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Banfield, Edmund James (1852–1923)

by Margriet R. Bonnin

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Edmund James Banfield (1852-1923), by Jack Loutitt, 1967

Edmund James Banfield (1852-1923), by Jack Loutitt, 1967

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an2283026

Edmund James Banfield (1852-1923), author and naturalist, was born on 4 September 1852 at Toxteth Park, Liverpool, England, son of Jabez Walter Banfield (1820-1899), printer, and his wife Sarah Ann, née Smith. Jabez had served his apprenticeship with a Liverpool printer, but migrated to Victoria in 1852 and followed the gold rushes. On 20 November 1854 his family sailed in the Indian Queen to join him. A founding partner in the Maryborough and Dunolly Advertiser, Jabez moved to Ararat in 1857 and started the Ararat Advertiser; it was owned by the family until the 1960s. He became a leading local citizen: treasurer to the borough council and the hospital board of management for some thirty-five years, magistrate, churchwarden and lay preacher, secretary to the cemetery trustees, and popular public reciter and reader of Dickens, Shakespeare and other classic authors.

Educated at an Ararat church-school, Edmund became a reporter and printer's assistant for his father, relaxing on weekend natural history trips in the Grampians. In the 1870s he worked on the Melbourne Age and the Sydney Daily Telegraph, and in 1882 became reporter and sub-editor with the Townsville Daily Bulletin in Queensland. In 1884, probably with the backing of Burns Philp & Co., he travelled to England; while there an eye injured in childhood was removed, and he met Bertha Golding, who migrated to Townsville to marry him on 3 August 1886 at St James' Anglican Church. He had published The Torres Straits Route from Queensland to England in Townsville in 1885.

Banfield reported Robert Philp on his first election campaign in 1886, and in 1890 organized fund-raising functions for the North Queensland separation movement. Although he took professional responsibilities seriously, he felt that he lacked 'those qualities which make for dutiful citizenship' and was enraged by political, professional and personal wrongs, real and imagined. He camped with friends on Dunk Island near Tully and in September 1896 applied for a thirty-year lease of part of the island. Diagnosed as tubercular and in nervous collapse, he resigned from the North Queensland Newspaper Co. and, partly blind, with a palsied hand and a deaf wife, settled on Dunk Island from 28 September 1897.

Banfield's health rapidly improved and on 4 January 1900 he selected 320 acres (129 ha); in 1913, a further 40 acres (16 ha) were added in his wife's name. Though he relieved for the Townsville Bulletin in 1901 and visited New South Wales and Victoria in 1911, his life henceforth was spent almost entirely on Dunk. He grew maize, vegetables, coffee and fruit, and kept farm animals, but was unable to live on the proceeds. An apiary was destroyed by birds which he refused to kill because he considered the island a sanctuary and hoped it would become a national park. His income to maintain himself, his wife, and Irish servant and occasional Aboriginal helpers never exceeded £100 a year; the community lived on seafood, goat meat, poultry, fruit, vegetables, milk and eggs, with occasional provisions from the weekly steamer. An 'erratic diary' of nature observations became the basis of articles and books which were studded with quotations from copious reading. He corresponded with naturalists throughout the world, and a species of rat discovered by him on the island was originally named Uromys banfieldi. His articles, sometimes under the pen-names 'Rob Krusoe' and 'Beachcomber', appeared in the Lone Hand, North Queensland newspapers, and the Queensland Geographical Journal. He wrote by hand until he obtained a typewriter late in life.

Banfield was commissioned by the government to write Within the Barrier (Townsville, 1907), a tourist guide to the coastal areas of North Queensland. His most famous work, The Confessions of a Beachcomber (London, 1908), later translated widely, was dedicated to Philp on whose recommendation he had become a justice of the peace in 1899. Confessions was followed by My Tropic Isle (London, 1911), much of which had appeared originally in the North Queensland Register as 'Rural Homilies', and by Tropic Days (London, 1918). Surprised at the interest of the world in his 'prosaic' life, he described himself as a 'sedate and determined man' who resented gratuitous violations of his privacy; at least one enthusiastic reader arrived unannounced hoping to share his idyllic existence. Last Leaves from Dunk Island (Sydney, 1925), published posthumously, was a collection of sketches compiled by Alec Chisholm largely from Townsville Daily Bulletin articles.

On 2 June 1923 Banfield died of peritonitis; his wife was alone for three days before her signals were noticed by a passing steamer. He was buried on the island by the ship's crew; subsequently, a cairn was erected over his and his wife's graves. His estate, sworn for probate at £1916, was composed chiefly of shares in Townsville newspapers. Although his clichéd style and archaic usages have dated his books, Banfield was an enthusiastic promoter of Australia and a passionate spokesman for the preservation of North Queensland in its natural state. His island, however, became a tourist resort.

Select Bibliography

  • H. C. Perry, Memoirs of the Hon. Sir Robert Philp, K.C.M.G. 1851-1922 (Brisb, 1923)
  • A. H. Chisholm, Birds and Green Places (Lond, 1929)
  • J. W. Frings, My Island of Dreams (Lond, 1936)
  • C. L. Barrett, Koonwarra (Lond, 1939)
  • G. C. Bolton, A Thousand Miles Away (Brisb, 1963)
  • L. L. Banfield, Green Pastures and Gold (Canterbury, 1974), and Colonists of the Early Fifties: J. W. & S. A. Banfield (priv print, nd)
  • Joseph Jones, Radical Cousins (Brisb, 1976)
  • C. L. Barrett, ‘“The Beachcomber” and his tropic isle’, Australian Museum Magazine, Oct 1923
  • A. H. Chisholm, Introduction to Last Leaves from Dunk Island (Syd, 1925), and to The Confessions of a Beachcomber (Syd, 1933, 1968)
  • J. Barrymore, ‘The Beachcomber’, Townsville Daily Bulletin, June 1923
  • private information.

Citation details

Margriet R. Bonnin, 'Banfield, Edmund James (1852–1923)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/banfield-edmund-james-56/text8561, published in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 1 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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