Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Buckley, William (1780–1856)

by Marjorie J. Tipping

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

William Buckley (1780-1856), by unknown artist (after Ludwig Becker), c1852

William Buckley (1780-1856), by unknown artist (after Ludwig Becker), c1852

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H30879

William Buckley (1780-1856), 'wild white man', was born at Marton, near Macclesfield, Cheshire, England, the son of a small farmer. He was reared by his maternal grandfather, who sent him to school and apprenticed him to a bricklayer. He joined the Cheshire Militia, and later the 4th Regiment. Because of his great height, 6 ft 6 ins (198 cm), he became pivot man of his company. In 1799 he served in the Netherlands and was wounded in action. After his return to England, he was convicted at the Sussex Assizes on 2 August 1802 of having received a roll of cloth knowing it to have been stolen, and was sentenced to transportation for life. He was taken to Port Phillip in April 1803 in the Calcutta with a party under Lieutenant-Governor David Collins, and there he and two companions absconded from the camp. Fearful, weary and hungry, they sent signals of distress to the Calcutta from the other side of Port Phillip Bay but these were not noticed. Buckley's friends turned back and were not heard of again. He fed on shellfish and berries, and was befriended by Aboriginals of the Watourong tribe, who believed the big white stranger to be a reincarnation of their dead tribal chief. He learnt their language and their customs, and was given a wife, by whom, he said, he had a daughter. For thirty-two years he lived mostly in a hut that he built near the mouth of Bream Creek on the coast of southern Victoria. Legends have grown up around his name, but a careful investigation of John Morgan, The Life and Adventures of William Buckley (Hobart, 1852), suggests that his account is close to fact.

Buckley said there were occasional white visitors to Port Phillip during these years, but he was afraid to give himself up until July 1835, when he overheard the Aboriginals plotting to rob a visiting ship and murder the white intruders. He surrendered to the party under John Wedge at Indented Head. At first he had forgotten his own language, but he was identified by the tattoo mark on his arm, and the initials 'W.B.'

Wedge, who thought he would be a valuable intermediary, obtained his pardon from Lieutenant-Governor (Sir) George Arthur. John Batman employed him as interpreter at a salary of £50, and he later became government interpreter. But he was confused in his loyalties, and felt that neither the Aboriginals nor the whites trusted him entirely. Unhappy and disillusioned, he left for Hobart in December 1837. He became assistant store-keeper at the Immigrants' Home, and from 1841 to 1850 was gate-keeper at the Female Factory. He retired on a pension of £12 to which the Victorian government added £40 a year. On 27 January 1840 he had married Julia Eagers (also known as Higgins), the widow of an emigrant, at St John's Church of England, New Town. She had two daughters.

Buckley died at Hobart on 30 January 1856. He has generally been represented as a person of low intelligence, but his easy assimilation into an unfamiliar way of life may also suggest that he was intelligent, shrewd and courageous. Some authentic portraits exist, including sketches by Wedge, in the State Library of Victoria, and a portrait by Ludwig Becker, later copied by Nicholas Chevalier, which is owned by J. E. Pyke, of Hawthorn, Victoria.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Bonwick, William Buckley, the Wild White Man and his Port Phillip Friends (Melb, 1856)
  • W. T. Pyke, The Story of William Buckley (Lond, 1904)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 2, 4 Mar 1905
  • C. M. Tudehope, ‘William Buckley’, Victorian Historical Magazine, vol 32, no 4, May 1962, pp 216-36
  • G. Langhorne, Reminiscences of William Buckley (State Library of Victoria).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Marjorie J. Tipping, 'Buckley, William (1780–1856)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/buckley-william-1844/text2133, published in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 25 October 2014.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

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