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Copeley, Joseph Herbert (1897–1977)

by G. P. Walsh

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

Joseph Herbert Copeley (1897-1977), rabbiter, was born on 8 April 1897 at Spring Creek, near Young, New South Wales, fourth son of native-born parents Thomas Copley, miner, and his wife Jane, née Shoard. He attended Burrangong Heights Public School where he admired the fighting prowess of his fellow pupil (Sir) Vernon Treatt. Joe's upbringing was strict: 'I was trained to tell the truth when I was a boy. If I was caught out telling a lie I was thrashed'. On leaving school, the Copeley boys became labourers and lived at Little Spring Creek.

For fifty years Joe and a younger brother Ken trapped rabbits for skin and carcase in many parts of New South Wales and Queensland. Their usual method was to drive their truck as far as possible into the bush and then push on farther with bicycles strung with steel (gin) traps. After setting their traps, they inspected them at sunset, by lantern in the evening, and at dawn. When trapping for the freezing works, they gutted the rabbits and hung them in pairs in a hessian screen in a shady place for collection. Although Joe warned that rabbiters 'tell tales like fishermen', he reckoned that he and his brother had caught well over half a million rabbits in their careers. The most they ever caught in a night was 288 (when the price was threepence a pair); the most in a fortnight was 1080.

From the early 1960s the brothers camped on Tara station, sixty-eight miles (109.4 km) north-west of Condoblin, New South Wales. There, with their dogs and junk, they inhabited a collection of dirt-floored, tattered tents and tin sheds. They lived frugally and rarely went into town, except on special occasions like Anzac Day. Joe was famous locally for his ability to solder aluminium and for the makeshift repairs he carried out on his battered vehicles.

Of medium height and wiry build, with a weather-beaten, wrinkled face, Joe was very critical of modern life when interviewed at the age of 72. He reflected that he could have married 'on four occasions', but added philosophically, 'when I saw men during the depression, with wives and children, who were absolutely out of their minds because they couldn't feed their families, I didn't feel too bad about not having married'.

In his last years Copeley suffered from diabetes and heart disease. He died on 17 August 1977 in Condoblin District Hospital and was buried in the local cemetery with Anglican rites. Joe was typical of many rural workers. Of humble origins and with limited prospects, he found his purpose in the rough but free bush life, combating Australia's worst introduced pest. Whatever the state of the economy, there was always the rabbit to trap, sell and eat: thousands in both town and country have depended on it for their sustenance or livelihood.

Select Bibliography

  • Sun-Herald (Sydney), 23 Nov 1969.

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Citation details

G. P. Walsh, 'Copeley, Joseph Herbert (1897–1977)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/copeley-joseph-herbert-9823/text17369, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 15 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

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