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Becke, George Lewis (Louis) (1855–1913)

by Sally O'Neill

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

George Lewis Becke (1855-1913), by A. Duperly & Sons

George Lewis Becke (1855-1913), by A. Duperly & Sons

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23194004

George Lewis (Louis) Becke (1855-1913), author, was born on 18 June 1855 at Port Macquarie, New South Wales, son of Frederick Becke, clerk of petty sessions, and his wife Caroline Matilda, née Beilby, both English-born. Becke received little formal education before 1867 when the family moved to Sydney and he attended Fort Street Model School. Two years later, with his brother Vernon, he took passage to San Francisco and was away for nineteen months. At 16 he stowed away to Samoa, taking a job in Apia as a book-keeper. He was 18 when he met the notorious Captain 'Bully' Hayes who was to become a central character in his later writings. Early in 1874 Hayes signed Becke on as supercargo on the Leonora which, some ten weeks later, sank off Kusaie, stranding the survivors there. When a British warship arrived in pursuit of Hayes six months later, Becke was arrested for piracy and taken to Brisbane. Acquitted, he joined the Palmer River gold rush, worked at Ravenswood station (1877), and as a bank clerk in Townsville (1878-79).

By April 1880 Becke was in the Ellice Islands, employed as a trader. Next February he opened his own store at Nukufetau and there married Nelea Tikena. Later that year he lost everything in a shipwreck and for the next few years worked in New Britain and at Majuro in the Marshall Islands.

Late in 1885 Becke returned to New South Wales and on 10 February 1886 at Port Macquarie, he married Elizabeth (Bessie) Mary Stuart, née Maunsell (d.1932). He worked in Sydney as a contract draftsman for the Lands Department until they went to Townsville, Queensland, in 1888. He was assistant secretary to the New South Wales branch of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia for a few months in 1890 before accepting a post in the islands again. He returned to Sydney from Noumea in January 1892.

Unable to find regular work, Becke turned to writing. His friend Ernest Favenc persuaded him to put his South Sea yarns on paper and introduced him to J. F. Archibald. His first signed story, `'Tis in the blood', appeared in the Bulletin on 6 May 1893. By Reef and Palm, a collection of short stories, was published in London in 1894 and reprinted three times that year. Further collections of stories followed in 1896 and 1897. Becke went on to write thirty-four books, including six novels in collaboration with W. J. Jeffery and seven on his own account. Bertram Stevens called him 'a born story-teller', an impressionist-realist yet without imagination and little conscious art. Becke later paid tribute to Archibald for teaching him 'the secrets of condensation and simplicity of language'.

He sold all his books outright and success brought him no wealth; in April 1894 he was declared bankrupt. In 1896 he separated from his wife (who tried to divorce him in 1903 and 1910) and left for England, accompanied by his daughter Nora (b.1888) and by Fanny Sabina Long (1871-1959). In London Becke was received as a celebrity. He and Sabina lived at Eastbourne, where their two daughters were born, and later in Ireland and northern France; he visited Jamaica in 1902. He raised finance in 1908 to back an expedition to the Pacific to record folk-lore. On 22 July, before leaving for Suva via New Zealand, he and Sabina went through a form of marriage at St Pancras Register Office.

By 1909 Becke had returned to Sydney. He still wrote for the Bulletin but creditors hounded him, he was drinking heavily, and he spent the last two years of his life ill and alone. He died of cancer on 18 February 1913 in his room at the York Hotel, King Street; friends in the Bulletin office arranged his burial in Waverley cemetery. He was predeceased by two sons and survived by three daughters.

Select Bibliography

  • R. S. Browne, A Journalist's Memories (Brisb, 1927)
  • A. G. Day, Louis Becke (New York, 1966)
  • Government Gazette (Queensland), 28 Aug 1875
  • H. E. Maude, ‘Louis Becke …’, Pacific Islands Monthly, Oct 1956, and ‘Louis Becke: the traders' historian’, Journal of Pacific History, 2 (1967)
  • Australasian (Melbourne), 28 Nov, 12 Dec 1903, Bulletin, 20, 27 Feb 1913, 15 June, 7 Sept 1955
  • application for appointment to the Ellice Islands (privately held)
  • B. Stevens papers, uncatalogued MSS 248 (State Library of New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Sally O'Neill, 'Becke, George Lewis (Louis) (1855–1913)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/becke-george-lewis-louis-5177/text8699, 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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