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The tragic exit for the poet of the stockwhip.

 Out on the wastes of the Never-Never
 That "s where the dead men lie
 That's where the heatwaves dance forever
 That's where the dead men lie

 Barcroft Boake


One May day in 1892 a wood cutter was clearing scrub at a place called Folly Point on Sydney's Middle Harbour. Suddenly the chap was horrified to come across the body of a handsome young man hanging by the neck from a branch of a tree. It was evident that he had been dead for some days in the lonely spot.

When the body was cut down it was discovered that he had hanged himself by a stockwhip. The man was Barcroft Henry Boake and he was 26 years old.

Most of the newspapers of the day ignored his death but the popular radical journal The Sydney Bulletin, a week or so later carried an 'In memoriam' notice of the death of Boake. The editor recalled that only a day or so earlier a poem called 'Wayside Queen' had appeared in the magazine. It was the last published work of the young surveyor who was rapidly establishing himself as a talented bush poet.

Clement Semmler in a small book about Boake in 1965 called him 'the poet of the stock whip'. It seems sadly appropriate that the man who loved the outdoors droving life and lived by his stockwhip should also die by his own stockwhip.

In a bizarre way young Boake had already rehearsed the exact manner of his own death with a deadly realism that almost cost him his life a few years earlier.

In the year 1886 when Barcroft was only 20 he as appointed assistant to the surveyor in the little Monaro town of Adaminaby in the Snowy Mountains. The name Adaminaby meant 'resting place' and it nearly became the final resting place of young Boake.

He was visiting friends at nearby Rosedale station. One Sunday evening Boake with his mates Boydie and Ted the rouseabout, and a girl whom he calls simply Miss B were fooling around in the homestead kitchen Boydie and Boake dared each other to pretend to hang themselves from a beam in the kitchen used for hanging meat before cutting it up.

With incredible foolhardiness, young Boake made a slip knot in a rope put the noose round his neck, and stepped off a chair. He had planned to take the weight of his body with his hands holding the rope but he slipped and lot his grip. The girl went out of the kitchen. Apparently it was dark and the others laughed and did not see that Boake had lost his grip. Suddenly they saw his ann go rigid and hs fingers twitching in agony. The girl returned after a moment and said 'This joke has gone far enough Mr. Boake.'

It had almost gone too far. Barcroft was at the point of death when they cut him down, his face blackened and blood oozing from his lips. It took about half an hour of desperate measures for his terrified friends to revive him. He carried the rope marks round his neck for the rest of his life.

Later Barcroft Boake wrote a long letter to his father describing his feelings and sensations during the ordeal. It is one of the best descriptions of 'the threshold of death' that I have read and it reveals his literary talents and ability.

'I felt no pain, but seemed to be pondering on the strangeness of the world and its people and what a wonderful thing science was.'

Thoughts seemed to crowd before his eyes like the like the passing of a train so quickly that it was painful to watch them. At one moment he remembered that he was on the Milson's Point boat or ferry with the sound of splashing water as she drew alongside the wharf.

This was a remarkable coincidence in that he was to die only five years later in the bush at Milson's Point. Then Boake remembered that he seemed to be sinking down with water rushing over him and wet on his cheek, and a fearful weight crushing his chest in.

Gradually he awoke to the terribly reality that he was lying almost strangled on the floor of the Adaminaby homestead. Everyone was bathing his hands and head and trying to force some brandy between his lips. He said later that the agony of the slow recovery and the struggle to breath was far worse than the experience of the hanging itself.

The next day the muscles of Boake's neck were swollen like 'great ropes' and his headache was unbearable. But he was alive.

As Clement Semmler remarks in his book on Boake it is difficult not to believe that this incident at Adaminaby had a bearing on the circumstances of his death a few years later.

Boake was a great admirer of the poetry of Adam Lindsay Gordon, another bush poet who died by his own hand on Brighton Beach near Melbourne some years earlier. The death of Gordon must have played on Boake's rather depressive emotional state.

Barcroft Boake was born in Sydney (Balmain) in 1866, the son of a professional photographer. His father made a number of significant historical photographs of events in Sydney such as the sailing of the ship Maria on the disastrous cruise to New Guinea in 1872. Would that photographic historians had all his prints today.

Boake senior seems to have been subject to melancholia and it is this that probably cost his son his life. His mother loved reading and and gave her son a taste for fine literature including great novels like War and Peace by Tolstoy. Boake had a good education including a period at Sydney Grammar School and two years in Noumea to master French.

The lad was moody and depressed as he grew up and restlessly drifted from one job to another. Soon he left the city and went down to the Snowy Mountains. His heart and soul responded to the harsh rugged beauty of the bush and the mateship of those who were its pioneers. He worked hard during the days and continued to read widely in the evenings including the novels of Sir Henry Rider Haggard and the poetry of Adam Lindsay Gordon. His love of the bush was to shape the rest of his short life.

After finishing the terms of his appointment at Adammaby Boake became a boundary rider at Mullah Station in the Trangie district. By now he was a first-class horseman and a first-class bushman. He continued to study the poetry of Gordon and also read widely whatever he could get from The Bulletin to Shakespeare.

In the next couple of years, Barcroft Boake visited many parts of New South Wales and Queensland droving cattle and experiencing every aspect of life in the bush.

By now he started to write bush ballads of his own in the style of Adam Lindsay Gordon. A Mr. Raymond who had known him later remembered that Boake would write his verses on odd scrapes of paper and later copy them into a manuscript book. Later Raymond would be asked to check them over for punctuation before they were mailed to The Bulletin.

Barcroft Boake was in the Holbrook district working in a survey camp in February 1891, when he received the most exciting news of his life. J. F. Archibald the famous editor of the Bulletin wrote and accepted one of his bush ballads for publication.

At the end of the year 1891 the young poet came back to Sydney to see his family. By this time the father was in severe financial difficulties and Barcroft lent him money to pay household debts.

For the first part of 1892 he lived in Sydney with his family and grew more and more depressed. The Bulletin continued to accept an occasional piece of verse from him and this was his only income. But it was not enough to live on.

On May 2, 1892 Barcroft are his breakfast in silence and left the house without saying a word to anyone. No one saw him alive again.

Ten days later his body was found in the Middle Harbour scrub.

A few years after his death J. F. Archibald gathered memories of the young bush poet and a slim volume of his verse was published taking the title Where the Dead Men Lte, from his best known ballad. Regrettably Archibald meddled with some of Boake's verses in an effort to 'improve' them.

Critics such as A. G. Stevens, Banjo Paterson and Douglas Stewart all agree that if Barcroft Boake had lived longer he would have become one of the greatest masters of the bush ballad in Australia.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Barcroft Henry Boake
Author:Willson, Robert
Publication:M A R G I N: life & letters in early Australia
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Jul 1, 2006
Words:1459
Previous Article:Editorial.
Next Article:John Lang's first book signed by him.
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