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Boake, Barcroft Henry (1866–1892)

by Cecil Hadgraft

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

Barcroft Henry Thomas Boake (1866-1892), surveyor, stockman, drover and poet, was born on 26 March 1866 at Waterview Bay, Balmain, New South Wales, eldest son of Barcroft Capel Boake (b. Dublin, 1838), professional photographer, and his wife Florence Eva, née Clarke (1846-1879). His parents had married on 7 March 1865; three of their nine children died in infancy. He was an active child, fond of sport, but showed early signs of depression, forerunner to that melancholia which was to oppress him for much of his life and ultimately to cause his death.

His father, though an agnostic, profoundly distrusted state schools and had the boy educated at private institutions. From 8 to 9 he attended a school run by the Misses Cook at Milson's Point. He spent the next two years with Allen Hughan and his wife, friends of the family, in Noumea, where he picked up some French. On his return he had two terms at Sydney Grammar School and then five years at the private school of Edward Blackmore in Hunter Street.

At 17 he began work with a surveyor in Sydney; he passed the entrance examination to the Survey Department and worked in it for a year. The rest of his life was almost entirely spent as surveyor, stockman or drover outside Sydney. Office life he detested, and open-air work gave him as much satisfaction as his temperament permitted.

In July 1886 he began as assistant surveyor to E. Commins near Adaminaby in the Monaro district, where he was to remain for two years. There at Rocklands station on the evening of 14 July 1888 his celebrated mock-hanging took place. For a prank he and a friend hanged themselves from a beam. The friend's performance was tentative, but Boake's was almost fatal. After two days he wrote a rueful account of it to his father. A more imaginative version was published in the Bulletin nearly four years later. At the end of his term he rode some three hundred miles (483 km) to Mullah station, near Trangie in the Narromine district, where he stayed as a stockman until mid-1889. Then he moved north and by June had crossed the Queensland border. His experiences as a drover began about this time, and in October he ended up with cattle at Burrenbilla, near Cunnamulla. There he spent some weeks waiting for his next job, and for the first time read in their entirety the poems of Adam Lindsay Gordon. Some comments he made in letters are revealing enough: 'Gordon is the favourite—I may say only poet of the back-blocker; and I am sorry to say Emile Zola is his favourite prose writer … I am afraid after all the bushman is not a very fine animal; but at any rate, even in his most vicious moments, he is far above many of the so-called respectable dwellers in towns'. This attitude finds sharper expression: 'If I could only write it, there is a poem to be made out of the back-country. Some man will come yet who will be able to grasp the romance of Western Queensland … For there is a romance, though a grim one—a story of drought and flood, fever and famine, murder and suicide, courage and endurance … I wonder if a day will come when these men will rise up—when the wealthy man…shall see pass before him a band of men—all of whom died in his service, and whose unhallowed graves dot his run—the greater portion hollow, shrunken, burning with the pangs of thirst'. At the time Boake could not foresee that he was to be essentially that poet, commemorating in a bitter threnody the never-sleeping drover and in its two final stanzas condemning the absentee owner.

A few weeks later he went south with cattle to Bathurst, where he arrived in March 1890. After a week in Sydney with his family he returned to Bathurst but an expected job fell through, and once more he returned to surveying. From May 1890 until December 1891 he worked for W. A. Lipscomb, with headquarters near Wagga Wagga; within this time all but a few of his poems were published in the Bulletin.

His last five months were the gloomiest. He returned home at the end of 1891 to find it a place of grief. His father was practically bankrupt, having lost the last of his money in Melbourne land speculations. Boake contributed his savings, some £50, to cover immediate household expenses. His father sums up the position: 'His grandma was invalided and confined to her bed and his eldest sister had found marriage a failure and was 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'. He mentions a blow that Boake received: 'About this time he received a letter from the country, and in reference to it said to one of his sisters: “I hear that my best girl is going to be married”.' A return to the outback might have saved Boake, but he seemed to have lost the capacity to make up his mind about anything. A few attempts to find work in the city proved futile and he sank into brooding inactivity. On 2 May 1892 he left the house. Eight days later his body was discovered in the scrub at Long Bay, Middle Harbour, hanging by his stockwhip from a bough.

Physically tough, emotionally sensitive, temperamentally unstable, financially inept, Boake may appear a predestined victim. This picture, however exaggerated, is closer to the record than one of him reasonedly rejecting materialistic civilization, finding God dead in Australia, and accordingly hanging himself. Modern drugs might have postponed Boake's suicide for years. His extant prose, neither extensive nor very effective, remains unpublished. Nearly all his published verse was collected and issued by A. G. Stephens in 1897, with a 'Memoir' by Stephens, a critical biography on which any later account of Boake's life is almost wholly dependent. The memoir, in its turn, was almost wholly dependent on an account written for Stephens by the poet's father, together with some letters from Boake himself. In a second edition in 1913 some poems were added, the notes were fewer, the first appearance of each poem was not given and Stephens's acknowledgment of his debt to Boake's father was omitted. Boake's reputation with the general reader rests on Where the Dead Men Lie (first printed in the Bulletin 19 December 1891 and signed 'Surcingle'). Critics have since pointed to other poems and have speculated on Boake's possible development had he lived longer. But his temperament does not afford any rosy prognosis; and it is at least arguable that he died when he had written his best poetry.

Select Bibliography

  • Barcroft Capel Boake notes (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Barcroft Henry Thomas Boake letters (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Boake manuscript (National Library of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Cecil Hadgraft, 'Boake, Barcroft Henry (1866–1892)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 27 October 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

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