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Skuthorp, Lancelot Albert (1870–1958)

by S. J. Routh

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Lancelot Albert Skuthorp (Skuthorpe) (1870-1958), horsebreaker and showman, was born on 13 December 1870 at Kurrajong, New South Wales, third son in the large family of native-born parents James Richard Skuthorp (1841-1932), drover, and his wife Mary Jane, née Dickens. Lance's childhood was spent at the family selection at Garah, north of Moree, except for a period as a horseboy for an uncle and two years at Narrabri Public School. After his father abandoned his selection Lance became a drover, horsebreaker, general bushworker and professional athlete. From a handicap of eleven yards he ran third in the Stawell Gift in 1894. On 5 January 1897 at Laanecoorie, Victoria, Skuthorp married Annie Marion Strahan.

In October 1900 he accepted a challenge to repeat Adam Lindsay Gordon's leap on horseback near Mount Gambier, South Australia. In an extraordinary feat of riding, from a short approach Skuthorp jumped a borrowed horse virtually sideways over a fence inches short of a precipitous drop to the Blue Lake. During 1900 and 1901, as a self-styled 'Professor', he gave exhibitions of buckjump-riding and horse-taming in Mount Gambier, Adelaide and Melbourne, at times independently and at times with circuses such as Bartons'. In 1904 he organized and produced buckjumping and bullock-riding shows in Melbourne for Fr Robinson of Camberwell and other sponsors, and for Wirths' circus. When his brother 'Dick' (Cyril, 1883-1980) joined him, contests contrasting Dick's Australian-style of throwing steers and the American method of bulldogging were features of their shows.

Lance moved to Sydney from a Queensland tour to contest a challenge to ride a notorious buckjumper, Bobs, in a rival show run by a former employee, Martini. After interminable debate on the conditions of the contest, particularly on the saddles used, Skuthorp rode Bobs to a standstill before a packed house on 17 March 1906. Skuthorp was said never to have been thrown in a contest. His 'graceful, elegant' riding style was founded on perfect balance: the Bulletin reported that he 'never moved, just sat there as though he grew out of Bobs' backbone'. He rarely used spurs, though he did with Bobs. Spectacular buckjumpers brought the crowds, but he used to emphasize also in demonstrations that horses should be tamed with confident, gentle handling, rather than 'broken' or 'cooked'. He described his methods in A Key to Horse Language (Adelaide, 1908?).

About 1905 Skuthorp bought an extremely fast-bucking horse called Snips, which 'bucked him out of debt'. Skuthorp was at times an extravagantly successful publicist. By 1908 his shows at Wren's Richmond Racecourse were thronged and on 25 March 1911 he drew a crowd variously estimated at over 60,000 or 100,000 to the Sydney Showground. Skuthorp was liberal when prosperous, 'often broke but never poor', but the unpaid creditors described in his deserted wife's divorce petition (1908) were a recurrent theme in his life. His defences were his bluff charm, considerable prowess in bare-knuckle fighting, increasing deafness and itinerant life-style.

On 23 September 1911 in Sydney Skuthorp married Violet King of Temora. For much of the next two decades the family was on tour. They lived in Brisbane for a time, then during World War I moved to the Clermont region. Their fortunes fluctuated, but eventually the sapphires on Lance's vest were replaced by ordinary buttons. The family settled at Schofields, New South Wales, Violet running a store, Lance for a time working as a stockman at Riverstone Meatworks, while their children went to school. At times Skuthorp's show was on the road, on lease to other showmen.

Lance had always been a devotee of bush ballads, of Dickens and later of Steinbeck and worked hard writing newspaper publicity-material for his shows. A natural story-teller, he often filled in his shows between acts with yarns. In his early writing his control of style is at times uncertain, but his tall story, 'The champion bullock-driver', originally contributed to the Bulletin (4 August 1921), is a classic of its genre, refined by countless retellings and frequently anthologized. Some of his writing was collected in a small booklet, Short Stories (Launceston, nd). He wrote stories or reminiscences until his death.

Skuthorp moved with his wife to Bankstown in 1937. He died on 9 February 1958 in Liverpool Hospital and was buried in the family vault at Richmond. His wife, son and two daughters, and a son of his first marriage, survived him.

His son Lance (1915-1973) rode top buckjumpers from 1928. From the late 1930s he and his sister Violet Catherine (b.1919) rode in the family show and worked as film stuntriders. They travelled with other buckjumping shows and entertainments in the United States of America and Australasia, sometimes with their own shows. In 1944 Lance junior, though injured, won the Australian buckjumping and bulldogging titles. Skuthorp's daughter Madge (b.1913) was a founder of the Mosman Children's Theatre.

Select Bibliography

  • Skuthorp's Wild Australia (Syd, 1911), vol 11, concert programmes (at State Library of New South Wales)
  • J. Pollard, The Horse Tamer (Syd, 1970)
  • H. Sawrey et al, The Stockman (Syd, 1984)
  • M. St Leon, Australian Circus Reminiscences (Syd, 1984)
  • Steele Rudd's Magazine, 2, Jan 1906, p 1174
  • People (Sydney), 30 Aug 1950
  • Hoofs and Horns, Mar 1954, June 1973
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 24 Oct 1900
  • Border Watch, 24 Oct 1900
  • Age (Melbourne), 8 June, 11 July 1904, 9 Mar 1908
  • Town and Country Journal, 19 Apr 1905
  • Bulletin, 25 Jan, 22, 29 Mar 1906, 12 Mar 1908
  • Evening News (Sydney), 19 Mar 1906
  • Worker (Sydney), 7 May 1908
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 27 Mar 1911, 28 Aug 1928, 11 Apr 1944, 10 Feb 1958, 5 Mar 1973
  • Freeman's Journal, 22 May 1924
  • Newcastle Morning Herald, 23 Feb 1939
  • Sun-Herald (Sydney), 16 Feb 1958
  • Sunday Telegraph (Sydney), 16 Feb 1958
  • Telegraph (Brisbane), 9 July 1979
  • private information.

Citation details

S. J. Routh, 'Skuthorp, Lancelot Albert (1870–1958)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/skuthorp-lancelot-albert-8450/text14857, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 26 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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