, young Bartie was very reticent and reserved, but when he anything to say, expressed himself with great accuracy.  He had a calm judicial mind and was not inclined to allow his sympathies to govern his view of things.  He was the soul of honour, generous, unselfish and constant in his affections.

His mother having been a woman of exemplary piety he was early trained into the principles of the Christian religion as taught by the Ch. of England and although as he grew older he naturally absorbed somewhat broader views from his father who was agnostic, he was never known to treat lightly any religious subject.  On one occasion his father was cross examining him as to beliefs and doubts and he remarked that after all he thought the best religion for a man was that which he learnt at his mother’s knees.  At that his father let the subject rest.

In physique he took more after his mother than his father being of medium stature and slight build though strong and hardy.  He had a small well-shaped head with prominent Roman nose short upper lip and small mouth, eyes rather small and dark, hair black.  His features were evidently inherited from his mother, excepting his eyes and complexion which in her case was fair and her eyes large and blue.  At he age of 18 he became entitled to the sum of 200 pounds and his father perhaps injudiciously gave him the exclusive control of the money which was placed in the Savings Bank.  A year of so later an occasion rose for its advantageous investment and Mr. Boake senr. made arrangements on his son’s behalf and asked Bartie to draw the money.  To his surprise the lad did not appear at the appointed time and his father waited all day somewhat anxiously.  At a late hour Bartie turned up and made confession with bitter tears that he had lent 100 pounds to a friend and had spent the interest on the Race course and had but 100 pounds which he begged his father to take from him as he never wished to handle it again.  His distress of mind was so great that his father though placed in a very awkward position, being personally responsible, found himself obliged to act as consoler and to moderate the sting of the lad’s remorse.

Mr financial position was becoming embarrassed and the Bank pressing for paying of overdraft.  This I explained to Bartie and the lad’s distress of mind was on my account.  I never knew him before to evade the truth for a moment, and I waited for him on the road as he came home he not having kept his appointment in the morning.  He told me that he lacked courage to face me with the facts.  Poor lad little he knew how paltry the 100 pounds would seem to me one day.  I told him that the money was his own and that I had always intended him to spend it as he liked otherwise I should not have entirely parted with it.  As to the horse-racing I said “every young fellow knocks down a few pounds that way, it is a good lesson don’t trouble over that trifling loss.”  The loan of 100 pounds was made to Reece and it is to that he alludes in letter “Cunnamulla” Nov. 20 – 89.  It was a pill for me but I thank God that I made the effort to disguise it and succeeded.

He 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 beneath the desk.  All of this of course long ago.  But after two years of this life he was offered the place of field Assistant by Mr. Commins L.S. “Rocklands,” Adaminaby, near Cooma, and after consultation with his father decided to accept it.  He longed to get away and though the pay was small he was as pleased as though it was promotion.  He was 19 when he entered Mr. Commins service at the latter end of the year 1886.  He took to the country life with avidity and though he complained of the dullness and monotony at times and now and then at the hardships it was always in a jocular vein and always averred that he would not by preference live in Sydney again.  It was while at “Rocklands” Adaminaby that he underwent a terrible experience that nearly cost him his life.  This he has in part described in a sketch entitled “A bad quarter of an hour,” written not long before his death and published in the “Bulletin” afterwards where it is fully narrated.  In his letter from this place he describes the winter as being very severe – snow for extended periods, and snow shoes are used to carry the mails to Kiandra and he must need learn to use them.  It was here that “The Demon Snow-Shoes was suggested.

By the time his two years with Mr. Commins were expired he had become so wedded to bush life that he preferred to take employment upon a Station rather than return to Sydney as he was urged to do by his father and grandmother, who wished him to qualify for his licence as Surveyor.  He accordingly took service as a boundary rider on “Mullah Station” Trangie and remained there during the summer of 1888-89.

In April 1889 he left Mullah in company with two other young fellows (the brothers Boyd) on a roving expedition, northward.  We next hear from him Thylungrah where he engages with a drover to take a mob of cattle to Cunnamulla (Currawilla on the road, also from Windorah)

NOTE: - he asked me to get him a letter of intro. to some respectable person and I asked Mr. Hungerford for one who declined on the ground that he did not know him “How can I be expected to introduce a person whom I don’t know?”

He arrives in Cunnamulla in October and remained there for several weeks expecting another job.  Here he had leisure to meditate and wrote the remarkable letter dated from Cunnamulla Nov. 20, 1889.  Remarkable as being evidently his first conception of beautiful thoughts which he later formulated in the poem “Where the dead men lie.”

NOTE   from the words “There is a pleasure in a mad gallop” to the end of page 6

For the next 3 or 4 months he was employed droving and at last returned to Bathurst and ran down from there to Sydney to see his relatives expecting to return in a few days’ time with the same party from Bathurst where he left them in March 1889.  He stayed at his father’s house in Croydon for a week only, and returned to Bathurst but on arriving there found that his “Boss” had been on the spree knocked down his cheque and had to sell some of his horses to get away and had left Bathurst the previous day – a broker.

Bartie’s disgust and indignation was taken advantage of by his father to point out to him the unsubstantiality of that mode of life and the inferiority of the class of man likely to be met with as associates.

The affair had certainly a marked influence upon him and for good for after a few weeks he decided to resume his profession and took employment with Mr. Lipscomb L.S. of Wagga Wagga in May 1890. and remained associated with him till December 14. 1891.

It was during this period that he first turned his attention seriously to literature and the discovery that he had the poetic faculty and that this was recognised by a competent authority burst upon him suddenly as a revelation.  From this time to his final return to Sydney his life was a joyous one, his mind full of bright fancy and confidence in his future.  His health perfect, in his muscular development as hard as a nail, and living amongst scenes and surroundings a free out door life all congenial to his taste.

I was myself fond of stringing rhymes and aquired a certain facility and have turned out a few ballads odes of a frivolous kind some of which found their way into “locals”, and I think I could even find something of mine in one of the back No.’s of the Bulletin; and I remember to pass an hour on a Sunday afternoon at North Willoughby I used to get Bartie to collaborate with me and write alternate lines of poetry, and I noticed even then that his ideas were better than mine.  In this way we finished off an ode to Gambretta but I don’t remember except that I rather think one or two of my lines spoilt it.  Bartie wrote a tale about this time and got me to read it – a boy’s story – the scene, Middle Harbour, a bushranger’s cave discovered by a boy which turned out to be a private Still.

Evie my youngest daughter can string rhymes and write a rather smart school girl’s skit when she was at Croydon State School (the only one of my children that ever went to the State and she was not improved thereby); it is this that Bartie alludes to in his letter July 25. ’91.

All I know about his life in the country is from that which is contained in his letters and fortunately there are enough in existence to give a very good clue to his movements, habits, and thoughts, so that for this period of his life you will be perusing them in precisely the same position that I am myself.

Letter dated “Camp” The Rock, Oct. 18 ’91.

The letter from Rolf Bolderwood here alluded to I cannot find.  I have his ode to Rolfe Bolderwood which was printed I believe in the Alubury Banner and you will find it amongst the printed extracts as the lines to Arthur Biscay the young fellow whose funeral is described in letter from Mundawarry 25:7:91.

The verses on poor Mr. Gowland which seem to have made a sensation are probably amongst the manuscripts though I cannot identify them as yet by the satire on the “Gentleman by act of Parliament” was written about the same time.

In letter Oct. 19.’91 he alludes to a poem which he enclosed what he calls “The result of the Sun bath” it is “Desiree” and it is to be found in the manuscript books.  Nov 1st ’91 is the date of the last of his letters in my possession and pleasing portion of my task here ends and the painful toils begins.

In December of that year ’91 his engagement with Mr. Lipscomb ended and he gave us, as he threatened , a surprise at Croydon one evening, walking in with a small Gladstone bag and a swag’ consisting of a Possum rug strapping up a few small articles, amongst the rest the lash of a stock whip.  He was accompanied by a young fellow whose name I have forgotten but will endeavour to ascertain.  A gentlemanly youth who pleaded guilty to verses himself.

When Bartie first notified his intention of coming to Sydney, my heart sank within me and I wished something might occur that would deter him.  It was not altogether a mere presentiment without cause.  But I felt that he was coming full of spirits to a home of gloom and I feared the effect of my own despondency upon his sensitive nature.  I was heavily embarrassed with debt and saw no prospect of clearing myself my last stake having gone in the Melbourne Land boom.  Sot that my welcome to him was dashed with bitterness and however, I strove to conceal it, my depression made itself apparent.

Shortly after his arrival one evening he came out to see me on the verandah with his pipe saying “Addie tells me that things are not very blooming with you Dad; well I’ve got 50 pounds an that will square off the household debts at all events.”  I accepted it after a faint struggle, being vaguely conscious that I was wrong to do so.  However I paid it into my account next day.

He was for a few days alert, cheerful and happy and he had what he expresses a wish for in one of his letters “a quiet room and an easy chair” to work in, but it was only for a time and gradually the oppression of the uncomfortable surroundings made itself felt.  He thought he could get some small employment sufficient to keep him going, but soon saw how next to impossible that was.  His grandma was invalided and confined to her bed and his eldest sister had found marriage a failure and domiciled with me her husband being a helpless creature was dismissed from the Railway Dept.  I myself was hopeless about everything and quite unfit to cope with the fiend melancholia that I plainly saw was oppressing him.  I have sat in the room with him for perhaps hours silent, enraged with myself that I could not say something cheerful.  I have made efforts but their stilted artificiality only sickened me the more and produced no effect on him.  I have made a suggestion that he should join me in the business somewhere in the country.  He just raised his head but answered never a word.

His last piece of writing was (must have been) “An Easter Rhyme” and the comparison drawn between the town, and the country, shows where his thoughts lay at the time.  He never showed to me this piece as he usually did all his manuscripts.

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 with any of his sisters.  There may have been nothing in it on the other hand id 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.

So things went on from bad to worse till I gave up even making any sort of effort to rouse him.  In his state of mind there could not have been selected for him a worse companion than myself at the that time.  The sight of him was a pain to me and I suppose my presence was the same to him and our deep mental affection made it worse.  He used to come in to my office daily the last fortnight to assist me in any small way but I had really nothing for him to do.

The last time I saw him in life was at breakfast on May 2. 1892.  I was as usual moodily and silently leaving the room and I glanced furtively at him (as I often did, I suppose in the hope of seeing some improvement) and he raised his head and our eyes met.  This was so unusual that I remarked it and the effect remained for some moments after leaving the room.  Had I been a woman I should have returned and by some means or other extorted a confidence for there was some meaning in his glance even though he himself may not have intended it.  I now know it was his farewell.  The next days passed in enquiries as to his whereabouts, but before many had passed I felt sure the discovery would only be a miserable one.  His grandma and I used to discuss his absence on these lines only disagreeing as to how.  She said his body would be found in the harbor.  I said no for he was a swimmer and such do not generally drown themselves.  On the other hand my revolver was in its place and he had none I knew.

On the 10 th May as I came to my office I saw one of the Water Police at the door and knew that the end had come but my mind naturally turned on drowning and it was sometime before the man made the mode of death clear to me.  The place he chose was on the shores of “Sailor Bay” within coo-ee the spot shown in the photograph where Barcroft and his sisters are seated in a skiff marked Easter 83.  B. was then 16 and studying under Mr. Reece.

His body was found by a man who was engaged clearing the bush for a proposed sewerage scheme – suspended by the lash of his stock whip to the limb of a tree.  So secluded was the spot that had it not been for that accident it might have hung there for months.

I was required to identify the body which I could only do by the letters F.E.B (his mother’s initials) tatooed on his left arm by “Assimul” a black boy from Noumea who was in my employ for two years after Bartie’s return from thence.  The police handed to me two Library tickets found in his pocket, on the backs was written in pencil the following letter.

Dear Father,
Write to Miss McKeahnie
                                    Your loving son,

Give “Jack Corrigan” and “Featherstonhaugh” to Mr. Archibald
He will pay you for them”

The letter was not produced at the inquest.

Miss McKeahnie is mentioned in one of his 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.



To Mr. A. G. Stephens.                                                                          Sept. 5th 1896.

The Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales holds a handwritten copy of this memoir at C217:CY reel 1331 and a typescript copy prepared by A.G. Stephens in the A.G. Stephens papers at MLMSS4937/8.