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 -Kiandra Gold

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CANBERRA TIMES: FEBRUARY 25 2002
MAYBE THIS IS THE SNOWY HORSEMAN


THE CANBERRA TIMES: MARCH 17 2002

TRAGIC  END  FOR  A  BUSH  POET


Just as he was gaining recognition for his writing, Barcroft Boake killed himself.  Hugh Capel looks at the sad story of his life.

 

Barcroft 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.

 

Why did 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, or why.

Barcroft 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. 

Barcroft 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 Snowy River.

It 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.

Barcroft 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 Snow Shoes.

After Barcroft 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.”

Barcroft’s 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.”

Banjo 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.

Other 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 impressed. 

Barcroft’s 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 my story. 

Barcroft’s 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.

Was it 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. 

After 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.