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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Buck, Robert Henry (Bob) (1881–1960)

by Alex Jelinek

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

Robert Henry Buck (1881-1960), by Gurth Kimber

Robert Henry Buck (1881-1960), by Gurth Kimber

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an13834907

Robert Henry (Bob) Buck (1881-1960), always known as Bob Buck, bushman, was born on 2 July 1881 at Alberton, South Australia, son of Robert Buck, labourer, and his wife Sarah Ann, née Breaden. He was mainly self educated and worked at Wallaroo until in 1905 he joined his uncle Joseph Breaden, who had been on D. W. Carnegie's exploring expedition of 1896-97, and owned Todmorden, and Henbury and Idracowra in the Northern Territory. Another uncle, Allan Breaden, managed Idracowra; both Breadens had pioneered in Central Australia from 1875.

Buck's uncles were excellent teachers of bushmanship. He worked as a stockman, was a good saddler, and in 1907 overlanded 800 head of cattle from Brunette Downs to Henbury, of which he later became manager. He was popular with Aboriginals for his kindness and generous rations of beef and referred to them as 'my tribe'. He lived with his Aranda bush-wife Molly Tjalameinta, by whom he had a daughter Ettie.

In 1927, in partnership with Alf Butler, Buck took a new lease of 240 square miles (622 km²) at Middleton Ponds; Ettie became stockman, camp cook and camel boy. The partnership was dissolved and Buck sold out in 1939, then managed Renner's Rock (99 square miles — 256 km²) which he owned in 1939-53 before retiring to Alice Springs. When a neighbour recalled an unnatural increase in his stock, Bob explained, 'My bullocks had calves too'.

In 1930-37 Buck had been contracted by Donald Mackay for three of his four aerial surveys of regions of the Northern Territory and Western Australia, to clear aerodromes, establish supply-dumps, guide aeroplanes with smoke-signals, manage camps, and stand by with his team of Aboriginals and camels ready to mount a rescue party. Lake Buck was named for his contribution to the success of the surveys. The gold expedition seeking L. H. B. Lasseter's reef used the 1930 Ilbilba base. When Lasseter failed to return, the dependable Bob Buck was commissioned to search for him. He started in February 1931 on camels with Johnson Breaden, Lion and Billy Button, found the prospector's body and buried it, and travelled 1000 miles (1609 km) including a nine-day dry stage. Buck and his party then returned into the Petermann Ranges to guide Walter Gill, who wished to study a tribe Buck had encountered.

Despite evidence of Lasseter's identity which he presented to the police, some believed Buck was hoaxing. The ensuing controversy (probably inflated by Bob's brand of exaggerated humour) projected him nationally as an intrepid bushman. He was brought to Sydney, and interviewed and fêted. His sudden fame made him the obvious, and his heavy drought losses a very willing leader of a new expedition in quest of the fabled reef in August 1931. Buck planned a six months search but the venture was abandoned after six weeks.

When he was on the stations Bob Buck was renowned for his hospitality to black and white travellers; he helped many in distress and saved some from perishing. In his later years the now bulky bushman with handlebar moustaches was an identity at the Stuart Arms Hotel: 'Playing crib and drinking rum are the best things in life and you can do 'em together'. He became notorious as a yarn-spinner: most of his tall stories of the Centre were as true as the one about mustering cattle in boats after a drought broke.

On the morning of 9 August 1960 Bob told a visitor in hospital: 'Wind my watch, I'll tell you when I died'. He died that afternoon and was buried in the Catholic section of Alice Springs cemetery. His lifelong mate Alf Butler said: 'He was an outstanding stockman, good tracker and had a way with black fellows'.

Select Bibliography

  • D. W. Carnegie, Spinifex and Sand (Lond, 1898)
  • I. Idriess, Lasseter's Last Ride (Syd, 1931)
  • E. Coote, Hell's Airport (Syd, 1934)
  • F. P. Clune, Last of the Australian Explorers (Syd, 1942)
  • W. Gill, Petermann Journey (Adel, 1968)
  • T. G. H. Strehlow, Journey to Horseshoe Bend (Syd, 1969)
  • F. Blakeley, Dream Millions, M. Mansfield ed (Syd, 1972)
  • Centralian Advocate, 12 Aug 1960
  • Sunday Mail (Adelaide), 1 Apr 1967
  • Lands Branch, letter L506(5), 15 May 1978 (Dept of Northern Territory, Darwin)
  • Grazing licence and pastoral lease registers (National Archives of Australia).

Additional Resources

Citation details

Alex Jelinek, 'Buck, Robert Henry (Bob) (1881–1960)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 20 September 2020.

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

View the front pages for Volume 7

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