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Bruce, Robert (1836–1908)

by G. K. Jenkin

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

Robert Bruce (1836-1908), by S. Milbourn Jun., c1898

Robert Bruce (1836-1908), by S. Milbourn Jun., c1898

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H4110

Robert Bruce (c.1836-1908), pastoralist and writer, was born at Mitcham, Surrey, England, son of James Bruce, a native of Scotland. Robert received a sound education in the Scottish tradition, but his first place of employment was an English shipyard. An interest in ships and nautical travel was to remain with him. In 1853 he worked his passage in the Gypsy to South Australia, finding work as a locker in a bond-store at Port Adelaide. Following his elder brother Douglas, in 1858 Robert travelled to the Northern Flinders Ranges, where he was appointed overseer at Arkaba station. Soon he was managing the north-western part of the property, which was practically stripped bare by locusts. Bruce spent months in the saddle in a desperate attempt to keep the stock alive. After good rains in 1860 he went to Adelaide to recuperate; then he and his brother took up Wallelberdina, adjoining the eastern shore of Lake Torrens.

On 30 January 1872 at Pendibacowie Robert married with Bible Christian forms Mary, the 17-year-old daughter of a neighbour, John O'Keefe. After his brother was killed in a horse riding accident in 1873, Robert sold Wallelberdina and entered into partnership with James Moseley who was developing Coondambo station, some 200 miles (322 km) west of Port Augusta. Eventually Bruce became the sole proprietor.

Even as a young man Bruce had given thought to the best ways of handling and training stock-horses, the most efficient procedures for pasturing sheep and cattle and the least harmful methods of exploiting the countryside. He enclosed Coondambo with a vermin-proof fence, one of the first in South Australia's north-west. This was expensive, but the country benefited and the cost was soon recouped. He lived on the station for most of his remaining years; towards the end he purchased a home in Adelaide and called it Coondambo. He revisited England in the 1860s and in 1878.

Bruce achieved temporary fame as a writer, being the author of a novel, Benbonuna (Adelaide, 1900), an autobiography, Reminiscences of an Old Squatter (Adelaide, 1902, republished 1973) and four volumes of poetry, all published in Adelaide--The Dingoes: and Other Tales (1875), A Voice from the Australian Bush (1877), Echoes from Coondambo (1893) and Re-echoes from Coondambo (1902). In addition, he wrote two plays and the music and lyrics for several songs. The plays were published in England, as were several of his songs. His poetry has rhyme and rhythm but lacks true poetic force. His prose cannot be compared with that of his contemporary fellow-pastoralist and writer Simpson Newland. To Paul Depasquale, 'Bruce can be absurdly pretentious but he also frequently writes of the crude realities of outback life in unsubtle verse whose primary function is to inform as it entertains'.

In 1901 Bruce stood unsuccessfully as a Liberal for the State seat of Flinders. He died on 4 November 1908 at North Adelaide and was buried in the Catholic section of West Terrace cemetery, survived by his wife and their four daughters; two sons had died in infancy. His estate was sworn for probate at £22,100. An obituarist recalled Bruce's tall figure and 'arrow-like straightness', clear, kindly eyes and gentle spirit.

Select Bibliography

  • N. A. Richardson, The Pioneers of the North-West of South Australia (Adel, 1925)
  • Pastoral Pioneers of South Australia, vol 2 (Adel, 1927)
  • P. Depasquale, A Critical History of South Australian Literature 1836-1930 (Adel, 1978)
  • H. Mincham, The Hub of the Flinders (Hawker, SA, 1980)
  • Register (Adelaide), 6 November 1908, p 5
  • L. H. Rye, South Australian Verse (M.A. thesis, University of Queensland, 1936).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

G. K. Jenkin, 'Bruce, Robert (1836–1908)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bruce-robert-12822/text23147, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 23 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

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