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Bourke, John Philip (1857–1914)

by Bruce Bennett

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

John Philip Bourke (1857-1914), schoolmaster, prospector and poet, was born on 6 August 1857, at Nundle, New South Wales, son of William David Bourke, butcher, and his wife Jane, née Shepherd. After primary schooling, he prospected with his father and at 17 sold his first mining lease for £600. William Bourke became a schoolmaster in 1875 and in September 1882 John also joined the Department of Education as temporary teacher at Wilson's Downfall in northern New South Wales. He was transferred in 1886 to manage two half-time schools at Wandsworth and Tenterden and in January 1887 was suspended for drunkenness. Given charge in May of a full-time school at Tenterden, in September he was found very drunk by an inspector. He claimed in defence that he had lived alone in a bark hut, three miles from the school, and drank mainly from desperate loneliness. He was permitted to retire, never to be again employed by the department.

Bourke arrived in Western Australia about 1894 and prospected over the northern and eastern goldfields, particularly at Broad Arrow and Paddington. According to A. G. Stephens he was consistently lucky in making small rises worth £200 to £1000 (with a record of £1250) 'but never handled a wingless coin'. By 1899 he had settled in Boulder as a working miner and, under the pseudonym 'Bluebush', began submitting poems and paragraphs to the local press; he had previously been an occasional contributor to the Sydney Bulletin. Bourke rapidly became popular and from 1906 was staff poet for the Kalgoorlie Sun; his work was also published in the Perth Sunday Times. When continual heavy drinking took its toll he visited the eastern States briefly in 1913 to seek medical advice on his failing health and to arrange publication of a book of verse. Soon after his return he died, unmarried, of pneumonia on 13 January 1914 at Nurse Egan's private hospital in Kalgoorlie. His burial by a Catholic priest in the Boulder cemetery was attended by the mayor, most of the journalists in the district and representatives from the Boulder Liedertafel. His Off the Bluebush …, edited and introduced by Stephens, was published in 1915.

'Bluebush' Bourke is remembered as one of the leading poets of the Western Australian goldfields, along with Edwin 'Dryblower' Murphy, 'Crosscut' and 'Prospect Good'. They comprise a group whose verse Stephens praised in a series of articles in 1910-11 in the Perth magazine, the Leeuwin, for its 'vigour and versatility': 'The East has more refined writers, more cultivated and more artistic writers; but not more manly writers'. He compared the goldfields versifiers to writers of marching songs and referred to their 'striking phraseology' and 'real singing talent'. Bourke's own estimation of his talent, in self-effacing mood, was more modest:

We singers standing on the outer rim
Who touched the fringe of poesy at times
With half-formed thoughts, rough-set in halting rhymes,
Through which no airy flights of fancy skim —
We write “just so”, an hour to while away,
And turn the well-thumbed stock still o'er and o'er …

The verse and prose of 'Bluebush' is a barometer of changing feelings and attitudes on the Western Australian goldfields. His poems depict local 'characters', scenes of poverty and hardship and the consolation of 'booze'. But a sense of humour is evident and a strong commitment, as part of a radical movement, to mateship and social justice. Many of the poems are addressed specifically to the wide audience of miners and prospectors who read his verse.

Select Bibliography

  • B. Smith, ‘Bards of the backblocks’, Westerly, Mar 1977
  • Sunday Times (Perth), 8 May 1908
  • Sun (Kalgoorlie), 18 Jan 1914
  • Colebatch memoirs (State Library of Western Australia)
  • Department of Education, School files — teacher's records (State Records New South Wales).

Citation details

Bruce Bennett, 'Bourke, John Philip (1857–1914)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bourke-john-philip-5304/text8955, published in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 2 September 2014.

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

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