Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Bucknall, Frederick John Graeme (1909–1995)

by David Carment

This article was published online in 2019

Frederick John Graeme Bucknall (1909–1995), clergyman, was born on 2 May 1909 at Portland, Victoria, eldest of three children of Chester Clissold Bucknall, farmer, and his wife Rachel Agnes, née Holmes, both born in Victoria. Always known as Graeme, he grew up on a farm in a bush community on the lower Glenelg River. He was educated at Drik Drik State School (1916–23) and as a boarder at Ballarat College (1924–25). Initially employed with a forestry company, in 1932 he decided to become a Presbyterian minister after becoming involved with the church youth organisation. Following studies at St Andrew’s Theological Training College and the Presbyterian Theological Hall, Melbourne, he was ordained in 1939. Studying part time, he graduated from the University of Melbourne (BA, 1940) and the Melbourne College of Divinity (BD, 1947). He had married Elma Jean Williamson, a teacher, on 15 January 1938 at the Brunswick Presbyterian Church.

Bucknall served as a minister in the Victorian parishes of Orbost (1939–42), Clifton Hill (1943–47), and West Hawthorn (1948–59). He was then director (1960–70) of home missions for the Presbyterian Church of Victoria. In this role he developed policies that took into account the circumstances of inner-city living in Melbourne, and aimed to assist the urban poor. An able administrator, he was also vice-convenor (1962–70) of the board of the Australian Inland Mission, and moderator (1966–67) of the Presbyterian Church of Victoria.

In December 1970 Bucknall was appointed the first executive officer of the United (Uniting) Church of Northern Australia, and he and his wife moved to Darwin. His area of responsibility covered the Northern Territory and the Kimberley in Western Australia. In this position, which he filled until the end of 1974, he focused on the needs of isolated communities, including Aboriginal reserves and missions. Conscious of following in Rev. John Flynn’s footsteps, he was interested in Flynn’s concept of a ‘mantle of safety’ for northern Australian residents, whereby nursing hostels and hospitals, each associated with a padre, would function throughout the region. To help achieve this, during his first three years in the north he divided his time between servicing congregations in Darwin and elsewhere, and visiting cattle stations in the Katherine Patrol region. In 1974, however, he lamented that there was still a ‘culture/language barrier between cattleman and urban man’ (Bucknall 1994). Yet he acknowledged that there had been ‘phenomenal development in the relaxed and shared relationships between black and white members of the United Church during the last four years’ (Bucknall 1994). He also cultivated links with Protestants in Indonesia, visiting churches in West Timor, Roti, Bali, Alor, and Java, and fostering inter-church exchanges.

Between 1975 and 1979 Bucknall was the padre for the Centralian Patrol, based in Alice Springs. He frequently visited cattle stations, providing spiritual guidance and forming enduring friendships. The patrol work could be intensive encompassing visiting the sick, writing reports, and maintaining vehicles, ‘with rest and sermon preparations the chief victims’ (Bucknall 1994). Despite this, he realised that the experience helped him define the roots of his own theology, one that ‘must relate, without retraction, to living situations in the total life of every community’ (Bucknall 1994).

Following retirement, Bucknall and his wife remained in Alice Springs for five years. He wrote carefully researched reports and publications on central Australian history and co-edited the letters of his pioneer ancestors. With Jean, he continued his outback travels. He was a member of the council of the National Trust of Australia (Northern Territory). In 1982 he was appointed MBE. After moving back to Melbourne in 1985, he co-authored The Conquest of Distance: Told in the Life Stories of Centralian Pioneer Families (1996), and drafted an autobiography.

Although only part of Bucknall’s career was in the Northern Territory, it was there that his special understanding of isolation, derived from a childhood spent in the bush, proved important. He made Christianity more accessible to people in rural communities, and undertook valuable historical research on remote locations. Alex Adam described him as ‘a man of vision who gained inspiration from the scriptures’ (1996, 14). As a public speaker he was highly articulate and engaging. He was a generous host to visitors at his home or campsite. His recreations included photography, outback camping and travel, and the study of Indonesian culture and language. He died on 6 November 1995 at East Melbourne, survived by his wife, four sons, and one daughter, and was buried in Melbourne general cemetery, Carlton.

Research edited by Malcolm Allbrook

Select Bibliography

  • Adam, Alex. ‘Minister Shared His Vision and Faith with Followers.’ Age (Melbourne), 1 January 1996, 14
  • Amos, E. Anne. Graeme Bucknall in Ministry 19651970. Melbourne: Uniting Church Historical Society, Victoria, 1985
  • Bucknall, Graeme. ‘A Time to Keep: The Seven Lives of the Bush Kid from Drik Drik.’ Unpublished manuscript, 5 December 1994. Accessed 24 April 2018. http://bucknall.id.au/Biographies/JGB/JGB%20Introduction.htm. Copy held on ADB file
  • Carment, David. ‘Pastor Served as a Spiritual Beacon.’ Australian, 23 November 1995, 12
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject

Additional Resources

Citation details

David Carment, 'Bucknall, Frederick John Graeme (1909–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bucknall-frederick-john-graeme-172/text35140, published online 2019, accessed online 17 June 2019.

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