TIMES: FEBRUARY 25 2002
MAYBE THIS IS THE SNOWY HORSEMAN
CANBERRA TIMES: MARCH 17 2002
as he was gaining recognition for his writing, Barcroft Boake killed
himself. Hugh Capel looks at the
sad story of his life.
Boake: his poems were first published in 1891 and, over the next year or so, he
became a regular contributor to the Bulletin, where his work appeared alongside
that of Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson.
Barcroft Boake kill himself in 1892, just as he was gaining recognition as a
published poet? Was it for the
love of a McKeahnie girl - one of Charlie McKeahnie’s sisters? If so, was it May? Or was it Jean? The note he left when he hanged himself
with his stockwhip said “Write to Miss McKeahnie”. But it didn’t say to which one,
Boake is best known for his striking outback poem, Where the Dead Men Lie. Charlie McKeahnie is known as one of the famed Snowy
Mountains horsemen who Banjo Paterson had in mind when he wrote The Man From
Snowy River. If Neville Locker from Happy Valley
near Adaminaby is correct, Charlie McKeahnie was The Man From Snowy River.
Boake rode with Charlie McKeahnie.
He also fell in love with Charlie’s sisters. While living in the Monaro district
from 1886 till 1888, he spent Sundays at the McKeahnie homestead at Rosedale
(now Bolaro), on the Murrumbidgee River near Adaminaby. He wrote a number of poems in
Jean’s scrap book. But May
is mentioned in his last published poem, An Easter Rhyme. This appeared in the Bulletin in 1892, just before he
died. Had history taken
another twist Barcroft may well have become brother-in-law to the Man From
wasn’t to be. After
returning to Sydney in 1892 Barcroft was unable to find work because of the
1891-83 financial depression. In
May 1892, at the age of 26, he hanged himself on the shore of Sydney Harbour -
at Folly Point! The place is now
marked with a plaque, and a tree has been replanted in the same spot as the
original hanging tree.
was impressed with Charlie’s horseriding prowess. Like Banjo Paterson, Barcroft
immortalised Charlie in a poem.
Barcroft’s poem, On the Range, tells how Charlie chased a wild brumby stallion
from the headwaters of Nungar Creek in the Snowy Mountains to its death in a
gorge on the upper Murrumbidgee, near Tantangara Dam. Barcroft may have been there. He was a first class bushman himself. While in the Monaro district Barcroft
also went skiing at Kiandra. Later
he wrote what is possibly Australia’s first skiing poem, The Demon
left the McKeahnie homestead in 1888 he headed north seeking excitement and
adventure as a stockman and a drover.
He travelled as far as the Diamantina River in Queensland. His later published poems draw on these
experiences out west in the “Never Never” land, beyond “the
confines of the settled country.”
poems were first published in 1891.
Over the next two years he became a regular contributor to the Bulletin, his work appearing alongside
that of Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson.
Barcroft’s poems are unusual for their wide range of subject
matter and for his sympathetic portrayal of women, who are distinctly
characterised. His talent was
recognised by A G Stephens, the Red Page Editor for the Bulletin, who said “had fortune
favoured, this ill-starred idealist might have easily won recognition as one of
the foremost poets of Australia.”
Paterson also gave Barcroft credit.
He wrote “to very few of us is it given to express their feelings
in such words as came with the poetic inspiration of Barcroft
Boake.” He judged three of
Barcroft’s poems - Where the Dead Men Lie, ‘Twixt the Wings of
the Yard and At the ‘J. C.’ - as first class works. Henry Lawson paid the ultimate tribute. He included most of the text of Where
the Dead Men Lie
in one of his own short stories in 1897 The Australian Cinematograph.
literary critics were impressed too.
J. Brunton Stephens agreed that had Boake lived seven years longer he
may have won recognition as the foremost poet of Australia. He wrote that Boake’s work
“had atmosphere - Australian atmosphere........Paterson has it. Lawson has it. O’Hara has it and several others
I could name. But I think Boake
has more of it than any of them - more than Kendall and Gordon, and
that’s saying a very bold thing.” Later, Douglas Stewart and Clement Semmler were similarly
life is a unique Australian story.
It has all the ingredients you could ask for: romance, adventure, and
finally tragedy. To bring the
characters in it to life, I tell his story in the form of a novel in my book Where
the Dead Men Lie, The Story of Barcroft Boake, Bush Poet of the Monaro. Throughout his travels Barcroft wrote regularly to his
father. Luckily a number of these
original letters have been preserved and I have been able to weave these into
poems often tell a story based on fact.
To bring these stories to a modern audience the book includes a
selection of his poems in an appendix - with a glossary.
May, or was it Jean, whom Barcroft loved?
I am sure it was a McKeahnie girl.
I know, because I found a very interesting unpublished poem of
Barcroft’s in the Mitchell Library.
This is included at the end of my book.
reading the book you might understand why he came to end his life. It is ultimately a sad story. It is saddest because it should never
have ended that way.